No matter how you look at it, reviews play a key role in brand discovery, and should be a key consideration for all digital marketers.
For example, search engines use online reviews when deciding which businesses to rank where in local search results. It’s not the only factor they consider, but it’s in the top 3, and that’s important if you want to gain visibility with 89% of the population that use web search engines to make purchase decisions.
Once you’ve earned visibility, nearly all consumers (97%) use online media to research and compare products and services in their local area. 93% of consumers say that online reviews influence their buying decisions.
And then there's social media. Some social media platforms enable users to automatically share any reviews and recommendations they write. If one person writes a rave review about you, then shares it with their social media friends, that could be a significant driver of new business to your site. On the flip side, if a negative review is shared, it could dissuade many people from even considering you.
Clearly, online reviews are important - but it's one thing to know you need reviews and another to actually get them.
So how does a small business go about getting more reviews for their products and services?
While there's no magic formula, the three best ways in which a small business can get more reviews is to be proactive, systematic, and thorough in your approach to acquiring them.
Here are some tips:
1. Be Proactive
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.
But while you can’t control the feedback that gets left on review sites, you can be proactive about addressing such, and diluting the impact of negative reviews by making a sustained and ongoing push to build up a majority of positive ones.
Start With Review Site Guidelines
Before we get into how to acquire reviews, it's important to understand that there are rules governing review submission and publication.
Review sites have an obligation to protect their clients from being misled by dishonest, biased, or malicious reviews, and as such, most have published guidelines which are 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
Familiarize yourself with the requirements and processes, to ensure you're informed about every aspect of each system.
Guideline Differences and Overlaps
You'll note, as you go through these, that there's a lot of overlap in the guidelines. But while they can seem largely the same, there are significant, and relevant differences to note.
For example, Yelp doesn't permit businesses to ask customers for reviews, while Google has no objection (so long as you do not offer an incentive or reward). Those differences can play a key role in your review strategy, so it's important to know what's what in this respect.
Having said that - and recognizing that everyone is busy - most, if not all of the review guidelines are very clear about what you should NOT do in seeking reviews for your business.
Here is a quick summary of the key 'don't's.
- 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, but following these 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 noted in the introduction, reviews are a top 3 ranking factor when it comes to local search results.
Search engines look at 5 things with respect to these reviews:
The more reviews, the better - earning a steady stream of reviews 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 also be considered more trustworthy, and more influential when it comes to your rankings.
When review commentary includes mention of the goods and/or services that you're trying to rank for, this will also increase your relevance to search engines, and help to bump up 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 easier to spot, and can positively influence click-through rates as well as walk-in traffic.
Risks and Consequences of Fake Reviews and Review SPAM
Similar to their approach to review rules, the risks and consequences of posting fake reviews and spam also vary from platform to platform.
Yelp has an automatic filter which catches a lot of fake reviews, and if a business is caught offering payment or other incentives in exchange for positive reviews, it will slap a consumer alert on the business and reduce their rankings. Yelp will also stop the offending business from advertising on its platform, monitor its listings to see if the same continues, and eventually, remove the listing entirely if it does.
Google does none of these things. While Google's guidelines clearly state that reviews should reflect a “genuine experience at the location, and should not be posted just to manipulate a place’s ratings”, it's 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 US, buying reviews, posting fake reviews, and preventing or discouraging anyone from expressing their opinion is illegal. The Consumer Review Fairness Act protects people’s right to post genuinely negative reviews, while the FTC has also started cracking down on fake positive reviews in response to rising consumer complaints.
Efforts to fight review spam are ramping up in other countries as well - in July 2019, an Australian business owner was awarded $530,000 in compensation after a false and defamatory review of his business was published on Google. Visitors to his business website dropped by 23.61% less than one week after the false review was posted.
The case highlights the potential impacts, underlining the importance of improved platform integrity efforts.
2. Be Systematic
In addition to worrying about the rules, risks, and consequences associated with fake reviews and review spam, you also need to be systematic about who, when, and how you ask for reviews.
When To Ask For Reviews
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the relevant platform guidelines on reviews, 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 don't want to be perceived as going against platform rules or doing something that's 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 matter - the gist of Rozek's advice is:
- You should have a legitimate business relationship with the person you are asking
- There should be no quid pro quo
- 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? Your satisfied customers.
And don’t feel it as though it's an imposition to ask either - asking for a review is a chance for you to form a bond with your existing clientele, because you're 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 the benefits of such.
When To Ask For Reviews
Many people have a hard time getting reviews simply because they don’t ask for them, or forget to add it into their process flow. Many find it awkward and/or uncomfortable, and don’t want to put their customers 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's worthy of earning compliments and positive reviews.
- Do a phenomenal job, not just an okay one, 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, and also 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 also means incorporating 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 that 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 proceduralize asking for reviews, you're less likely to forget to ask for one, and 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.
- Ask Face-to-Face - Asking face-to-face for a review lets you take advantage of opportunities as they arise. If a customer gives you a compliment, express your appreciation and explain their commentary would really help prospective customers who are searching online for your type of goods and services. Ask if they wouldn’t mind writing what they’ve told you down in 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.
- 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 that this is less personal, which likely means lower response rates.
- Personalized Email Requests - Sending personalized email requests can increase your engagement and response - 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 also 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.
- 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. Also, send out your email 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 to consider
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.
3. Be Thorough
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 which occurred. This prevents you from soliciting customers more than once, and possibly annoying them. It'll save you time and energy, and increase the likelihood that you’ll get what you’re asking for.
Give Guidance and Direction
Being thorough also means providing customers with guidance when you ask for a review.
Many simply don’t know what to write, and providing clear direction can help to remove fear of the unknown, save 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. You should also let them know how long you expect it to take for them to leave the review, so that they don’t feel obligated to spend more time than necessary. Provide them with a direct link to your relevant review sites.
Be sure to also thank them for their business, and tell them how much you appreciate them taking the time to help you and others. Do the same again when they write the actual review, and do it online, where possible, so that others can see that you're actively engaging with your customers and appreciative of their efforts.
Be sure to also 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, the original email (or online) request, and ask them to leave a review if they have not done so already. You'll get more reviews if you follow up.
As noted above, you should also create a log of the people that you've asked to review your business, so that you’re not asking them repeatedly for the same thing. You might not remember, but they will.
The tracker can be a paper log, an electronic spreadsheet, a Word document – it doesn’t matter, just so long as you're keeping track. Note the customer name, the method by which you asked for the review, the request date, and who asked.
A Summary of How To Earn More Reviews
Notice how I've used the term “earn” here. That’s really the net of it - the only long-term, credible, and sustainable solution for gaining reviews is that 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.
- 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 that 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.