IYP Advertising & Local SEO: How Badly Does It Suck?

Today a chiropractor in my home state forwarded me an email he got from a well-known yellow pages -style site.

The ad rep sent him a proposal – the details of what they wanted to do to get his phone to ring:

There are many options and I believe that getting your [sic] started with one of our online packages that includes a bundle of online solutions would be a [sic] the way to go.

The elements include:

Google + Local.  We would assist in claiming your Google places page and populate content and any additional information for you (photos, videos etc)

A local focused click package.

Facebook Page.  We would co-manage and update Facebook for you.  I [sic] social media expert would contact you once a month for updates.

Reputation Monitoring:  One consolidated report of your online reviews.

YEXT power listing:  Your business information claimed across 40+  internet sites including Yahoo, Yelp to name a few.

Call Tracking and Reporting

Cost: $225 per month.

I told the good chiropractor that was a bad deal – and that his practice would be getting the assembly-line treatment.  If he was picking out a place to dine, it would be the McDonald’s inside Wal-Mart.

Why does that deal suck?  Let’s put on our elbow-length gloves and take a real close look:

Ad rep:  Google + Local.  We would assist in claiming your Google places page and populate content and any additional information for you (photos, videos etc).

Me:  That takes 10 minutes.  And it’s probably the part you’ve done already.  If there’s a part you need help with or advice on, it’s cleaning up duplicate listings in Google – many of which are automatically created by misinformation on online directories, like this one.  But your monthly budget won’t get you that.

Ad rep:  A local focused click package.

Me:  Every business owner I’ve spoken with has said these leads are garbage.  But hey, you get your 50 clicks per month (see where it says that in the fine-print contract?).

Ad rep:  Facebook Page.  We would co-manage and update Facebook for you.  A social media expert would contact you once a month for updates.

Me:  Their social-media “expert” might just edge out the expert Domino’s hired.

Ad rep:  Reputation Monitoring:  One consolidated report of your online reviews.

Me:  Or you can check the one in your Google Places dashboard.

Ad rep:  YEXT power listing:  Your business information claimed across 40+  internet sites including Yahoo, Yelp to name a few.

Me:  Online directories get a steep discount on Yext, so for them it’s just like throwing another kid onto a school bus.  Yext is an OK service – it has its uses – but it’s no substitute for correcting your listings manually (as my buddy Nyagoslav Zhekov has written).

 Ad rep:  Call Tracking and Reporting.

Me:  Because local SEO is just too easy and boring without having to clean up call-tracking numbers in your citations.

Ad rep:  Cost: $225 per month.

Me:  Your ad rep turned down a job at a gas station – just to help YOU with your online marketing!  (And he must be good at it, too, because you’re paying him $225 for probably 30 minutes of his time.)

Notice what’s missing from the offerings: help with your website, helping you put together a strategy for getting more reviews, and personal guidance and attention.

What are your experiences with these sorts of “packages”?

Boss Jobs in Local SEO

I’m talking about the specific tasks in a local SEO campaign that the boss of the company must do personally.

boss-jobs

The boss: the one person who can’t quit or get fired, who most wants more customers, and who ultimately has to fix any problems that keep customers away.

The tasks: few in number and pretty easy stuff, but stuff that only one person can do.

Everyone wants a 100% hands-free solution to getting visible in Google’s local search results and beyond – a way to get the phone to ring without his/her involvement.  I offer something mighty close to that, but it’s 95% hands-free; there’s that little 5% that the person in-charge must do, or there’s a logjam and the crucial to-dos don’t get done.

I walk my clients through that 5%, and I’m going to lay out those tasks for you right now.

If you’re not the boss, I suggest you saunter over to the corner office now, interrupt your boss’s mini-golf, and have a read-aloud.

If you’re the boss, read on.  Because if you don’t personally do the below, you’re hurting your local rankings and visibility, limiting your ability to attract new customers, and letting down any employees who depend on you for a paycheck.

