Remember the phrase “word of mouth?” It came from the ancient and obsolete practice of sharing recommendations with “words” coming out of your “mouth.” Before smartphones and the internet, people used to gather in pairs or groups and talk, sometimes about the products and service providers they were enjoying. Today, building a reputation is a little more complicated than hoping your satisfied customers tell their friends. The words and images that spread your business’s image come from many places, and almost all of them are online: Word of Yelp. Stars of Google Reviews. Direct-Flash Overhead Food Snaps of Instagram. By all means, continue to spread your company’s good name through word of mouth, but accept that online reviews are the new masters of business reputation. The power of online reviews offers small businesses both huge advantages and risks. Online reviews greatly reduce the problem of discovery. Anyone with Google Maps and a Yelp account can find your local business, even if it is brand-new. But at the same time, a single 1-star review could drive away thousands of dollars of revenue. In this guide, we’ll take you through the importance of online reviews, their major platforms, how to get more reviews, and how to handle the bad ones. In no time at all, you’ll have a sterling online reputation and a reliable system to keep those good reviews coming in. Why Online Reviews Are Important Customers Trust Online Reviews Online reviews are hugely important to customers as they choose between you and your competitors. A recent survey of 1,005 US consumers found heavy reliance on reviews: 82% of consumers use online reviews when searching for a local business. “Positive reviews make 91% of consumers more likely to use a business, while 82% will be put off by negative reviews,” writes BrightLocal author Rosie Murphy. Reviews also produce some enviable engagement for online content—respondents spent an average of almost 14 minutes reading reviews before making a decision. It’s not just local businesses, either: online reviews are even more important for online product vendors. “An increase of just 1 star in a rating on Amazon correlates with a 26% increase in sales,” writes the New York Times. Featuring Reviews and Ratings Can Boost Sales Online reviews don’t just convince customers to choose you over a competitor—they can also nudge customers who are already convinced and looking to buy. A majority of users are more likely to buy from a site if it has product reviews, and even more consumers trust those reviews as much as a personal recommendation. Also, many businesses have added online reviews and star ratings to their IRL marketing materials. Online Reviews Affect SEO The quality and quantity of online reviews for your business can affect whether customers even discover your company at all. Though search engines guard their algorithms carefully, numerous studies have shown a correlation between online reviews and SEO. This correlation makes sense, as online reviews contain much of the types of data that are important to SEO: user-generated reviews are dynamic, uniquely worded, and (hopefully) recent. Since 75% of users don’t go past the first page of search results, it’s important to get those positive reviews and boost your placement. Major Online Review Platforms As a small business owner, you have limited time, energy, and resources. Where should you focus your efforts when it comes to soliciting and addressing online reviews? Google Google is a juggernaut—not just in online reviews but in all things search-related and, increasingly, all parts of our lives. Google reviews are the first reviews that a user will see when they Google your business or use Google Maps to search for nearby businesses in your industry. Like Yelp, Google targets and removes fake reviews, but Google’s algorithms don’t seem to be as aggressive or problematic as Yelp’s. Anyone can leave a review, making it much easier to solicit them from customers. But Google’s expansive reach can also be a disadvantage. Users finding your business through Google are probably at the very beginning of their research process and not as likely to end up spending money with you. Yelp Yelp is the senior statesman of online customer reviews for small businesses, pioneering the game back in 2004. The site can be notoriously difficult for business owners. It actively discourages owners from soliciting reviews, and its algorithm prioritizes Yelp’s own superusers—as a result, legitimate reviews can be hidden or even excluded if your customers have new or inactive Yelp accounts. However, Yelp has an important user base: Yelp users are disproportionately educated and wealthy, meaning they have disposable income. Yelp is also primarily a business review site (unlike Google or Facebook), so users land there when they are ready to make a decision and spend money. These users could become more valuable to your business than those researching you earlier in the decision-making process. TripAdvisor Behind Google and Yelp, TripAdvisor is the third-most visited customer review site on the web—and for travel, hospitality, and tourism-related businesses, it might be the