What Indian Lunch Taught Us About Good Reviews vs High Search Rank
About a month ago I was enjoying a delicious Indian lunch with a prospective SEO client, a brilliant and innovative chiropractor in the Salt Lake City metro area, and a fellow foodie. Also joining us was the doctor’s digital marketing guy, and, luckily, Scott Paxton, a foremost and recognized authority on SEO, an absolute pioneer in the field of Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) analytics. As we experienced the varied scents and tastes of India, the topic “do Google reviews help SEO?” entered our conversation.
Just before cutting into his Tandoori Chicken, the doctor sliced into his frustration at being on Page 2 for Google search results for “Salt Lake City Chiropractor.” He pointed out that chiropractors outranking him all have far fewer reviews, and in most cases, their average review is well below his own 4.5 average. In fact, he pointed out that one doctor near the top of Page 1 had only six reviews!
Tons of Great Reviews, and Still Outranked on Google?
“How is it possible,” he pointed his Tandooried-fork in Paxton’s direction, “that this guy has hardly any reviews, while I have like 420, and he’s on Page 1, while I’m on Page 2?”
He had good reason to be concerned and frustrated. Just about any study done on the subject indicates approximately 95% of those Googling to find something will not go beyond results found on Page 1. Simply put, despite a stellar and robust set of online reviews, our chiropractor friend wasn’t found anywhere near the top in most of his keyword searches.
Paxton answered the heat of his Habanero Pork Vindaloo with a spoonful of refreshing yogurt Raita, then answered the doctor’s warm question. “It’s not uncommon,” he explained, “for small businesses to ask me why they aren’t ranking higher than competitors with worse reviews.”
We all nodded, as we eyed the bright red Matar Paneer placed before us, then turned our eyes again to Paxton. “The assumption that positive reviews should be heavily considered for rankings is fair, but to understand the logic behind why they aren’t enough to push you to the top is quite complicated.“
Oh, the Spicy and Mysterious Smorgasbord of Google’s Ranking Factors
As the chiropractor contemplated a Pakora fritter, Paxton pondered a bit, then added, “As I’m often asked, ‘do Google reviews help SEO?’ I find myself having to explain to clients that algorithms are complicated scoring models that look at hundreds of factors. Positive reviews are only a small part of the equation.”
The digital guy, wiping the Calypso hot sauce off his fingers, careful to not get it in his eyes, commented, “At first I thought my eyes were deceiving me, with our weak Google search ranks in spite of so many glowing reviews. But you’re saying our great Google reviews don’t count much for SEO, huh?”
Paxton swallowed, and his own eyes watered a little. “Not as much as you’d think. Google reviews do help SEO, but in order to top competitors in search rankings you must beat them on those hundreds of factors being considered. Could you pass that Allum Ginger Chutney?”
The chiropractor added a bit of the chutney to his chicken, then added a bit to speculate upon.
“But when new patients come in, we ask them a few questions about why they’ve chosen us, and one of the top reasons is because we have hundreds of reviews with an average of 4.5 stars.”
“That’s a fantastic point, and I don’t doubt for a second that’s a huge reason why they come in,” Paxton said. He then pointed to the colorful Madhubani Indian art on the wall. “But let me ask you this: If we had never been to this restaurant, would we ever have seen this beautiful piece of art?”
We nodded “no” to his question, but an enthusiastic “yes” to the waiter asking if everything was tasty.
I quickly crunched down and swallowed my Lamb Madras. I was also chewing on a key thought, and now it was my turn to interject, “People can’t review your business if they are never exposed to it in the first place. Google reviews are important in so many ways, but in SEO, it’s not the key ranking factor. In your industry, Google is giving more weight to other factors.”
As I dabbed a napkin on my upper lip to wipe flambeau sauce away, I dabbled with an important distinction. I said to my dining mates, “Reviews don’t weigh as heavily in ranking your site and landing pages as they do in convincing prospects to buy once they’ve actually found your site. That’s why your first priority should be to have great SEO. Then, once you’ve achieved that, good Google reviews, as well as reviews on other sites like Yelp, will help further convince the buyer.”
I then stuffed some Rice Curd of South India into my mouth, swallowed happily, and added, “But, it’s not like Google ignores the reviews, because reviews are the modern, online version of nice word-of-mouth. So, to answer that key question, ‘do online reviews help SEO?’ the answer is yes, but it’s only one of several other factors as well.”
Search Engines are Crunching Percentages
As we all deftly used our forks to break open a crunchy Samosa and dripped the right amount of mint sauce into it to create the perfect blend-ratio of pungent sweetness and spice, I dropped this tasty morsel: “Google crunches numbers and ratios like crazy to determine just the right recipe blend of reviews’ importance against other factors pertinent to that industry. Google does this to be valid and fully useful to the searcher. It’s our job, as SEO professionals, using very sophisticated analytics software and other tools, to determine what Google deems the perfect proportion of weighted factors for each business sector, industry, and individual business type. Some of those factors are used to weigh to what extent Google reviews aid SEO for any particular sector.”
