Maybe your business has 2 reviews and sits proudly atop Google Places.
Or maybe you’ve busted your butt for 40 customer reviews but still toil at #13 on page 2 of Google.
Perhaps your competitor is outranking you…even though he has 3-star average rating and you have a 5-star average.
You’re well aware that reviews influence your Google Places ranking. That’s as true as ever. So what gives?
Simply this: a review is not a review.
Numbers do matter—a lot. So does your average rating.
But Google looks at many aspects of your reviews when deciding how to rank your business in Google Places.
Why should you care? Well, because you need a rough idea of whether your reviews are helping, hurting, or having no affect on your Google Places ranking. That tells you whether your current review-solicitation strategy is right on the money or needs serious tweaking.
At least 9 factors seem to determine how your reviews influence your local ranking. I’ve noticed these on my own, and David Mihm touches on most of these factors in his excellent “Local Search Ranking Factors.”
It’s impossible to tell which single factor is the most important, which one is second-most important, etc. But what is clear is that the more of these qualities your reviews have, the more likely it is you’ll outrank local competitors in Google Places.
Anyway, without further ado, the main review factors (in no particular order):
- Total number. The grand total of all your reviews on all the sites where customers may have written reviews for you—Google Places, CitySearch, InsiderPages, etc.
- Total number of “Google reviews.” Long story short, Google pays somewhat more attention to its own “brand” of reviews. All other things being equal, you get more ranking benefit from 10 Google Places reviews than from, say, 10 SuperPages reviews (in my experience).
- Total number of reviews on third-party sites. In other words, how many customer reviews you have on sites other than Google Places.
- Average rating. Newsflash: a 5-star average is better than a 4-star average.
- Relevance to services. Your reviews help your ranking more if they contain phrases that are relevant to the services you’re trying to get found for. A review that says “Best dentist in town” is more beneficial than one that says “Dr. John Doe is the best!”
- Relevance to location. One of the big “questions” that Google tries to determine is whether your business is, in fact, local. If reviews seem to confirm that you are located in the area you claim to be located in, Google’s more likely to rank you well. So, to go back to my previous example, a review that says “Best dentist in town” is not as good as one that says “Best dentist inCleveland.”
- Velocity. AKA the speed at which you receive reviews. If you get 5 reviews in 5 weeks, your Places ranking is more likely to improve than if you get 5 reviews in a year. Receiving reviews at a healthy pace is one indication that you run a fully operational business, and that customers emerge alive and well and willing to write you reviews from time to time. To Google, it’s just another sign that you run a quality business.
- Diversity of sites. Do you only have reviews on MojoPages, or do you have them on MojoPages, CitySearch, InsiderPages, YellowPages, and Google Places? The more sources your reviews come from, the better.
- Prominence / authority of third-party sites. 20 customer reviews on a well-established site like CitySearch will probably get you more Google Love than if you had 20 reviews on some dinky little site nobody’s ever heard of. (Note: Yelp reviews used to influence over your Google Places ranking heavily, but ever since July 2011, when Google stopped using Yelp’s data, Yelp reviews haven’t seemed to pack as much of a wallop).
There are some other aspects of reviews that may influence your Google Places ranking, but that I haven’t seen as much evidence for. To some extent, I’m speculating. Anyway, consider these 4 “maybe” factors:
- Who writes the reviews. It only makes sense that a Google review from a customer who’s written 20 reviews for other businesses would count for more than a review written by someone who’d never written a Google review and just opened a Google account 5 minutes ago. I haven’t verified that this is the case, but it makes sense that the history / activity of the reviewer’s Google account would matter.
- Pace. I’ve noticed that businesses seem to rank most highly when they can get a steady stream of reviews. If you get 30 reviews in a weekend and then none for a month, the alarms are likely to go off at Google.
- Age of oldest reviews. In the organic SEO world, “domain age” (how old your website name is) gives you a slight advantage in the rankings. Similarly—all other things being equal—if you have reviews that are 3-5 years old, I’m sure Google gives you a slight edge over (say) a competitor whose oldest reviews are from earlier this year.
- User feedback. If people consistently visit your Places page and flag your reviews as “inappropriate,” I imagine that those specific reviews—be they 1-star of 5-star—would influence your ranking less. Of course, if they’re flagged enough, Google may remove them entirely. Similarly, the extent to which people rate your reviews “helpful” most likely affects how much influence they have over your Google Places ranking.
I think you could draw one of two conclusions from all of this:
Conclusion 1: “Holy $#!%, I totally underestimated Google! I’m going to have to put in overtime in my laboratory to conjure up the kinds of reviews that Google ‘likes’!”
Conclusion 2: “Google’s just trying to determine if my reviews are real, written willingly by my customers. I’m just going to keep it simple and ask a bunch of my customers for reviews.”
The best thing to know about these factors is you can’t control all of them: you really cannot and should not try to cook up the reviews, nor should you be too heavy-handed in asking customers where, when, and how to write the reviews for you.
Instead, if you ask enough customers for reviews, over time you’ll cover all the bases (the “ranking factors”). And that will ensure that your reviews, as a whole, will have the one quality that Google can’t detect but that will win you the most customers: authenticity and sincerity.
Any interesting stats, tests, or case-studies that I should know about? Any review factors that I forgot to include, or that you think belong on the “maybe” list? Leave a comment!
By the way, here’s a one-page “tip sheet” I put together a while ago on best practices for asking customers for reviews.