Are User Reviews Overrated?

Is there a disconnect between how important restaurant owners think their online reviews are, compared to how important customers feel those reviews are?

A restaurant point of sale and management system called Toast recently released a whitepaper that stated:

  • Almost half (49%) of restaurant owners say online reviews are influential
  • But, only a third (35%) of customers say online reviews influence them

Huh. Ok, processing… From the perspective of an SEO company in Toronto, we must say this does not compute.

Based on the data on the browsing/searching habits we’ve seen from customers over the years, Toast’s findings don’t quite jive with us. We can tell you that restaurants are among the most Googled businesses across the globe, and data has always pointed to search engine results driving consumer behaviour.

Here are some other stats to consider:

  • BrightLocal has reported that 90% of consumers read online reviews before visiting a business
  • They also added that 84% trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation
  • The Harvard Business School reported every one-star increase in a Yelp rating means a 5 to 9% increase in revenue
  • Reviewtrackers has reported that 94% of customers surveyed said a bad online review has convinced them to avoid a business
  • Customers are willing to pay 31% more for a well-reviewed business

We were not a part of the Toast survey data gathering, but it is entirely possible the customers they surveyed may not realize how much that online reviews will actually influence their purchase decision.

You could ask people something like:

Question: How important would you say online reviews are in choosing a restaurant?
Respondent Answer: Only Somewhat

But if we dig a little deeper:

Question: Would you go to a restaurant with 2.0 stars?
Respondent Answer: No 

Question: Would you go to a restaurant after reading that it’s way too expensive?
Respondent Answer: No 

Question: Do you check menu items online before visiting a restaurant?
Respondent Answer: Yes

When you break it into individual questions about their buying behavior, the big-picture-answer is, yes, online reviews are important.

So, if you were a restaurant owner who read the Toast statistics and was about to dial back your spending/ efforts on online reviews, think again.

Online reviews are more than just a foot-traffic driver to get people into your business. They are an absolutely crucial part of any successful local SEO campaign.

Are online reviews overrated from an SEO perspective? Hard, hard no. In fact, they may be dangerously underrated by many.

The Impact of Online Reviews on SEO

If you’re a small-to-medium-sized business in a competitive market, your online reviews are a huge part of your local SEO strategy and they are the pillars of your off-page strategy.

Your off-page strategy needs to involve real effort going into:

  • Your Google My Business listing (Moz has ranked it as most important)
  • Your online reviews
  • Link-building & brand mentions

How much weight is given to your reviews in relation to other on and off-page factors? Good question! Sadly, this is not like your credit score where FICO tells you that your payment history is worth 35% of your credit score. Google doesn’t tell you how much your reviews are worth. And it’s a good thing they don’t because that would create chaos in the world of local SEO.

Here are some universal truths that data has proven:

  • High-ranking sites have more good reviews
  • They also typically have a larger number of reviews, in general
  • Good reviews help your SEO more than bad reviews, but…
  • Bad reviews aren’t always that bad (More on that later)
  • It is almost impossible to rank in a high-competition local market without them

There is also no magic ratio that expresses how much good a positive review helps you, compared to how much a bad one hurts you. I can tell you that if I knew that number, I would not share it for free in a blog. I would be living on my own island right now and rule the world of local SEO.

Good Online Reviews Help David Fight Goliath 

SEO Reviews Restaurant

Let’s say you run an amazing (but small) steak house.

You want to earn enough SEO clout to steer people away from international steak giant, The Keg. You may wonder how the hell you’re supposed to do that. The Keg probably spends the equivalent of your restaurant’s entire yearly revenue on social media ads alone, right?

You can’t take them down, but you can stand next to them!

Your reviews are your greatest SEO weapon in this battle. The Keg has (way) more money than you, but they can’t buy good reviews (more on that later). This levels the playing field.

But you may say, “They get more customers, they’re a bigger name, and they have been open longer. They already have over 2,000 reviews and an average of 4.5. How are we supposed to get that?”

You don’t need to get that. You can be listed right next to them with 200 reviews and an average of 4.6. That could very well earn you a listing right next to The Keg, and now you’re a part of a lot more conversations about people’s dinner plans.

People Like to Help the “Little Guy”

It may actually be easier for small businesses to gather online reviews, compared to a major chain.

I don’t know about you, but if I get a slice from Pizza Pizza and the teller asks me to review them online, I’m like, “Nah, you’re good without me.” But, if I get an amazing slice from a new Mom and Pop place and they ask me for a review, I’m like, “Yes! That pizza was amazing. I must tell the world! I want these guys to do well and stay open forever.”

So, if a Keg waitress gives customers the bill and says “Don’t forget to review us online,” a lot of customers won’t give it a second thought. But, when they’re in your steak house, they’re more likely to think, “Yeah, I think I will. This place is great and I want to help them.”