Paxton took a long swig of cool Mango Lassi, then noted, cooly, “The good news is that the most recent algo updates have given more importance to reviews. It’s just that it’s not the whole equation, and that’s why you’re not ranking higher.”
How Reviews Help SEO: Your Money (or) Your Life!
At that juncture, I not only tore off a piece of Naan bread, but also ripped into a bit of somewhat-misguided advice from some SEO agencies. “Lots of SEO professionals overemphasize the importance of positive online reviews as leading to higher search engine results. But relying too much on good reviews can be disastrous to your search engine rankings.”
I noticed Digital Guy’s forehead had a few droplets of moisture. I wasn’t sure if it was because of an over-reliance on reviews, or from his Kashmiri hot sauce experiments — maybe a bit of both? He asked us if different types of businesses are weighted differently for strength or weakness of reviews.
Paxton dive-bombed his crisp Papadum into his Malaburi Prawn Curry, then dove into an explanation that, “reviews are becoming more important for any service that impacts well-being. Google specifically refers to these as ‘YMYL pages, which stands for ‘Your Money Your Life.’ If your product or services could impact future happiness, health, or financial stability of users, then pay attention.”
We temporarily parted affection with our mouth-watering Lamb Tikka.
When he had our full attention, and we were so still and silent the proverbial clocks stopped ticking, he said, “Positive reviews for your business matter much more than they ever have! For the first time since I got into SEO full-time in 2006, positive Google reviews are now being heavily considered to help search engine rankings. 100% better reviews than your competitors won’t automatically rank you, but if you are doing well on lots of other Google-algo checklist items, a checked-off-good-review box there will definitely help. Without positive reviews, you are likely to lose rankings.”
Oh, Distasteful: Do Bad Reviews Matter?
The chiropractor looked up quizzically from his spongy Dohkla.
“What about negative reviews?”
Paxton stuffed a little savory Idli into his Dosa crepe, then added a little savory advice: “Yes, be careful about negative reviews. They can knock you out quicker than Kolhapur on an empty stomach!”
Digital guy had just sampled Chettinad Fried Fish for the first time . . . he seemed overcome. He asked, “If you don’t have great reviews, how can this be overcome? Maybe that seems like a silly question since we haven’t had much of a problem with that?”
I grunted a little from my own ecstacy, a scrumptious Dum Aloo Lakhnawi. “Oh, that’s not a dumb question. But I would only worry about it if you start getting enough poor reviews that it becomes a pattern. If so, then you need to look at your business practices. If the problem is not with you guys, then you should look for some good reputation management. But not at the expense of SEO — that comes first.”
Paxton nodded. Was it because his Keema Biryani agreed with his taste buds?
Which is More Important: High Search Ranking, or Lots of Good Reviews?
The doctor asked for a taste of that Biryani, smiled his own approval, loaded it with Shorba sauce, and asked a loaded question.
“Scott, how would you compare the importance of ranking high on Google searches versus having a lot of high reviews?”
Paxton answered, “Ranking high in Google is not possible long-term if your business has a negative review pattern. Google rankings are going to drive in new leads, and positive reviews will help close them. They work hand in hand. Hand me that cumin, please.”
The chiropractor gazed at the saccharine choices on the dessert menu.
“Sweet,” he said with a look of satisfaction. “I’ve learned a lot from you. What is the latest development in SEO generally. I know the ‘algos’ are always changing.”
The doctor looked behind himself, to see if the SEO guru was talking to someone else. There was no one there.
“Are you serious? I’m getting pretty full — we’ve had a feast here!”
“No, no, I’m not telling you to eat. EAT is an acronym for Google’s latest emphasis.”
The desserts were presented. The Gulab Jamun stood out.
Paxton presented that “EAT stands for ‘Expertise, Authority, and Trust.’ In effect, Google wants blogs and articles to be reliable and believable. They don’t want just a bunch of stuff written with keywords. It’s like having an actual Indian cook from Jaipur with years of experience prepare this fabulous cheesecake-like Ras Malai, rather than some kid from Cleveland, Ohio, green out of cooking school.”
How to Alert People That You Have Great Reviews
As the digital guy dug into his remaining Spiced Roti Laddu, before his dessert, he said, “I dig what you’re saying, but I have one last question: Is there a way through SEO to let people know we have great reviews?”
All eyes turned to Paxton, who quickly gobbled up the last spoonful of his Kheer. He told us, “People love to search for the company with the best reviews. They just gobble them up! Some of the best buying keywords are from potential clients searching things like ‘best fill in the blank.’ Google reviews help SEO by helping you get in front of the best buying searches. If you have good SEO and good reviews, you are certain to gain a big percentage of the buyers. And of course this is another way the ‘do online reviews help SEO’ quandary is answered.”
Ah, Sweet Resolution
As he used a cinnamon toothpick to dislodge a lunch tidbit, the chiropractor said, “I guess I have to get unstuck from the idea of relying on good reviews to put me on Page 1 of Google searches.“
He tasted the ambrosial Chhena Jalebi, a staple of Indian desserts, then smiled in sweet resolution to prioritize his online marketing to SEO first, followed by other digital marketing staples, including online reviews and reputation management, email marketing, and social media.