Friday 21 April 2017

The Future of Reviews - look into our crystal ball

Where is the world of online reviews headed? It is a question marketing professionals constantly ask themselves. Here we will bring all of our decade of experience to bear to try to give you some answers.

But first we need a starting point - today would seem logical.

Reviews in 2017

Google - virtually every consumer's gateway to every business on the planet - is completely committed to reviews. More real estate on any given search is devoted to consumer reviews - Google's own and those of the independent review sites than anything else.

So - your business needs to look great on Google. Be aware that you are always in competition in search - you should aim to dominate that competition with your reviews.

Next - understand today's consumer journey. The days of consumers lingering over search are long past - especially for those 70% that are searching on mobile devices. They click through to the most attractive option far faster than they would have done even two years ago. 

This means you need to be aware of two things: the need to attract attention in search and then the need to look irresistible when they click through to your website - and that means hosting and prominently displaying reviews there - not behind a tab, not at the bottom of your home page - right in the consumer's line of sight.

So - onto our forecasts:

Businesses that don't engage will suffer

 Two businesses - of a similar size in the same marketplace and location. Which one impresses at first glance?

For two reasons - one more obvious than the other: at the moment if your business has no reviews and your competitors have a handful your business will not suffer greatly by comparison. You will be missing a great opportunity, but that's all. But when your competitor lights up and has hundreds of reviews and you only have a handful?

The second reason is the impact of reviewers' behaviour - and this has now been subject to scientific study - if a business is passive it will eventually attract proportionately more negative reviews, simply because a negative experience is so much more motivation for writing a review.

Businesses that do engage will prosper

  Verified reviews placed front-and-centre on your website drive business. Don't take our word for it - see what these clients say.

We are already seeing this: reviews drive business. Of course there will always be a minority who decry reviews - 'they are written by fools with too much time on their hands' or 'no-one believes what they read on the web' but with the cost barrier to testing whether reviews work or not now so low, isn't it crazy not to even test this contention?

Google reviews will continue to spread

  Read the full story of the huge acceleration and penetration of Google reviews that took this multi-national business by surprise: from an average of one review per outlet just over a year ago to 10 now

We meet businesses every day who say 'But we had no Google reviews this time last year!' Of course Google reviews first began to make an impact in frequent-use and relatively low-value markets like fast food and hospitality, but increasingly they are making their presence felt in areas such as financial services and the law.

Google will continue to make changes

How about adding a 'most relevant' filter?

Now, we are hesitant about making any guesses about timings here, but we are working from a position of pure logic: in order to maintain its pre-eminent position in the search market (yes - it does operate in a competitive market) Google needs to continue to give its customers what they want, and those customers break down into two main constituencies. First the 'user' or 'searcher' then the business. Google's business model means that it derives all of its revenue from the latter - so it must keep businesses happy. We make the following predictions fully-cognisant of these self-evident financial pressures.

  • Increased moderation
For Google's reviews to maintain credibility Google must refine its appeals procedure. Placing the burden of proving that a review is malicious 100% on the business under review is manifestly unfair, and anything that is unfair on the business in this context leads to misleading content that is demonstrably not in the interest of consumers. Consumers do not want to be misled by fake, malicious or factually incorrect reviews. Google's image has already been tarnished by the recent advertising furore, it should address this issue if it is not to lose more face.

  • Deciding on the purpose of reviews 

Look at the screenshot above. All but one of the 23 reviews of this business have been written as a protest against alleged ecological harm, not necessarily proven to be the fault of the business concerned. What is sure is that they are not reviews by customers of the business of the business's products or service, and in this context they are of negligible help for prospective customers looking to see what previous customers have thought of the company's services. What is sure is that they - rightly or wrongly - will be harming the business's reputation, even if only at the margin. We are not sure of the solution, but we will make some suggestions - categorise reviews: 'product', 'service' or 'other' - or take a leaf out of Yelp's book and introduce a filter for reviews (but not in the less-than-transparent way Yelp have!). 

  • More filtering - squaring the circle

Google will introduce more and more sophisticated filters, across everything from accountancy to zoos, in order to increase the chances of its search results being more relevant for every individual search request. In the last twelve months it has introduced both its ratings filter and 'Top rated' - both in mobile search - expect this to be refined, by giving the user even more options. How about making search results relevant to the searcher's own search history?

  • A cut-off - who wants to know what a business was like five years ago?
Reviews may seem to have been around a long time - but they are relatively new in the scheme of things. Few consumers want to know what a business was like in the distant past. We predict that Google will begin to trial an archiving system soon. This will 'park' older reviews - and their impact on the business's review score - when they reach a certain age - five years perhaps.

  • Advertising will become more obviously separate from 'editorial'

 Everyone knows that the top two results are paid-for advertisements, don't they? Well, if that's so why not make it even clearer?

When is an advertisement not an advertisement? This is Google's big conundrum. We would go so far as to say it presents a conflict of interest. And that conflict must be resolved if Google is not to run foul of the US Senate or the Competitions & Markets Authority in the UK. Google will argue that web users understand the difference between paid advertising and natural listings, and many, maybe even most, do, but there is a more elegant solution: be completely up-front and make the distinction between advertising and natural search so obvious as to be uncontestable by a regulator, print press have been doing this successfully for years, so it is proven that it works. Just make ads look like ads.

The independent review sites will wither away

 This chart compares the share prices of Yelp (blue line) - the the world's largest general review site - against Google (green line) over the last three years. There are, of course, other factors at play, but we think that the out-turns: plus 40% for Google (Alphabet) and minus 65% for Yelp tell a pretty conclusive story.

They were the next big thing five years ago - the likes of Yelp and Trustpilot - but, unfortunately for them, they woke the sleeping giant: Google. A few years ago the web was all about choice, and consumers were prepared to take time over that choice. Now it's all about speed, and consumers don't want to be thinking 'I want a plumber, which review site should I use? - now I want a lawyer, which site is best for that?' They want all the answers in the same place - and that place is Google. If any more proof were needed the fact that Yelp quit the UK and Europe recently probably supplies it.

Action needed?

With one Google review when they joined - this business now has 123 on its own website - and showing in search (top left and centre right) and over forty on Google - delivering the great score (top right) and rich snippets (bottom right).

Get with the programme - get those reviews rolling in - to your own site and to Google. Make sure your business is as prepared as can be: get HelpHound on board and we will show you how to harness the power of your customers' opinions to show your future customers why they should choose you.

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