Google Updates Local Review Guidelines

Google local packs have changed quite a bit over the years. First, Google cut down the local results from seven to three listings. Then in June, Google announced that they would start testing ads within the 3-packs, and earlier this month we’ve seen several instances of this happening in the wild.

Now Google is shaking things up again, rolling out some major changes to their local reviews guidelines. In this post, I’ll explain what each guideline means, and how they impact local businesses.

Snippets must not be written or provided by the business or content provider unless they are genuine, independent, and unpaid editorial reviews.

Google prohibits businesses from publishing fake reviews. This doesn’t mean that you can’t do things to help suppress negative reviews, or encourage your customers to review your business.  It just means that you can’t hire a content writer to publish a bunch of positive reviews. All reviews, testimonials, and customer feedback must be authentic. Is it possible to slip a few fake reviews under Google’s radar? Absolutely. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Even if Google doesn’t catch you, most consumers are good about knowing which reviews are real, and which ones are not.  Fake reviews usually do more harm than good.

Reviews must allow for customers to express both positive and negative sentiments. They may not be vetted by the business or restricted by the content provider based on the positive/negative sentiment of the review before submission to Google.

In order to preserve the integrity of online reviews, Google requires businesses to show all reviews, regardless of the sentiment. Interestingly enough, despite a lower overall star rating, businesses that show a fair balance of positive and negative reviews can actually increase conversions, since this type of transparency helps to establish trust and credibility. According to Get Five Stars, 4.2-4.5 is the ideal average star rating for purchase probability. Some consumers are skeptical of businesses with a perfect rating.

Reviews cannot be template sentences built from data or automated metrics. For example, the following is not acceptable: “Based on X number of responses, on average people experienced X with this business.”

Online reviews should tell someone’s personal experience with a product or service – they shouldn’t be an aggregated assessment of customer feedback. These templated stats can be misleading since they don’t always tell the full story. When businesses frame feedback this way, they’re only showing you what they want you to see. In most cases, consumers want to read about the experiences of past customers, so they can draw their own conclusions.

Reviews for multiple-location businesses such as retail chains or franchises can only be submitted for the specific business location for which they were written. In other words, reviews for multiple-location businesses cannot be syndicated or applied to all business locations of the same company.

Review segmentation is very important for businesses with multiple locations. Google now requires multi-location businesses to attribute customer reviews to the specific location or branch for which they were written. Not only does this help consumers access the reviews that are most relevant to them, but it also helps large franchises isolate negative reviews to their respective locations. This makes it so one location doesn’t negatively impact the entire brand, which is very important from a reputation management perspective.

Aggregators or content providers must have no commercial agreements paid or otherwise with businesses to provide reviews.

This one is pretty straightforward. Don’t buy reviews, or make any types of arrangements where reviews are provided in exchange for money, links, favors, etc. I’m not sure what the specific guidelines are for soliciting reviews, but as long as you’re not offering anything in exchange, I would image you’re in the clear. However, some sites, like Yelp, insist that you don’t even mention reviews, and certain industries, such as medical and legal, have their own set of rules for review solicitation.

Do not include reviews that are duplicate or similar reviews across many businesses or from different sources. Only include reviews that have been directly produced by your site, not reviews from third- party sites or syndicated reviews.

This one is technically two separate guidelines, but I combined them here, since they’re very closely related. I see this as being one of the most significant changes to Google’ review guidelines. Not only are they cracking down on duplicate reviews, but they are also forbidding sites from using markup on reviews from 3rd party sites, which is essentially a direct contradiction of Google’s old guidelines. It’s also worth noting that Google is sort of pushing site owners to create an internal review platform to generate reviews directly through their own website. On a semi-related note, Google recently announced that they will be including expert opinions and top 10 list data in local search results.  Currently the critic review snippet extension is only available on mobile, and it is unknown whether Google plans to include this new feature in desktop results.

If you have any questions about the new review guidelines or anything else mentioned in this post, feel free to send us message or leave a comment below!

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