Boss Job #1:  Understand how long a good local SEO effort can take to bring results, and work on growing other sources of visibility/customers in the meantime, if necessary.  I’m the biggest local SEO advocate there is.  But building a business on one source of visibility is like building a chair with one leg.

Boss Job #2:  Be or hand-pick the person at your company who will do the phone-verifications for the really important listings.

I’m talking mainly about ExpressUpdate, LocalEze, CitySearch, YellowPages, and Yelp.  (And FourSquare, if you’re gung-ho.)

Those sites require someone who works at your company to pick up the phone at the number you use for your local listings and enter a spoken PIN into the site where you’re trying to create/claim your listing.

If you use call-forwarding, that person will need to disable the forwarding so that he/she can pick up the phone at the number that’s displayed on your listings.

If you can do the phone-verifications personally, great.  But if not, hand-pick the person who will.  You’ll want to know exactly whom to take out to the toolshed if it doesn’t get done.

Boss Job #3:  Buy the domain name and hosting of your site(s) personally.

As in not through a third party, even if you pay that third party to do work on your site.

Same reason as for Boss Job #2.

Boss Job #4:  Have personal control of the Google account used to create/claim your Google+ Local listing, your Bing listing, and your citations.

If someone quits or is fired, you should still have access to all your listings.

Boss Job #5:  Oversee the process of asking customers for reviews.

Nobody outside of your company can or should do it.  It’s a question of who in-house should do it.  It should either be someone high-up – so that the customer doesn’t feel like a non-priority – or it should be the person who actually performed the service for the customer.

If you aren’t that person or pick the person who will ask customers, either the reviews won’t come because it’s “someone else’s” job to ask for them, or the results won’t be good.

Boss Job #6:  Oversee the writing of any blog posts or “content” that’s put on your site.

I do NOT mean you should write each piece (or any) personally, nor do I mean that you should even critique or proofread more than a few of them from time to time.

What I am saying you need to do is make sure the person who does the writing (1) won’t pump out keyword-stuffed drivel that’s laden with anchor text and that might win you a black eye from Google, (2) won’t plagiarize, (3) won’t incur photo-copyright violations, and (4) won’t write stuff that’s so bad that would-be customers hit the “back” button.

The good news is everything else you can delegate to employees or to people with the necessary skills.  Yep, I’m referring to that other 95% of the work that goes into a good local SEO campaign.

Any other “boss jobs” that you can think of?  Questions about how to do any of them?  Leave a comment!

An Overlooked Way to Report a Crooked Local Competitor

A recent conversation with my buddy, Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca, led me to wonder: what is the best way to report a business that’s using a fake address or fake DBA to get ahead in the Google+ Local results?

The question came up because of a comment I made in this year’s Local Search Ranking Factors study, about how you’re doing the right thing if you report a competitor who’s using questionable means to eat your lunch in the local results.

(If you want to check out my original comment, it’s the third-from-last one – and my last comment – in the LSRF, down near the bottom of the page.)

Google would have you believe that the only way to report a competitor is to use the “Report a problem” feature.  My experience never has been that “Report a problem” is particularly effective.  But what’s made me lose faith recently is that the competitor of a client of mine has been using a UPS store as his address – and you can clearly see the UPS signage from Street View.  The boneheads at  Google have done nothing.

Which made me think: is Google’s “Report a problem” the only way you can even try to level the playing field?

No: you could also report the offending business on MapMaker.  If your edit comes to the attention of a good Regional Expert Reviewer (RER), you may be in luck.  But MapMaker is still a roll of the dice.

Then it occurred to me: what if you flag down the business at other important sites in the local-search “ecosystem”?

I’m talking about alerting sites like Yelp and YP to the fact that your competitor is using fake info.  That’s the stone I forget to turn over – and that other people probably also forget to turn over.  (If you frequently report crooked competitors this way, I tip my hat to you.)

