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online review sites

How Online Review Sites Affect Search Rank And What To Do About It

Online review sites are here to stay and, if you work in nearly any B2B industry, review sites are dominating search results, often occupying the first three or four positions. 

That’s a lot of really great territory to be giving up to websites that don’t really provide any original content on the subject that’s being searched. All the same Google is, at least for now, giving online review sites a great deal of valuable exposure. From Yelp to Capterra, business review sites provide an opportunity for customers to share their experiences with other prospective customers and Google is eating it up.

And there are so many review sites now... Depending on the breadth of the audience you’re trying to target you may have to consider 3, 4 or 5+ different review websites -and that’s not even counting Google and Facebook, which are the 2 largest sources of online reviews.

Then consider that new sites are popping up every day and many are simply scraping or aggregating reviews from other sites to generate their initial content. Needless to say, that 3 star review has a lot more reach today than it did a few short years ago.

Every business in every industry needs to have a review management strategy in place to secure their brand from assault from critique and to prevent missed opportunities from when potential customers search for a brand and are met with a less than compelling impression of that business from Google Search, the company’s website, social and other marketing channels.

Clearly this isn’t something that marketers and business leaders can sleep on...but before I recommend a plan of action, let’s first take a look at the wider role that reviews play in your online reputation and establishing trust with potential customers.

Online Reviews

What is the impact of review sites?

Research has shown that online reviews impact as much as 67% of respondents' purchasing decisions.

Source: Moz

That statistic alone should give marketers a cold chill if they’ve not implemented a robust practice around handling online reviews.

And it’s not as simple as having reviews or not having reviews…the volume, frequency and recency of your reviews are equally important.

When surveyed, 61% of B2B buyers reading product reviews preferred to see 11-50 reviews before making a decision and that percentage is even higher among VPs and other executives (68%).

Source: G2 Crowd

If you’ve ever tried to acquire even one positive review on one of these sites, you’ll understand how daunting it sounds to procure 50 positive reviews. It’s simply not enough to have a listing on these sites and hope that, eventually, one of your happier customers feels inspired to leave a review. To leverage these review sites -and even just to protect your brand from bad reviews- you’ll need to invest significant resources to monitor, respond and request reviews proactively.

But why are these sites suddenly so powerful? What value do they provide buyers that they should dominate search and influence buyer behaviors so greatly when they didn’t even exist a few years ago?

It comes down to trust and authority. Before the Internet, buyers primarily relied on personal recommendations, analysts and industry media to establish the credibility of solutions providers in their industries. This was the old domain of public relations; managing the public’s opinion of a brand mostly involved managing the media’s and the analysts’ opinions of that brand.

Fast forward to today and the role of PR professionals is rapidly changing as the decline of the media industry is shrinking the number of informed subject matter experts employed by publications at the same time that our culture shifts away from trusting these centralized sources, in favor of trusting “the crowd” through influencers, thought leaders and online review sites.

97% of B2B buyers consider user generated content, like reviews, to be more credible than other types of content.

Source: Thismoment

A couple of testimonials on your site or the occasional nod from an analyst in your space just won’t cut it when your competitors are investing in robust, consistent online review management practices and are proactively reaching out to customers for feedback. Volume, frequency and consistency are now equally important as sentiment.

The bottom line is that your business needs to know what your customers are saying, where they’re posting that feedback, how to address negative reviews quickly and professionally and be actively pursuing as much positive feedback as you can generate at the same time. 

This takes time, financial investment and buy-in across departments and at all levels of your organization. The impact of online reviews is real, it’s significant and it requires thoughtful and comprehensive processes, policies and training to effectively address.

How did we get here?

In 2004, Yelp launched its crowdsourced review platform and brought third-party validation both into the hands of lay people (not professional reviewers or analysts) and right to the forefront of of the evolving discussion around online identity.

With a few quick keystrokes and mouse clicks one could share their opinion directly with other potential customers of an establishment and suddenly the business couldn’t sweep it under the rug or simply disregard a complaint or other critical feedback.

Where one unhappy customer wasn’t the end of the world in the 90’s, in the 00’s it quickly became clear that customers had the power to choose who they wanted to do business with and a platform for sharing their experiences in ways that directly, and significantly, impacted the the bottom line of those businesses.

For a time this revolution in crowdsourced third-party validation was limited to restaurants and other local consumer-facing businesses but, as tends to happen, B2B companies follow similar trends to B2C companies but at a slower pace and, typically, a few years behind. 

Eventually, B2B review sites like Capterra, G2 Crowd, Clutch, SoftwareAdvice, TrustPilot and many, many others started to appear in searches for software products, professional services and other, typically business-to-business concerns.

Why did review sites suddenly fill up the first page of search results?

