By Ivy Lamb, Manta Content Editor
Small business owners can’t afford to ignore online reviews. With this expert advice, you can turn customer reviews into a powerful marketing tool.
Of all the components of digital marketing, online reviews cause the most confusion and frustration among small business owners. How are you supposed to know where customers are leaving reviews? Should you respond to them? How important are reviews to your business’ reputation?
These are all important questions to answer. Although it takes some time and effort to create a strategy for handling online reviews, if you’re proactive you can turn reviews from a hassle into a powerful tool for building trust, winning new customers and improving your search engine ranking.
1. What Are Online Reviews?
Online reviews are just what they sound like: feedback left by customers on websites like Google, Facebook, Yelp and others. When a customer leaves a review, the comment (often accompanied by a star rating) is posted publicly on the business’ profile. Online reviews also appear in Google search results and Google Maps when customers look for a business.
2. What is My Online Reputation?
“It’s the collective impression of the brand, but it’s made up of many elements: trustworthy content, third-party reviews, testimonials, case studies, social proof, and more,” said John Jantsch, author and founder of Duct Tape Marketing. “Collectively, these are the elements a business needs to manage.”
Naturally, all your business reviews from across the web and on your social media pages are a big part of your online reputation because they come from customers. Your online reputation is an important way for you to distinguish your business from the competition.
“How does a window cleaner differentiate itself from another one?” said Moréa Pollet, marketing specialist for Piedmont Avenue Consulting. “Well, thanks to online reviews you get a better idea of their customer service, the time they took to respond to your inquiries, how fast the job was done, and so on.”
3. Why Do Online Reviews Matter?
Online reviews can be a powerful marketing tool. Customers will see them whether you like it or not, so it’s worth your time and effort to encourage good reviews and capitalize on the results to gain the trust of new customers.
“Instead of viewing customer service as a necessary chore, treat it as a marketing strategy,” said David Mercer, founder of SME Pals. “Customers who have a positive service experience are often happy to send on ‘goodwill’ recommendations and reviews, making them a valuable inbound marketing channel. Word-of-mouth reviews lead to high-converting traffic and leads.”
Online reviews also give you valuable information you can use to improve your business. “Online reviews, over time, will address nearly every aspect of your branch including service, hours, cleanliness, courtesy and salespeople,” said Chris Campbell, CEO of ReviewTrackers. “It’s a worthwhile exercise to take a step back and be honest with yourself about what is and what isn’t working.”
4. How Influential Are Online Reviews With Customers?
The short answer is online reviews are very influential with customers. In fact, they can make the difference between winning or losing a sale.
According to BrightLocal’s 2016 Local Consumer Review Survey, most people (91%) regularly or occasionally read online reviews. What’s even more striking is that 84% of people said they trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. Online reviews have become the new word-of-mouth marketing.
5. What Are the Best Online Review Sites?
The best site for you may depend on the type of business you own. These sites are important for just about every small business owner:
- Bing Places
- Yellow Pages
- Better Business Bureau
If you run a service-based business, these sites are important to know about:
- Angie’s List (contractors)
- HomeAdvisor (contractors)
- Kudzu (contractors)
- Yelp (restaurants and retail)
- OpenTable (restaurants)
- TripAdvisor (travel and hospitality)
- Healthgrades (medical)
- RateMDs (medical)
- Avvo (lawyers)
6. Google Reviews for Small Business
Before you start asking customers to leave a review of your business on Google, be sure to claim your Google My Business profile. When you claim your business on Google, you can receive notifications when a customer leaves a review, and respond to each review individually. These reviews and the accompanying star rating will show up when customers see your business on search results pages and Google Maps.
7. Facebook Reviews for Small Business
Facebook’s ratings and reviews feature is automatically enabled when your page is categorized as a local business with a physical address. You do have the option to disable reviews on your page, but then you won’t receive the benefit of positive reviews from customers and the boost in your search ranking from having reviews on Facebook. Be sure to track and respond to all your reviews on Facebook, just like you would on any other platform.
8. Yelp Reviews for Small Business
Out of all the online review platforms out there, Yelp tends to cause the most frustration among small business owners.
