Webinar Recap: The State of Online Reviews in 2021

(This post is a 19-minute read, and/or take in the 60-minute video of Mike Blumenthal’s presentation.)

It goes without saying that 2020 was a tumultuous year and as we head into 2021, it’s a good time to reflect on the impact of COVID on businesses, consumers, and review sites. Using the lessons and insights from the past year, we can pull them together to influence your review strategy over the coming 12 months. 

Recently, Mike Blumenthal hosted a webinar detailing the various updates to the review ecosystem as they pertain to Google, Facebook, and Yelp. He also mapped out your 2021 review strategy to elevate your brand, listen to your customer, and increase your digital visibility. If you didn’t manage to catch the webinar, you can watch the full recorded replay here:

  • How Has COVID Impacted Business Reviews Over the Past 9 Months? (1:15 – 20:24)
  • How Google, Yelp, and Facebook Have Adapted to COVID and What You Need to Know (1:15 – 8:10)
  • How Yelp Moderates Racism (8:10 – 10:28) 
  • Yelp Faces Strong Headwinds (10:28 – 16:02) 
  • Other News For the Review Industry (16:02 – 17:55) 
  • Google Review Summaries (17:55- 20:24) 
  • What 1st-party Reviews Have to Offer That 3rd-party Reviews Don’t (20:24 – 23:29)
  • What Are Google Review Attributes and Why Do They Matter? (23:29 – 25:06)
  • Why Are These Google Review Attributes Important? (25:06 – 34:17)
  • How to get a (wacky) Google Reviews Removed(34:17 – 38:47)
  • How to Plan a Review Strategy Amidst a Changing Landscape (38:47 – 51:00)

As we know, reviews reflect the world around us. This has never been more true this year. Reviews offer a public way for customers to share their opinions of a company based on their personal experience. With the way that the pandemic has impacted the way we live, review sites have adjusted their feature sets to better reflect the way consumers behave and businesses have had to adjust accordingly.

Here we’re sharing some of the key takeaways from the webinar.

How Has COVID Impacted Business Reviews Over the Past 9 Months? (1:15 – 20:24)

When the pandemic started to impact society and most non-essential businesses were being shut down, Google complicated matters. Google temporarily disabled local reviews in March preventing both review creation and response. Reviews were in essence canceled for 3 months. 

On top of this, there was very poor communication as to whether the ability to leave new reviews would return and business owners were left confused and frustrated.

Covid created a situation where both employees and customers were stressed. At a local level, governments were also offering mixed messages about how businesses would be allowed to operate creating further confusion for both businesses and customers alike. As a result, most businesses that did stay open saw a ratings drop. 

In the 90 days before COVID versus the 90 days after, almost every major brand saw their ratings decrease.

Mike’s first key point was that it was a big challenge for businesses to manage this change. Menards, a midwest hardware store, was particularly devastated by mishandled communication with their customers around hours of operations, mask-wearing policies, and the number of customers allowed in their stores.

Most businesses were struggling to implement new policies and communications with their customers and when those policies were either not well thought out, properly communicated or well executed the drop in ratings was even greater. 

How Google, Yelp, and Facebook Have Adapted to COVID and What You Need to Know (1:15 – 8:10)

Facebook, in the 2012-2014 years, saw initial success in the local space. But once Google  started their big push into local search in 2015, Facebook took a much more ambivalent stand on local search. 

And Facebook’s approach to reviews reflects that ambivalence.

One response was Facebook’s decision in 2018 to replace ratings with a system of up or down recommendations

Over the past year and a half, Facebook has gradually finished converting all of its ratings based reviews to the newer recommendation format. However, this has been implemented and reported in a confusing way. For some reason, older reviews that were converted to recommendations are not counted in the on page review count, however, they continue to show in the GatherUp dashboard when retrieved by the API.  

As there are fewer Facebook reviews in the rich snippet results. And while there no longer are any ratings visible on a business’s Facebook Page, Facebook continues to show some rich snippet stars in the search results. Although, fewer than previously.

Mike points out that Facebook’s strength is the conversation and it remains the only review site where the review can then become a conversation between the owner and other customers who may be advocates or critics of the business.

As such, it is a site that should be carefully monitored and if a business has a strong presence there, the recommendation system should be engaged with in your review plan.

Despite Yelp often being front of mind when you think of reviews, Covid has accelerated their long standing problems that continue diminishing their importance in the marketplace. 

It’s estimated that up to 50% of temporarily closed restaurants won’t reopen which leaves fewer opportunities for users to leave restaurant reviews. 

How Yelp Moderates Racism (8:10 – 10:28) 

The platform introduced anti-racist alerts in October 2020, and while it is important that businesses be held accountable, there is little evidence that Yelp is actually using the system.

If Yelp detects an influx of reviews mentioning that a business is racist, a notice will be placed on that listing so that additional reviews are prevented from being left at that point. 

