The Afterlives of Filtered Google+ and Yelp Reviews

There is an afterlife.

If it sounds like I’m saying that with too much confidence, it’s because I’m not talking about people.

I’m talking about reviews – specifically on Google Plus and Yelp, the two sites where it’s most important but hardest for most “local” business owners to get reviews.

What’s the big difference between those two ultra-important sites and others?  It’s that reviews don’t simply travel from the typing fingers of your customers, to your business listing, to the eyes of potential new customers.

Somewhere along the way, they can disappear because of Google’s or Yelp’s infamous review filters.

It’s possible for a review not to show up even when you know for a fact that a customer wrote one, and it’s possible for it to show up for a while but later disappear.  You name it, it can happen.

What happens to a review once the anti-spam filter mafia works it over?  Does it swim with the fishes?  Is it gagged and tied to a chair in a dingy basement, held captive until you meet certain demands?  Will it be freed?  What can you or others do to free it?

I’ve got some thoughts on those points, and so do Mike Blumenthal and Darren Shaw.

Those two guys were kind enough to share some excellent insights (as you’ll see).

 

Afterlife: Filtered Google Plus Reviews

 

You know some of your reviews have been filtered if your customers are the only ones who can see their reviews on your page.

Let’s say you asked Bob, a customer, for a review.  You know for a fact he went to the right listing, signed into his Google Plus account, and wrote you a review.  If he’s the only one who sees the review on your business page – if nobody else can see Bob’s review – then you know it’s been filtered.

If Bob signs out of his Google account, even he won’t see it on your page any longer.  Bob is in a séance with the ghost of the review, made possible by the hocus pocus that is Google Plus.

 

Where is the filtered review floating around?  Mike Blumenthal has some insight on that:

Google has not been totally transparent about their review filtering. In other words they have been totally opaque about the rules and technologies that they are using.

Reviews are kept in a separate index and not with the basic business data. This allows them to remove or move individual reviews. In the past there were also issues where some reviews were lost, misplaced or otherwise missing that didn’t involve their filter. So sometimes it was difficult to know whether they had just “misplaced” a review or had “misjudged” it.

I think most of those problems have been put behind them so at this point if they are not showing up (but do show under the author) then they are being filtered by the filtering algo.

Assuming that a review is visible under the author then if it were ever to be unfiltered by a human at Google. Google can now also move reviews from one business listing to another. These both mean that Google has obviously developed internal tools to allow support staff to this which they never had before.

[Links added by me, not by Mike.]

It’s possible for the review to come back.  It may return to your page – exactly where you and your customer wanted it to go – if Google relaxes its filtering algorithm.  This happened in January of 2013, after about 7 months of draconian filters that sent far too many innocent reviews to the gallows.  It was a great feeling to see many of my clients’ legitimate and hard-earned reviews reappear on their Google listings.

But is there anything you or your customer can do to resurrect your reviews?  I’ve never seen it done, and it doesn’t sound as though Mike thinks it’s doable:

Given that we do not know all of the parameters that cause a review to be filtered we don’t really know and can’t easily test if any given review can be unfiltered in some way. The review filter, unlike Yelp’s, seems more complicated and layered. If that is the case and Google scores multiple attributes of any given review it would seem that it would be unlikely that they could be surfaced by user activities. Possible but unlikely.

So, aside from wait and hope that Google later recognizes that your reviews were legit all along, what can you do?  I think all you can do is the following:

Ask your customers to log into their Google accounts, copy the review that they wrote, and email it to you.  (They have to log into their Plus accounts, click on the “Home” and then “Local” tabs on the left, then click the link under “Your places.”)

First study the review itself and see if you can discern anything that might have tripped the filter to begin with, and see if you can glean any insights that way.

Then copy and paste a sentence or two of the review text into Google, and see what comes up in the search results.  It may be the case that Google accidentally stuck the review onto someone else’s listing, in which case you may be able to get it moved to where it belongs.

Don’t give up.  Google reviews are never truly dead, as I’ve noticed, and as Mike explains:

Nothing at Google is ever thrown away. Not a listing, not reviews, not anything.

You can’t really even delete a listing. If Google thinks a listing should be shown that you have “deleted” in the dashboard they will show it. Only by “closing” a listing can you make it inactive.

Reviews are the same. They never go away and the system is always looking for a listing to attach them to.

However now that 1) they can unmerge listings and 2) move reviews around it is possible to get reviews off of one listing and onto another if they are there inappropriately.

