The Power of Reviews in Local Search

SEO professionals have all dealt with websites that had serious issues. The issues can be related to bad website construction, poor to toxic link profiles, thin or excessive duplicate content, and in the local search space a bad review profile.

In my experience within local search, reviews don’t seem to really have much impact on local rankings. This includes Local Pack, Carousel and regular organic listings. Reviews are akin to social signals. While positive reviews have their own real value, statistical performance evidence suggests that reviews in general, and Google+ reviews specifically, do not seem to appear to have anything measurable to do with local search engine rankings.

As an example, I have experience with an enterprise level brand that wanted to improve its local presence. The company’s review profile can be described as less than stellar. Hardly a 3-star review to be found, let alone any 4′s or 5′s. Mostly 1-star ratings country wide.

Together, we worked out a strategy that started with a frank discussion of the possible ramifications of the low rating profiles, including potential rankings issues as well as conversion implications. Once we had that covered, we created a strong keyword strategy, implemented a well-built store locator with a clean internal hierarchy, and developed well-written local-specific content for the client locations.

We then built an ongoing plan for consistent optimizations to keep the content fresh. After documenting baseline statistical measurements, we deployed the campaign while the client developed its plan for handling negative reviews.

The results have been somewhat surprising. Organic search traffic started to pour in into the local Web pages quickly, increasing on a bi-weekly basis by two- and three-digit growth percentages. This is organic traffic, not just organic traffic supplied by branded terms.

Less than four months after launch, non-branded traffic is out performing branded terms by almost a 3-to-1 ratio, according to Webmaster Tools data. Furthermore, this traffic is converting at a strong rate, with the client acknowledging that local search has been the most effective cost-per-acquisition of the company’s online marketing strategy.

All this with a less than stellar review profile, which led me to ask how this is possible. I came to some simple realizations about local SEO.

Local SEO is still SEO. As such, basic SEO principles still apply. These principles outlined clearly in Google Webmaster Guidelines include a good backlink profile for the TLD, a clear website hierarchy with well-planned internal text links, location-specific content that describes the brand and its services to local users, good page load times, clean URL structures, no advertisements, a site built with both users and search engines in mind, and pages that have clear calls to action. Strong on-page SEO was our team’s primary focus.

The result: Local pages are ranking, driving traffic and converting despite the review profile and this is not the only client sharing this trend.

Looking across the evidence, it seems that basic SEO signals are still very important for local search. A good backlink profile is also important, as we carefully selected keywords to work in conjunction with the existing non-local website.

The negative review profile, though, does not seem to be making much, if any, difference. As we continue to see ongoing increases in search query impressions in Webmaster Tools for this client.

With that data laid out, it should be noted that a poor review profile is still not a good thing, although it is not as horrible as many of the posts I’ve seen recently have suggested with respect to rankings.

All of this leads me to believe that achieving optimal local search results still comes down primarily to sound SEO principles and implementation. Now, this doesn’t mean that positive review profiles are not worth attaining. Positive reviews protect brand integrity and absolutely do assist in increased conversions. However, like the benefits of social media and building good community relations with your consumers, review profiles do not seem to have a significant impact on local search rankings.