Which sites should you go to?  By my count, the only important local-search sites with some semblance of a “report inaccurate info” feature are Yelp, YP, SuperPages, InsiderPages, ExpressUpdate, and Yahoo.

 

As for ExpressUpdate.com, I think you just have to contact them personally (from the “Contact Us” button at the bottom of the site).  No idea how helpful they are, though.

What should you put in your reports?

  • You competitor’s real business info;
  • The inaccurate or fake business that your competitor is using instead;
  • How you know the fake info is fake, and how you know the real info is real, and
  • Your contact info, if possible.

I wish I could say exactly how well this type of reporting works.  I don’t know yet.  For whatever reason, unethical competitors usually aren’t a problem for my clients, so I don’t have too many occasions to flag them down.

As far as I can see, there are 3 possible outcomes of flagging down dishonest competitors on sites like the above:

1.  Nothing happens – in which case I suggest trying again in a couple of weeks, and maybe asking other people to flag them down.  I can’t guarantee that grinding will do the trick, but don’t assume it won’t.

2.  One or more of the sites corrects or removes the offending listing, which could hurt not only your competitor’s visibility on that site, but also his/her NAP consistency and possibly Google+ Local rankings.

3.  Enough of the sites start displaying the real info that Google finally realizes the info on your competitor’s Places/Plus page is fake.  As Bill Slawski has written, Google’s patents describe that this is one anti-spam method that Google uses to police Maps.

Don’t confine your efforts to level the playing field.  Keep flagging down those competitors on Google, but also try it on other sites.  Something’s gotta give.

What methods have you tried to report competitors using fake info?  What seems to have worked – or not worked – so far?  Leave a comment!

IYP Ranking Factors: Getting Visible in Local-Biz Directories

IYPs – short for “Internet Yellow Pages” – get a bum rap.

Some of it is true:

Yes, they’re directories, not search engines.

Yes, some of them are mere flies on the windshield of Google.

Yes, we often harbor murderous fantasies when one of their sales representatives calls us on the phone.

It’s for all these reasons and others that most business owners pay little attention to these sites.

This makes sense on one level: these sites don’t have nearly as much “eyeball share” as Google does.

But it’s a mistake.  If you’re in a competitive local market, you’re going to want every edge you can get.

More specifically: you’ll want every promising eyeball you can get (not to sound creepy or anything).  On the whole, many people use IYP sites – partly because Google usually ranks them above or right below its own local search results.

That’s why you need to know basically how these third-party directory sites rank their business listings: as on Google, on these sites there are visible businesses and invisible ones.  You want yours to be in the first group.

These sites influence your Google+Local rankings, too, but that’s another story.

I recently spent a few hours trying to figure out what separates some businesses from others on 7 of the biggest IYP sites.  I’ve listed the sites in alphabetical order, with the ranking factors for each underneath.

Here are the ranking factors I’ve found for each site:

(Please note: these simply are my observations, based on a few hours of gumshoeing and several years of helping my clients with local search.)

 

1. Reviews (AKA “ratings”).  That’s it.  One ranking factor.

In terms of how CitySearch ranks businesses, there is a very clear pecking order:

-“Best of CitySearch” winners (if there are any in a particular local market).

-Then businesses that havereviews, ranked in descending order of “CitySearch score” and/or number of reviews (more on this in a second).

-Then businesses with no reviews.

A little more detail:

Businesses that win the “Best of CitySearch” award tend to have some reviews, but I’ve seen winners that have 1 or 2, which leads me to believe reviews may not even be a factor in winning.  My understanding always has been that there are judges – AKA “scouts” – who pick the winners, but I’ve always been unclear on the specifics (despite a couple of unanswered inquiries on my part).  Whatever the case, BoC winners get the top spots.

Slightly farther down the totem pole are all the businesses with reviews.  All of them rank above all the businesses without reviews.

