Estimated Read Time: 17 Minutes
Reviews are Important
Search engines use online reviews when deciding which businesses to rank where in local search results. It’s not the only factor, but it’s in the top 3. That’s important if you want to gain visibility with 89 percent of the population that uses Internet search engines to make purchasing decisions.
Once you’ve earned visibility, nearly all consumers (97 percent) use online media to research and compare products and services in their local area. Ninety-three percent say online reviews influence their buying decisions.
Then there is social media. Some social media sites allow people to share reviews and recommendations they write automatically. If one person writes a rave review about you and shares it with their social media friends, it could drive new business your way. If a negative review is shared, it could dissuade their connections from even considering you unless you respond to it promptly and in a positive way.
Clearly, online reviews are important. But how does a small business go about getting them in 2020?
While there is no silver bullet, the best way for a small business to get more reviews is to be proactive, systematic, and thorough in its approach to acquiring them.
People are going to read and write reviews about your business whether you want them to or not.
Expect some reviews to be negative. Even if you have the best product or service in the world, you “can’t please all of the people all of the time”. Not only that, bad reviews can actually help your business. A good overall review rating that includes negative reviews is a strong indicator of authenticity. It can help you identify areas for improvement when it comes time to plan for future growth.
While you can’t control the feedback that gets left on review sites, you can be proactive and dilute the impact of negative reviews by showing customers you’re listening and making a sustained and ongoing effort to build up a majority of positive ones.
Start With Review Site Guidelines
Before we get into how to acquire reviews, it is important to understand there are rules governing review submission and publication.
Review sites have an obligation to protect their clients from possibly being misled by dishonest, biased, or malicious reviews. Most have published guidelines aimed at ensuring just that.
Here are the published guidelines of the most popular review sites (in alphabetical order):
- Amazon Community (Review) Guidelines
- Better Business Bureau Review Guidelines
- CitySearch FAQ (Reviews)
- Facebook Community Standards
- Google Prohibited and Restricted Content (Review) Guidelines
- Trip Advisor Traveler Review Guidelines
- Yellow Pages User-Provided Content Terms
- Yelp Guidelines
Guideline Differences and Overlaps
While there is a lot of overlap in the guidelines, there are differences too. For example, Yelp does not permit businesses to ask customers for reviews while Google has no objection so long as you do not offer an incentive or reward. You should review all the above guidelines in detail.
Having said that and recognizing that everyone is busy, know most, if not all, of the review guidelines are clear about what you should NOT do.
Here is a quick summary of the overlaps.
- Never offer payment or any other incentive in exchange for a review.
- Never ask your employees, friends, colleagues, or family members to review your company.
- Never review your own company.
- Never negatively review a competitor or have anyone else do it on your behalf.
- Never hire anyone to generate reviews for you from non-customers.
- Never post reviews on behalf of customers — they must create the review themselves, using their own account on a review platform.
It can be tempting to take shortcuts by posting or purchasing fake reviews for yourself or others. Following the above common-sense, platform-agnostic guidelines will help you avoid the most obvious risks and consequences of contributing to fake reviews and review spam.
How Reviews Influence Searchers and Search Results
As previously mentioned, local reviews are a top 3 ranking factor when it comes to local search results. Search engines look at 5 things with respect to reviews:
The more reviews, the better. Earning a steady stream of reviews and lots of them gives search engines and searchers the ability to discern patterns over time. When the star ratings are consistently higher, this will signal a positive experience to both search engines and the public. When the reviews come from established players in the local search ecosystem, they will be considered more trustworthy and more influential when it comes to your rankings.
When review commentary includes mention of the goods and/or services you are trying to rank for, this will increase your relevance to search engines and help bump your rankings. When the words in the commentary match the words in a search query, search engines will often bold those words in search results. This makes them easy to spot and can positively influence click-through rates and walk-in traffic.
Risks and Consequences of Fake Reviews and Review SPAM
Just like the rules, the risks and consequences of posting fake reviews and spam vary from platform to platform.
Yelp has an automatic filter that catches a lot of fake reviews. If a business is caught offering payment or other incentives in exchange for positive reviews, Yelp will slap a consumer alert on the business and reduce its rankings. It will stop the business from advertising, monitor the listing to see if it continues the practice, and remove the listing entirely if it does.
Google does none of those things. While their guidelines clearly state reviews should reflect a “genuine experience at the location and should not be posted just to manipulate a place’s ratings”, they are slow to take action when violations are reported. Joy Hawkins, a respected local search expert, and others have written that Google needs to step up its efforts to protect business owners and the credibility of the platform itself.
In the United States, buying reviews, posting fake reviews, and preventing or discouraging anyone from expressing their opinion is illegal. The FTC Consumer Review Fairness Act protects people’s right to post genuinely negative reviews and also recently started cracking down on fake positive reviews.
