SEO

Does your business have an ongoing plan for capturing customer feedback online? Here I will be giving you an overview of how to develop a successful reviews strategy for your local business.

Why Should You Care About Online Reviews?

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To begin with, it’s worth stepping back and thinking about why online reviews are so important. Testimonials and case studies on your site are great but ultimately they’re biased because they’re moderated by you. While customers may find them useful, what they really want to read are independent reviews from other customers. They want to know what your customers really think about you, to find out if you have any bad reviews and see how you respond to them. Bright Local’s recent 2016 survey highlights some key points regarding the importance of online reviews:

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As in previous years, Bright Local’s survey highlights the growing importance of reviews for local businesses. In particular, they emphasise that customers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, how important it is to have a good overall star rating, and how crucial it is to have recent reviews.

Reviews are also important because they help local businesses to:

  • Improve local rankings.
  • Improve conversion rates and increase sales.
  • Improve their site’s appearance in the SERPs (and therefore click-through rates) by displaying rich snippets such as the below:

Star ratings in the local pack and organic listings for “estate agents york”:

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Star ratings and Facebook aggregate score pulled through into the Knowledge Panel for “zaap thai Nottingham”:

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So how do you go about putting a robust strategy in place for your business?

Audit Current Online Reviews and Reviews Process

The first step is to do a thorough audit of all the reviews that you currently have, and all the platforms on which they are found. A simple [brand name] + reviews search will help you here.

Then move on to identify what the most important sites in your particular niche are. You may already think you know what these are but it’s important to check which ones Google thinks are important. To do this, simply search Google for: “industry keyword” reviews. For example, the search for “solicitors reviews” from my location in Nottingham gives me the following results:

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Judging by the sites ranking for this phrase, various sites are being flagged as potentially important for solicitors in Nottingham who want to build their review profile.

If you’re still not sure what the most influential review sites are, then some competitor research will come in handy. If most of your competitors are being reviewed on a particular site and you aren’t, then that site needs to be added to your list!

You can then make a list of influential review sites and it may be helpful at this point to rank them in order of importance.

Next, think about how you currently go about gaining reviews (if at all). Is there any sort of process in place already? How successful has that been so far?

Decide Which Platform(s) to Focus on 

In order to give your reviews strategy direction, you’ll need to decide which platforms you’re going to focus on, depending on your business needs and your target customers. For some types of local businesses, it may be important to have a presence on several review sites, for others you may be able to focus on one or two. Obviously, you don’t want to dilute your efforts too much. You also need to make it as easy as possible for people to review you, so focus on the platforms your customers are already using. These could be:

  • Google Reviews
  • Facebook
  • 3rd party sites like Trust Pilot, TripAdvisor and Yell
  • Sites specific to your niche or location (e.g. http://www.solicitor.info and http://www.nottingham.co.uk/solicitors in the example above)

Here’s a checklist to help prioritise your list and make a decision:

  • What are the rules of engagement for each review platform? Some sites have specific rules about how and where you can ask for reviews, such as Yelp. Google on the other hand is happy for you to approach customers for reviews but they can remove reviews filled out within your store or office, if they register too many reviews from the same IP address.
  • How easy is it to leave a review on the site? Would your customers need to create an account?
  • Is it a free service? If not, how much does it cost and what do you get for your money?

How Do You Want to Integrate Reviews with Your Website?

If you’re making a concerted effort to gain reviews, you need to shout about them on your website too. As well as having a testimonials and/or case studies page, you could include a reviews page on your site that links to all the websites where customers can read reviews. This may include Google reviews, reviews on 3rd party websites, Facebook, and any other platforms important to your customers. You’ll need to check the policies of the platforms you plan to feature, and any widgets/badges available for displaying reviews on your own website, such as the below from reviews.co.uk:

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You could also consider collecting reviews directly on your own website. Local search expert Miriam Ellis recently wrote a very interesting blog about creating onsite reviews pages, and in particular how businesses can utilise “hybrid sentiment” – essentially creating a review+testimonial functionality on their own company websites and the potential benefits of this. She says: “Things are changing! More sophisticated local businesses are now employing technologies that blur the lines between reviews and testimonials. Website-based applications can enable users to leave reviews directly on-site, they can contain star ratings, avatars, and even owner responses”.