How do all the businesses with reviews get sorted out?  Well, that leads us to “CitySearch score.”  It’s the equivalent of an “average rating” (like what you see on Google and Yelp).  100% is perfect.  75% may mean that 3 out of 4 customers gave you a positive rating – which they can do without actually having to string together a couple sentences in a review.

CitySearch ranks businesses mostly by score, but also by number of ratings.

CitySearch usually ranks businesses with 90% above ones with 85%, which in turn outrank the ones at 72%, and so on.  You get the idea.

There are some exceptions to this: Occasionally a business with a 90% CitySearch score will outrank one with a 100%.  In these cases, the number of ratings also seems to be a factor: a business with 95% based on 60 ratings may outrank a business with 100% based on 20 ratings.

But businesses with a score of 50% or more always outrank the ones that have a score below 50%

When several businesses have 100% scores (which is common), it seems that the one with the highest number of reviews/ratings will be at the top.

Given that your local competitors probably don’t include many or any “Best of CitySearch” winners, and that businesses without any reviews rarely are contenders on the site, your #1 task is just to rack up a couple of reviews on the site.  (CitySearch reviews help you out on many other sites, too.)

 

1.  Paid results.  Businesses that pay get the top spots.  Everyone else dukes it out based on:

2.  Reviews.  InsiderPages is similar to CitySearch in this way.  All businesses with reviews outrank all the ones that don’t have any.

Here, too, the businesses are ranked based on the number of reviews they have and by order of average rating (e.g. 5-star average, 4-star average, etc.).  But unlike on CitySearch, here the number of reviews seems to carry a little more weight than how high the average star rating is.  It appears quantity matters a bit more than quality, in this regard.

 

1. Being “Verified by Manta.”  Once you create your Manta profile, they call you up to make sure your info is accurate.  I don’t recall ever having done this with my clients (maybe once or twice…don’t remember), but I believe it’s free.

2.  Business name.  If the name of your Manta listing includes a given search term or city name, you’ll probably rank highly for it.  But do NOT mess with your business name just to grab an extra edge: it may hurt the all-important consistency of your “NAP” info across the web.

By the way, there’s no such thing as a “Manta review,” so reviews aren’t even part of the equation here.  Probably all you can do to climb over a few competitors is owner-verify your Manta listing (again, with the caveat that I’m not 100% sure whether it’s free – not that it necessarily would be a bad use of a buck).

 

1.  Paid results.

2.  Business name.

3.  Reviews (?).  This is a bit unclear to me: although businesses with reviews generally seem to outrank ones that don’t, sometimes I’ll click on a listing with a star rating next to it and the actual listing page for the business won’t show any reviews (I have a theory about this, though).  I do know, though, that MerchantCircle is no stranger to the occasional shenanigan.  It’s definitely a good site to be on, and you’ll want to make sure your listing is complete and accurate.  I just don’t really know the extent to which MerchantCircle reviews help you on the site (or in your Google+Local rankings).

 

1. Paid results.  SuperPages seems to have a ton of businesses on-board with “sponsored listings” – to such an extent that the “basic” listings often are halfway down the page or lower.

2.  Business name.

3.  Categories.  SuperPages has an unusually wide range of categories you can list your business under, but you can’t specify any custom categories.  You can pick up to 5.  It’s really worth taking a few minutes to make sure you pick them wisely.  (One good practice is to check out which ones your competitors are using.)

4.  Reviews.  Relative to other sites, SuperPages doesn’t have an enormous amount of review activity – though certainly it would be smart to make sure you get a couple reviews on it.  In effect, this makes the other 3 main ranking factors I’ve identified a little more important.

 

I did a whole post on Yelp ranking factors, as you may have seen.  But here are the CliffsNotes on what seem to be the biggest ranking factors:

1.  Existence of reviews.

2.  Keyword-relevance of reviews

3.  Categories.

4.  Name of business.

5.  Number of reviews.

6.  Reviews by “Elite” members.

7.  Check-ins via smartphone.

8.  Quality of reviews.

(For more detail, check out the post.)