 

Afterlife: Filtered Yelp Reviews

 

The “afterlife” of Yelp reviews isn’t nearly as mysterious.

They rest securely in Yelp’s “filtered reviews” section.  Like Egyptian mummies, Lenin, or poor cryogenically frozen Ted Williams, they can be seen by humans.

Yelp grants these reviews a little privacy:

Not all visitors are allowed in the mausoleum:

I’ve learned over time that reviews on Yelp get filtered out based on reviewers’ activity – or, more specifically, their inactivity – rather than on what they write.  I’ve seen Yelp both filter and allow reviews that are short, long, helpful, lousy, full of keywords, devoid of keywords – you name it.  I’ve seen helpful, appropriate reviews get filtered, and I’ve seen raunchy ones go through.

What Yelp seems to look at, above all, is how active a Yelper the reviewer is.  If your customer goes onto your listing, gives you 5 stars and a review, leaves, and isn’t already in the habit or doesn’t get in the habit of writing reviews on Yelp regularly, his or her review probably will never see the light of day.  The reviews of first-timers are marked for death.

What can you do if your reviews have been filtered?  Can you rouse them back to life?  Well, it depends on how close you are with your customers.  You can’t do it alone.  Here’s Darren Shaw’s advice

As far as I know, the key to unfiltering Yelp reviews is to engage the reviewer. Many reviews get filtered because the reviewer created an account, left a review, then didn’t use the site again. Yelp trusts reviews from its active users more than the inactive ones, so “activate” that reviewer. Friend them. Respond to their review. “Like” their review. Send them a message through Yelp. Encourage them to review other businesses on Yelp. With a bit of activity, we’ve seen reviews raise from the dead on Yelp.

One tip I’ve wanted to share is how to find people you know on Yelp. I discovered that this google search can help:

yelp “first_name last_initial.” city_name

(Try it on yourself)

Now imagine you have a database of customers, and you check them all with this search. You could put a little “flag” on their account and have your staff let them know you’re on Yelp the next time they come in.

Reviews on Yelp weave in and out of life.  As Darren says, the variable that determines whether they stay on terra firma is how active the user is.  Even if a review is unfiltered, it can get filtered again if the reviewer goes inactive for more than about 3 weeks.  I’ve personally seen it happen to reviews that I’ve  written for businesses I frequent.  Yelp reviews can die off and be resurrected more than once.  There’s not just one afterlife for them.  They can always go “poof” or rematerialize, depending mostly on whether the reviews come someone who’s part of or becoming part of Yelp’s “community.”

Pretty much all reviews benefit your business – a little or a lot.  Here’s my geeky way of thinking about their value to you:

length of time you’ve had a review X how positive the review is X your local rankings = its value to you

That’s why you need to do what you can to get reviews in the first place, and to do what you can to get them back if they ever go anywhere.  Now you have the ability to do both.

Last but not least…thanks to Mike and to Darren for their great insights!

17 Questions with Darren Shaw – Creator of the Local Citation Finder

Whitespark.ca - home of the Local Citation FinderRecently I had the pleasure of grilling Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca about his “Local Citation Finder” – the ultra-handy local-search optimization tool he created.

If you’ve spent more than a few minutes grappling with local SEO, you’ve probably heard of the Local Citation Finder – and there’s a good chance you use it, too.  It’s one of my very favorite tools for building up my clients’ local search rankings.

I’ve used the LCF since it came out in 2010.  Since then, I’ve had some questions I’ve been itching to ask – mostly about how to use the LCF to glean every last bit of local-search visibility for my clients.  For that there’s no substitute for “insider tips.”

Plus, the LCF is a really popular tool, so I also wanted to learn more about some of the secrets behind its success.

I went straight to the horse’s mouth, and Darren was kind enough to answer my questions

In case you didn’t know, Darren is kind of a big deal.  In some parts of the world he enjoys the spoils of an emperor:

Darren Shaw: ruler...er, creator of the Local Citation Finder

If you have any interest in getting your business more visible in local search, or if you just want some tips on how to launch a successful venture…read on.

Phil:  If you were in an elevator with someone who knows nothing about local search, how would you explain the Local Citation Finder?

Darren:  The Local Citation Finder is a competitive analysis tool for finding out where the top ranking competitors are getting citations, and for seeing where you already have citations. It will automatically tell you which ones you don’t already have, and includes SEOMoz’s Domain Authority and Majestic SEO’s ACRank metrics so that you can identify the best possible citation sources that are helping your competition rank locally.