“Yelp’s filter is a big headache for businesses because it can often hide some of their best five-star reviews,” said Ryan Erskine, senior brand strategist at Brand Yourself. “It’s frustrating for sure, but it’s important to know that the filter is fluid, meaning that a hidden review can resurface again.”
It’s better to play by the rules and try to get as many positive reviews as possible. “I strongly recommend companies put a Yelp strategy in place to use it to their advantage, otherwise they may find themselves dragged along for an unpleasant ride,” Erskine added.
Here are some of Erskine’s tips for working with Yelp:
- Do not purchase reviews for your business. Yelp has a sophisticated algorithm and is far too smart for this behavior. Yelp filters these purchased reviews from your customers and it can even result in your profile being flagged.
- Do not solicit reviews at your working establishment. Yelp knows if reviews are coming from a single IP address. (Yelp discourages business owners from asking directly for customer reviews.)
9. Do Online Reviews Affect Search Engine Optimization?
“The impact of reviews on ranking is highly debated among search experts,” said George Freitag, local search evangelist for Moz. “Businesses with many online reviews and photos tend to show up more prominently in local search results. Whether the number of reviews is what causes a business to rank or if it is simply a result of the business being so visible remains unclear.”
However, Freitag added that having reviews does increase clicks and interactions with your business from search results, and that increase in interaction does have a positive effect on your website’s search engine optimization (SEO).
10. Can I Ask Customers to Leave Online Reviews?
Yes! In fact, you should make a habit of asking customers for reviews. It’s one of the best ways to get more of them. (The exception is Yelp; see the section above.)
“I recommend a review strategy to almost every single client,” said Kristin Ferguson, an account director for The Markey Group. “It is important to continually ask for feedback in more ways than one.”
Here are her pointers to help you craft a review strategy:
- Where do you want reviews? Google? Facebook? Yelp? Be explicit and provide directions when offering customers a link where they can post a review.
- When will the suggestion for a review happen? Is it before they convert or after?
- How will you help your customers understand the benefit to leaving you a review? Make sure you communicate that to them.
- Who will respond? Have a response strategy, and not just a canned response. Customers want to engage with real people.
11. Should I Ask Customers to Leave Reviews on One Site or All of Them?
It’s best to target a few review sites rather than just one. You want to make sure positive reviews appear in as many places online as possible. But you also want to stay focused so you don’t get overwhelmed monitoring and posting responses (and so that you don’t overwhelm your customers with requests!). If you don’t have any reviews, try starting with one site and then move on to others as you gain more feedback.
“Because of Google’s major prominence at a search engine, it’s the main place we recommend our clients get reviews,” said Hailey Vasquez, project manager at Odd Dog Media. “However, for bars and restaurants, Yelp and Facebook can also be very important. For doctors, it’s Healthgrades. For lawyers, it’s Avvo. These industry-specific review sites can also help your Google rankings because they have high domain authority.”
12. What If I Don’t Have Time to Ask for Reviews?
Asking for reviews doesn’t have to eat up that much of your time. With some preparation, you can add just a few seconds to your regular interactions with customers.
“Have customer feedback cards printed that give customers very simple instructions on how they can give you a review online,” said David Erickson, vice president of the PR firm Karwoski & Courage.
Include a link to your business profile on your preferred site (such as your Facebook page or Google My Business profile). Then you can hand out the card at the end of a project or after a sale with a quick, polite request. You can also include this info in any automated emails you send to customers after a transaction.
13. How Do I Track Online Reviews?
“There are online software solutions as well as service solutions. It will really depend on how much work the business owner wants to do themselves or how much they want to outsource the work,” said Ari Gunzburg, founder of Mikkomi, a digital presence management company. “You need to know when people are leaving reviews so that you can monitor what is being said about your company and, most importantly, if someone posts something negative, you can respond quickly.”
“Many digital marketing companies, if they’re full-service, will offer some form of reputation management and monitoring,” said Kameron Jenkins, director of marketing strategy at Scorpion Internet Marketing. “If you’re a do-it-yourself marketer for your small business, there are other ways to take control of your online presence.”