 

Let’s start this one off with some great observations by my good buddy Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca:

I looked at some businesses ranking in yellowpages.ca a while back and it looked to me that the #1 thing was just to get a couple reviews. Any reviews. Most businesses didn’t have any reviews on the site, and the ones that did tended to rank. The trouble with yellowpages.ca is that they randomize the rankings on every page load. Refresh this a few times: http://www.yellowpages.ca/search/si/1/plumbers/Edmonton+AB

The items in blue are paid, and the items with pins are paid as well but a lower cost package. It looks pretty random.

I’m pretty sure that if you phone and talk to a sales rep at most directories, they’ll tell you exactly how the rankings are generated. Typically it’s paid level 1, paid level 2, paid level 3, then random non-paid with reviews possibly playing a role. They seem to randomize the various paid levels as well so that each business gets equal opportunity to rank #1 in their section.

 Just for the sake of comparing notes, here are the YP ranking factors I’ve noticed:

1. Paid results.  They’re everywhere.  The only randomized results – the ones Darren mentions (above) – seem to be the paid results.  The “basic,” free listings appear to rank the same way consistently – based on some of the ranking factors we’ve seen elsewhere.

2.  Business name.

3.  Categories.

4.  Reviews.  YP is an important site to your local-search efforts in a lot of ways – certainly if you’re in the US, but especially if you’re in another country.  Even if you don’t give a hoot about how visible you are on YP, I do recommend getting at least a few reviews there.

Even if some of specific factors I mentioned were news to you, the takeaway messages from all of this shouldn’t be news:

1.  Make dead-certain you’re listed on each of the above sites, spend a few minutes picking out the most-relevant categories you can for your listings, and try to get reviews on as many of the sites as you possibly can.

2.  Although many ad packages are a waste (or an outright scam), don’t necessarily dismiss them out of hand.  For instance, if there’s on IYP site where you have a ton of great reviews, getting more people to see that listing may pay off.

3.  Whenever there’s an often-ignored to-do item that can set you apart on one specific site (like verifying your Manta profile), do it.  Most of your competitors would rather kick back and shovel Pringles into their faces than take a few minutes to pick low-hanging fruit.

Do you have any thoughts on / experience with the sites I mentioned or with others?  Any advice or suggestions?  Leave a comment!

5 Google Places Tests I’d Love to See

I discover a lot about Google Places by wrestling with it all day, every day.  But I’m also constantly scratching my head at questions—things that I just started wondering about based on observations, or that people have asked me.

Some of these questions I’ve yet to find the answers to.  I know someone—maybe you, maybe me—can find the answers with a little (or a lot of) testing, studying, experimenting, analyzing, tinkering, doodling, or whatever word you prefer.  Here are a few questions about Google Places that I think would make for really cool tests:

 

Test 1:  Is there a measurable benefit in claiming your listings on third-party sites (i.e., citation sources)?

Let’s say my business is listed on Yelp, YellowPages, and SuperPages 100% correctly (as it ought to be).  To what extent can it help my Google Places rankings to claim—AKA owner-verify—my listings on those third-party sites? 

Does claiming third-party listings help your Google Places rankings?

What I know:  You’re in a better position to control your business info if you’ve claimed as many of your third-party listings as possible.  This is valuable from the standpoint of keeping your info accurate and consistent across the Web, and of preventing any unethical competitors from hijacking your listings.

What I don’t know:  Whether simply the act of claiming a third-party listing provides a “trust-signal” to Google that you’re the rightful business owner, which could help your Places rankings at least a little bit.

What I’d tell a client for now:  “Priority #1 is to have consistent and accurate info on third-party sites.  If we have to claim all your third-party listings in order to accomplish that, then we’ll claim them all.  But if your info is already consistent and accurate, let’s mess with owner-verification some other time.”