Efforts to fight review spam are ramping up in other countries as well. In July 2019 there was a case in Australia where a business owner was “extremely distressed and embarrassed” by a false and defamatory review published on Google. The rate of visitors to his business website dropped by 23.61 percent less than one week after it was posted. The business owner took his case to court and was awarded $530,000 as well as costs and interest. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has also recently stepped up enforcement actions against businesses over their handling of online reviews.
In addition to worrying about the rules, risks, and consequences associated with fake reviews and review spam, you need to be systematic about who, when, and how you ask for reviews.
Who To Ask For Reviews
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the individual platform and local review summary guideline overlaps, you might still have questions. It is not always clear if asking for a review from people other than your customers, clients, and patients is appropriate. Should you, for example, ask peers, recipients of pro bono work, relevant spouses, or family members of a customer?
Answers to these questions are important because you do not want to be perceived as going against platform guidelines or doing something that is considered unfair, untruthful, or dishonest. In some industries – industries where your relationship with the client or customer is sensitive or personal – customers also might not want their relationship with you to be known.
There are many nuances to the question “who should you ask for reviews”. Phil Rozek, another local search expert and long-time blogger has shared his views on the matter. The gist of his advice is:
- you should have a legitimate business relationship with the person you are asking;
- there should be no quid pro quo; and
- if you have any other (non-business) relationship with the person, that should be disclosed so as to prevent any impression of impropriety.
Who should you unquestionably ask? Ask satisfied customers. Don’t feel it as though it is an imposition to ask either. Asking for a review is a chance for you to form a bond with existing customers because you are asking a personal favor. Customers provide you with valuable feedback and give others information they can use to assess your relevance, strengths, and “fit”. Most will understand that.
When To Ask For Reviews
Many people have a hard time getting reviews simply because they don’t ask or forget to ask. Many find it awkward or uncomfortable and don’t want their customers placed in a position where they might feel the same.
The trick then is to be opportunistic and disciplined about it, to make it as quick, easy, and painless as possible for all concerned.
The best way to be opportunistic is to develop a business culture that is worthy of earning compliments and positive reviews.
- Do a phenomenal job. Not just an okay job. A job that’s worth noticing and remarking upon.
- Do it on time and for the price expected.
- Respond quickly.
- Be positive. No one likes a downer.
- Streamline and simplify customer experiences. Everyone is busy.
- Empower and listen to front-line employees. They know first-hand the challenges your customers face and how to help them. Happy employees deliver better service.
- If you screw up, apologize and mean it. Offer to make it better.
- Close conversations with leading questions like “Is there anything else I can help you with today” and “Did you get what you need? Are you satisfied”?
- Always thank customers for their business.
- When the job is done, ask if the customer is satisfied. If the answer is yes and you have an established relationship with the customer, ask for a review. If the answer is no, listen attentively. Note your shortcomings and find ways to address them.
The more instilled these attitudes and practices become in your business, the greater your chance of earning positive reviews.
Being disciplined means inculcating these practices into every aspect of your day-to-day business and culture. It means leading from the top, setting an example for your employees, and establishing steps in your internal processes to ensure consistency so you don’t miss an opportunity to ask for a review and get one.
While every business is different, most have internal processes and procedures for onboarding new customers, delivering goods and services, and bringing business to a close. For example, your company might have established checkpoints at fixed periods of time where progress, issues, and plans are reviewed with clients. Another might have procedures for transitioning clients internally. Regardless, it makes sense to add a mandatory step to your processes, wherever it makes the most sense, to ask for reviews.
When you systemize asking for reviews, you’re far less likely to forget to ask for one. It makes the asking less stressful, awkward, and uncomfortable for all concerned. It’s just another box you check off in the process of doing business.
How To Ask For Reviews
We’ve touched on this already, but a bit more elaboration helps.
Asking face-to-face for a review lets you take advantage of opportunities as they arise. If a customer gives you a compliment, say thanks and suggest their commentary would really help prospective customers who are searching online for your type of goods and services. Ask if they would mind writing what they’ve told you on a review site of their choice. Ask if you can send them a quick reminder with links to the review sites on which your small business is listed or provide them with a reminder card.
This approach works best when you and/or your staff spend time with customers and have established a trusted relationship with them. You can create opportunities for the conversation by, as mentioned above, being helpful and asking for feedback. It does not work as well if you have brief interactions with many customers and rarely get a chance to get to know them personally.
The advantage of this method is you get to choose the timing and the client has already opened a door through which you can initiate the conversation. You can make the customer feel appreciated and valued by acknowledging their positive remarks and suggesting others might benefit from hearing them as well.
Batch Email Requests
Batch emailing review requests is a good way to ask customers you have not had a recent interaction with. You can write one email and sent it to more than one person at a time. It’s less awkward for the customer because you’re not face-to-face.
The downside is it’s less personal. Response rates will likely be lower.
Personalized Email Requests
Sending personalized email requests can increase your response rates. You have the opportunity to make the customer feel appreciated by reminding them of the work you did together, what made it especially fun or challenging, and the outcome.
