Still in the wake of Google’s announcement to merge Google Places with Google+ Pages for business, we continue Local Search Month on Thunder’s blog with a look at what these changes mean for reviews and business owners in general. At this moment, the change is so recent that I’m going to avoid predictions (except the obvious one that more changes are sure to come). I also don’t promise any time-saving tools or empirical studies at how this all impacts rankings (it’s still too new for that so stay tuned!). However, I do want to look at what a business needs to do immediately, what to be aware of given the new review platform and Google+ tie-in, and some best practice recommendations for encouraging reviews.
I missed it, what was the big change?
The announcement from Google was that Google Places listings are now merged with a business’ Google+ Page, but for the time being (again, stay tuned for more from Google for sure!) businesses can continue to manage a map listing via Google Places.
In addition, Google Places has replaced it’s 5-star ratings with Zagat’s (remember Zagat?!) individual user ratings on a scale of 0 “Poor to Fair” to 3 “Excellent”, which are then combined to arrive at an overall 0 “Poor to Fair” to 30 “Extraordinary to Perfection” score. While this sudden switch to Google+ for local search has garnered a wide range of opinions (including these enlightening insights from local search experts), one area of relatively consistent agreement is the improvement of the new review ratings. For some businesses (starting with restaurants given Zagat’s focus on eateries), there are scores with multiple aspects including food, décor, quality and service – all of which are also combined to arrive at an overall 0 to 30 score.
So, what should a business do right now?
First, claim your Google+ Page in your Google account. If you haven’t already claimed your Google Places listing, you can learn more here.
Second, check out your new score. Google has converted previous Google Places reviews (using the 5-star ratings) to the new Zagat-based 30 point score. The new scale is similar to the 5-star ratings in that there are five levels (see screenshot above), but rather than whole and half stars, there’s a numeric value called “Overall” (see below).
While rating Quality is the most common review option, Google+ appears to be rolling out additional options based on the industry. It will be interesting to see how and whether or not consumers find this new format helpful. Following are a few examples:
- Auto Repair – Quality, Appeal and Service
- Hotels – Quality, Facilities and Service
- Restaurant – Food, Décor, Service and Cost per person (optional)
- Bar/Lounge – Atmosphere, Décor and Service
Why are there so many anonymous reviews?
Google explains that it is attributing all existing Google Places reviews to “A Google User”, rather than the account’s user name. Within Google+, a user can opt to “migrate” over their reviews from their Google account to their Google+ page, which then results in the reviews being attributable to an actual user. This process has the nifty feature of enabling the user to delete old reviews – I found this to be a plus (no pun intended). As for general user experience, it closely resembles how Yelp structures reviews and individual user accounts.
This appears to be Google’s way of encouraging users to sign up for Google+. It’s important for these reviews to be tied to an actual account; otherwise, they won’t have much credibility in the eyes of other users. Likewise, it appears to be another focused effort by Google to get folks using Google+. Again, we’ll see how people cotton to it.
Will some reviews matter more than others?
Perhaps in Google’s “perfect world”, we’ll all be using Google+ all the time, and leaving very sincere and helpful reviews, even closely monitoring other profiles assiduously to evaluate just how much credibility the user has and, hence, his/her reviews. In this wonderful world, without a doubt some reviews will matter more because they’ll be coming from more trusted and authority users. In addition, those trusted users will have lots of followers, so people will want to follow them and see what they have to say.
Sarcasm aside, will this actually be the case? We’ll have to wait and see how people take to Google+ and the reviews. In the end, given the speed at which “local search” is happening on mobile devices more and more, this might end up being more a fight between Android/Google and iOS/Apple’s new map application (see below).
Will reviews now (given the merge) impact rankings?
Remember that Google+ is a social media platform. Given that Google is now incorporating social mentions (particularly from Google+) as part of the ranking algorithm, it’s highly likely that reviews from “authority” users might count more toward how often a particular Google+ Page shows up in results. This is still speculation but given how Google is increasingly pushing Google products (see David Mihm’s post showing how about 90% of a Google search results above the fold are from Google products), this is definitely something to watch.
Can I leave a review for my own business?
Absolutely. Simply leave a review using your personal Google+ profile. In addition, business pages can leave reviews for other businesses. That’s helpful for getting reviews from vendors, partners and other companies you do business with.
Why not just keep the old ratings system?
What Google gives, Google taketh away. It’s still up for speculation why Google made the switch. While the Zagat-based scores potentially offer more quick insights, the stars were visually appealing and easy for all of us to understand. Here’s an interesting conversation on Barry Schwartz’s Search Engine Roundtable that references a thread on Google Business Help where a business owner complains that actions (or clicks) on his listing dropped from 30-60 per day (with the star ratings) to 0-5 per day (with the 30 point score). Is Google+’s new score ratings to blame?
Can I still respond to customer reviews?