 

Phil:  Why should a business owner—as opposed to a local SEO junkie—get the Local Citation Finder?  It’s not like that person necessarily needs to build citations every day.

Darren:  Currently, I don’t think a business owner would need to use the LCF for more than a month. I think it’s pretty typical for a business owner to sign up for a month, use the tool, export a CSV for all the citation opportunities they found, and then cancel. They can then work through that list when they have time.

We are working on citation monitoring services though, so a business owner will be able to track when new citations come live, and also get notifications when their competition gets new citations. When those features roll out, a monthly subscription will make more sense for a business owner.

 

Phil:  What would you say to someone who has all the basic citations (Yelp, SuperPages, etc.) and isn’t sure why he/she needs a tool to find more?  When is “good enough” good enough?

Darren:  The basic citations are an important starting point, especially the key sites you mention and the primary data aggregators, but we find that smaller city specific and industry specific sites strengthen your business’ association with your location and your niche and provide a noticeable rankings boost. The LCF helps you find these sources.

 

Phil:  Let’s say I need to build 50 citations for my business.  How much time could the Local Citation Finder save me, roughly speaking?

Darren:  I suppose we need to think about what the tool does, and what it would take to do that manually.

First you would want to run a keyword search and record all the businesses that are ranking locally.

Then you would want to find and record all the sites that the first business has a citation on. You could do this through various Google queries and then paginate through the results

Repeat for each of the other ranking businesses. You would then combine the lists, cross-referencing to make sure you’re not listing the same site twice.

Finally, you would repeat the process for your own business and then make note of which sites you’re already listed on, and which ones are opportunities.

Oh, and then you’d also look up SEOMoz Domain Authority and Majestic ACRank metrics for each site.

For an efficient and focused worker, I’d guess that this manual process would take at least six to eight hours

Our tool typically returns results in one or two minutes, and this is just one keyword search. At our lowest plan level you can run up to twenty different keyword searches per day.

In addition, the tool provides direct links to the “add your business” form for thousands of sites that get returned in our results. No need to spend time hunting through the websites to find the place where you can submit.

So, roughly, I’d say that the tool saves days of work.

 

Phil:  A lot of great tools are created by people who are fed up and just know there’s a better way to do a particular task.  Before the Local Citation Finder, how many hours would you typically spend gathering citations for a given client?

Darren:  Surprisingly, we didn’t do much citation building prior to developing the LCF. I was just getting interested in the topic, read a post by Garrett French about a technique you could use to find citation opportunities, and figured we could build a tool to automate the process.

 

Phil:  Did you have a prototype that you used for your own clients, before you realized “Hey, this might make a good tool for sale”?  In other words, was there an “ancestor”?

Darren:  No ancestor. The first version of the tool was developed and released in three days. It was an extremely simple tool that would just email you lists of potential opportunities. You can see some screen shots of the first version of the tool on Matt McGee’s post, “Local Citation Finder: Must-Have SEO Tool”.

 

Phil:  Yeah, I remember using it at that early stage.  Why did it come along when it did (summer of 2010)?  We’d known for a couple years beforehand that citations were important.  There was a niche and a need for it before 2010.

Darren:  The existence of the tool needed Garrett French’s brilliant idea for citation finding to spark the idea. 🙂

 

Phil:  Roughly how long did it take you to develop the LCF— from when it was a few neurons firing in your brain to when you put the “Order” button on the site?

Darren:  The free version we developed in three days was up for about six months before we rolled out the full-blown system that exists today. A few months of solid development went into taking it from simple/free to awesome/paid. It has evolved considerably since then as well.

 

Phil:  What’s a complaint or suggestion you’ve received on at least a couple occasions about the Local Citation Finder?

Darren:  This one comes up all the time:

“Why are there so many sites that I can’t submit to?”

The answer is because the tool performs a competitive analysis to find ALL the places that the top ranked competition is getting citations. A site doesn’t have to have a “submit your business” form on it to be a good citation. In fact, just like in link building, the harder a citation is to get, the more valuable it may be.

For example, the New York Times doesn’t have a “submit your business to our local business directory form”, but if your competition has done something newsworthy and has received a citation from the NYT, that’s a great thing for you to know about so you can look at what they did to get that citation.

