From salons to doctors, from accountants to hotels, every business can be impacted by customer reviews. Online reviews provide an essential form of social proof to potential customers.
In 2014, nearly 90 percent of customers checked online reviews either occasionally or regularly for all types of business, whether local, online or big box. Those numbers have increased: According to a recent survey by BrightLocal, only 8 percent of customers do not read online reviews, and 87 percent of customers won't consider a business with low ratings on review sites.
In fact, online reviews have become more important than word of mouth. Over 80 percent of customers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. That means if you aren't paying attention to online reviews, you could be missing a huge opportunity to build customers' trust in your business.
Customers aren't the only ones who value reviews. Search engines care about them too: In fact, 7 to 13 percent of a local website's search engine rank is dependent on online reviews. Positive customer reviews are considered a sign of how trustworthy a business is, giving you a higher search engine rank. For example, a search for "Denver wedding photographer" will yield dozens of results, but the businesses associated with better online reviews will show up before those with few or poor reviews, even if the search rankings of the websites themselves are the same.
Additionally, small or local businesses now run the risk of their own websites being outranked by sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor if their business has lots of reviews. These sites have more authority recognition with Google, meaning they automatically rank higher in search results. Websites with less authority or poor SEO may appear below the review listings for their own business – which means a negative review might be the first (or sometimes only) thing a customer sees about your business.Credit: Google
While that may be frustrating, it's not all bad news. If you have a high rating on a review site, customers won't care if it appears before your website in search results. When they see highly positive reviews across multiple sites, customers are more likely to trust your business than if they only saw your own website, with no indication of how other customers view you.
How to take charge of customer reviews
You can't control what customers write, but you can manage your online reputation on review sites to ensure that both Google and potential customers see positive information about your business when they search for you.
1. Monitor everywhere reviews are posted
Register on major review sites, including the full company name and the website address so reviews are correctly associated with your business. Yelp is arguably the best-known site, but other popular choices include Google+ Local, Angie's List, Trustpilot and Foursquare. [Looking for other Yelp alternatives? Check out these business review websites.]
You may also need to find industry-specific review sites. For example, HR Company Store shares reviews of companies that provide human resources services and software, while The Knot and WeddingWire host reviews for wedding and event vendors.
Once you've created these accounts, you need to proactively monitor them, keep track of reviews that customers leave and respond when appropriate.
It's also important to watch what is being said about your small business on sites like Twitter and Facebook, or in marketplaces like Etsy, as these mentions can affect both customer opinions and search rankings.
2. Treat negative reviews as an opportunity
A negative review is your chance to offer amazing customer service. Most review sites allow you to respond directly to reviews, allowing you to apologize or fix the situation. That could mean helping customers navigate a return, offering a discount for the future, or acknowledging their feedback and using it to improve your business model.
You won't please every unhappy customer, but others will see how you handled the situation and take that into account when making their own decisions. You may also get positive comments in response to your response.
3. Encourage positive reviews
Customers are more likely to leave reviews after negative experiences than positive ones, which means you have to encourage happy customers to speak up.
If a customer has a great experience, let them know how much you'd appreciate online feedback. While the terms of service for some sites, like Yelp, forbid explicitly asking customers for positive reviews, you can still include links to your Yelp page in follow-up emails, on your website or with order information. Including this information makes it easier for customers to leave reviews. And when the process is easy, they're more likely to do it.
Finally, respond to positive reviews as well. Let customers know you appreciate their feedback and are pleased they had a good experience. This will encourage others to leave positive reviews, improving both your reputation and your search rankings.
4. Never post fake reviews
Don't be tempted to ask your employees to pose as customers and post positive reviews or to hire a company that provides reviews for a fee.
Not only is this unethical, it also directly violates many sites' terms of service. You could even land yourself in legal trouble: In 2013, New York cracked down on companies that were posting fake reviews, resulting in huge fines and damaged reputations.
What's more, customers know what looks suspicious online. Repetitive, glowing feedback will make consumers wonder who is actually leaving those reviews, scaring them off just as quickly as bad reviews.
If you haven't been paying attention to what people say about your business, it's time to take action by proactively encouraging, monitoring and responding to customer reviews online. Your customers – and your business – will thank you for it.