This past week, marketers the world over watched the “Decor My Eyes fiasco” unfold with horrified fascination. A ruthless online marketer gleefully mistreating customers in order to achieve higher rankings was a story we didn’t want to be true, but Google’s subsequent penalization action verified it was. The fiasco underscored the importance of reviews, particularly for local businesses — read on and see some tactics that can help you.
Many marketers have been highlighting the importance of online reviews and ratings for local businesses for some time now, but developing reviews for local ranking advantage is an elusive goal that has perplexed many small businesses. In addition, all variety of companies have experienced significant difficulties due to getting terrible reviews in the complaint/rant sites that Decor My Eyes actively courted.
Due to the potential influence on rankings combined with the need to have a trustworthy name for the sake of public relations, marketers particularly harp upon the need for businesses to “manage their online reputation” or to practice good ”reputation management”.
As I noted in my recently local SEO primer, ratings and reviews may be important for improving rankings, particularly in Google Place Search results, as well as in Google Maps. I’ve stated at numerous conferences that I believe ratings and reviews seem to influence search results, even though Google Maps representatives have repeatedly stated that they have not incorporated rating values nor used sentiment analysis of reviews as a ranking factor. The Decor My Eyes fiasco seems to prove that this was indeed the case. Having some of the utterly worst reviews a business could ever have did not impair Decor My Eyes from ranking highly. The unethical owner declared that having all the people writing about him and linking to him seemed to give him higher rankings.
So, there could be a few takeaways from this. Sentiment and rating value didn’t help with rankings, while some combination of links and perhaps citations did (citations are instances where your business and its contact information may be mentioned). I’ve often advised artist friends that for them virtually “any PR is good PR”, and there is something to this concept — in some ways, it’s better to be noticed at times, even for negative reasons, rather than to be completely ignored. Notoriety can be a form of popularity.
The tactic of courting controversy or “trolling” in order to attract attention is nothing new to marketers, and some have leveraged in the past as a variety of linkbait. Matt Cutts has also written or spoken of it a few times, although he’s always suggested some degree of self-moderation for those attempting to use it. As he’s stated before, one should be cautious with it or else you damage your reputation.
What should we make of it all, though, now that Google subsequently stated that they’d adjusted their algorithms to penalize evil merchants like Decor My Eyes? I really wish Google had not made a public statement about the issue at all, because they not only rewarded Decor My Eyes a bit by validating that his stratagem had indeed been working, but now many other unethical businessmen must be imagining that they could post false reviews to damage their competition in the rankings! (For a detailed analysis, read Danny Sullivan’s “Google’s ‘Gold Standard’ Search Results Take Big Hit In New York Times Story“.)
For those of you out there who are attempting to feel your way through all the conflicting information out there regarding the effect of online reviews and ratings upon your rankings in local search and regular keyword search results, let me lay out for you some tips that will be profitable for the long-term.
Tips For Improving Rankings Through Reviews & Ratings:
Do not piss off customers to increase your reviews! This perhaps should go without saying, but it’s never a good, longterm business plan to irritate and victimize your customer base. The Decor My Eyes company is actually a good case in point for proving this point. Businesses have enough to worry about without also trying to fight wars with attorneys-general, small claims court suits, local police, and myriads of customers with valid grudges. In addition, while inflating references to your company with negative reviews, you’re also creating a lot of negative content about your company — and this could seriously turn away as many customers as your coincidentally attract. See also Lisa Barone’s post, “Sorry, ‘Crazy Bully’ Isn’t a Long-Term Business Strategy” for further elaboration on this point.
Do not post fake positive reviews about your company! Shill reviews are illegal. In addition, those of us who’ve been reading search engine patents and research papers for some time now are aware that the methods are becoming rapidly more sophisticated for detecting when a review may be false, and it’s clear that Google is removing reviews algorithmically which have been flagged. Converging rapidly with reviews and ratings, search engines are working on figuring out who individuals are in social media. People who interact with an online forum (such as a review/rating site) community, post frequent reviews, are friended by other reviewers, who have an authoritative/trustworthy presence online, and who write more detailed and specific reviews — those people’s reviews may be treated as more influential than fly-by-night reviewers. And, these are just some of the signals that help them define whether to trust a reviewer! If your agency offers to post fake reviews or urges you to do them, too, you should run the other way — by advising this they are now proving they don’t know what they’re doing and could harm you more than help.
