Internet research is now a staple component of the buying process. According to a study by the e-tailing group and Power Reviews, 50% of consumers spend 75% of their shopping time conducting online product research. For most people, that means going to Google, typing in a few search terms, comparing prices and reading reviews. This is a relatively new way of shopping, but it is quickly becoming the standard. In fact, the numbers I cited above more than doubled from 2010 to 2011. The take-away is clear: Customer Reviews are critical because prospective customers look for them before making a purchase.
The buying process is typically defined as some variation of 1) need recognition, 2) information search, 3) comparison shopping, 4) purchase, and 5) post-purchase evaluation. Customer reviews impact every stage of the buying process, but I want to focus on the second and third stages, because Internet Research combines information search and comparison shopping. Here is a look at the way customer reviews appear at different stages of Internet research.
For consumers choosing a local service business, the first step of their research will often entail a location-based search. They will go to a search engine, typically Google, and type some combination of the service they are seeking and a city, county, or zip code. Google will return seven business listings blended into the main search results and a fixed map on the right side. Listings with Google user reviews will stand out from the pack, but what many people do not know is reviews from other 3rd-party sites are a key ranking determinant. So, reviews not only help local business listings differentiate, they actually help businesses appear on the first page.
The next step after a business is found on Google Local search is typically the business’ own website. This is surprising to many people who would expect the reviews to be read first, but by Google’s own numbers, two-thirds of all clicks from the local search results page go directly to the SMB’s website. So, while customer reviews are important for ranking and differentiation, the chances are high that prospective customers have not read a local business’ reviews before reaching their website.
It is therefore wise for businesses with 3rd-party reviews to have a button on their homepage linking to their reviews. Customer reviews, hosted by 3rd-parties, increase conversion more than any other piece of content. So, it is essential to make that content prominent. The idea is to help the prospect complete their research before heading back to the search engines.
The latter stages of the buying process will often include a more thorough background check. Consumers are doing their due diligence by merely googling a company’s name and exploring the first few pages of organic search results. Businesses with third-party hosted customer reviews have a distinct advantage when their reviews appear in organic search results with their ratings and reviews count displayed. This display is called rich snippets, and these search results get a higher click-through rate than regular search results.
The clear trend toward increased Internet research by consumers has changed marketing priorities for all businesses. Aside from being the most sought-after resource for shoppers online, customer reviews are the single most impactful piece of user-generated content. A Cone Communications survey found that “4 out of 5 consumers reverse purchase decisions based on negative online reviews.” If you have a business, your prospective customers are going to make their decision to buy your product or use your service based on what they find online.