They may even leave a review on the Uber ride home. 

It’s an easier ask for a small business, but you still need to ask the right way.

How to Get More Good Online Reviews

Good reviews do not simply appear because you’re amazing. You may think the secret to great reviews is delivering the best possible offering and customer service. But that’s far from the case. It certainly helps, but good reviews are not built on good intentions.

The businesses with most good reviews don’t simply have a great offering, they have a great system to encourage reviews. Like anything else in SEO, you need a strong system in place. You need a goal, a plan, and means of measuring success.

One of the first things you need to do is make sure you’re properly registered as a business with Google so you can actually get reviews. You can learn all about that by clicking here.

The rest blends elements of marketing and psychology.

user review seo

Know What You’re Up Against

You’re probably already aware of this: People are more likely to leave a bad review for a bad experience.

The old adage used to be that a happy customer will tell 2-3 people about their experience but a dissatisfied consumer will share their gripe with as many as 20. The numbers always seemed to fluctuate, depending on who you talked to. However, the message is always clear. Bad experiences resonate more, and people are more likely to share them.

It’s not that we’re all terrible and whiny people who would rather complain than praise. It’s just a matter of what resonates more. 

Think about it. Which experience is more memorable?

  • That time you waited in line forever and they still screwed up your order, or…
  • That time you ordered your coffee with no problems whatsoever

Which story would you be more likely to tell to coworkers in the lunchroom later? The bad one, clearly, and it’s not your fault. It’s just simply a more memorable, and sadly, shareable experience.

This means that if bad experiences stand out more in people’s minds, we have to give them a reason to review good ones. 

Know the Rules

Some people will tell you the secret to getting more online reviews is simple: Ask for them.

Well… that’s simply not true. The biggest problem with that is that Yelp does not want anyone asking for Yelp reviews in any form at any time. Ever. They want all of their reviews to be completely unsolicited and totally organic. 

Yelp takes this seriously and is getting better at catching the people who violate their policies every single day. 

However, many other major review sites like Google and Tripadvisor do you allow you to ask for reviews. They just don’t want you to:

  1. Pay for them in any way
  2. Misrepresent the truth or lie in them

Assuming you’re not targeting Yelp, there are a number of organic ways you can encourage customers to review your company.

Train Your Staff

Get your sales or customer service staff to remind customers to review you, right after an interaction where the customer is satisfied and their opinion of you is high.

This is why servers should do this after a meal and not before. But again, if you’re a restaurant, don’t let your servers use the Y-word that rhymes with “help.”

Swag/Print Materials/ Take-aways
You can also put reminders to review you online on your take-out menus, fridge magnets, business cards, or flyers. 

Emails and SMS Reminders
Once you have your customer’s email address or phone number, you can send them a gentle reminder/ nudge that their feedback is valuable. But, be careful as Google says you’re not allowed to “solicit reviews from customers in bulk.”

Your Website and Social Channels
It’s also good to have “Review Us” buttons and sections on all of your web properties.

Never Ever Do These Things to Get More Reviews

Now that we’ve reviewed the organic and above-the-grade ways that you should earn your reviews, we will now cover the black-hat shortcuts that will get you banned from review sites in a hurry.

Or you may get a humiliating banner on your Yelp page for 90 days, letting everyone know you cheated.

yelp consumer alertNever, ever do any of these things.

Review Your Own Company:
This includes getting any members of your staff to do it. The one exception may be asking your employees for good Glassdoor reviews. This is legal, but a lot of employees still hate doing it.

Create Fake Accounts to Write Good Reviews
We can’t believe people still do this. You WILL get caught and you WILL pay for it. In fact, you might even go to jail. Seriously!

Hire a Third Party Person or Company to Write Fake Reviews
Just don’t do it, for all of the reasons we listed above.

Offer Incentives For Leaving a Review
No matter what you come up with, it is very likely going to tread too closely to paying for good reviews.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a discount, or a promotion, or free sample. You’re best to err on the side of caution and just avoid incentivized reviews.

Write Bad Reviews On Your Competitors Review Sites
This can get you banned, and it also just simply reflects very poorly on your brand.

You come off very unprofessional and petty.

Can a Bad Review Be a Good Thing?

bad reviews SEOThere is an old saying in Hollywood that all press is good press. Does this apply to your online reviews? Is any review a good review that can help your SEO ranking?

We wouldn’t go that far, but there are definitely a few upsides to a bad review.

1. Volume is a Good Thing

Google’s ranking algo is incredibly complex and constantly changing. As such, nobody can truthfully say that a good review will help your ranking, nor how much a bad one will hurt, nor what the totality of all your reviews may do. You just can’t.

