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.

The Undeniable Power of Using Experts to Get Better Service

Coppa seemed all wrong.

It's an Italian tapas restaurant in Boston's South End. That's a neighborhood I avoided when I had lived there in the 90s.

They didn't have any reservations available. My wife and I didn't like that uncertainty. We had other things we wanted to do that night and didn't want to get stuck waiting for an hour.

It was tiny. I've been in a lot of tiny places in Boston. Tiny usually equals cramped, crowded, and unpleasant.

Coppa turned out to be perfect.

They had amazing food, a wonderfully cozy atmosphere, and great service. The restaurant was crowded, but they found a comfortable spot for us at a small bar looking out the window.

We never would have gone there if we had relied on Yelp. Good thing we asked an expert instead. When it comes to getting great service experiences, a knowledgeable person is still the go-to option.

The Limits of Yelp and AI

Yelp makes recommendations based on two things: algorithmically-culled recommendations of an anonymous crowd and the searcher's ability to enter appropriate search criteria.

It generally does a good job. 

Just last week, I was traveling and needed to find a place to get a haircut. Yelp was able to narrow down my search to a few highly rated places that were all within walking distance of my hotel. A quick scan of the reviews helped me pick a winner. It worked out well.

But, there are a few problems with how Yelp delivers its recommendations.

First, how do I know that the anonymous crowd shares my interests and tastes? Coppa has over 500 Yelp reviews and a strong four star rating, but I really don't know who is rating them. 

There's been plenty of times when the crowd has absolutely loved something that I just couldn't get into. For example, I've tried many times to love The Godfather movies and still don't like them.

The second problem with Yelp is the user. It's limited by whatever search criteria you use. So, if you decide to exclude the South End, then Yelp won't recommend anything in that neighborhood. That's why Coppa didn't appear in my Yelp search.

The problem, of course, is customers often don't know exactly what they want. Or, they think they do, only to be delighted later on by an option that didn't fit their criteria at all.

I experienced a similar challenge when I tried to use IBM Watson to pick out a jacket. Watson was limited by the search criteria I thought matched my needs. I received better service from an in-store sales associate who could interpret my criteria and think laterally to suggest options I hadn't considered.


The Power of Experts

My friend, Patrick Maguire, had suggested Coppa. 

Patrick knows a lot about restaurants in Boston. He writes the popular I'm Your Server, Not Your Servant blog about hospitality service. He also consults with Boston-area restaurants on PR, promotions, and hospitality. I definitely consider him an expert.

I had told him my wife, Sally, and I were looking for a place for dinner. He asked a few thoughtful questions that led to his recommendation.

Patrick used his extensive knowledge of area restaurants to make his suggestion. He used his perceptiveness to interpret my criteria and understand what was truly important to us. And, he used his relationship with me to effectively persuade me that things I saw as obstacles (South End, no reservations, etc.) weren't really obstacles at all.

Yelp couldn't do that. 

The other thing that Yelp couldn't do is validate my choice. Getting some insider information makes me feel good. Heck, look at the title of my blog and you can tell this is something I obviously value.


Accessing Experts

I wrote a little about connecting with experts in this blog post about Do-It-Yourself Learning. 

Chances are, you know a lot of people who are an expert in one thing or another. The thing I've learned is you have to approach them directly.

So, if I had made a general post on Facebook asking for restaurant recommendations, I might have gotten several suggestions from well-meaning friends who may or may not have been on-target. If I was lucky, Patrick would have seen my post, but there's a good chance he wouldn't have. 

The direct approach worked much better. I went to him because he's an expert in that area.

This means you have to think about who's in your circle that knows something about what you know. Check up on your friends' profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks if you can't remember who knows what.

Employees are often experts too.

They've received specialized training. They spend a lot of time answering questions and familiarizing themselves with their company's products and services. And, I can tell you that most customer service employees love getting the chance to share their knowledge.

This means your restaurant server knows the inside scoop on how menu items really taste. A retail employees knows the ins and outs of their products.

As I noted in a recent blog post, self-help tools like Yelp are gaining in popularity, but employees (and your friends) still hold the edge when it comes to nuanced or complex requests.

