Changes in Google Places and Reviews – What Does it Mean for the SMB?

Google Places has once again “mixed it up” in the review arena. They are no longer showing the count for 3rd party reviews on the main search page and they are only displaying the count for Google reviews. They are still showing the link to the main 3rd party review sites on the main search results page but have removed the review snippets on all businesses except restaurants and hotels. Some businesses, Demand Force clients for example, will have seen a huge drop in the review count. You can bet that DF’s phones will be ringing of the hook with questions about the change.

On the Places page itself, Google is now highlighting with bold, bright red the option to leave a review, they no longer show 3rd party review snippets and the have pushed 3rd party review links well down the page and below the fold. And I for one will not miss the wildly weird review snippets that they often chose.

Google is clearly reducing their reliance on third party reviews and increasing the prominence of their own reviews. That is obvious and it makes sense from their self interested point of view now that they are garnering adequate volumes of reviews on their own.

Minimally it signals that Google thinks that they now have a large enough and useful review corpus that will provide consumers with a decent idea of the quality of the business they are looking at. Google will have more control and better insight over their reviews than those from other sites. It also seems to signal that they think that they are getting their review spam under control….although that remains to be seen.

This move will certainly change the relative importance and value of 3rd party review sites AND of 3rd party review management companies (like Demand Force) in the mix of things. The review sites and review providers will still have good links on the main search results page. That should mean that their traffic will not be negatively affected as most traffic likely comes from the main serps and significantly less from the Places Page. That being said I think this is a shot across their bows that all of them will hear. Review sites and review management companies alike will need to think about how it impacts their business plans.

In terms of Places rank and location prominence, it may reflect an update to the algo or perhaps signal a change of emphasis…. although that is much harder to say and much harder to track if that is in fact the case. If I were to be a betting man I might say that it signals less importance on total quantity of reviews but more on review site diversity and quality. But that is just a guess and is really nothing different than I would have said last week.

Does it mean you or your client should use just Google as a review platform? NO! Putting all of your eggs in one basket was short sighted and will continue to be. If you have a short memory it was but a few days ago that they managed to misplace many of their reviews and have done so regularly in the past.

It does though point out why any business should take a long term balanced approach to review management…. lots of sources; Google, Yelp, demand review sites, CitySearch, industry specific sites etc, It is always best to have a balanced portfolio as the winds could change. They have changed before and they will change again. Truth be told we don’t really know what the winds signify anyways. If you were only getting reviews from one source (like Demand Force) you really need to assess your practices and develop a plan to compliment their services. You should have been doing that already anyways.

You need to be where you clients are, you need to make it easy for the client to leave reviews, you need to feed Google’s algo the diversity it is looking for  and you need to protect yourselves as best you can against the vagaries of a crazy industry.

And that means that you still need to be at Yelp and Trip Advisor and Citysearch and Yahoo and Google and where ever and will continue to need to do so.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Changes in Google Places and Reviews - What Does it Mean for the SMB? by

15 thoughts on “Changes in Google Places and Reviews – What Does it Mean for the SMB?”

  1. I’ve been waiting for this to happen and now especially with G+ becoming more of a reality it is. Google will start, if it hasn’t already, building trust rank for individuals. Just like they collect signals from web pages so they will collect signals from individuals. This is why they are insistent that real profiles be used on G+.

  2. Watch an integration of Google+ that will push users to review businesses that they mention in their streams. Somewhat like Facebook and their “recommend a business” sidebar message.

  3. Wow – I just did a search for “hotels manhattan ny” on Google and every listing had a 3-star average or below except 1. This is hugely going to affect that industry!! I remember hotels there having hundreds of reviews and now most counts are under 50 and the reviews on Google seem to be a lower rating than on some of the popular sites like Trip Advisor.

    I’m also wondering if traffic to sites like Yelp is going to decrease because of this.

    Here is a question – lets say a business has 20 reviews on Yelp and those reviews are no longer being really displayed on Google because of this (I mean, they’re still there but not noticeable). Do you think it’s a smart move for businesses to start getting their customers to post the same review on multiple sites? Like calling up the users that left them a Yelp review and asking them to post that same review on Google so that it adds to the count?

  4. This is a game change for reputation management if you ask me. The ability to respond to reviews on Google Places alone is helpful since going to every third-party website was not easy nor always effective.

    By sheer volume, I can see this to be a problem but from a world of accuracy and impact in consumer reviews, I am on board with the change.

  5. While the launch and success of HotPot signaled this was coming, I’m surprised it’s here already. I’m not a fan of Google continuing to only focus on themselves as the only or preferred resource with so many of their new tools/services/products. Initially the user is losing out more so than the business.

  6. Mike: Thoughtful article. Reviews are the major topic. How does this affect everyone?

    I’m a firm believer, and based on a relatively small sample of websites I handle covering a few business types; Most visitors focus on the first page of Google. In that regard the biggest change they’ll see whether they see a 7 pac above or a mixed organic/places view is that the volume of reviews will be far less for most businesses than had they looked at it before the change.

