FAQ about Local-Business Reviews (on Google+Local and Third-Party Sites)

I’ve been asked many great questions about customer reviews.

And rightly so.  Reviews are a major factor in your local rankings in Google+Local and elsewhere, and they’re one of the very biggest factors in getting customers to choose you over the competition.

This is true both of reviews that customers write on your Google+Local page and of reviews written on third-party sites (Yelp, CitySearch, etc.).

The trouble is, aside from some fantastic in-depth posts others have done on the topic, there’s not a ton of clear info for the business owner who just wants to know the main do’s and don’ts.

So, it’s about time I put some of my answers on paper.

Here are the questions I’ve been asked most frequently – and my answers – in no particular order:

 

Q:  I know Google often filters out reviews that seem to come in at an “unnatural” rate.  How frequently should I ask customers for reviews?

A:  Nobody knows for sure what rate Google considers natural vs. unnatural.  It’s one factor of many that Google looks at.  Plus, it varies by industry (a coffee shop has many more customers and therefore potential reviewers than a general contractor does).

The rough rule of thumb I use for my clients is: ask 1-5 customers per week.  Whatever you do, be consistent from week to week.

 

Q:  If I get “fan mail” or other positive feedback from customers, can I post it as a review of my own business?

A:  No.  That’s against the rules of Google and every other site I can think of that deals with reviews.  The review filters will catch you probably 95 times out of 100 – certainly on Google and probably on other sites.  More importantly, it’s a bit dishonest.  However, you can post pretty much any kind of customer feedback on your site (provided it’s FTC-compliant).

 

Q:  If a customer posts a great review of me on Google or somewhere else, can I showcase that review on my site?

A:  Not if it’s a Google+Local review: Google will filter reviews that appear elsewhere on the web.  Most third-party sites don’t seem to have policies against this (plus, so many of them feed reviews to each other).  However, it’s not a bad idea to save your Google reviews (either via copy+paste or screenshot) so that in case Google ever “loses” your reviews and they don’t seem to be coming back, you can add those reviews to your site.

 

Q:  Can I ask some of my really happy customers to post reviews on multiple sites?

A:  This one calls for a multi-part answer:

If a customer reviews you on Google+Local and you want that person to post that same review on other sites, then no.  Google will filter the review if it appears anywhere else on the web.

If a customer writes you a Google+Local review and then writes completely different reviews on other sites, then yes.  It’s fine with Google if the same person reviews you on several sites – as long as the review posted on your Google+Local page is unique.

For third-party, non-Google review sites, yes.  With the possible of exception of Yelp, these sites generally don’t feel strongly about review polygamy.

 

Q:  How many different sites should I try to get reviews on?

A:  The more, the better.  Diversity of review sources has always seemed to be a strong ranking factor.  But my rule of thumb is 3.  That is, at any given time you should be asking each customer to go to 1 of 3 sites you’d like reviews on.  I’ve found that number to be large enough that you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket, but not unmanageable – the way it would be if you were to ask different customers to go 10 different review sites.

Anyway, I’d say one of those 3 sites should be Google+Local.  One or both of the others should be a major site like Yelp, CitySearch, or InsiderPages.  If there’s a highly prominent industry-relevant review site – like DealerRater, AVVO, or TripAdvisor – then it’s probably worth having that be one of the 3.  Of course, once you rack up at least a few reviews on one of the sites, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to change it up and ask customers to review you on a different site.

 

Q:  How do I know which third-party sites I should ask my customers to review me on?

A:  See answer to above question.  Again, the short answer is that the “core” of your body of reviews should consist of Google+Local reviews and of reviews on least a couple of other major sites, like Yelp or CitySearch.

To the extent possible, you should also try to get reviews on sites that are geared toward your industry.  One starting point for determining those sites is to see which sites your local competitors (particularly the top-ranked ones) have reviews on.  Another is to check out the list of industry-specific sites on my Definitive Citations List.

 

Q:  How many customers should I ask for Google reviews versus for reviews on other sites?

A:  I usually suggest that my clients shoot for 50% Google+Local reviews.  Reviews on other sites should make up roughly the other 50%.  The idea is not to put all your eggs in one basket.

 

Q: Where do Bing and Yahoo reviews fit in?  Do they help my visibility in Google at all?

A:  They don’t help your Google rankings.  Bing and Yahoo are Google’s direct competitors.  They go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise.  However, it’s still good to get reviews on Bing and Yahoo simply to attract the people who use those two, smaller search engines.

By the way, as of this writing, there’s no longer a way to write reviews directly on Bing.  But in many cases Yelp’s reviews get fed to Bing, so your reviews on the former will help your visibility in the latter.

 

Q:  Can I suggest certain things I’d like my customers to write in their reviews?