If there are continuous examples of racist behavior found in news reports, Yelp then uploads a badge saying that the business is accused of racist behavior. 

If you search on Google for reviews indicating racist behavior by businesses, there are no indications that Yelp is actually implementing the “business is accused of racist behavior” badge.  

It’s still not clear whether Yelp has yet to implement the system properly or whether they even intend to. 

Yelp Faces Strong Headwinds (10:28 – 16:02) 

In 2020, Yelp faced a 41% drop in unique users which can be partially explained by the many Covid related restaurant closures. But on a closer look, the problem clearly goes deeper than that. 

Take a look at their steadily declining traffic for the past few years:

Yelp also depends on long-form, detailed reviews. The growth in these reviews has been slowed dramatically over the past few years. Without growth in their review corpus, Yelp faces becoming irrelevant.

They rely heavily on Yelpers writing these long-form reviews and their absence during Covid may be hard to make back up. As we know, habits are hard to remake when lost. 

We have also seen an ongoing decline in web traffic and conversions coming via Yelp.

A business needs to be sure that the brand story told by reviews on Yelp is consistent with their overall brand reputation. They should monitor and pay attention to their ratings there.  But given the previous and past year’s decline of Yelp, businesses should not focus on them too much, and certainly, they should not overly worry about Yelp. 

Other News For the Review Industry (16:02 – 17:55) 

In other big industry news, it was noted that Apple is getting into reviews. Clearly, with the iPhone and the widespread use of their Mapping product, a review system from Apple has potential and could impact a business’s reputations.

That said, Apple is slow and methodical with product rollouts. They’re very early in this process and Apple ratings are unlikely to have an impact over the coming year, but it’s good to keep them in your peripheral vision and be aware of it. 

Garrett asks how important is it for a brand or agency to check for which review sites show up for their search terms and adjust their review strategy accordingly? 

It’s important to see which review sites are popping up for your brand searches and to track all of them closely. If they’re sending more conversions, invest more resources in them. 

Google Review Summaries (17:55- 20:24) 

Finally, Google has recently been augmenting their own reviews with vertical-specific 3rd party Google review summaries

In addition to your Google business profile showing “Reviews from the Web”. 

On mobile devices, we’re starting to see review summary cards from 3rd party sites like Auto.com for card dealers, Houzz for home service providers, and ZocDoc for the healthcare industry.

These review summaries from 3rd party review sites help paint a clear picture of your brand story and highlight the value of gathering reviews from vertical sites beyond Google, Facebook, and Yelp.

What 1st-party Reviews Have to Offer That 3rd-party Reviews Don’t (20:24 – 23:29)

1st-party reviews are great because businesses own and control them. No one can delete them, no one has the right to show them or not, and no one can spam them. You can publish them when and where you want.  Owning your digital assets in general and reviews, in particular, provides long-term options, control, and security.

More importantly, from a reputation point of view, it has to be easier to talk to a business about complaints than Google, Facebook, or Yelp. You need to make it as easy as possible for your customers to talk to you whether it’s on your website, via text, or any other method of communication than it is to leave a bad review. 

At GatherUp, we often say that It doesn’t matter where customers post feedback, it matters what they think.

It has to be easier to give you feedback than to leave a review on Google or Yelp.  Businesses will discover that you can capture much of the negative feedback yourself instead of it going to Google for everyone to see. 

When a business utilizes 1st-party reviews, they will typically see 5x to 20x the volume of 3rd-party reviews. These reviews tend to have less 1 and 5-star bias and thus Brands can also use them to identify their weaknesses and effectively fix issues to result in more 5-star reviews. 

When it comes to 1st and 3rd-party reviews, it’s often best to mix and match the two types in your review plan. 

What Are Google Review Attributes and Why Do They Matter? (23:29 – 25:06)

Always the elephant in the room, Google continues to change the dynamics of the review ecosystem. 

In April 2020, they massively expanded their collection of Google Review Attributes to more business categories. Previously they were only available to home services businesses. There are now over 355 categories to choose from including jewelry design, day spas, and insurance businesses. 

These are an interesting add-on to reviews that mean users are asked about the business’s positive and negative attributes when leaving a star rating. There are several core attributes and a few variations based on the specific industry category that the business is in. 

Why Are These Google Review Attributes Important? (25:06 – 34:17)

Google review attributes are known as semantic triples. Semantic triples help Google deliver more granular search results because the data can unambiguously be queried and reasoned about vis a vis a business.  

These attributes give detailed information to Google, which the search engine loves. Because they are the same within any given industry, they are able to provide standardized satisfaction metrics between locations within and between brands in the same space.

They also suggest high intent keyword phrases including words like on time, clean, value, and responsive which users are likely to search on. In addition, when embedded on your site, reviews are great for social proof and increasing the value of your brand. 

