Here’s how digital word of mouth and search have converged

Smart companies can shape their reputations and visibility with online word of mouth and careful attention to customer feedback.

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For many industry practitioners, including me, the Moz Local Search Ranking Factors report serves as a useful and reference throughout the year to stay abreast of local search ranking signals (disclaimer, I’ve been a participant since 2014). One takeaway from the most recent Moz report that continues to resonate is this:

A business’s customer reviews as a ranking signal have increased in importance by 17 percent year over year and by 43 percent over the past three years.

As the survey founder David Mihm told Moz, “In mid-to-large metro areas, even industries where ranking in the 3-pack used to be possible with a handful of reviews or no reviews, now feature businesses with dozens of reviews at a minimum — and many within the last few months, which speaks to the importance of a steady stream of feedback.”

The influence of reviews on the Moz rankings underscores how word of mouth has evolved in the digital age to have even more impact a business – to affect not only reputation but also visibility.

Word of mouth goes digital

In a business context, word of mouth dates back centuries to the dawn of commerce. Who can say exactly when consumers began sharing opinions of the businesses they frequent? By the dawn of the 21st Century, businesses had figured out how to shape word of mouth in a variety of ways, such as encouraging consumers to review them or convincing people with influence to talk about their brands (as memorably discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point).

In the digital age, word of mouth exploded. The emergence of online platforms such as Amazon, Facebook and Google gave consumers a way to share their opinions of businesses in more transparent and permanent ways. A conversation between two neighbors over coffee about the quality of a plumber or a doctor no longer became a fleeting impression. Digital made those conversations scale and multiply beyond two people. If someone raved about the quality of a restaurant’s beef tenderloin entrée or torched an auto dealership for having bad service, now the whole world knew.

Something else happened as well: search engines began tracking customer ratings and reviews as a ranking signal. Google started to award businesses with a heavy volume of positive reviews by ranking them favorably over businesses that attracted only a trickle of reviews. That’s because consumers began to use search engines the same way they would consult their friends for advice about a business: as a source of word-of-mouth. Someone looking for a bike retailer nearby would want to know not only where to go (triggering a need for accurate location data published on Google) but also whether the retailer had a solid reputation (which is where customer ratings/reviews began to come into play). Google, wanting to deliver the most useful information in search results, responded. And as Moz has reported, rankings/reviews are more important than ever.

Businesses seize an opportunity

At a time when digital is often viewed as disruptive, though, the emergence of online word of mouth has created an opportunity for businesses. Smart companies have realized that they can shape their reputations and visibility simultaneously. Instead of viewing Amazon, Facebook and Google as a threat, they’ve employed these platforms to amplify their presence. For many businesses, doing so has meant asking customers to post reviews on the platforms that will give them the most visibility. Also, businesses with hundreds and thousands of locations have invested in automated tools that make it possible for them to secure, publish, and learn from reviews on a larger scale. In essence, they have automated word of mouth.

Today, automated word of mouth creates a virtuous cycle that affects a company’s reputation, visibility, and quality of service. The virtuous cycle looks something like this:

  • Optimize search. A business becomes more findable by publishing accurate location data, descriptive content and customer ratings/reviews. Doing so boosts the ranking signal in remarkable ways as discussed in the Local Search Ranking Factors survey and also builds a business’s reputation. Also, accurate and reliable content beyond ratings/reviews also boosts a brand’s reputation by creating a positive first impression.
  • Acquire customers. Consumers look for ratings and reviews across a wide range of sites beyond a company’s website. By encouraging customers to review them, businesses not only boost their search signal but also spread positive social sentiment. Let’s face it: people are more likely to proactively talk about a bad experience at a business than a good one. Companies need to take steps to ensure that people share the positives. Asking a customer face to face is one way. Doing so via online tools such as email or text is a more efficient way. This positive social sentiment encourages a more accurate representation of customer conversions.
  • Improve the experience. The real power of the virtuous cycle happens when a business relies on solicited information plus unstructured, organic text that people leave on social media to look for ways to improve themselves. Businesses that take to heart reviews and use them as a source of feedback to positively change their businesses will create happy customers who are more likely to give you a positive review when you ask them – thus improving your reputation and boosting your visibility.

The good news about digital word of mouth is that businesses will continue to have a say in this process. Brands should:

  • Manage your customer ratings/reviews on an ongoing basis. Monitor them, respond to them, learn from them and encourage them – everywhere people are talking about your business online and offline.
  • Be proactive. Accept the fact that your business is going to get some negative reviews from unhappy customers. Respond to those customers to let them know you care. And balance those experiences by following up with customers and asking them to review you online.
  • Mind your location information. I say this a lot because it’s essential: treat your location data and content as a precious asset. Follow best practices for making your business findable with accurate data and descriptive content that is optimized for search.

Digital word of mouth and search have become intertwined. There is no going back. And this evolution is good. Google can give users (and your customers) a better experience when people search for a business. And you can give them a better experience when they find you.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Adam Dorfman
Adam Dorfman is a technology and digital marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience. His expertise spans all aspects of product development as well as scaling product and engineering teams. He has been in the SEO and Local SEO space since 1999. In 2006, Adam co-founded SIM Partners and helped create a business that made it possible for companies to automate the process of attracting and growing customer relationships across multiple locations. Adam is currently director of product at Reputation where he and his teams are integrating location-based marketing with reputation management and customer experience. Adam contributes regularly to publications such as Search Engine Land, participates in Moz’s Local Search Ranking Factors survey, and regularly speaks at search marketing events such as Search Marketing Expo (SMX) West and State of Search as well as industry-specific events such as HIMSS. Follow him on Twitter @phixed.

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