A:  Another gray area.  Google says you can’t.  Other sites don’t seem to take a stance (as far as I’ve been able to tell).

From a strictly ethical standpoint, you certainly shouldn’t put words in your customers’ keyboards.

Plus, if you tell customers what specific keywords to use, your reviews will probably get filtered because they seem contrived.  Even the ones that do stick will look about as natural as Donald Trump’s “hair.”

However, if your customers genuinely have no idea what to write (not likely), it’s fine to give them a rough idea of “talking points.”

 

Q:  Should I wait until I’ve claimed my Google+Local to start asking customers for reviews?

A:  Yes, generally.  If you have duplicate or incorrect Google listings floating around that you’re trying to remove, I’d suggest waiting until the dust settles and you’ve only got one listing (per location).  Also, building up a corpus of reviews is a long-term project, so in one sense there’s no great rush.

However, if you don’t have a bunch of inconsistent information about your business floating around the web, and (again) if you don’t have a problem with duplicate listings, you can probably ask for customers to review you and not be afraid that the reviews will go “poof.”

 

Q:  How do I avoid looking “amateurish” when I ask for a review?

A:  Depends on how you ask.  As with anything else, there are cheesy ways and professional ways to go about it:

“Please oh please write me a review, pretty please with sugar on top” = cheesy

“Dear Valued Customer, your feedback would be appreciated” = cheesy

“Here’s a Starbucks card, now I expect my 5 stars, damnit” = cheesy

“If you could take a minute to write down your honest opinion about your experience with me, I’d really appreciate it” = professional

“I know other potential customers would want to hear what you think of our service  – warts and all – so it would be great if you could jot down a review of us” = professional

In general, I’ve found that more you use a no-pressure, “this is a personal favor I’d appreciate” approach, the easier it is to ask people for reviews, the less awkward it is for everybody, and the more willing people are to oblige.

 

Q:  My customers always seem to forget to write me reviews.  What should I do?

A:  Nag.  But try to do it in a classy, relatively low-pressure way. (“Gee, Phil, you mean that’s all I have to do?”)  I guess it depends on how close you are with your customers.  If there’s a “relationship,” you can ask repeatedly without becoming a burr in the saddle.  Some people will just never get around to it.  Others you may need to ask a total of 2-3 times.  You never know who falls into which category.

 

Q:  My customers said they posted reviews of me, but why aren’t they showing up on my page?

A:  They may have been filtered out if they were Google+Local or Yelp reviews.  I suggest reading this post from Mike Blumenthal (if you haven’t already).  Of course, this assumes that your customers know how to post reviews for you, and that you’ve provided clear instructions to customers who may not be so review-savvy.

 

Q:  What if Google loses my reviews?

A:  Keep getting as many Google reviews as possible, but also try to get reviews on other sites.  I know it can be tough.  I know how much hard work for a given job each review represents, and how badly Google sucks at keeping those legitimate, hard-earned reviews where they belong.  Still, the basic choice is (1) do nothing and have nothing to lose but also less potential to attract customers or (2) try to rack up a few more reviews and have that extra factor working in your favor.

 

Q:  What’s the easiest way to get reviews?

A:  Depends.  In a nutshell, any way in which you can both ask and provide clear instructions at the same time is a good approach.  I’m kind of partial to the review handouts I make and use with my clients (duh…that’s why I created them), but I can think of about 20 other ways to get reviews.

Any nagging questions you have – or have heard – about reviews?  Better yet, any answers to those questions?  Go for it – leave a comment!

12-Week Action Plan for Google Places Visibility

Action is awesome - but smart action is even betterUnless you’re Arnold, furious bursts of action alone probably won’t get you very far.  You need a plan for the action.

This is especially important if you’re trying to get your business visible in local search – and particularly important if you want to boost your visibility in the ever-finicky Google Places results.

That’s why I’ve sketched out a 12-week action plan you can follow to climb up a little higher on the local totem pole.

This is a timetable that’s worked really well for me and my clients, though I recognize there’s more than one way to skin a cat (figuratively speaking, of course…I like cats).

12 weeks may sound like a long time.  But I’ve found that’s about how long it takes to implement everything you need to implement – especially if you have a business to run and have your hands full.

I always have a heck of a time trying to explain this verbally, but, as you can see, it’s actually pretty simple.

(Click below to see larger version of the timetable, or download it as a PDF)

 

Here’s a little more detail on each step:

 

 Claiming Places page

What you’re doing – First editing your Google Places page to make sure all the info is accurate, and then claiming your page so any edits you made actually stick.  This is also when you should try to remove any duplicate Places listings for your business, and it’s when you should do any basic optimization, like picking your business categories.

Explanation of timing – It usually takes 7-12 days for Google to send you the postcard with the PIN that allows you to claim your Places page.  Sometimes there are hang-ups, so it’s best to get started on this ASAP.

