The Most Important Review Site for Small Businesses

Love them or hate them, online review sites are an important part of small business.

Customers use sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and others to search for businesses like yours, read customer reviews, and even leave feedback. In fact, a 2018 study from BrightLocal found that 86 percent of US consumers use online reviews to help find local businesses.

The challenge is there are so many review sites that it's hard to know where to start. And you have a small business to run, which means you don't have a lot of time to mess around.

Fortunately, I've done the research and found which one site customers rely on the most. Here are the results along with how you can easily take advantage of these insights.

Website with customer ratings.

The Most Popular Review Site

I surveyed 1,004 adults in the United States in January 2019 to ask which online review site they rely upon the most. Google is by far the most popular.

Graphic showing the most popular online review sites. Google has 60% of the market.

There are two caveats to be aware of.

The first caveat suggests Google’s percentage may be overinflated. I used Google Surveys to do this study. It gives you a fairly random demographic sample, but in this case it also increases the likelihood that respondents would prefer Google, since they found my survey on Google. That's a huge grain of sand to keep in mind as you look at the data.

Just to check the results, I conducted an informal survey within my own network. And guess what? Google was still tops, followed by Yelp and then Facebook.

The second caveat suggests Google’s percentage may be underinflated. Think about how you naturally search for a business. I recently went to a used furniture store to look for a new table for The Overlook. When I got there, the store was unexpectedly closed so I needed to find somewhere else to go.

Instinctively, I opened the web browser on my smartphone and Googled "used furniture store." Google instantly gave me a list of stores near my location along with their ratings.

According to HubSpot, Google owns 70 percent of search engine traffic. That number jumps to 85 percent for searches on mobile devices. In other words, Google is how customers search for reviews when they don’t realize they’re searching for reviews. 

What Can You Do About It?

The first thing you should do is claim your free business listing on all the major platforms your customers use to look for you. While Google is the most popular, the other sites get their fair share of traffic, too. Womply has published some helpful guides.

Make sure you respond to every review a customer leaves you. Keep in mind your response isn’t just to the reviewer; it’s a signal to other potential customers that you care about service. BrightLocal's data reveals that 89 percent of customers read business's responses to reviews. 

Now here's where focusing on Google can pay off. Remember how I quickly found a highly-rated used furniture store by searching on my smartphone? 

Google uses reviews to help prioritize which businesses it shows when potential customers search for businesses like yours. So you can improve your search rankings without hiring an internet wizard. All you have to do is work on getting a lot of good reviews for your business. And here's the kicker—unlike Yelp, Google is perfectly okay with you encouraging customers to write reviews!

The company even provides this helpful guide.

More Resources

Here are a few additional resources to help you drive more customers to your business with online reviews.

You may also benefit from my LinkedIn Learning course, Serving Customers Using Social Media.

Lessons From The Overlook: Why We Aren't On Airbnb

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

People often ask us how we advertise The Overlook. They want to know if they can find the cabin on Airbnb, VRBO, TripAdvisor, or other popular vacation rental websites. 

You won't find The Overlook advertised in any of those places. Our rentals are booked exclusively through our property manager, Idyllwild Vacation Cabins.

It's not uncommon to use a third party to generate sales for a business. Here are just a few examples:

  • Hotels, airlines, and rental car companies all list with various travel websites. 
  • Many companies use outsourced contact centers to handle sales and service. 
  • Restaurants use OpenTable and Yelp to handle reservations. 

Deciding which third party to use can be tricky. Each one comes with it's own pros and cons. Here's why we decided not to list on any of the major vacation home rental websites.

The Overlook vacation rental on a cool January day.

Drawback #1: Owner Fees

The major third-party websites charge a guest booking fee in exchange for advertising your property. Here are the fees for three of the biggest players:

Typical booking fees for Airbnb, VRBO, and TripAdvisor

Keep in mind this fee is on top of 35 percent fee we're already paying our property management company. So we'd have to pay an additional 3-8 percent to one of those websites for each booking.