There’s certainly room to debate if the meteoric rise of Capterra, G2 Crowd and others to the most valuable real estate in search is deserved, or simply a brilliant execution of SEO best practices.

Likewise, it’s unclear if online review sites will maintain their dominance in search long-term since Google releases frequent algorithm updates that often cause major changes to search results and keeps things interesting for SEO pros. What is true today may be quite different in a year or two.

Nevertheless, today online review sites are most definitely pushing brands off the first page of results that have historically been major sources of leads and revenue and then charging brands for access to that traffic.

How’d they do it?

It comes down to three factors. In fact, the same three factors influence any website’s search rank, but these review sites simply executed a brilliant coup d'é·tat in overthrowing brands’ typical dominance in product related searches.

Highly Optimized Content:

First, review sites invested into aggregating data from thousands of companies to build directories with basic listings of companies across hundreds of categories. They structured this data into highly optimized websites with categories based on business verticals, frequently searched keywords in titles, headings, URLs, etc. and leveraged original, user-generated feedback to ensure their content is unique.

Inbound Links:

Review sites offer services to acquire customer testimonials, which are incredibly valuable to businesses, and offer “official” badges and quote widgets to provide an incentive for sharing their content on your company’s website. This shared content invariably features a link back to the review site which increases their domain authority and lifts the site higher in search results.

While these sites always provide an opportunity to link back to your company’s site from your profile page, these are always no-follow links -where the link from your website to theirs is, of course, a do-follow link. So the exchange does not set up a reciprocal linking relationship like you might expect. The reality is quite one-sided in favor of the review site.

Value For Searchers:

We can hate it all we like, but the reason that Google has allowed these sites to push us off the top spots in their search results is that searchers (who are Google’s real customers) find these sites to be valuable. 

They aggregate information that is difficult and time consuming to piece together manually. They provide at-a-glance comparisons of complex products and consistently produce the fresh, frequently updated original content that Google loves so much.

The click through rates to these sites and the subsequent time on site and bounce rates are, in all likelihood, quite ideal and therefore Google has every reason to promote these review sites as the best possible resources for someone conducting product research.

reputation management

So what do we do about it?

  1. Ante up. This round isn’t free…

    This is the part of my story you’re not going to like. Remember when Facebook started decreasing a brand’s reach to their own audience, after brands spent years developing their Facebook followings? Like then, the answer is, at least partly, pay to play.

    Pay for a decent listing page on the best review sites. Pay for whatever advertising packages are offered as well.

    Pay for review requesting services -or pay your own people to spend their time requesting reviews.

    Pay for gift cards to use as incentives during the requesting process. Pay for Net Promoter Score surveys to identify potential promoters...you get the idea.
  2. Surprise, surprise… Write better, more detailed, more specific content.

    You know what’s coming...let’s say it together, “Content is king.”

    Google is hungry and you have to feed the beast. Words for the word god, and all of that.

    The only way to beat review sites organically is to play a long-tail game and find all the niche, typically informational / educational, searches (with enough volume to matter) that relate to your space and write a metric ton of content on everything topic you can.

    You WILL NOT...I repeat, WILL NOT...outrank these review sites for product-related searches if they decide to compete.

    They have already won the war. Google may decide to knock them off their high seat in SERPs one day but your company isn’t going to beat them in direct SEO competition.

    Your only hope is to cover every micro-topic within your area of expertise so that you are attracting buyers earlier in their buying process when they’re still evaluating their need.

    Still, at some point in their process, they are going to visit at least a couple review sites. It’s virtually guaranteed.
  3. Cover every possible avenue buyers use for product research beyond Google searches.

    Create educational videos or re-purpose webinars for YouTube (which is the second most popular search engine on the web). Write thought leadership content for industry trade publications. Answer questions on Quora. Monitor influencers in your space and look for ways to engage or attract their attention.

    Perform Google searches as if you were a potential buyer and catalog the results on the first two pages. Pay special attention to anything new coming up in the ranks as it it may become important later.

    Google and Facebook are the two largest review sites, so don’t forget to claim and maintain your Google My Business listing and to engage customers quickly on Facebook any time they give feedback (positive or negative).

There’s a David and Goliath analogy in this scenario that can’t be avoided but unlike David we’re not going to slay these giants with one lucky shot. 

It’s better to consider walking among the giants, finding ways to stand on their shoulders when possible, and casting a wider net of long-tail content to attract buyers with “how to”, “best practice” and “comparing solutions” content. 

It’s worth the investment to work with the top review sites because they are a good source of leads and they do help to qualify them by providing deep insights and comparisons of competing products.

Diversify your approach. Spend a little on the top sites, maintain good review hygiene and develop a robust long-tail content marketing practice and you’ll see good, sustainable results from your marketing efforts.

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