 

Test 2:  To what extent can you increase the number of business categories that show up on your Google Places page by listing your business under a broad range of categories on third-party sites—and can you get visible for more search terms this way?

As we both know, you can only pick up to 5 categories on your Google Places page.  But sometimes more than 5 show up on your Places page.

How can you get additional business categories on your Places page?

What I know:  Google adds these additional categories based on business info from third-party sites.

What I don’t know:  There’s a lot I don’t know: First of all, exactly what information does Google draw on from third-party sites in order to assign these additional categories? That is, does Google look at the categories your business is listed under, the keywords, the tags, the text of customer reviews on third-party sites, or some mysterious combination of all of the above?

Let’s say there are more than 5 categories that accurately describe my business and I want to score some of those additional categories.  How should I go about it, exactly?  Most third party sites—with a few exceptions, like MapQuest—also limit the number of categories I can list myself under.  So should I try to pick slightly different categories on these sites from the ones I picked for my Places page?  Or is it possible that Google pays more attention to the “keywords” and “tags” fields on my third-party business listings?

Last but not least, is there any correlation between (1) the additional categories that show up on my Places page and (2) the likelihood that my business will rank more visibly for searches related to those specific additional categories?  Obviously it’s good to have some additional categories show up on your Places page because they give potential customers an even better sense of what your business offers.  So in terms of the “human element,” the additional categories are good.  But does having more of them correspond to being visible for more search terms?

What I’d tell a client for now:  “My top task is to get you visible for the 5 categories on your Places page, so I’m going to pick roughly the same categories on other sites whenever I can, in order to reinforce the 5 on your Places page.  Of course, different sites have different categories to choose from, so some deviation from your 5 Google Places categories is inevitable.  But I’ll always pick as many relevant categories as I’m allowed to pick, because my understanding is that will give you the greatest exposure for the greatest number of services you offer.

 

Test 3:  How many “flags” by Google-account users does it usually take to get an obviously abusive or spammy Google Places review removed by Google?

How many flags or reports to get an abusive Google review pulled?

What I know:  It’s possible to get Google Places reviews removed if (1) they blatantly violate Google’s rules and (2) if Google is notified via “flags” or “Report a problem” complaints.

What I don’t know:  How many flags or “Report a problem” complaints does it generally take to get a clearly abusive review taken down?  From how many different Google users?  Does a flag from a Google user who just opened an account and has written zero reviews “count” as much as a flag from user who opened a Google account in 2007 and has contributed 190 reviews?  What does it generally take?

(Actually, obvious spam reviews have only been a problem for a couple of my clients—and neither case was recent.  I simply don’t remember how much effort it took to get them removed.  Plus, Google’s “support” infrastructure changes constantly; what works in one month may not work the next month.)

What I’d tell a client for now:  “If we want this clearly libelous review to get taken down, you and I are going to have to flag it and report it as spam at least once every few days until Google gets the message and takes it down.  If you can, tell your kids, Uncle Fred, and Aunt Ruth to open a Google account and do the same.  Yes, yes, I know it’s a pain to ask them, but the alternative is to lose customers because of some moron.”

 

Test 4:  Does it matter whether your site contains multiple non-local phone numbers that are crawlable by search engines?

What I know:  It’s always a good idea to have your local phone number—the one featured on your Places page—as crawlable text on your website.  It’s another clue to Google that your business in fact is local, and that the phone number listed on your Places page and elsewhere is the correct one.  In cases where a business has one website but multiple locations, it’s OK to have the corresponding phone numbers for each location as crawlable text (ideally in hcard microformat); Google never seems to get the numbers confused.

What I don’t know:  What if you have other crawable numbers on your site—numbers that aren’t associated with a Places page of yours?  I’ve never heard of or seen a duplicate listing created by additional phone numbers on a site, nor have I ever noticed that they cause any third-party sites to use the wrong phone number.  But still…is there any measurable risk in doing this?