 

Phil:  What’s a favorite “secret tip” of yours for getting the most benefit out of the LCF?

Darren:  We use the LCF in our client work to find “hyper local/niche” citation sources that we think have a significant impact on rankings. Here’s the process:

Create a new project. Call it something like “Local-Niche citations for __business-name__”

Run a bunch of different keyword searches in your specific city and industry, and assign each search to the project you created. So, for a plumber in Denver: Denver plumbers, Denver plumbing, Denver drain cleaning, etc. Try to be exhaustive.

Go under “Your Projects”, select “view sources” for the project you created, and ALL the citation sources from all of those different queries will be listed on a single page.

Hold down Ctrl and press “f” to bring up your browser’s search function. Now search for “plumb”, “drain”, “Denver”, “Colorado”, etc. Any words, or portions of words, that are related to your location or industry. The browser search feature will find sites with these words in their domains. These are going to be some very targeted sources that should help your rankings.

 

Phil:  How much room for improvement do you see for the LCF?  Any features you’re dying to add?

Darren:  Yeah, I’m dying to add the citation monitoring features I mentioned above. We’ve been super focused on our latest project, our local rank tracker, but it’s almost done, finally! Once it has launched and is stable, we’ll be jumping back to those LCF features. I also have plans for a NAP consistency tool that will complement the LCF nicely.

 

Phil:  Tons of people in the local-search community—and many people outside of it—use or at least know about the LCF.  What’s been the most important part of your strategy for “getting the word out”?

Darren:  Honestly, it’s just been dumb luck. We built a tool that the community needed, and word spread naturally. People liked what we built and started blogging.

 

Phil:  I’ve never encountered another tool that’s specifically designed for citation-gathering.  There doesn’t seem to be much competition—or even any knock-offs, for that matter.  Why do you think that is?  Why aren’t there any Pepsis to your Coca-Cola?

Darren:  Hmm. I don’t know. I suppose it’s just so narrowly focused. Citations are just one piece of the local SEO puzzle, and local SEO is just one niche within SEO overall. People that can build quality tools probably prefer to focus on bigger opportunities.

 

Phil:  The LCF has been around for long enough that the kinks have pretty much been smoothed out.  At this point, how do you spend your time on it?  What work do you have to do regularly on the LCF?

Darren:  Our time on the LCF is mostly support and troubleshooting at the moment. Kinks and edge cases do continue to come up, and as our user base has grown we have run into minor scaling issues here and there.  There are a fair amount of behind-the-scenes processing performance and monitoring tweaks we’ve made over the past couple years. The end user doesn’t see anything different, but these tweaks keep everything running well.

 

Phil:  What’s a tool that you, personally, would love to see someone create?  (Unless it’s something you’re working on and can’t spill the beans!)

Darren:  I’ve got IDEAS man! So many tool ideas. There isn’t one tool that I would love to see someone create that I don’t eventually plan to create. Sorry, nothing I can share.

 

Phil:  What advice would you give someone who has a great idea for a local-search tool and just wants to get it off the ground?  Or, for that matter, what general advice do you have for someone who has a good idea but isn’t quite sure how to develop it?

Darren:  I’d advise anyone who has a great idea for a tool to email me with all the details. 😉

Really though, you just have to do it. Have an idea? Don’t sit on it. DO IT. Millions of people are sitting on great ideas and they’re all on the back burner because they’re busy with the regular day-to-day of their lives. Block out some time and force yourself to dedicate it to developing your idea.

 

Phil:  Whitespark offers local search optimization and a bunch of other services, but you’re not some ho-hum SEO / SEM agency.  You create tools.  That’s kind of your niche.  In general, what advice do you have for someone who’s trying to develop his/her niche and stand out from the pack?

Darren:  If you want to stand out you need to do something to stand out. Building tools is one way to do that. You can also do it by picking one specific area and becoming an expert on it. I think you have done that with reviews, for one thing. You are regularly publishing excellent advice about review acquisition and that makes you stand out. I often think of you as “the review guy.”

Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Darren Shaw [applause]A HUGE thanks to Darren for his tips and insights, and for tolerating my questions :).

I highly recommend you follow him on Twitter (@EdmontonSEO) and Google Plus.  While you’re at it, it’s also worth following Whitespark on Twitter (@Whitespark).

If you’re not already a hardcore LCF user, check out the excellent free trial of it.

Any questions for me or Darren?  Leave a comment!