How to respond to online complaints

It can feel like a personal attack when customers criticize your company in online forums such as Yelp, Trip Advisor, or even on Twitter. Our first impulse might be to fight back by writing a scathing response that sets the record straight on their so-called “facts” and tells the rest of the world this person is an idiot. While this approach may feel cathartic, it will probably do more harm than good.

Here’s a better way to handle online complaints:

First, take a deep breath

Your priority should be preserving your business’s public image. Trading barbs with a customer in an online forum generally has the opposite effect, so it’s best to give yourself a moment to calm down before responding.

Patrick Maguire’s I’m Your Server, Not Your Servant blog recently featured an incendiary restaurant review, an equally incendiary response from the owner, and a follow-up interview with both the reviewer and the restaurant owner. It’s fascinating to gain a better understanding of both parties’ point of view, but it’s also interesting to note that the majority of the commenters felt both were in the wrong. (Read the post here.)

In an example of a worst case scenario, a bookstore owner infamously found herself arrested on battery charges after she confronted a reviewer in person (Read the article in Inc. Magazine). The ensuing press coverage, with article titles like “Angry store owner assaults Yelp reviewer,” was far more damaging to her business than a single reviewer giving the store two stars.

Second, respond strategically

When you respond to an online complaint, you’re not just responding to the complainer; you’re responding to anyone who reads your response. With this in mind, your goal should be to send a message that your business cares about service and you are eager to address any shortcomings.

Here are three tips that consistently work:

  1. Respond quickly
  2. Assure the reviewer (and anyone else who is reading) that you want to help.
  3. Provide a way for the reviewer to contact you privately so you can attempt to resolve their issue.

This approach works whether the complaint is written by a legitimate customer or a jealous competitor who is trying to hurt your business. Either way, it sends a signal to other readers that you are responsive, professional, and care about your customers. You won't win over a vitriolic jerk, but you will win over people who might otherwise have been persuaded to stay away from your business.

Third, look for the hidden truth

Nearly every complaint contains some kernel of truth that you can use to improve service. That’s not to say that you have to agree with everything the person writes about your business, but what if their complaint is really just the tip of the iceberg? Perhaps other people feel the same way, but haven’t voiced their opinion yet. Even worse, they may have just stopped doing business with you. (See more on avoiding icebergs.)

When you think of it that way, someone flaming your business online might actually be doing you a favor. For example, the bookstore owner might have noticed that her critics consistently mentioned that the store was messy and in need of a good cleaning. Even some of the positive reviews agreed that the store could be better organized. Rather than getting defensive, a smart business owner might have taken a day to thoroughly clean and reorganize her store. She could have then responded to all of the Yelp reviewers to thank them for their feedback and invite them to come back for a grand re-opening.

For more information, check out my whitepaper on engaging customers via social media or get a copy of Micah Solomon's outstanding book, High-tech, High-touch Customer Service.

Three things small business owners need to know about Yelp

What do you think of Yelp? Some business owners love it while others hate it. But like it or not, your customers are using consumer rating sites like Yelp to make decisions about your business. They’re filling out their own customer service surveys for the world to see, and other customers are deciding whether or not to give your business a try on the strength of those reviews.

If you are a small business owner, you should understand three things about Yelp.

#1 Yelp Drives Business
I was recently chatting about Yelp with Tara Julian, the owner of Hair Play, while she gave me a haircut. She mentioned that if you Google “best men’s haircut in San Diego” the first search result directs you to a Yelp page with Hair Play Salon at the very top. Tara joked that she didn’t know if she truly gave the best men’s haircut in town, but she knew she did a good job and works hard to take good care of her clients. Yelp was how I had found Hair Play myself, and I’ve certainly found Tara deserving of the five star rating so many clients have given.

Good reviews drive business. A 2011 study by Michael Luca at the Harvard Business School estimates that a one star increase in a Yelp rating generates a 5 – 9% increase in revenue for a small restaurant. (Read the study here.) While his study was limited to restaurants, consumers turn to Yelp to decide where to get their hair cut, find a garage door repair service (thanks Up and Down Garage Doors!), or find a housekeeping service (thanks Pure Cleaning Agency!).