most important. Founded in 2000 as a travel guide aggregator, TripAdvisor became one of the first giants of the “reputation economy” with a die-hard army of reviewers. It is an essential first stop for anyone planning a trip. TripAdvisor has a feature that lets businesses contest any review, but that is not a guarantee that inaccurate or inappropriate reviews will be removed. Facebook Facebook rounds out the top 4 most popular sites for customers checking out business reviews. Facebook is not primarily a business review site, but your business page there could rank high in Google searches—and the size and popularity of Facebook means users are more likely to see reviews from someone they actually know and trust compared to other platforms. Facebook is also an important place to respond to user reviews due to its accessibility and high visibility. Industry-Specific Review Sites Depending on your industry, there might be specific review sites that are important for your business. Angie’s List is popular for contractors, while ZocDoc is becoming necessary for medical professionals. Controversies and Criticisms of Online Reviewing Platforms Almost from their outset, small businesses became concerned with the outsized influence of online reviewers. When your business’s public reputation is almost entirely determined by a handful of superusers on 1 or 2 review sites, it is too great a concentration of power. Chef Anthony Bourdain summed it up in 2017 when he roasted Elite Yelpers to Business Insider, saying they are “universally loathed by chefs everywhere.” Yelp has battled allegations of extortion from small businesses for years. The businesses claim that the review site urges them to buy ads—and if they don’t, the businesses “mysteriously” find their good reviews disappearing. Yelp has repeatedly denied the accusations, and court rulings say Yelp’s filtering and ordering of reviews is legal. But the review site continues to fight for public opinion, even maintaining a whole page on their site responding to the allegations. (It is the second result for the Google search “Yelp extortion.”) At this point, Google and TripAdvisor have not been subject to similar accusations of extortion. But they both have been the platforms of literal acts of extortion, with extortionists sometimes attacking an entire industry at once. A reviewer will leave lots of 1-star reviews for a business and then contact the owner, demanding money in exchange for removing the reviews. Several threads on Google Support suggest that Google will assess contested reviews, but they do not have a protocol for explicit extortion attempts. TripAdvisor, however, does have an established reporting and review process specifically for potential blackmail. How to Get More Online Reviews for Your Business You can’t get positive ratings without any ratings at all. A good quantity of reviews is itself a recommendation: whether they are positive or not, having numerous reviews tells potential customers that your business is legitimate and has an established presence. Small business owners know how difficult it is to get clients to write reviews, but here are some practices that can increase your numbers. Claim Your Profiles on Review Platforms Customers can’t review you if there is nowhere to do the reviewing. Claim your business pages on Yelp, Google, Facebook, TripAdvisor, and any other necessary review sites. Since customers can create pages on many of these sites, you might find that you already have positive reviews waiting to be claimed (or negative ones waiting to be addressed). Ask Your Customers It’s just like your mom and dad said: you’ll never know if you don’t ask! Some highly motivated customers will review your company without being asked, but relying solely on them will leave lots of potential reviews on the table. Asking for reviews is itself a tricky practice. Ask customers after the right amount of time. Strike while the iron is hot. Ask for a review right after your customers have experienced your product or service and the experience is fresh in their minds. This time period varies a bit depending on your business—for example, restaurant employees might ask customers as they are leaving the restaurant or the morning after a delicious delivery. But product vendors of anything from apparel to appliances should wait a few days so customers can try out the product first. Ask customers already signaling approval. The easiest way to get a positive review: ask customers who’ve already told you that they’re satisfied. This ask could be as simple as requesting reviews from customers face-to-face after they’ve volunteered that they were happy with their experience. But there are other ways to know if customers are enjoying your business. Repeat business is an implicit statement of satisfaction, whether it’s a second visit to your store or frequent browsing on your website. Reordering also signals that the customer is happy with a specific product or service. These customers should be targeted for review requests. Use a third party. Reputation management has become a helpful industry for small business owners. Providers like Podium can help you track