Yes. Business owners can post a public response to reviews by Google users. Click on the link from within your Google places Dashboard, or visit your Google+ page (while logged in) and you’ll see the option to respond under the review.
Will my reviews show in searches on mobile devices?
Great question. Your Google+ Page (and the accompanying reviews) will show in Android mobile devices and in iOS devices for the time being. Apple has announced its own maps application, which will be built in to iOS 6 and rolled out this fall. The iOS map app will pull in Yelp reviews and listing information. This means it’s even more important for a business to verify and claim its Yelp listing, as well as monitor reviews there.
Does it help to buy or fake reviews?
Ideally, the answer to this is “no.” However, experience has shown that adding positive reviews to counter (or even push down) negative ones can help in raising a business’ rating (or overall score), as well as help cancel the impact of a negative review.
While linking reviews to Google+ user accounts might help review credibility, it’s pretty easy to set up fake accounts. As Mike Ramsey pointed out at SMX Advanced, there are over 356,000 John Doe accounts, which raises the question, “How many John Doe’s can leave fake reviews?”. Furthermore, you can go to Fiverr.com to get folks to set up fake Google+ accounts and, yes, leave reviews.
Some businesses use fake reviews to boost their positive reviews, as well as target other companies with negative reviews. Either way, it’s misrepresenting and dangerous territory. In addition, given that Google is most likely weighing the reviewer’s user authority, accounts with one or a handful of reviews are as potent as a sponsored tweet…meaning, nil.
Likewise, think about the user experience. Who hasn’t looked at the profile of a reviewer before deciding to put any stock in his or her review (if you haven’t yet, I bet you will now). Anonymous or suspicious accounts won’t carry much muster. Again, it’s been argued that this is part of Google’s [potential] logic in linking reviews to Google+ profiles.
How can I encourage reviews for my business?
First, make sure you have a GREAT service and/or product, and that you really know how to treat your customers well. It’s hard to get good reviews if the love isn’t there to begin with.
Second, encourage folks to migrate reviews over to Google+. Since reviews tied to actual Google+ accounts are likely to have more credibility than those labeled “A Google User,” ask the people you know who’ve left reviews to login to their Google+ account (or set one up) and migrate their reviews from the old to the new format. This will also give them the option to delete some of their old reviews. Perhaps use this opportunity to ask anyone who’s left negative reviews to delete that review if they’ve changed their mind or the issue’s been resolved (tread with caution here).
Likewise, you might consider emailing your customers to ask them to migrate their reviews over to the new system or even ask them to leave a review if they haven’t done so already. Be sure to include a link to the [claimed] Google+ Page for your business.
You might even get creative and try a Google+ Sweepstakes to incentivize people to migrate over their existing Google Maps reviews to Google+. A possible giveaway might be, “Show you’ve migrated your reviews to Google+ and we’ll give you a $5 gift card.” Giving away free product samples or anything that’s useful and fun could work too.
Now this brings up the interesting question of whether or not it’s okay to incentivize people to leave reviews on Google. According to Google Places’ policies and guidelines, they typically frown on “offering or accepting money or product to write positive reviews about a business, or to write negative reviews about a competitor.” It seems the line gets blurry with the distinction of a “positive” review. To that point, I’ll call out that in San Diego, Google Places used to sponsor events at local establishments and then ask folks to leave a review on Google Maps (I know, I got some great Google Socks for my review of URBN). In fact, Google Places even sponsored an event at Ground Kontrol in Portland where Google gave free appetizers and drink tickets, as well as a special t-shirt for folks with “100+ review status.” Again, while there’s definitely product and money (if you consider “tickets” to be money) being offered, Google Places is clearly encouraging reviews, but not necessarily “positive” ones. For more insights, check out this thread on SEOmoz’s PRO Q&A Forum where Miriam Ellis of Solas Web Design offers some great observations and history.
Third, make it easy for customers to leave reviews. At Thunder, we’ve found having a card to distribute is very helpful for encouraging reviews. Following is the format we’ve used for several clients to great success. Simply pass out these cards or leave some on the counter so that customers can pick them up easily. Making the review card design attractive and printing on nice card stock really help to create a sense of value. Below is a link to the template (Illustrator) in case you’d like to download it and use for your own business or clients.
Tips on setup, creation and production:
- Include the business logo.
- The 0-3 bar reflects the new review scale.
- Use a branded bit.ly link that points to the business’ Google+ Page. Pro-tip: Claim both the capitalized and non-capitalized versions of your bit.ly link, so that there are no complications during the reviewing process.
- Insert a trackable QR code that also points to the Google+ Page. We use Delivr to generate QR codes. Pro-tip: Sign up for a Delivr account to closely track scans.
- List the business’ actual website and phone number. Pro-tip: Use a tracking number on your review card to monitor calls.
For printing the card, we like PrintRunner, which charges about $39 for 100 cards.
I welcome any feedback or suggestions on the review card and tactics outlined above, as well as your experience with the changing world of Google+ and reviews.