Going this route gives you an opportunity to influence some of the language that might be used in the review by mentioning relevant goods and services in your request. This can help your rankings and get the attention of searchers who use that same terminology in their search query because those words will be bolded in search results.
Make a List
In either case (using batch or individual email requests), decide in advance who you want to ask for a review. Keep the list down to only people you feel are likely to respond and respond positively. Darren Shaw at Whitespark, a well-known Canadian local search software builder and service provider, has recommendations for how to compose emails that will get opened. Start there. GradeUs has 44 unique email templates for requesting online reviews for different types of businesses. Experiment and see what gets you the best results.
Mail requests in small batches. This prevents a bunch of new reviews all landing on a review site at the same time, possibly triggering a red flag and their removal.
Other options include:
- creating a reviews page on your website with an invitation to leave a review and links to your preferred review sites;
- placing a review request and link to review sites on your business card and appointment reminder cards;
- suggesting customers might want to tell others about their experience as part of a thank you page;
- incentivizing employees (not customers) to ask for reviews; and
- automate the ask using online review services like Reputation Stacker, Gatherup, Grade.us, BirdEye, Whitespark, ReviewTrackers, and more.
Capterra has a list of over 100 different online review service options you can choose from. They also let you do a side-by-side comparison of options, displaying things like price, feature / functionality, customer ratings, and more.
Being thorough simply means following through on your plans to get more reviews.
It starts with keeping a log of who you’ve asked, when you asked, and the follow-ups and results that occurred. This prevents you from soliciting customers more than once and possibly annoying them. It saves you time and energy and increases the likelihood that you’ll get what you’re asking for.
Give Guidance and Direction
Being thorough also means giving customers guidance when you ask for a review. Many simply don’t know what to write. Providing direction removes the fear of the unknown, saves time, and can lead to more and better reviews.
Personalized email requests can start by reminding customers of the work you’ve done together and any particular challenges or highlights that occurred along the way. Let them know how long you expect it to take for them to leave the review so they don’t feel obligated to spend more time than necessary. Provide them with a direct link to your relevant review sites. Let them know up-front whether they need a Google account to be able to leave a review on Google.
Be sure to also thank them for their business. Tell them how much you appreciate their taking the time to help you and others. Do the same when they write the actual review. Express your appreciation online so others can see you are actively engaging with your customers and appreciative of their efforts. This is also an opportunity for you to insert specific language into the review text, words and phrases you may be wanting to rank for. Just be reasonable about it. If it’s unnatural, don’t do it.
Be sure to follow up with everyone you ask to review your business.
People are busy. They’re bound to forget. If they said they’d give you a review, they probably meant to and just got busy, forgot, or distracted.
Set a reminder on your calendar to follow up about a week after the first email goes out. Remind them of your conversation and the original email (or online) request. Ask them to leave a review if they have not done so already. You will get more reviews if you follow up.
As previously mentioned, create a log of the people you have asked to review your business so you’re not asking them repeatedly for the same thing. You might not remember but they will.
The tracker can be a paper log, electronic spreadsheet, or Word document – it doesn’t matter, just so long as you keep track. Note the customer name, the method by which you asked for the review, the requested date, and who asked. Note the follow-up date (if there is one) and the date the review was left.
Visit the review sites before sending out reminders in case one has already been left. Check monthly (for the same reason) and note any new activity in your log.
A Summary of How To Earn More Reviews
Notice I said “earn”. That’s really the net of it, the only long-term, credible, and sustainable solution. You have to first earn the trust and respect of your customers, ask them for positive reviews, make it easy for them, remind them, and thank them. Customers will respond positively.
- Do a phenomenal job. Not just an okay job. A job that’s worth noticing and remarking upon.
- Do it on time and for the price you quoted.
- When the job is done, ask if the customer is satisfied. If the answer is yes, ask for a review. If the answer is no, listen attentively. Note your shortcomings and find ways to address them.
- If someone has indicated they’re willing to provide a review and have not, remind them. Everyone is busy and gets distracted. A simple reminder can do wonders.
- Make it easy for customers to find where to review you. Add links to your top review sites on your website, business cards, and appointment reminder cards.
- Incentivize employees, not customers. Offer a small reward for every review they earn. You can even suggest employees tell customers they are rewarded for reviews as this can encourage responses as it’s a free way to tip a service provider.
- Make asking for reviews a disciplined part of your process.
- If a customer leaves you a good review, thank them. Let other customers know by posting a link to the review on your social media sites and website. Let searchers know you’re engaged and appreciative by thanking the reviewer online.
Lastly, remember you can’t please all of the people, all of the time. It’s a numbers game. If you’re patient and follow the guidelines above, the number of positive reviews will outnumber and out-influence the negative ones.
None of this is easy. But if you put the effort in, you will end up with higher rankings, more leads, and more conversions over time.