What I’d tell a client for now:  “It’s probably OK to list your 1-800 number, your secretary’s number, and your cell number as crawlable text on your site, but just to be on the safe side, let’s just take 5 minutes to add them to your site as an image, because Google can’t read images.”

 

Test 5:  Does running AdWords Express ads cause your business to drop off of the first page of Google Places results if you’re ranked there?

One client of mine ranked well—though not #1—in Google Places until he decided to give the then-brand-new AdWords Express a try.  Around the same time, Mike Blumenthal wrote that you can’t have a #1 position in Google Places and an AdWords Express ad at the same time —which Google actually confirmed.  Last but not least, a couple of people have contacted me about this, wondering if it’s just their imagination or if AdWords Express ads and all page-one Google Places rankings are mutually exclusive.

Can AdWords Express ads and top-7 Google Places rankings coexist?

What I know:  I know for a fact that this wasn’t the case with the predecessor of AdWords Express, Google Boost.  I know that setting up “location extensions” in an AdWords account has never harmed visibility in Google Places.  I also know that Google won’t let you keep a #1 Google Places ranking if you run AdWords Express (which, again, Mike explains in this post).

What I don’t know:  Whether any page-one Google Places ranking will vanish if you run AdWords Express.  I’ve yet to put my suspicions to the test by asking a client with a page-one Google Places ranking for a specific search term to bid on that search term with AdWords Express and see what happens.  (There must be a better way to test it than that, but I can’t think of anything as conclusive).

What I’d tell a client for now:  “Express is just a dumbed-down version of AdWords to begin with.  Unless your Express ads have been an absolute cash cow, switch over to classic AdWords, which is more robust and allows you—not Google—to control the text of your ads and your keyword bids and to do things like split-tests.  Plus, though I don’t yet know this for a fact, I’ve found that Google Places rankings can take a major hit if you use AdWords Express, so let’s not play Russian Roulette with your business.”

There may or may not be good ways to test these questions.  It may be tough to create conclusive tests, given that every local market is unique.

I love to procrastinate, watch TV, and eat potato chips as much as the next guy does, so it may be a while before I personally take the time to set up these tests and crunch the results :)

Are there any other questions that you would really like to see tested?  Any suggestions for how to test the ones I mentioned?  Any first-hand experience or observations?  Leave a comment!

Cold Hard Numbers on How Third-Party Reviews Help Google Places Rankings

Customer reviews are crucial to your local rankings and overall success in Google Places, as you may know.  You need reviews that customers write directly on your Google Places page, and you need customer reviews on third-party sites like InsiderPages, CitySearch, etc.

We know that the first type of reviews—“Google reviews,” written directly on your Places page—have a strong influence on Google Places rankings.  That’s well-established, and I’ve seen it to be the case throughout the 3 years I’ve been specializing in Google Local.

"Just the facts, ma'am." - Sgt. Joe Friday (Dragnet)But what about reviews written on third-party sites?  Yeah, they’re important.  But what else do you know about third-party reviews and how they relate to your Google Places rankings?  Probably not much more or less than I did before I did a little fact-finding on the topic.

I took a “core sample” of 200 local markets and 1400 businesses in Google Places, in all different industries and cities in the US.

(Back in July of last year I did similar research, but that was on “Google reviews” and third-party reviews collectively.  This time I’m focusing on the third-party ones.)

Obviously this wasn’t exhaustive research—if it was, I’d be using my break from collecting data to  shop around for some glass eyeballs. However, I’ve got enough figures to answer some specific questions about how third-party reviews tie into first-page Google Places rankings.

 

“How many different third-party sites does a top-7 business have customer reviews on, on average?”

When you’re on a given Places page, how many distinct sites are shown as having reviews for that business?  For example:

How many sites are top-7 Google Places rankings typically reviewed on?