What’s the best way to earn good reviews on Yelp? Make sure you consistently take great care of your customers. Which leads to #2…

#2 Yelp Provides Feedback
The beauty and bane of Yelp is the unvarnished, public feedback that customers post alongside their reviews. Some business owners feel that people only write reviews on Yelp to complain or support their friends’ businesses, but in between the flowery praise or angry rants are often some very useful points of feedback. Look at the most consistent comments made about your business, both good and bad, and you’ll see a fairly accurate picture of what your company looks like through your customers’ eyes.

For example, if you look carefully at the comments reviewers have made about Pure Cleaning Agency, you’ll notice people who give them great reviews tend to really like the person who cleans their home. My wife and I are definitely in this boat and have relied on the same terrific house keeper for a couple of years. The bad reviews are typically written by someone who had a bad experience on their first visit. Clearly, success at Pure is linked to making a positive first impression.

What’s the best way to use customer feedback? Act on it! Which leads to #3…

#3 Yelp Can Help Solve Problems
Feedback that consistently points to a similar problem should prompt small business owners to make necessary improvements to improve service. For example, Pure may want to look for ways to make sure the first visit with each new customer is spectacular. If this is their achilles heel, then getting better in this area will help them convert more first-time customers into long-term fans.

Individual reviews can also provide an opportunity to rectify specific customer service issues. Yelp allows business owners to respond to customer comments, and savvy owners take advantage of this feature. A best practice is to reply to an upset customer, apologize for their poor experience, and offer to contact them privately to discuss a solution. One caveat here – avoid turning a customer service response into a customer confrontation. It’s always bad to argue with a customer, but it really looks bad when that argument takes place via a website that’s accessible to the public.

Yelpiquette suggestions for customer reviews

Yelp is a great resource for customer reviews on everything from restaurants to dry cleaners. I often turn to Yelp for suggestions and sometimes post a review myself. It's a great tool but some of the reviews are just plain outrageous.

Some of these outrageous reviews include inflammatory insults, vulgar language, and reviewers that readily mix facts with fiction. Inc. recently ran a great article called You've Been Yelped that gave an inside look at how small business owners handle Yelp reviews. It profiled one business owner who found herself on the wrong side of assault charges after confronting a reviewer at his home.

My current social media experiment shows that rude and crude reviews aren't confined to Yelp. The exchanges on many companies' Facebook pages could peel paint and make babies cry. It's truly amazing what people will say in a public forum.

It's OK to be a critic, but I have a few Yelpiquette suggestions for making your reviews both useful and fair. There's also an old, but good, discussion on the Yelp website.

#1. Be constructive

A good review should help others make a decision about whether or not to visit the business. If you feel the urge to write something negative, make sure you explain why you are down on the establishment so others will know what to avoid. Some good Yelpers make it a personal policy to visit a place twice before giving a negative review just so they are level-headed when giving their take.  It's offensive to see someone describe a multinational organization as being "a group of Nazis" because one employee was having a bad day.

#2. Be civil

Dowsing a business in the flames of your profane prose may feel like sweet revenge for a bad experience, but other people will be reading your review. A vulgar reviewer generally looks worse than the business reviewed. Try to write as if you were sharing the feedback face to face with the business owner. This will soften your tone a bit and your reviews will become much more useful to others.

#3 Make friends with facts

Someone recently reviewed my local barbershop. They wrote about the convenient location, the good haircut, and the nice touch of having a brief shoulder massage at the end. Then they went on to complain about the $20 price and gave it one star. One small problem -- haircuts only cost $12 here. Get your facts straight if you are going to write a review, especially a negative one.

I hope you do Yelp or find other ways to share your feedback so others can benefit. In the meantime, here are a few of my recent reviews:

Yelping for joy in Beantown

My wife, Sally, and I have just returned from our vacation in Boston. In a town not known for service, our experiences were generally terrific. Even American Airlines, which I alternate between loving and hating, treated us very well and handled a weather-related flight delay admirably. The question I always like to ask is, "What can we learn?" Here are a few of my favorite take-aways.
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