Some people don't realize that vacation rental property management is much more expensive than the typical 10 percent fee a property management might take to manage a condo or house. A normal fee for a vacation rental is 30-35 percent because a vacation rental manager handles multiple guests per month and provides more services. In our case, the fee includes a lot:

  • Advertising and marketing
  • Credit card fees
  • Guest screening
  • Cleaning
  • Pre-arrival inspection
  • Post-checkout inspection
  • Laundering towels and sheets
  • Stocking the home with toilet paper, soap, paper towels, etc.
  • 24/7 guest service
  • Coordination of maintenance and repair projects

Sites like Airbnb and VRBO only handle advertising and marketing plus credit card fees, so we'd still need our property manager. That means the only way to justify the extra booking fees would be to get an significant lift in occupancy. 

Keep in mind The Overlook is located in Idyllwild, where the market is typically for two and three-night weekend rentals. So the maximum expected occupancy is roughly 40 percent if The Overlook rents each weekend for three nights. The quirk is a guest who rents just Friday and Saturday nights pretty much ensures there won't be any additional rentals that week.

Here is our average occupancy for the past year.

Guest occupancy at The Overlook for our first year of ownership

We're just about at capacity during the busy season, so listing on another third-party site wouldn't give us any significant lift. It might even cannibalize existing rentals and just increase our costs.

The entire town is slower during the off-season, so it's uncertain if listing on another website would yield a significant revenue gain.


Drawback #2: Guest Booking Fees

Idyllwild Vacation Cabins does not charge our guests a booking fee. The other sites charge a fee ranging from 8.5-12 percent, which increases our guests' costs.

Here's an example of what a guest would pay for a three night stay if we listed The Overlook on Airbnb compared to what they pay now.

Fee comparison between Airbnb and Idyllwild Vacation Cabins

Guests booking through Airbnb would pay an additional $92.50 without receiving any additional value. While we aren't trying to be the low-cost leader, our pricing strategy is designed to provide exceptional value to our guests.

Our list rental price also includes a few extras that most vacation rentals charge extra for:

  • House cleaning
  • Spa cleaning
  • Snow removal

Pro-tip: Many vacation rentals maintain their own websites. If you find a place on Airbnb, VRBO, or TripAdvisor that you'd like to book, it's worth trying to contact the property through the owner's website so you don't have to pay the booking fee. For example, you can find our cabin here.


Drawback #3: Consistency

Idyllwild Vacation Cabins manages more than 40 rental properties in the Idyllwild area. The company's strategy is focused on direct to consumer rentals rather than relying on Airbnb, VRBO, TripAdvisor, and other sites.

This allows the company to avoid paying costly subscription and booking fees. It also means avoiding the additional administrative burden of actively managing and reconciling listings for the same property on multiple sites.

Instead, the company attracts guests through a lot of repeat business, outstanding search engine marketing, and a storefront in the town of Idyllwild. They also provide responsive, helpful, human service and take time to get to know guests so they can help them choose the ideal property to rent.

Sign from the Idyllwild Vacation Cabins storefront in the town of Idyllwild, CA.

We'd be creating an exception to normal procedure if we insisted on listing The Overlook on Airbnb or a similar site. Exceptions can often lead to inconsistent results when you are working with a service provider.


Our Plan for Now

Businesses generally try to increase profits by increasing revenue and cutting costs. The Overlook is no exception. 

Last year was our first year of ownership, which brought a lot of normal startup costs such as furnishings, repairs, and extra maintenance. We also built a game room. Those costs should go down this year.

Idyllwild had a very hot summer in 2017, which drove down our bookings during the slow season because people don't flock to the mountains when it's hot. The Overlook also doesn't have air conditioning, which makes our place uncomfortable in the summer for some guests. We should get a few more bookings since we found a way to keep the house cooler.

Finally, having a year under our belts opens up the opportunity for repeat guests. We'll keep an eye on that since we expect a slight uptick in occupancy due to last year's guests making plans with us again this year.

We'll see how it goes.