Deciding on platforms and how to integrate reviews into your website also ties into schema mark up. The rules surrounding schema markup for reviews can be quite confusing, but the important thing to remember for local businesses is that you’re only allowed to mark up customer reviews with schema if they are unique to your website. You’re not allowed to mark up reviews on your site from 3rd party sources, as these are not unique to your site. Google offers the following guidance for local businesses:

Google may display information from aggregate ratings markup in the Google Knowledge Cards. The following guidelines apply to review snippets in knowledge cards for local businesses:

  • Snippets must not be written or provided by the business or content provider unless they are genuine, independent, and unpaid editorial reviews.
  • Reviews must allow for customers to express both positive and negative sentiments. They may not be vetted by the business or restricted by the content provider based on the positive/negative sentiment of the review before submission to Google.
  • Reviews cannot be template sentences built from data or automated metrics. For example, the following is not acceptable: “Based on X number of responses, on average people experienced X with this business.”
  • Reviews for multiple-location businesses such as retail chains or franchises can only be submitted for the specific business location for which they were written. In other words, reviews for multiple-location businesses cannot be syndicated or applied to all business locations of the same company.
  • Aggregators or content providers must have no commercial agreements paid or otherwise with businesses to provide reviews.
  • Do not include reviews that are duplicate or similar reviews across many businesses or from different sources.
  • Only include reviews that have been directly produced by your site, not reviews from third- party sites or syndicated reviews.

These guidelines are quite different from rules that were in place previously. Mike Blumenthal has written a useful post for GetFiveStars on this topic which you should read before embarking on any attempts to markup your reviews. Make sure you read the comments too!

So ultimately, to gain rich snippet star ratings on your organic results or for your own website to become a “reviews from the web” source in Google’s knowledge cards, you need to generate unique reviews on your site and know how to implement schema correctly.

How Are You Going to Encourage Customers to Leave Reviews?

So now you have your research in place, you know which platforms you’re going to focus on, you’ve decided whether or not to generate reviews directly on your site (and the research here suggests that you should certainly be considering this!), next you need to think about how you’re going to approach your customers for reviews. Here are some recommended tactics to help put your process in place:

  • Prime a customer to review you from the beginning of your relationship, letting them know that their evaluation of your service is welcome and expected. For example, you could include this in any materials you share with your customers that describe the way you work, and during any phone calls with the customer ensure that you mention that you are keen to earn a referral.
  • Remind the customer to review you at the end of the transaction. How this will be carried out will depend on how you do business, but be explicit in your ask.
  • Decide how you’re going to collect reviews on an ongoing basis. Don’t do a big push initially and then forget about them – according to research the recency of your reviews is almost as important as the quality and average score.
  • For some businesses, it may be best to give your customers a choice of platforms to review from. For others, you may want to focus on one platform or your own website in order to maximise numbers and trigger star ratings in the SERPs, for instance.
  • Some review platforms allow you to contact customers through their own system with a branded email. You could also create your own email marketing campaign to get in touch with customers.

At what point in the customer journey you ask for a review also needs to be considered and will vary from business to business. A digital marketing agency like Hallam would not ask a customer to leave a review straight away, of course, as we need to build up the relationship first and perform good work for them. Our process is more long term and we focus on gaining reviews at various points throughout the customer’s relationship with us, such as at their six month review, ad hoc when we have received great feedback, or after a specific project is completed. On the other hand a local restaurant will want to request a review from their customer much more quickly.

Finally, make sure that you share an agreed strategy with everyone in your business to get everyone on board, as they will be vital in gaining positive reviews moving forward.

Some Things You Must Never Do

  • Use review stations in your place of business.
  • Pay a third party to post a review on behalf of anyone else. Customers must leave their own reviews using their own accounts.
  • Create fake reviews for your business or pay someone else to.
  • It’s also important to not try and get too many reviews all at once as that could be a red flag to review sites and/or Google that you are gaining spam reviews.

How Will Reviews Fit into Your Overall Marketing Strategy?

There’s a lot to be gained from collecting online reviews, some of which will feed into your overall  marketing strategy. Customer reviews serve two purposes, they are a marketing tool but they also gather valuable feedback you can use for service development and your future marketing efforts. So make sure you actually read all your reviews!

In order to make the most of the reviews you do get, ensure that you have a plan for promoting new reviews on social media, on your website and in your marketing materials.

Decide How You Will Respond to Any Negative Reviews

How you respond to negative reviews is arguably as important as gaining positive reviews! Hopefully, if you are providing a great offering and excellent customer service, you won’t get into this situation often. Unfortunately, the likelihood is that you will get a negative review at some point. Our Managing Director here at Hallam wrote a useful post on this topic that’s as relevant now as when it was written. Check it out!

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