There are some who can say, “We increased our reviews from X to Y, and saw our ranking jump to Z. This caused our traffic to blah blah blah.” That’s anecdotal and isolated. It’s also very tied to a local market. A bad review in Toronto could have a completely different effect than one in Manhattan.

Two things we know for sure:

  1. Google will showcase the brand with the best reviews
  2. They will also showcase the ones with the most reviews

In this regard, yes, adding to the number of reviews you have is likely a good thing, provided you can offset the bad review with lots of good ones.

2. Legitimacy and Truthfulness are Good

You also need bad reviews to be taken seriously.

You need a mixed bag of both good/ bad reviews to be respected and accepted by both the review site and your would-be customers. Ironically, you need a few bad reviews for people to believe that your good reviews are all legit.

Nothing but glowing 5-star reviews is a red flag to Yelp or Google that you are faking your reviews. And it sends the exact same signal to the people searching for your business. You’re simply too good to be true.

So, in this case, a 4.8 likely looks better than a 5.0. People look at a 5.0 and say, “Pfft. Fake.” But they look at 4.8 and say, “Oh damn.”

Research has proven that customers are more likely to respond to moderately positive reviews, compared to widely positive reviews.

Everyone knows that nobody is perfect. There were critics who didn’t like The Beatles White Album or The film The Shawshank Redemption. Nothing can garner 100% good reviews. 

Even the online mattress mega-seller Endy brags about a slightly imperfect 4.8 rating on their site, front and center. They understand the legitimacy of the number, and that buyers will know that 4.8 is actually freaking awesome. 

3. You Can Turn a Bad Review Into a Success Story

This is a very legitimate opportunity to turn a detractor into an advocate, or a hater into a fan. 

The individual attention that you spend addressing a negative review (or comment on social media) can go a long way and make a lasting impression with this once-angry customer.

Google actively encourages you to interact with your bad reviews, and points to it as a way of gaining local SEO success.

Of course, there are also services that will help you intercept a bad review from a customer before it’s posted publicly, such as:

But we will take a deeper dive into them later.

4. You Can Turn Bad Reviews into Great Blogs

Sometimes a hurtful review can be the best things to ever happen to you. 

They say that when you lose, you should never lose the lesson. So take your bad reviews and make the most of them.

The root of their complaint is clearly that customer’s pain point. Someone else will have the same pain point. This is all invaluable and unfiltered market research. Put your pride aside and learn from this.  

Take the bad review, in its entirety (swear words and all), and ask yourself:

  1. What is this customer’s overarching complaint? Was this about quality? Wait times? Pricing?
  2. What are the words they’re using to describe how they feel? Annoyed? Hurt? Disappointed?
  3. Was this just one unhappy customer or is this pointing to a trend?

Take the verbiage and the pain points from this and turn it into targeted blog content and whitepapers that talk about this. If there is a common complaint, this is a forum to explain why.

For example, let’s say you’re a keto-friendly bakery. Someone gives you a bad review saying they drove all the way across town and you were out of the keto pizza crust that they really wanted. Maybe a few people have expressed a similar complaint.

Write a blog about how your pizza crust is made by hand and you can’t get this level of keto-friendliness and tastiness in a mass-produced crust. It has to be made with love and care by hand, which is how you do it. It sells out so quickly, because it’s so dang good, but so dang hard to make.

Do I Need a Customer Review Software?

There are a lot of legitimate tools that can help you mine, cultivate and manage your customer reviews across all platforms. You can use a single solution to manage your Google Reviews, Yelp,, Tripadvisor or whatever you need.

They include:

However, these solutions are not cheap and can often be a big investment for a small business.

Is it worth your money to invest? If you’re in a very competitive market and can see a clear return-on-investment from better online reviews, it is definitely worth considering. Or, if you’re finding that you’re spending too much time managing them manually, you should also consider it.

Keep in mind that these programs are not autopilot mode for your reviews. They can do a lot to help you manage and organize, but they still require someone to use the program and “own” it. If you don’t want to tie up any of your own time or staff worrying about this, your best bet is to likely work with an online reputation management firm.

At the same time, if you’re considering a software solution because you’re dealing with a plague of bad reviews that you want to remove/move down, you should definitely work with a reputation management firm, because this requires an entire strategy.

Parting Thoughts

So, are online reviews overrated? In a nutshell, no, not even close.

There is a reason these reviews are the new currency in the world of local SEO. Google has always rewarded organic tactics to boost your brand’s web presence, and this definitely includes a strong trail of legitimate online reviews.

Like everything else in SEO, you can’t really buy success here. You need to put in the work to earn it. It’s not easy and it doesn’t just happen simply because you did a really good job. You need to cultivate online reviews, but not too aggressively, particularly when it comes to Yelp… Yelp needs to be handled with care.

If you have any questions about online reviews or reputation management, please feel free to reach out any time.

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