Takeaway: Google’s changing approach to search, social networks and social proof means that it’s dangerous for businesses to tie reviews to any one provider.
Instead, businesses need to have a reliable process in place to continually generate high-quality reviews.
Reading time: 10 minutes 30 seconds
Online reviews are set for a huge shake-up, resulting in big wins for companies who’ve been ‘doing it right all along’, but with devastating consequences to those businesses who’s business model relies on reviews, but who haven’t taken steps to future-proof themselves.
It’s going to completely change the online reviews landscape, and will affect the millions of businesses using online reviews as a vital part of their sales process.
Whether in the form of automatically-collected product reviews from companies like Trustpilot, destination reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, or just one or two hand-picked testimonials from a company’s favourite clients, they’re a vital trust signal in any buying process.
Two factors are conspiring to result in this change:
1) Google’s push to ‘own’ more of the web
2) Google’s future plans for Google Plus
I’ll explain these factors in more detail
Google’s need to own more of the web
It’s sometimes easy to forget, but Google make their money by showing us ads. Lots of money. But to keep on making that money, Google needs to be able to keep on showing us ads.
In the past, this was simple – you searched for something, saw a search results page (complete with ads), and clicked through to a result – which often also featured Google ads, making Google even more money.
The increasing use of social media and mobile apps has resulted in us spending less time searching on Google.
This is problematic for Google – if people spend their lives on Facebook, Twitter, and in apps on an iPhone, only rarely leaving these walled gardens to search for information on the ‘open web’, then Google lose opportunities to show adverts, which negatively impacts their primary source of income.
It’s no wonder Google want to claim back some ground from Facebook and Twitter!
Change of approach
Google is competing on a number of fronts – taking Apple head-on with Android, enabling Google to serve ads to our mobile devices, and with their social venture, Google+.
In addition to these obvious efforts, Google changed their conventional approach to Search.
In the past, it was enough for them to give you search results, and let you head away from Google to the page which best met your needs.
In fact (hard as it is to remember), this approach was one of the foundations of their initial success: Whilst their competitors were creating bloated ‘portals’ offering everything from email to news to shopping, Google breezed into the market with its simple user interface which was happy to send you away from Google – so long as they got the chance to show you some ads!
However, searching for certain lucrative terms on Google in 2014 tells a different story:
Google are competing with credit card comparison websites…
Flight search sites
and car insurance sites
Two Pronged Strategy
This is a two-pronged strategy. First, and most obviously, Google can make money from these services – most obviously insurance and credit card referrals.
It’s important for them to diversify their income streams if their main source of revenue is under threat – though don’t expect them to ever make as much money selling credit cards as they do selling adverts!
Secondly, and most importantly, this gives Google more data about you and your life, and more ways for them to tie you back into their ecosystem – and show you more ads.
Google knows you booked a flight from Newcastle to Dusseldorf – oh, and that you use an Android phone. They can then offer to help you out with your purchase of Euros, airport parking, hotels, and attractions when you get there.
That gives them MANY opportunities to show you adverts (and pick up commission on currency, parking and a hotel booking to boot!)
So, it’s becoming more important for the web’s leading search engine that they become less of a ‘referrer’ and more a provider of multiple, useful services.
2. The future of Google+
Recently, some of the technology press has been sounding the death knell for Google+, based on the product’s head, Vic Gundotra leaving, and many of the Plus team being redistributed throughout the wider organisation.
Some less hysterical members of the press have suggested that “this is not the beginning of the end… it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Google have done a lot of the hard work involved in building a social network and integrating it into their huge array of products and services.
As it stands they now have the basic machinery that any social network needs – profiles, interests, connections between profiles (“friendships”), and the ability to share and comment.
Although no-one knows how social networks will evolve, the current trend is towards a ‘suite’ of more specialised apps, rather than one central all singing, all dancing site or app.
This is evident in the success of networks like Instagram (now owned by Facebook), Twitter’s continual success (in spite of only being about sharing Tweets), and Facebook’s push to split out Messenger from its core app.
This evolution is exactly in line with how Google currently operates – a suite of products (Search, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Now), all backed by one social identity – your Google+ profile.
So how does this all tie into reviews?
Although the way we search Google in the future will change (voice activated search in your self driving car? Google Glass?), the basic premise of what Google needs to do to return you some search results will not change much:
They need a list of potential search results, and a way of sorting those search results, so the best one for you is at the top of the list.
At present, Google’s algorithms use a variety of ‘signals’ to sort the search results they give you.
The exact nature of these signals is a closely guarded secret, but it’s widely understood that they include, for example, the number of web links pointing to a given page, the amount of time people spend reading a page, and the ‘popularity’ of people who link to a page on social media.
It goes without saying, that quantity and quality of reviews are a very important signal for ranking certain companies – they’re already the most important signal for some verticals, including mobile phone apps and hospitality (i.e. independent restaurants, bars and hotels).
It makes sense for Google to want to have tighter control of such an important signal, rather than leave it for third-party companies to handle.
We’ve already seen Google take closer control of online reviews through their integration into Google Local – and Local’s subsequent integration into Google+, rather than leaving it as a standalone product.
