The Search Game Has Changed: How Online Reviews Affect Rankings

Written by: Drew Lyon   Austin, Texas

Posted on: December 6, 2011


Let’s face it…Google is a hoarder. Matter of fact, Google is the mother (or daddy) of all hoarders. It’s their job to scan, hoard and organize EVERY piece of information on the internet. Trying to quantify the amount of hoarding Google does with a number hurts my brain. How big is the Universe? I don’t want to think about it.

Where is all this new information coming from?

A LOT of the new information on the internet is coming from the meteoric rise of social media. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others account for BILLIONS of minutes spent online every month with Facebook leading the way:

And unlike a hoarder of real-life goods, Google won’t be running out of closet space anytime soon. Without prejudice they can, and will, continue to store every bit of digital information—including user-generated content—they can get their sticky hands on. So like the towels your Grandmother’s held on to since before the war, what exactly does Google plan on doing with all of it?

How can one search engine sort through that much junk (I mean data) and predict what you are looking for?

They need help. As the number of towels in Google’s closet continues to grow, it gets increasingly difficult for Grandma Google to locate the one you like. Maybe you like the one with seashells when it’s hot out and the shaggy one when it’s cold. Maybe the towel you like isn’t the “best” towel really, the edges are frayed and it leaves fuzzies in your hair, but hey, it’s the most “relevant” towel for you. Google needs your feedback to help inform their search results. They might even go so far as to ask you friends.

As evidenced by the chart above, people are investing more time building relationships online and sharing personal information. Google knows that if they can’t harness this wealth of socially-relevant information to improve their search results, they will no longer be best positioned to answer your every question. But before we look at how Google is changing to factor in social data, let’s examine how we got here—how we came to be living in a world powered by Google…

How Google got on top

Starting as a Stanford Research Project “to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library,” Google would go on to become the gatekeepers of the whole wide internet world because it was (and still is) the best at combing through an incomprehensibly large collection of digital information and returning to users what a secret algorithm deemed the “most-relevant” results, or answers.

It was a computer-based formula for ranking websites that gave Google its competitive advantage and it will be a computer-driven approach that leads to Google’s demise if they don’t adapt. Adapt or die, the saying goes, and I’m betting Google will adapt. Actually, they already are.

How does Google plan to stay on top?

Google didn’t launch Google+ because they wanted to become a social networking company; they launched a full-blown social network and competitor to Facebook because they didn’t have any other choice. They needed help. Their algorithm was missing one BIG piece. A piece that didn’t even exist over a decade ago when they started the company has now become the driving force of growth on the internet: Social.

The basic human desire to build relationships has inevitably spread to the digital world. The average person consumes more information from social networking sites than they do anywhere else, including Google. This is how we spend our time: forging and fostering relationships on social networks. For better or worse, Socialization is the future of the internet. If Google wants to hold on to their position as surveyor and disseminator of all things internet, they will need to harness the power of the people—the human element. And fast.

The search game has changed

As internet users, our expectations have changed. It’s no longer good enough for Google to give me the same results it gives you. We’re different, you and I. We’re in different cities, we like different things, I eat meat / you’re a vegan, we probably have more differences than we have things in common. I expect all my future search results to reflect me, personally.

Plus, I have options now. If I want a recommendation for “Where to find the best hamburger,” I can consult an un-biased, albeit impersonal computer formula, Google—OR—I can seek the recommendation of somebody I *gasp* know. And it doesn’t even have to be somebody I know in real life, it can be somebody I only know online—somebody I trust on THAT ONE SUBJECT.

This is where having a vast virtual network of “friends” comes in handy. Even though I may accept the occasional friend request from one of those hippie vegan types (actually, having lived in Austin, I have lots of vegan friends and they’re not all “hippies”), but I also have whole groups of digital friends who enjoy eating a bloody cow. Where are all my carnivores at?

What’s the magic search engine formula now?

The answer that Google is betting the company on…is a combination of BOTH. Since they already have the best formula for ranking websites based on non-human elements (backlinks, page rank, content, etc.), Google is hoping that the introduction of social elements (number of “likes,” “tweets,” shares, and now “+1’s”) will keep their results relevant in a social-obsessed internet world.

[NOTE: Wisely, Facebook has made it their policy NOT to share much of its social data with Google. This decision, coupled with the tremendous growth of Facebook, has made the creation (and success) of Google’s own social network, Google+, critical to its survival.]

What does all this mean for my business?

I’m glad you finally asked. As a business, it’s your job to adapt as well. Adapt or die, the saying goes, and there is one major social opportunity for businesses that I have yet to mention: Getting online reviews.

