12 March 2019

More Than SEO: The Silent Rise of Google Local Ratings

Over the past several years, Google has silently taken over the local reviews and ratings market. Here’s why Google ratings matter more than ever, and what businesses and startups should do about it.

Credit: Henry Perks

The local reviews war has ended. A decade ago, a debate had erupted over whether Google would manage to wrestle control over the local reviews and ratings business from the handful of startups that ruled the space as their own. The final result: Google won, and (almost) everyone else lost. Today, in 2019, the vast majority of businesses’ first impressions with customers involve their Google ratings.

With the rise of the smartphone and connected systems such as Apple CarPlay, local ratings — especially Google ratings — have gone far beyond their origins in web search results. They’re seen in cars’ navigation systems, alongside emails, and in every single business lookup for directions, hours of operation, and phone numbers. Local ratings now affect almost every metric by which businesses are judged, including hiring, staff morale, brand value and revenue per location.

Even if your business doesn’t pay attention to reviews in day-to-day operations, their importance to your business is only increasing. People aren’t going to stop using their smartphones and other connected devices, and Google isn’t going to be unseated as a dominant provider of information anytime soon. You might be a startup focused on far-away markets, but your Google rating is still following you around. It’s time to figure out how to make the best of it.

How to Win Google, Now

In the good old days, winning a prized place on Google’s rankings was relatively straightforward — create great content, get links from people who created great content, and you’d rise to the top of your search rankings.

In recent years, the wizards who manage Google’s search business realized that most smartphone-bound users weren’t interested in your great content: they wanted great local results for places they could immediately visit or contact. Google responded by creating the local search widget that lives above webpage results, containing a list of local businesses matching users’ searches. While SEO firms continue to sell clients on “getting to the top of Google search results” through page linking and other traditional methods, being at the very top of Google search results means being at the top of the local business list.

How, then, does a business rank at the top of Google’s local results? Here’s the top criteria:

Frequency Counts Top Factors Used by Google in Ranking Local Results.

  1. Number of new Google reviews in the past year
  2. Average weekly Google reviews
  3. Number of Google reviews that mention the target keyword
  4. Number of Google reviews that mention the target city
  5. Rankings for business in normal search results
  6. Total number of Google reviews
  7. Percentage of Google reviews that mention the keyword
  8. Percentage of Google reviews that mention the city
  9. Average yearly Google reviews
  10. Number of Google reviews without response

As should be obvious, Google greatly prioritizes data from local business reviews when computing their local search results. While many businesses may feel good about themselves if they receive a 5-star review every few weeks, the data indicates that this is not impressive to Google’s algorithm, and isn’t likely to result in a high local search ranking.

Locadot did a multi-industry analysis of businesses and their local reviews. In over 90% of cases, we found that businesses needed more reviews, more often. Yes, it always feels great to get a few 5-star reviews rather than lots of 2-star reviews. However, having very few reviews, and reviews that aren’t very recent, brings into question the credibility of a high rating, to both Google and the majority of online users.

Optimize For Mobility

Smartphones and connected devices run the modern world. With Google ratings popping up on the majority of smartphone maps and associated interfaces, it’s important to put your best face forward. Countless studies have shown that consumers are more likely to trust businesses that have lots of reviews, as it’s seen as a sign of popular endorsement. In our increasingly digital world, having a high rating from lots of reviewers (1,000+ being ideal) is as valuable as setting up shop on a high-traffic street.

It’s not just consumers, either. Businesses looking for service providers are more likely to consider a business with lots of reviews. Optimize these metrics to win.

Yelp Lost, But Got Lucky

Founded in 2004, Yelp was one of the early giants of the local reviews space. It was also one of the first victims of Google’s quest to bring local reviews and ratings under its control. Alarmed at the impact that Google’s local results widget had on Yelp’s web traffic, the company’s CEO delivered the following testimony to the United States Congress in 2011:

Testimony U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, 2011.

Questioner How much of an impact would being removed from Google have on Yelp?

Yelp CEO About 75% of Yelp’s traffic, overall, is sourced through Google one way or another. About 50% is traffic coming from people who start their search on Google and eventually find their way to Yelp; the other 25% is people qualifying ‘Yelp’ as one of the keywords in their search... If we were not in Google it would be completely devastating.


That was 8 years ago. Today, Yelp is just one of a number of smaller players in the local ratings and reviews space. Google links to Yelp’s profile pages are found far below Google’s local results lists. While Yelp hasn’t been removed from Google, being demoted from the top of the page has still been quite devastating.

In a plot twist, however, Yelp continues to enjoy outsized importance, thanks to Google’s sometimes-nemesis: Apple. In looking for a ratings partner to include in the Maps app that ships with every iPhone, Apple turned to Yelp, providing the company with renewed relevance. Apple Maps is used by about 70% of iPhone users, who represent about 50% of smartphone users in markets such as the United States and Australia; thus, Yelp’s ratings are potentially seen by up to 35% of smartphone users searching for a business.

If Apple and its ecosystem can continue to grow in size and importance, and if other companies such as Amazon manage to gain a foothold into consumers’ local searches, Yelp — or perhaps another company that doesn’t yet exist — might manage to threaten Google’s local ratings dominance. While Apple’s inclusion of Yelp’s ratings give the company some relevance, there’s still no comparison to the effectiveness of a high Google rating, which is seen as far more authoritative and valuable.

Everyone’s Involved

Regardless of the strategy employed by your business, it’s important to look at the rise of Google ratings and its equivalents as a call to action: businesses must be feedback-oriented at all levels. You’ve got to get the whole organization involved, if your business is going to engage at the level required to create the frequency of reviews expected by today’s customers and algorithms. Hiring an agency and assigning them the task of “fixing our Google rating” isn’t going to create lasting results.

While an office-wide initiative to engage with feedback and ratings might seem challenging, it really isn’t. Your colleagues are already looking at reviews and thinking about your company’s ratings. Bringing them into the conversation is more likely to excite, than annoy them. And if they do find ratings and feedback to be an annoyance, well... There’s the first problem you’ve got to solve, for reasons that go way beyond your Google rating.

Ratings Everywhere

Once your organization starts to proactively optimize its customer feedback loops and ratings systems, you’ll begin to learn that your local rating on Google and its peers ends up affecting your business in a lot more ways than you might think. Optimizing Google ratings is useful for all businesses, even if you’re not interacting with outsiders at your office location.

Overview Unexpected Places Where Local Ratings Matter

Recruitment and Hiring. Young, mobile workers care a lot about where they spend their time. The online rating for your office is a key data point used in prospective hires’ decision-making processes. Don’t leave them questioning the rating shown on Google Maps on the way to the interview. Offices with large numbers of positive reviews have documented advantages over those of competitors.

Internal Staff Morale. Perhaps it isn’t so much of a surprise to know that your staff pay attention to the online ratings for the offices from which they work. Help everyone feel good about where they are.

Politics. Large numbers of positive ratings make it clear to decision makers that your company’s presence is adding value to the local community. Leverage your local ratings to win contracts and negotiate preferential deals.

It might seem scary that a simple local business rating, generated by the opinions of outsiders, can have such a dramatic impact on the success of your business. For better or worse, that’s the world we live in. Choosing not to engage simply provides your competitors with an unfair advantage.

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