So to recap:
- Google needs reviews to form an important ‘signal’ to help them sort and present search results – improving the quality and transparency of those results.
- Additionally, Google has made Google+ a ‘backbone’ for ALL of its services, rather than a standalone social network.
- And finally, Google has shown that they aren’t afraid to provide their own services, i.e. credit card comparison and flight times, where previously they would recommend you to a third party.
So how does this all tie together?
Google’s vision of how you will find and buy services in the future looks a bit like this:
- Open Google Chrome or use your Android phone and start searching.
- Google will show you a search results page that looks a little like the search results page you’re familiar with today, but with more Google services being pushed ahead of third-party services (similar to the credit card/insurance examples we’ve already looked at)
- One of these services will be the Google Plus/Google Local listings for the service you’ve searched for
- This listing will contain reviews, overall star ratings, highlighting your friends and high-profile social media users who have left reviews (or used the service without leaving a review).
And even more hypothetically…
- You buy the thing you searched for via Google (i.e. products through Google Shopping, software through the Google Play store)
- Google contacts you in a few weeks time asking you to leave a review. And so the circle continues.
At present, Google collects reviews in three ways:
- Direct reviews on Google Plus/Local
- ‘Scraping’ reviews from the web via rich snippets. These reviews show up in Google Search results, but not in Adwords or Google Shopping
- Certain companies (for example, Tripadvisor) have content licensing agreements to provide direct ‘feeds’ of their reviews to Google.
2 and 3 are currently helpful to Google whilst they build their own review database, but it’s reasonable to expect that these arrangements will end at some point in the future in the light of Google’s need to ‘own’ more of the web.
What should marketers and business owners do?
There’s no escaping the fact that reviews are going to be vitally important to more and more types of businesses in the future, so it makes sense to have a reliable process in place to continually generate them.
However, the danger lies in tying these reviews to any one provider. This article has mainly focused on Google, because they hold pole position in this space, but they face stiff competition from Apple and Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Samsung, Microsoft, Twitter and Amazon.
If, in 5 years time, the way we access the web has radically changed, (don’t bet against it), and another of these players is the main gatekeeper to how we access information online, businesses which had chained their reviews to Google will be in big trouble.
We’ve seen similar stories happen countless times over the past 15 years – businesses who had built their website and SEO strategy around the way Google worked at a single moment in time, rather than focusing on providing lasting value to their customers have had their business model wiped out when Google made changes to their search algorithms.
So there’s the answer to what you should do – provide lasting value to your customers.
This means rather than putting systems in place to ‘get reviews in Google Adwords’, you need to put systems in place to ‘make sure every single customer is happy’, and then have a system to turn those customers into online reviews.
This will insulate you against changing marketplace conditions. If you have happy customers who love your company, you will be able to approach them to leave you reviews wherever is currently important to you.
How should you do this? Read our pocket guide: How to Motivate Employees and Amaze Your Customers, How to Transform Customer Complaints Into Compliments Online, and our article on How To Get Every Customer Recommending You.
Alternatively, download our Free eBook: How to Take Control of Customer Satisfaction.
In general, here’s what you should be doing:
- Every time you do business with a customer, ask if they’re happy with a simple feedback form. (If you do business every month/week, maybe just do a check-up every quarter is fine – but don’t leave it too long!)
- Share all the feedback you receive with your entire team. This improves customer service levels across the board.
- If you get bad feedback, act on it. You win customers one at a time, and that’s how you lose them. If someone is telling you something uncomfortable, you’ve been handed a golden opportunity to put it right, so do so!
- Use your feedback to spot ways of improving your business, and make those improvements.
- If it’s appropriate, publish some of this feedback as reviews (for example, on your website, or by feeding them into whatever service currently drives your sales, for example AdWords or an app store). If that’s not appropriate, approach your happiest customers, and ask them if they’d mind taking 2 minutes to write a review. Because they know you’re looking after them, lots of people will be happy to do so.
It’s that simple. If your focus is ‘getting reviews’, you’re vulnerable on two fronts:
- More of your reviews will be negative, because you haven’t made customer satisfaction a systematic process in your business.
- You’re at the risk of marketplace conditions changing, and your ‘review gathering’ strategy is too tied to one provider, who won’t allow you to export your old reviews if you need to move them elsewhere.
If your focus is ‘customer satisfaction’, you’re laying the foundations for long term business growth:
- Your customers will be happier. You’ll be less reliant on online reviews because you’re getting more word-of-mouth and social recommendations.
- You’ll find it easier to get reviews, and easier to get good reviews, because the relationship is more two-sided: instead of ‘taking’ a review, you’re ‘giving’ amazing service, checking the service was amazing, then asking for a review.
- All the feedback you collect will help your understand your business better, which will benefit you in unexpected ways. From a more intelligent social media presence, to spotting new product and service opportunities, to happier staff, your business will run better and be more profitable.
If you’re feeling inspired – send us an email, we can help. Or if you want to learn more, keep reading this blog. Leave your email address below, and we’ll drop you the occasional email with short tips and longer essays on how to improve satisfaction, collect feedback, and be brilliant at customer service.