Having a large number of online reviews, which goes hand-in-hand with an active social presence, DOES improve your rankings on Google and other search engines.

Google weighs their search results based on reviews from their own business directory, Google Places, and it also factors in reviews from third party sites such as Yelp, Angie’s List and even social networks.

Is there a magic number of reviews I need in order to start seeing a rankings boost?

The always-secretive Google would never give an exact number, but we’ve noticed as few as 4 REVIEWS having a positive impact on organic search rankings.

As you can see, listings are not ranked solely by number of reviews. However, we have observed that businesses with few or no reviews are unlikely to display near the top of Google Places listings.

Unsurprisingly, we’ve also noticed that Google prioritizes businesses with a large number of reviews on Google Places compared to accumulating reviews on third party sites.

Another indicator might be waiting for you in the mailbox. Once you total 10 reviews on a Google Places listing, you should find this self-promotional device from Google in the mail:

Since Google knows that getting people to use their online review platform is essential to them staying relevant, they will only get more aggressive in marketing and promoting their tools (even if that means direct mailings!). As a business, it’s up to you to make sure you reap the rewards.

What are some ways you can encourage customers to leave a review?

We advise businesses to think up clever ways to entice their customers to leave reviews.

Here are a few things we’ve seen work:

Review Swap: You have a business, I have business, we work together, let’s review each other. If you would like to trade reviews with us, email “Rachael Star” on our Localization team or go straight to our Google Places page. We’ll see it.

“Thank-you” Cookies: Try sending a box of cookies, or chocolates, or fruitcake, perhaps heirloom tomatoes for those “hippie vegan” customers, with a note thanking them for their patronage and kindly asking that they go to your Google Places listing and leave a review. You could even go so far as to include a review card with a QR code that goes directly to your business listing when scanned.

QR Codes: Did somebody mention QR codes? Even though I have my own personal reservations about the longevity of these glorified barcodes, that’s not stopping them from showing up everywhere these days. Why should you be left out? Why not put QR codes on your sales material, have QR code bumper stickers made, have QR codes laser-engraved onto your heirloom tomatoes for all I care. It can be done!

Contests and Discounts: The offer of cash money or cool prizes will always be an effective way to incentivize customers to do things for you. The small hit you take in profit to offer a discount will be more than returned in the free advertising you get from an additional review.

Shameless Plugs: Make sure you prominently feature an eye-catching “leave review” button on your website that links to your Google Places page. Or if you happen to own one of those brick and mortar business, have your employees do it the old-fashioned way and ask customers to “please leave us a review on Google.” A few reviews goes a LONG way.

All the same good business practices—friendly customer service, helpful advice, competitive pricing—that encourage traditional word-of-mouth advertising, now apply to the digital world. Good business karma is more important than ever with the internet giving everyone a “voice.”

What about that one terrible review I got from a mean customer with a personal grudge?

Even though everyone has a voice, it doesn’t mean they have anything nice to say. Sometimes it seems like citizens of the online community live by the opposite equivalent of The Golden Rule.

All I can say is, don’t worry about it. You continue providing quality services and products and Good will eventually prevail over Evil. Over time, the loyal advocates for your business will prevail over the small number of haters.

What is Reputation Management?

If you want to take a proactive approach to limiting negative noise surrounding your business, you may want to look into online reputation management. Reputation management, whether done by a company or on your own, works to promote positive information about your business on social networks, PR sites, business directories, and from other reputable sources, effectively drowning out the tiny, but often vocal, voice of the naysayers.

Do NOT sign up for automated Google review services!

I repeat, do NOT sign up for automated review services. For every major change Google makes to the way it ranks websites, you can bet that a horde of greedy scammers won’t be far behind. ALL Automated Google Places review services are scams. Fabricating reviews is not only unethical but Google has ways of exposing illegitimate reviews and punishing you for them. So don’t bother.

Google as a “Social Recommendation Engine”

It’s going to be awhile before Google reclassifies its business from “Search Engine” to “Social Recommendation Engine” but the continued incorporation of social factors and online business reviews into their formula for ranking websites is NO passing FAD.

Social recommendation is the future of search and if you want to survive, just as Google does, you will need to make sure your online presence includes active social sharing and a growing pool of online reviews. That includes creating a Google+ page for your business in addition to your Google Places listing, but we’ll save that topic for another time.

For now, focus your energy on creating an army of happy customers, vendors, friends, affiliates, partners, employees, and general supporters that are willing to share their experiences with your business online. That’s what we’re doing!


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