 

 Tuning up website

What you’re doing – Making your site at least somewhat local-search-friendly.  Optimize your title tag (with a light touch on the keywords), add a footer with your business name / address / phone number to each page of your site, and make sure your homepage (or whatever you use as your Google Places landing page) contains detail on the specific services you’re trying to get visible for.  Also, make sure your site isn’t “over-optimized.”

Explanation of timing – What’s on your site has a huge influence on how you’ll rank in Google Places, especially in the ever-more-common “blended” local rankings.  Therefore, if there’s even a chance you’re in trouble for keyword-spamminess, bad links, etc., you’ll want to start crawling out of the doghouse ASAP.  Later on (like in weeks 5 & 9) is a good time to do some general housekeeping (like scanning for and fixing dead links), to see how you can beef up your pages with more service-relevant content, to put out a couple of blog posts, or maybe to do some link-building.

 

 Submitting to data-providers

What you’re doing – Listing your business on ExpressUpdateUSA and LocalEze, or – if you’re already listed there – making sure you’ve claimed those two listings.  If possible, also claim your listing at MyBusinessListingManager and make sure it’s accurate.  If you’ve got a few extra bucks, consider listing yourself on UBL.org.

Explanation of timing – It generally takes about 2 months for these data-providers to feed your business info to Google Places and to third-party sites (CitySearch, SuperPages, etc.).  Because your rankings really depend on how consistent your business info is from site to site, it’s important to deal with these sites at the very beginning.

 

 Gathering citations

What you’re doing – Getting listed on as may directory sites as you can.  Start with the most important sites (like all the ones you see when you do a GetListed.org scan) and eventually try to get on some of the sites nobody’s heard of (like some of the sites on my Definitive Citations List).  If possible, also try to list your business on (1) “hyperlocal” sites that are specific to your city/town and on (2) directory sites that are focused on your industry (i.e., your “vertical”). You can find these citation sources with the help of the Local Citation Finder, or by doing it the old-fashioned way.

Explanation of timing – You’ll be dealing with dozens of sites.  Not only does it take time on your part to list yourself on them, but it also often takes weeks for these sites to list your business or process any edits you’ve made.  You’ve got to start early.  Plus, the more citations you can rack up over time, the better.

 

 Fixing 3rd-party data

What you’re doing – Checking the data-providers (see yellow) and at least some of your citation sources (see green) to make sure all your business info is 100% accurate – and fixing any inaccurate info you find.  You should also check to make sure no duplicate Google Places listings have popped up – and remove any that have.

Explanation of timing – Making sure your citations don’t get FUBAR is an ongoing task, but there’s no need to check on them every day, because many of them take a while to update.  Just check on them every few weeks (at least during the 12 weeks).

 

 Getting Google reviews

What you’re doingAsking customers to write reviews directly on your Google Places page.  As you probably know, they’ll need Google / Gmail accounts to do this.  I suggest you ask about half your customers to write Google reviews, and ask the other half to write reviews through 3rd-party review sites (see below).

Explanation of timing – If you haven’t claimed your Places page, or if your business has a bunch of duplicate Places pages floating around, it’s possible Google will erase your reviews.  It’s best to hold off on requesting reviews until the Places pages aren’t being created, claimed, deleted, and otherwise jockeyed around.  Plus, you’ll have your hands full anyway during the first couple of weeks.

 

 Getting 3rd-party reviews

What you’re doing – Asking customers to write reviews on non­-Google sites.  CitySearch, InsiderPages, JudysBook, etc. (and Yelp, but Yelp has rules against requesting reviews).  I’ve found that having reviews on a variety of sites helps your Places rankings, and of course it’s a great way to attract the users of those sites.

Explanation of timing – You can start asking for 3rd-party reviews even while your Places page is up in the air.  But I suggest focusing on the other steps first – namely, having accurate and plentiful citations, a tuned-up website, and no duplicate Places pages.  On the other hand, getting 3rd-party reviews is another ongoing task, which means it’s worth starting fairly early…hence why I say start around week 3.

 

You might be wondering a few things…

What if you’ve been wrangling with Google Places and local search in general for a while?  I suggest you still follow the timeline.  If one of the steps no longer applies to you – for example, if you’ve already submitted your info for the data-providers – then cross that one off and focus on the others.

What if you already have a bunch of citations or reviews?  Keep racking ‘em up.  Sure, don’t pour as much time into them as you would if you were starting at Square One.  But don’t stop at “good enough” – especially if you’re in a competitive market.

What should you do after the 12 weeks?  Given that you’ll likely be much more visible to local customers, it’ll largely be a matter of maintaining your visibility by continuing to work on all the steps (except red and yellow), but at a significantly slower pace.  (For more, see my post on how to maintain your Places rankings.)

How does this action plan stack up with yours?  Leave a comment!