Do not attempt to post negative reviews about your competitor. For the above reasons outlined, it’s a bad idea to try to take your competition down a peg by doing this. This is one of the top complaints around Google Places, and Google is devoting energy to make sure these sorts of tactics do not benefit you! Significantly, the tactics could harm you as well — by posting a false review, you may not only burn the account you’ve set up to post reviews, but you might also get your Google Places account flagged for special attention.
Do not bribe people or buy positive reviews. Do not attempt to pay people or incentivize them to post positive reviews about your company. This practice is also against the terms and conditions of a number of review/rating website services out there, and if they catch you doing it they may opt to delete or discount all of your reviews.
Do not put a computer in your lobby or waiting room to “help” customers review you. For local businesses, it may seem helpful in encouraging consumer reviews, but if the computer’s IP address is too close to your business location or if too many reviews come from the same IP address, it could cause all of those reviews to get filtered out as possibly false.
Do not trade reviews. I ran across an online marketer who recommended that small businesses could review one another in order to bypass the rules in search engines and rating sites such as Yelp. This sort of collusion smacks of the concept of “Nader trader” where people once suggested trading votes in political elections — and it’s wrong for much the same reasons.
DO ask customers to review you. Many small business owners are fearful of asking customers to review them, because it seems a little pushy. However, if you have a customer who’s expressed particular appreciation for your work, asking them right then and there to be sure to rate your company in a specific online site may result in you getting some positive attention. By focusing your personal requests on your happiest customers, you may be able to influence your reviews and ratings in your favor.
DO elicit reviews from multiple sources. When asking your customers to review you, ask each one to review you on a different site. Some sites are great for a variety of businesses, such as the internet yellow pages, and others are specific to particular industries. Many different ones are feeding into Google Place results, so a variety is very advantageous. Just a few include: Superpages.com, Yelp, InsiderPages, OpenTable, CitySearch, UrbanSpoon, Yahoo, Google Hotpot, Yellowbook, and YP.com.
DO encourage frequent reviews. Incorporate requests for online reviews as part of your ongoing practice, not just once or twice a year. There’s some evidence that “velocity” of reviews may be helpful, and freshness of content is sometimes considered a ranking factor. In general, fresh and ongoing buzz about a business is good for promotion as well.
DO give incentives when requesting reviews. While you may not pay or incentivize people to post positive reviews about your company, you can hand pleased customers a discount coupon or a gift and ask them kindly to review you. Obviously, you’re trying to predispose them to be positive towards you when they rate you, but you haven’t necessarily attempted to bribe anyone if you don’t ask for a particular outcome.
DO respond to reviews. Some sites allow owners to comment back to reviewers and respond to things said about them. This is your opportunity to engage with your customers and to show your involvement. Show customers that you take their comments and suggestions seriously. It’s free surveying feedback!
DO make lemons into lemonade. You will sometimes get negative reviews and ratings. Where possible, respond to those and you can often turn a bad situation around. I’ve had clients who would contact negative reviewers and offer to make good for some bad experience, and the reviewer later went back and posted a glowing followup! That sort of story is an even better positive review than a review with no context. Positive customer service can be more valuable to you in the long run than what it may cost you to make good sometimes, as demonstrated by the famous Zappos customer service story. See also: “My Business Got A Bad Review – Now What?”
Finally, Don’t obsess too much on negative reviews. As I mentioned earlier, there is a bit of a positive, even with negative publicity at times. When I view 400 positive reviews about a company and see no negative comments or bad ratings, I’m suspicious that it’s a con-job. Having too much positive reviews makes people skeptical, since reviews have been gamed so much — everyone starts to wonder if all the reviews are shills posted by some marketing agency you hired. Also, even if Google is damping down some of the advantage that evil characters like Decor My Eyes get out of negative attention, having someone mention you is still attention and may result in just a dribble of citation value. Learn from negative reviews and plan to make better customer experiences and get better reviews tomorrow.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.