What I wanted to know is how the number of third-party review sites corresponds to Google Places rankings.  Here’s what I found:

Top-7 Places rankings typically have reviews on 1-2 third-party sites

Here are the naked numbers for the chart (that is, how many different third-party sites each ranking has customer reviews on):

A = 1.52

B = 1.46

C = 1.29

D = 1.06

E = 1.095

F = 0.99

G = 0.955

What do these numbers tell us?

First of all, there is a correspondence between the Google Places ranking of a business and how many third-party sites it has customer reviews on.  Maybe you intuitively knew that already, but now you have some numbers.

The top-3 rankings have customer reviews on more sites than rankings #4-7 do.  The difference is even clearer between A-B and F-G: rankings A-B generally have reviews on 1-2 third-party sites, whereas the lower rankings tend to have reviews on just one third-party site.  That’s a ratio of 3:2.  Put another way, the businesses at the top of the Google Places “7-pack” typically have customer reviews on 50% more third-party sites than the businesses at the bottom of the 7-pack have.

The numbers also tell us that if your business is in the top-7 of Google Places, chances are you’ve got customer reviews on at least one third-party site—meaning a medium other than Google Places or Yelp.com (because Yelp reviews no longer show up on Google Places pages).

This helps affirm what I’ve told my clients for a long time, and what Mike Blumenthal has suggested for quite a while: that you can’t simply rely on the reviews that customers write on your Places page.  If you’re serious about getting a top-7 Google Places ranking, one good place to start is with asking  some of your customers to write you reviews on at least one third-party site (InsiderPages, SuperPages, YellowPages, CitySearch, or another).

 

“How many third-party reviews does a top-7 business have, on average?”

Here’s what I found:

Top-7 Places rankings usually have 5-8 reviews on third-party sites

And again, the plain numbers for how many third-party reviews each ranking has (on average), between all the third-party sites where customers have posted reviews:

A = 8.255

B = 8.335

C = 5.87

D = 4.71

E = 4.235

F = 5.515

G = 4.325

What does this tell us?

The top-2 rankings have significantly more reviews than rankings C-G (3-7).  Once again, we’re seeing a difference of 50-100% between the top of the “7-pack” and the rest of it.

Again, this doesn’t count Google Places reviews (which obviously aren’t “third-party”) or Yelp reviews (which Google Places no longer uses).

Most of all, we’ve got a couple more handy ballpark numbers that you can work into your customer-review strategy:

  • If you’d like to get into the Google Places top-7, you should probably try to get at least 5 customer to write reviews on at least one third-party site.
  • Or if you’re already in the local top-7 and trying to get to the very top, your strategy should include getting at least 30-100% more customer reviews on third-party sites than the other top-7 businesses have.  In terms of reviews, there’s a big gap between #1 and #7.

 

“So how should I change my reviews strategy?”

Time for a recap.  Use the following as rules-of-thumb as you move forward:

1.  Don’t just focus on Google Places reviews; ask customers to review you elsewhere, too

2.  There’s a correspondence between your ranking and how many third-party sites you’re reviews on.  You’ll probably need reviews on one such site in order to get into the top-7.  But the more different third-party sites your customers can review you on, the better

3.  There’s also a correspondence between your ranking and how many total third-party reviews you have.  Ranking in the top-2 will probably require that you get 30-100% more customer reviews than your page-one local competitors have.

4.  If you’re trying to get into the Google Places top-7, a good initial benchmark is to get at least 5 customer reviews on at least one third-party site (SuperPages, CitySearch, etc.

5.  If you want to climb higher in the Google Places 7-pack, shoot for a total of about 8 reviews on at least 2 different third-party sites

By the way, you can download my spreadsheet with all the data, in case you’d like to roll up your sleeves and handle some numbers.

Of course, I’d appreciate your weighing in—leave a comment!