From a marketing standpoint, you could use them as a starting point for building relevant content to be mirrored back into search. For instance, low-cost insurance or on time pest control could drive high-quality leads and traffic to a business’s site and to search results. 

Unfortunately, Google doesn’t surface them in the Google My Business dashboard and doesn’t currently report on them. At GatherUp, we started to surface review attributes in the dashboard so you can easily track Google attributes associated with your reviews. 

Garrett made the point that these are great if you run a multi-location business. You can easily track certain locations and see what their comparative strengths are and what may need improving over time. 

There are 3 things in local that Google uses when choosing to display a given business:

  1. Relevance – Does the business meet the specific query intent? Content on your site and in your Google My Business profile impacts relevance.  We think that attributes might impact relevance as well, though we don’t know for sure.
  2. Prominence – (or rank), A separate concept from relevance although the two work together. With an increase in quantity of reviews you see an increase in rank (though as the quantity increases, there are diminising returns. There’s a point where reviews don’t impact prominence. 
  3. Proximity – Your location, you are where you are.  (Naturally, you can’t control proximity to the searcher).

This then leads us into Google Service Category Reviews Attributes. 

These allow reviewers to identify which specific service they used and what was performed. 

This google review attributes helps reviewers identify what kinds of services were offered and whether the business was professional in its delivery. 

The key takeaway is that Google loves this kind of data. The search engine cares about the aggregate information they can extract from the data.

How to get a (wacky) Google Reviews Removed(34:17 – 38:47)

In this crazy COVID time, we’re seeing a large number of nutty, political, or, racist reviews. As a business owner, you can feel helpless when it comes to incendiary reviews. Mike has investigated these tricky reviews and how can potentially handle them.

As a business owner, do not to bother reporting it in Google Maps as it is unlikely to be removed via that channel. It’s also best not to respond to the review immediately since a response from you might be perceived by Google as legitimizing the review when it isn’t

When it comes to fake reviews, remember that Google doesn’t care whether the reviewer did business with you or not. Google only really cares if the reviewer violated their TOS, which includes prohibitions against sexist and racist reviews, including advertising, or political rants. Take a look at the Google Terms of Service for more details. 

If the review violates one of their criteria, go into the Google My Business dashboard and report it there. Reviews reported via GMB are more likely to rise to the surface of the moderation queue. Google will typically respond to your request for moderation via email within 3 days. 

What do you do if your request is rejected and you firmly believe it violated the Google TOS? You can escalate via support. If this step fails, take it into the Google My Business Forum with an articulation of why it violates the terms of service. 

Following these steps, we usually see a significant% success rate of review removal. 

Only at this point, when you’ve exhausted all other avenues you should respond to the review.  

How to Plan a Review Strategy Amidst a Changing Landscape (38:47 – 51:00)

As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad winter weather, only bad clothes. 

The same goes for reviews – there aren’t really any bad ones, just a poor plan or strategy. 

Take a look at the purchase funnel and how it can help form the basis of your review strategy: 

Following a purchase, develop an interaction with the customer and get them to repeat their action with you. Developing customer loyalty is a critical part of customer experience. 

A consumer’s willingness to leave positive reviews will continue to help drive sales in an infinite cycle. 

As part of your review strategy, you’ll need to gather, manage, and market your reviews. The activities that you implement will be unique to each business. Mike discussed possibilities for each bucket.

Regardless of the technique that you choose for gathering reviews, it’s best to make your approach as personal as possible during the sales cycle. Getting permission to ask for feedback and receiving the resultant commitment will increase review volume significantly more than any tweak to the automated techniques that you put in place.

A follow up could then be automated to ensure you’re making the most of personalized and tech-based systems. 

Reviews are not just a source of pride when posted on Google, but offer your business significant management insights as well. When you’re managing reviews, use all the available data to see what you could improve. 

For example, by leveraging review attributes you could see in the following example that in May and June, there was a decline in responsiveness and professionalism as the season progressed for this moving business.

This data can help drive improvements from a management level.

Once you’ve gone to the trouble of getting reviews, it’s time to think about how you leverage them for marketing activities.

One of the biggest problems sites have is not having freshly updated content. Reviews, when properly managed, provide incredible keyword rich user content along with social proof.

An auto stream of topically relevant reviews through GatherUp can solve this issue. Set up a tag that looks for all the reviews that look for those containing certain keywords like this example showing reviews that mention ‘engagement rings’:

You could also repurpose old reviews into social media posts: 

These are powerful ways of turning strong old reviews into a strong piece of content and getting additional value from those hard-earned reviews. 

Summary 

2020, like every previous year, changed the review world and Mike expects changes to continue into the future.

Always remember to focus on the customer. Listening is a superpower. Improve your business, stick to your review strategy, and you will succeed. 

Create a review management plan that can flex with you over time as the review industry and the wider world changes. Ultimately, you want your consumers to trust your business, so make sure you commit to authenticity and a great customer experience.

Further Reading: 

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