There's a good way for small firms to stand out on Google searches - star ratings. You can ask Google to search for customer reviews of your products and services and feature them in your search results, along with a star rating out of five. So how can you ensure you stand out for the right reasons?
In a crowded Google list of results, a business with four or five stars and a glowing review has the potential to win the lion's share of clickthroughs. But getting positive feedback online is not always easy.
Online reviews, ratings and referrals, it has to be said, are the ultimate double-edged sword for businesses. Positive feedback is marketing gold, but criticism published on the internet for all to see can be immensely damaging.
Certainly, many tourism businesses such as hotels have known this for a long time - with their fortunes often in the hands of the people that contribute comments and ratings to websites such as TripAdvisor. The point is that anyone can contribute feedback on these sites - happy customers, those with an axe to grind, even competitors.
So how can you ensure that the Google star rating system works in the right way for your firm?
Google star ratings
"If you've submitted your business profile (for free) to Google My Business, people can leave reviews and rate your product or service," explains Ben Dyer, formerly of ecommerce specialist SellerDeck. "You can then opt for Google to search for these review snippets and carry them back to the search results."
But by enabling Google to search for what it calls "rich snippets", you are allowing the search engine to look for reviews and ratings in a whole host of places, including local review sites like Yelp and Thomson Local as well as sector review sites.
Google searches for star ratings in all these places, before it comes up with an overall rating to display on the search results page. In other words, all of these reviews are independent and you have no control over them. The question for small firms is - is it worth the risk?
The power of reviews
If you are worried about the odd bad review, you should think again. "It's not necessary to have five stars and a 100% approval rating," says Ben. "People are actually sceptical about 100% positive ratings and reviews - it rings alarm bells."
What the consumer wants from ratings and reviews is reassurance. Often consumers are worried about online firms that they know nothing about; they may be concerned when buying expensive items; or when making a booking where service is crucial. Businesses with lots of reviews and a fairly positive rating do better than firms with no ratings or reviews at all. The presence of impartial reviews on your website can prompt people to buy then and there.
Many small firms continue to publish their own testimonials on their websites. This was once the only way to present customer feedback. Now, with so many independent review sites, this approach has lost its value. "I am critical of anyone that simply puts their own reviews on their website on a testimonials page," says Dyer. "They never put bad reviews on. It's all about credibility and you only get credibility from independence."
Independent review sites
Whether you opt for your reviews to appear on Google searches or not, the chances are your business is getting reviewed all over the place. One way to manage reviews is to use an independent review service like FeeFo or Reevoo. These websites work on your behalf directly contacting your customers and collecting their feedback. They then collate the results, good and bad, to add to your website.
Customers can see the reviews are not moderated so they trust them, unlike simply cutting and pasting a few glowing testimonials. FeeFo's fees start from £99 per month.
"Our clients send us data about their customer transactions and we approach them to give us feedback," explains Matt Eames, sales director at FeeFo.
Customers are only asked two questions which encourages a high response rate - typically 18%. "The idea behind the simple feedback process is to get as broad a spectrum of responders as possible," explains Eames. "Otherwise, you only tend to get people with polar views responding - either those that are delighted or those that have something to complain about."
There are several further advantages of featuring reviews from review service firms. Firstly, it's good for SEO. As Ben Dyer explains, "Reviews and ratings are all good Google juice."
Secondly, these services only feature real customers. "Bogus reviews are a problem on open sites like TripAdvisor, where anyone can comment," says Eames.
One thing's for sure, more and more companies are waking up to the selling power of reviews. Merchants on eBay and Amazon and the travel sector have been driven by customer feedback for years. Now other sectors are embracing reviews including the motor trade, estate agents and the fashion industry as well as local services such as hairdressers and plumbers.
"If you are a consumer looking to buy something online, then more often than not you're going to look for a review," stresses Eames. "If you can't find one, chances are you'll go elsewhere."
Watertite Plumbing and Heating
With comments like "Can't recommend them enough", Watertite Plumbing and Heating in Bristol is obviously doing something right. Search for it on Google and you'll see it has plenty of positive customer reviews and an impressive near-five-star rating.
But there are pros and cons when it comes to reviews, says managing director David Holliday: "It's great for other people to see how well we are doing. It means we have to be extremely conscious of the service we offer. But it's also wide open for people to make negative comments if they want to, including the competition.
"It's a bit like feedback on eBay," he adds. "Everyone wants to see a 100% rating, but no one is really 100% perfect, are they? Reviews of our services appear on all sorts of local sites. As long the general public keep seeing this good feedback, it's good news for us. But it's not something we can fully control."
Ben Dyer is CEO of Powered Now, provider of invoicing, estimating and scheduling software for small businesses. Ben was previously CEO of SellerDeck which he joined in 2008, after working for Xyratex, BSkyB and BAE Systems.