No more anonymous reviews?

No more anonymous reviews?
Monday, July 23, 2012
SStein

Google’s decision last May to replace the Places channel with the new, socially-integrated Google+ Local has led to a new interface and some new features. Among these, some changes were made to the way Google handles local business reviews.

Now, in order to post a review, you need to be logged into your Google+ account. Old, existing reviews were imported anonymously into the system (listed as written by “a Google user”), but all new reviews are posted under your real name, and are visible to all of your Google+ contacts and circles. In other words, no more hiding behind a pseudonym.

Reviews are extremely important to many businesses. According to Google, 70% of Americans say they look at user reviews before making a purchase decision. While there are many review sites, Google’s feature particularly prominently because of the way they show up in the Maps channel and in Search results. It’s been just over a month since Google made the switch, and in this short time, we’ve seen indicators of how it’s affecting the review system — and what kind of impact this may have on local businesses. While it’s early days yet, some things we’re seeing so far include:

  • Fewer scathingly negative reviews. It seems that people are thinking twice before flinging mud, now that they know that they have to put their name on it, and that everyone connected to them on Google+, including friends and business colleagues, can see the reviews. It also means that there are fewer fake reviews or review “trolls”, since people need to post from an active Google+ profile.
  • Lower volume of Google reviews overall.  While Google has not released any statistics thus far, we can expect a drop in the number of Google reviews being posted since the migration. The extra step of having to log in is one potential reason. Another is the fact that any reviews – be they positive or negative – will forever be associated with your digital presence. With people increasingly aware of their footprint and what it says about them, they may avoid posting reviews, be they positive, negative or neutral.
  • Older reviews will linger for longer. With fewer new reviews, older, pre-switchover reviews will stay prominent for much longer. This means that businesses who have made some changes lately might have to live with old, outdated reviews for a while. This can be particularly challenging for businesses that are under new management or that have made improvements recently.
  • Points replace star ratings. Instead of a star system, businesses are now rated on a scale of 1 to 3, leaving less room for nuance and less ability for differentiation. Some businesses are reporting click-through rate decreases as a result, though others will probably stand to benefit from the integration of the Zagat points system.
  • Trusting friends, not strangers. Google+ as a network still has relatively low reach, especially when compared to giants like Facebook. However, as Google continues to layer plus features over search and other platforms, we will see its visibility start to increase. This means that, over time, you’re likely to see more reviews from people you actually know, as opposed to anonymous web handles or strangers. This is likely to increase the trust factor.

It’s more important than ever for business owners to manage their local channels and monitor and respond to reviews. Since Google+ Local pages are all being indexed for search, an enormous amount of power is in the hands of comparatively few reviewers. For local businesses, constantly monitoring and responding to user feedback can make a big difference.

Sari Stein, Digital Strategic Planner