Smart com­pa­nies can shape their rep­u­ta­tions and vis­i­bil­i­ty with online word of mouth and care­ful atten­tion to cus­tomer feed­back.

For many indus­try prac­ti­tion­ers, includ­ing me, the Moz Local Search Rank­ing Fac­tors report serves as a use­ful and ref­er­ence through­out the year to stay abreast of local search rank­ing sig­nals (dis­claimer, I’ve been a par­tic­i­pant since 2014). One take­away from the most recent Moz report that con­tin­ues to res­onate is this:

A business’s cus­tomer reviews as a rank­ing sig­nal have increased in impor­tance by 17 per­cent year over year and by 43 per­cent over the past three years.

As the sur­vey founder David Mihm told Moz, “In mid-to-large metro areas, even indus­tries where rank­ing in the 3‑pack used to be pos­si­ble with a hand­ful of reviews or no reviews, now fea­ture busi­ness­es with dozens of reviews at a min­i­mum — and many with­in the last few months, which speaks to the impor­tance of a steady stream of feed­back.”

The influ­ence of reviews on the Moz rank­ings under­scores how word of mouth has evolved in the dig­i­tal age to have even more impact a busi­ness – to affect not only rep­u­ta­tion but also vis­i­bil­i­ty.

Word of mouth goes digital

In a busi­ness con­text, word of mouth dates back cen­turies to the dawn of com­merce. Who can say exact­ly when con­sumers began shar­ing opin­ions of the busi­ness­es they fre­quent? By the dawn of the 21st Cen­tu­ry, busi­ness­es had fig­ured out how to shape word of mouth in a vari­ety of ways, such as encour­ag­ing con­sumers to review them or con­vinc­ing peo­ple with influ­ence to talk about their brands (as mem­o­rably dis­cussed in Mal­colm Gladwell’s The Tip­ping Point).

In the dig­i­tal age, word of mouth explod­ed. The emer­gence of online plat­forms such as Ama­zon, Face­book and Google gave con­sumers a way to share their opin­ions of busi­ness­es in more trans­par­ent and per­ma­nent ways. A con­ver­sa­tion between two neigh­bors over cof­fee about the qual­i­ty of a plumber or a doc­tor no longer became a fleet­ing impres­sion. Dig­i­tal made those con­ver­sa­tions scale and mul­ti­ply beyond two peo­ple. If some­one raved about the qual­i­ty of a restaurant’s beef ten­der­loin entrée or torched an auto deal­er­ship for hav­ing bad ser­vice, now the whole world knew.

Some­thing else hap­pened as well: search engines began track­ing cus­tomer rat­ings and reviews as a rank­ing sig­nal. Google start­ed to award busi­ness­es with a heavy vol­ume of pos­i­tive reviews by rank­ing them favor­ably over busi­ness­es that attract­ed only a trick­le of reviews. That’s because con­sumers began to use search engines the same way they would con­sult their friends for advice about a busi­ness: as a source of word-of-mouth. Some­one look­ing for a bike retail­er near­by would want to know not only where to go (trig­ger­ing a need for accu­rate loca­tion data pub­lished on Google) but also whether the retail­er had a sol­id rep­u­ta­tion (which is where cus­tomer ratings/reviews began to come into play). Google, want­i­ng to deliv­er the most use­ful infor­ma­tion in search results, respond­ed. And as Moz has report­ed, rankings/reviews are more impor­tant than ever.

Businesses seize an opportunity

At a time when dig­i­tal is often viewed as dis­rup­tive, though, the emer­gence of online word of mouth has cre­at­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty for busi­ness­es. Smart com­pa­nies have real­ized that they can shape their rep­u­ta­tions and vis­i­bil­i­ty simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Instead of view­ing Ama­zon, Face­book and Google as a threat, they’ve employed these plat­forms to ampli­fy their pres­ence. For many busi­ness­es, doing so has meant ask­ing cus­tomers to post reviews on the plat­forms that will give them the most vis­i­bil­i­ty. Also, busi­ness­es with hun­dreds and thou­sands of loca­tions have invest­ed in auto­mat­ed tools that make it pos­si­ble for them to secure, pub­lish, and learn from reviews on a larg­er scale. In essence, they have auto­mat­ed word of mouth.

Today, auto­mat­ed word of mouth cre­ates a vir­tu­ous cycle that affects a company’s rep­u­ta­tion, vis­i­bil­i­ty, and qual­i­ty of ser­vice. The vir­tu­ous cycle looks some­thing like this:

  • Opti­mize search. A busi­ness becomes more find­able by pub­lish­ing accu­rate loca­tion data, descrip­tive con­tent and cus­tomer ratings/reviews. Doing so boosts the rank­ing sig­nal in remark­able ways as dis­cussed in the Local Search Rank­ing Fac­tors sur­vey and also builds a business’s rep­u­ta­tion. Also, accu­rate and reli­able con­tent beyond ratings/reviews also boosts a brand’s rep­u­ta­tion by cre­at­ing a pos­i­tive first impres­sion.
  • Acquire cus­tomers. Con­sumers look for rat­ings and reviews across a wide range of sites beyond a company’s web­site. By encour­ag­ing cus­tomers to review them, busi­ness­es not only boost their search sig­nal but also spread pos­i­tive social sen­ti­ment. Let’s face it: peo­ple are more like­ly to proac­tive­ly talk about a bad expe­ri­ence at a busi­ness than a good one. Com­pa­nies need to take steps to ensure that peo­ple share the pos­i­tives. Ask­ing a cus­tomer face to face is one way. Doing so via online tools such as email or text is a more effi­cient way. This pos­i­tive social sen­ti­ment encour­ages a more accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of cus­tomer con­ver­sions.
  • Improve the expe­ri­ence. The real pow­er of the vir­tu­ous cycle hap­pens when a busi­ness relies on solicit­ed infor­ma­tion plus unstruc­tured, organ­ic text that peo­ple leave on social media to look for ways to improve them­selves. Busi­ness­es that take to heart reviews and use them as a source of feed­back to pos­i­tive­ly change their busi­ness­es will cre­ate hap­py cus­tomers who are more like­ly to give you a pos­i­tive review when you ask them – thus improv­ing your rep­u­ta­tion and boost­ing your vis­i­bil­i­ty.

The good news about dig­i­tal word of mouth is that busi­ness­es will con­tin­ue to have a say in this process. Brands should:

  • Man­age your cus­tomer ratings/reviews on an ongo­ing basis. Mon­i­tor them, respond to them, learn from them and encour­age them – every­where peo­ple are talk­ing about your busi­ness online and offline.
  • Be proac­tive. Accept the fact that your busi­ness is going to get some neg­a­tive reviews from unhap­py cus­tomers. Respond to those cus­tomers to let them know you care. And bal­ance those expe­ri­ences by fol­low­ing up with cus­tomers and ask­ing them to review you online.
  • Mind your loca­tion infor­ma­tion. I say this a lot because it’s essen­tial: treat your loca­tion data and con­tent as a pre­cious asset. Fol­low best prac­tices for mak­ing your busi­ness find­able with accu­rate data and descrip­tive con­tent that is opti­mized for search.

Dig­i­tal word of mouth and search have become inter­twined. There is no going back. And this evo­lu­tion is good. Google can give users (and your cus­tomers) a bet­ter expe­ri­ence when peo­ple search for a busi­ness. And you can give them a bet­ter expe­ri­ence when they find you.