    From a new user/visitor perspective its not a huge change IMHO. What could stick out are businesses w/ lots of Google reviews versus businesses w/out google reviews.

    From the business perspective those that pursued reviews from review management companies such as demand force or those that depended on one outside review source, or those that tried to spread reviews such as I, (as one who agreed with your long held belief to spread reviews)–> we are losers. In certain businesses I had a relatively lot of reviews, all of them from real customers, virtually all of them b/c we pursued a review management strategy (we asked for reviews). They were in a variety of places. In fact it was relatively strong in both quantity and quality as compared to those of competitors.

    Well now we LOST (again IMHO). The reviews are still available in all the old formats. They are accessible via google. Clearly they are accessible via the Web. In our case those terrific reviews EASILY accessible in Google aren’t there anymore.

    My reaction? I’m focusing on getting reviews in Google NOW.

    I’m also a believer that the threat of anti trust actions against Google might have prompted this move. They are under the gun on a number of fronts. On the issue of scraping other businesses content (reviews) many of those other sites have made loud and angry claims. Meanwhile Google instituted PANDA into its organic ranking methods and amongst other things, penalized sites that were scraping content.

    Now that issue is moot from Google’s perspective. Its not scraping content from third party sites.

    I assist some businesses with aspects of their SEO/SEM. I contacted one of those businesses. Despite my suggestions from the past that they spread reviews around from a number of sources this group kept just getting reviews within Google Places. One of their major competitors was getting reviews and using a third party.

    The guy responded and emailed that the competitor is going to have an uncomfortable period going forward.

    I’ll still spread reviews. For the time being I’m going to concentrate on getting reviews within Google.

  7. I used to think that spreading reviews was helpful for ranking purposes, and that Google saw diversity of reviews sources like they saw diversity of link sources — worth more toward local ranking. Does this still hold, even though they don’t display the other reviews sources?

    Displaying just one source of reviews detracts from credibility, IMHO. It’s much easier to game a single source than multiple sources. But what does Google care about credibility when they own everything?

  8. @Cindy

    Google is looking to represent the most popular and relevant businesses to their searchers. It would seem counter intuitive for them to ignore signals from websites that have more and better information about a business than they do.

    While I do think this change is a perfect way for Google to get more information about businesses and to “up their review generation” game, I can not see how favoring their reviews over all of the other historical information on the internet would improve search results.

    The patent that came out last fall clearly speaks of review diversity as a factor
    so I don’t think that is going away. Maybe in the future but not yet.

  9. There’s been a lot of focus on the 3rd party review situation, but I’m more curious about the disappearance of citations. There are dozens of articles out there about how critical citations are to a place page ranking well and even more strategies for acquiring them. How will optimizing for places change now that this visible clue is gone?

    I’m sure this has already been said by people that do SEO full time, but it seems to me that citations had to go because of how some 3rd party review sites were/are set up. Sites like Dealer Rater and Demand Force put each review on a separate page in such a way that every review became a citation. This was very frustrating since we carefully worked to diversify our reviews and build citations without forking over $500 a month to Demand Force. Meanwhile our competitors forked over the cash and in a couple weeks had 20 new citations and reviews.

    At this point we’re cautiously pleased with this change. We’re ranking better than ever with our 26 Google reviews, but so many issues remain I’m not ready to celebrate just yet.

    Thank you as always for your insightful analysis.

  10. Keep in mind though how often Google LOSES it’s own reviews. If you focus all your efforts on building up mainly G reviews and she loses them all, then you’re screwed in the rankings.

    So I think some diversification is still wise. I’ll probably recommend clients get a good enough number of reviews to look competive in the SERPs (based on that client’s market), then start offering customers a choice of G and 2 other review sources, to safeguard rankings.

  11. We managed to break this news yesterday before even Google themselves did…

    http://www.screenpilot.com/blog/2011/07/google-kills-95-of-your-hotel-reviews-what-does-it-mean-for-seo/

    The emergence of Google+ is IMO a bigger influence on G’s decision than many people think. Though their long standing fight with Tripadvisor may be the main driving force behind the decision. Has anyone been able to notice any huge difference in clients SERP results yet?

  12. Thank you for this well-written article. I agree totally that Google seems to be looking in more places instead of less when determining ranking for both Google Places and search results. It therefore makes sense that they will be rewarding businesses that have a diverse set of high-quality reviews, especially reviews that take place over time. Services like DemandForce are a good first step for small businesses, but steps need to be taken to garner reviews from other sources.

    One idea is to create a “Share Your Experience” page on your website with links to all the different profiles you’ve set up at Yelp, Google Places, Facebook, Citysearch, etc. After an interaction with a customer (such as a sale or appointment), send them a quick email with a link to the Share Your Experience page along with a request to leave a review. The customer may already have a profile with one of the services (especially if there are many review sites to choose from), making it easy for them to just log in and leave a quick note about your business.

    When you initiate the review by email, you can also ask customers to email you directly if they had a problem with their experience. This will give you a chance to make things right before they let off steam on the internet. Taking this extra step will also turn an angry customer into a happy one who will refer your business to their friends.

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