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.
Len Ferrara says
Great ideas using keywords in the reviews and “relevance of location”. Great info, Phil.
Thank you for the compliments, good sir!
Nice article bringing together what is “known” about how Google looks at reviews. Though, I’m a bit confused by the subtle differentiation above between “velocity” and “pace”. I’ve always thought it was “slow and steady wins the race” with reviews, and therefore that 5 reviews in 2 weeks is likely a negative signal if you’re coming from zero?
Yes, “slow and steady wins the race” is a great approach to reviews. But I’d emphasize “steady” over “slow”: maybe you’re a coffee shop and you have a ton of customers coming in and out on any given day. It’s not a problem if you get 5 reviews a week, as long as do so more or less consistently. And I don’t know that it’s a problem if you get a high volume of reviews right out of the gates if, for instance, you just created/verified/optimized your Places page and are able to keep the reviews coming in frequently.
I probably should rephrase “pace” to “evenness,” or maybe even “naturalness.” Maybe your reviews come in at a slow *velocity* like 2 / month, but if those 2 monthly reviews always come in on the same day, almost simultaneously, I imagine that looks weird to Google. Sure, there’s a bit of overlap between what I call “pace” and what’s known as “velocity,” but, to me, there’s also a slight distinction: “pace” deals with whether your come in at a naturally “lumpy” rate (not too even, but not too many spurts).
The term “velocity” has been around a while, but “pace” is my little neologism; certainly open to suggestions for what to call it instead!
Blake Waddill says
Lots of good stuff to consider. Having industry and locations specific information in the review definitely makes sense.
I don’t know that the “age” / velocity makes sense. Google has already stated that domain age is not a ranking factor (I have websites that are 3 months old that are ranking well and sending solid traffic for keywords in large cities like Chicago and Dallas). It also seems like fresher reviews could signal to Google that you are still in business vs. a company that may have gone out of business years ago.
It seems like these two factors are at odds against each other.. I suppose the best way to win is just keep getting good reviews.
Regarding domain age, it’s always possible that you have fresher info than I do: I’d certainly be interested in seeing any official statements from Google about domain age. Obviously, it’s always possible to get a site to rank well quickly, as it sounds like you’ve done: I’m just saying that, last I checked, a site that’s been active since ’98 is going to have a slight ranking edge over a brand-new one, all other things being equal. But with Google’s 200+ organic algo factors, there’s plenty of room for that new site to beat out the old one, as you say.
I put review age in the “maybe” list precisely because I don’t know the extent to which it can help you in Google Places. Older GP listings in general are more likely to rank well than newer ones, mainly because their third-party data is more likely to be more consistent. So it’s hard to tell how much benefit an older listing might get from old reviews versus from other factors. Sure, it’s better if you have 50 reviews written this year than 50 reviews that were written in 2008 and none since. But if you have fresh reviews AND old reviews, that means you have a bit of history, and Google has more “data points” on you than it does on the business down the street that only started getting reviews a couple months ago. Newness can be a disadvantage in Google: you’ve seen that to be true if you’ve ever had to nuke a client’s listing and start over from scratch.
Again, it’s all up for debate, and of course ripe for testing.