customer satisfaction and solicit reviews from positive experiences. They offer both feedback and online review services, which can work separately or in conjunction. Reduce Obstacles to Reviewing Make the process as seamless as possible for your customers: that’s a principle we’ve discussed before in increasing online sales. The same is true for online reviews—for every additional step or screen your customers have to click through to leave a review, many will give up before finishing. So provide links to your review pages. Make badges for them that can appear at the bottom of every email you send. Respond to Reviews, Both Positive and Negative Customers will be more likely to review your business if they think it will get a response. Positive reviewers will enjoy the recognition and the sense that you will remember their support in future interactions. Negative reviewers will be more likely to contact you if they think they’ve found a way to remedy a challenging situation—which gives you a chance to improve your customer experience and turn the negative review into a positive one. DON’T Offer Something In Exchange For Reviews Offering a deal or discount in exchange for a review, even an unbiased review, can backfire. Many review platforms forbid it. Yelp, which frowns upon even asking customers for a review, will flag your business page if you are found to be incentivizing positive reviews in any way. How to Deal With Negative Online Reviews Despite your best efforts, you will receive some bad reviews. Some will be reasonable, some will not, and some will be outright lies. Here’s how to deal with all types of negative online reviews. Always Respond to Negative Reviews Some businesses try to respond to every review, no matter what. After initially ignoring negative comments on social media, Walmart made the decision to engage them. Chat Mitchell, senior director of digital communications, told Inc.com that the experience showed that responding to complaints had no downsides: “Best case scenario, we’re able to engage, share some content, and change hearts and minds…Worst case, we’re able to have an open dialogue and then move on, agreeing to disagree.” Respond Quickly Timing is everything when it comes to customer and client relations. A Harvard Business School study found that companies that responded to potential customers within an hour of receiving a query increased the chances of having a meaningful conversation with a key decision maker 7x more often compared to responding even an hour later. Response time is even more important for online reviews. As we previously reported, “more than 50% of customers expect to hear a response from a business within a week of posting their review… 21% of customers expect you to respond to their review within 24 hours.” Be Polite and Professional As tempted as you might be to tell off a customer, it will almost certainly hurt you and your business. Business owners have to be civil and respectful when dealing with complaints, no matter what. “Apologize to the customer and thank them for taking the time to highlight issues with your business,” suggests the Small Business Administration. “That can help transform a negative review into a positive one.” Be Genuine and Unique In other words, don’t use canned responses or auto-replies. Many brands have found out the hard way that responding automatically to every message with the same response can make your business appear insensitive. But even if you do respond appropriately to reviews, users will notice if every initial response is exactly the same. Users want to know they are dealing with a person, not a computer. Take It Offline ASAP The impersonalization of social media can cause people to be unusually mean and defensive. Neutralize these counterproductive reactions by taking the interaction offline, or at least out of public view, as soon as possible. Respond to negative reviews with an offer to direct message or host a phone call. Phone calls will humanize your business by letting customers hear your apologetic tone in addition to your words. Offer to Make It Right if Warranted If you decide that your company was in the wrong after listening to a customer and carefully considering their review, then offer to make restitution. Refund their purchase or offer them a free follow-up. A loss could be worth winning a loyal customer—and a better review—in the long run. Look for Trends Online reviews are not just about maintaining an online reputation for your business—they’re also a real opportunity to improve customer satisfaction. Look for common trends in negative reviews. Are there specific products or services causing most of the complaints? Yelp will even highlight frequently used words in reviews to help you spot problem areas. Move On From Unproductive Issues While you should respond to every negative review, that doesn’t mean you have to linger over each one. You know your business and your customers: if a negative review is unreasonable and the customer is not open to a reasonable solution, then move on. Don’t let isolated experiences discourage you—or worse, convince you to change parts of your business that are working well.