Jenkins recommended two free ways to track online reviews:
- Google Alerts allows you to set up alerts for branded queries (usually your business name, unique product names, or individual employee names). You’ll be notified whenever Google picks up a mention of your business online.
- Social Mention allows you to scour the web for mentions of your business. It’s free. Simply pop in the keywords you want to monitor (such as your business name). You can also set up email alerts.
14. How Should I Handle Negative Reviews?
“You must respond to negative reviews,” said Gunzburg. “A response from a representative at the company actually can help mitigate the damage caused by a negative review. Ignoring a bad review is never a good idea, as it demonstrates to people that the business either doesn’t care or doesn’t know what is being said. In our connected world, this is not a good connotation in either direction.”
Of course, how you respond matters, too. Do not write anything defensive or argumentative—you will only alienate the customer even more. Instead, try to resolve the customer’s complaint.
Nathan Miller, founder of Rentec Direct, has these suggestions:
- First, reach out to the customer by phone or email and see if you can resolve their issue. If you are able to solve the problem, ask them if they would be willing update the review. Many will.
- If you fail to solve the problem or cannot reach the customer, some review sites allow vendor responses. Go ahead and respond, but maintain a positive and professional tone.
- Finally, bury the negative review in positive reviews. One negative review doesn’t hurt if there are five or 10 glowing five-star reviews posted above it.
“This might sound obvious, but make your company easy to contact,” Miller added. “Put your phone number and support email address on your website and make it easy to find. You’d be surprised how many bad reviews come from customers just having trouble finding contact information for a company.”
15. Should I Respond to Positive Reviews?
It’s just as important to respond to positive reviews as it is negative ones. Thank happy customers for their business and for taking the time to leave a review.
“You have to make sure that you’re engaging with your customers by responding to reviews, both good and bad,” said Jenkins. “Thank people for positive reviews. The more engagement, the better!”
That engagement helps you grow your good reputation and develop more loyal customers.
16. Should I Ever Pay for Positive Reviews?
Paying for or otherwise bribing customers to leave reviews is a bad idea. Don’t fall for companies offering to get you good reviews for a fee. Customers have an expectation that online reviews are unbiased, which means that paying for reviews will destroy your credibility if you are found out (and most customers can tell when a review isn’t genuine).
17. Can I Review My Own Business?
No. Not only is this unethical, you’re likely to get caught. Customers are sensitive to this, and will not respond well to fake reviews from friends or family members. Even trying to influence customers can be bad.
“Asking past customers to leave a positive review can be one of the fastest ways to damage your brand in the eyes of your strongest advocates,” said Pat Ahern, director of traffic generation at Junto Digital. “Instead, encourage past customers to share honest feedback about their experience with your company to help you continue to improve your customer experience over time.”
18. How Do I Remove Bad Reviews?
In most cases, it’s impossible to remove reviews. Trying to silence customers typically backfires, and the review hosting site will know that. However, in some cases you may be able to appeal to the site to have a review taken down.
“Small business owners should know that reviews online are allowed to have negative opinions, but they cannot offer facts that are false in their review,” said Mark Aselstine, founder of Uncorked Ventures. You might also be able to have a review taken down if it’s downright abusive or irrelevant to your business.
19. What Should I Do About Bad Reviews from Former Employees or Competitors?
This is a tricky situation for any business owner. You can do your best to have false or abusive reviews taken down. Otherwise, it’s best to try to outweigh the bad review with lots of good ones.
“I have an former affiliate who has patently false information out there about my company. It’s frustrating on a few levels, especially because this person doesn’t respond to emails, phone calls or social media messages asking them to get the review updated,” said Aselstine. “I’ve found that making a page on your own site does help to control the conversation a bit. It also ranks extremely well in search.”
20. What Are the Biggest Mistakes Small Businesses Make With Online Reviews?
“There are two big mistakes business owners make related to reviews,” said Freitag. “The first is ignoring them completely. Second, you need to monitor your online reviews. Negative reviews happen, but responding to them is a great way to not only smooth things over, but show future customers that you really do care about their experience.”
A version of this post originally appeared on the Manta blog; reprinted with permission