This post was originally written by Carrie Royce.

Customer reviews carry more weight than your self storage website.

Hard to believe, but that’s what new research is telling us: That online reviews and customer input may have a greater impact on the reputation of a small local business than its own web pages.

The reason?  Peer trust outweighs people’s faith in business.

We all know the concept of customer reviews has been around for a long time. Testimonials date back beyond the time of bartering farm animals for fiancées. But in an age of “websploitation,” peer reviews are more important than ever to a sales conversion. That’s because – after years of landing on deceptive and just plain crappy websites – people have developed an intense distrust of online information.

Local business websites are no exception. Even if a business is located just down the street from a potential customer, impartial comments about the company can be reassuring. In fact, a large number of consumers consider quality online reviews just as good as personal recommendations. That’s quite a change from a few years ago when online reviews were harder to find and regarded with greater skepticism.

Progressive web marketers are highlighting the importance of online reviews for local business more and more. Unfortunately, receiving numerous legitimate reviews is an elusive goal that baffles many local businesses. Plus, there’s the fear factor: Many companies have experienced setbacks due to getting terrible reviews in popular rant sites (Yelp!). That makes unfiltered review sites seem like a dirty game to jump into.

Nonetheless, the credibility is worth the gamble.

For one thing, people want to buy from trustworthy businesses, and reviews can serve as “proof” of that. For another thing, there’s evidence that Google is now using reviews as local ranking metrics (although Google rarely admits to anything). It makes sense: search engines want to include credible content in their results, and user-generated content such as reviews can be credible.

customer review cowboy

Search engines “The Horses”

Google has said that it doesn’t count on rating values or sentiment (the positive or negative words) of reviews as a ranking factor. But local search pages say otherwise, particularly in Google Place Search and Google Maps. Websites that stand out as strong customer review generators are climbing higher. And Google clearly aggregates reviews about merchants from across the web, as well as through its own Google Checkout system. Google knows that reviews are fresh, diverse, unfiltered user-generated content that’s simply too valuable to be ignored.

Renter prospects “The Riders”

You’d better be nice to your renters—even jerks can write about your self storage facility. Online reviews appear to have meaningful impact on consumer behavior on the local scene; people clearly rely on them for advice before picking up the phone. Just take a look at the key findings from a 2010 BrightLocal survey of local consumers:

  • 79% use the internet to find a local business

  • 71% consulted local business reviews at least occasionally

  • Consumers aged 35-54 consult reviews more than other groups

  • 55% trust a local business more after reading positive online reviews

  • 67% trust online reviews as much as word-of-mouth recommendations

Customer Reviews “Good, Bad, and Ugly”

With review sites becoming more popular with human users and with major search engines paying attention, product reviews are an ideal form of content marketing. But before you ante up for the game, you should be on the lookout for the good, the bad, and the ugly of customer reviews—they may not be what you think.

Lots of Reviews “The Good”

This may seem like a no-brainer, but we’re going to say it anyway: If you have a large number of quality reviews for your facility, you should notice better site rankings in search results, more direct web traffic from review sites, and more rental conversions. Check out these 2010 findings from a PowerReviews study about consumers:

  • 39% read >8 reviews to gain sufficient confidence to judge

  • 64% spend >10 minutes reading reviews while 33% spend a 1⁄2 hour or more

  • 71% said reviews are the social media tool having the highest impact on buying behavior

  • Trust in reviews is degraded by an insufficient supply

The good news is, review sites that don’t generate much customer feedback on their own are beginning to syndicate reviews from other sites. Consequently, you may see the same review of your facility on multiple sites.

No Reviews “The Bad”

The desire to protect a brand leads many marketers to harp on “managing online reputation.” That leads traditional or inflexible business owners to put strict guidelines on the social and user-generated content sphere. Unfortunately, self storage operators who choose to ignore or avoid reviews will miss out on numerous benefits:

  • Reviews are real feedback

  • Reviews build credibility & trust

  • Reviews let you know if you have a problem

  • Reviews build better user-generated content descriptions

  • Reviews let you know if your description is wrong

  • Reviews help SEO

Allowing reviews tells your customer that you value their opinion. This is especially true if you don’t moderate reviews, and let them appear in words they use (the words they use to search!) immediately on your website.

Flawless Reviews “The Ugly”

This will probably strike you as counter-intuitive: All-positive reviews seem inauthentic, and negative reviews build credibility. No one has 100% customer satisfaction and everyone knows that. That’s why a completely positive set of reviews is assumed to be “cleaned up”—that is, negative feedback filtered out. Search engines and customers alike trust favorable median feedback more than they trust perfect feedback. Factors that degrade trust are:

  • Insufficient selection of reviews (50%)

  • Doubt that they are written by real customers (39%)

  • Lack of negative reviews (38%)

Ideally, your facility’s review pool will include five-star reviews down to a few three-and even two-star reviews. No, it’s not fun when negative results show up on Google. But don’t be tempted to remove negative scores. Instead, respond to bad reviews quickly. Make a transparent effort to get to the bottom of the poor experience. Assuming he/she is reasonable and not some renter psychopath, offer him/her an incentive to visit your business again.

Tips For Improvement “The Bullets”

Maximizing review content is a clear winner as an SEO and rental-conversion strategy. Yet, regrettably, leaving a review is not always an open and shut task. Sometimes self storage customers have to sign in or create an account. For busy or spam-wary people, that’s bad whiskey. So make it worth their while.

You might offer a coupon for any customer that goes to the trouble of leaving a review. Then, interact with your customers afterward. If they give you a good score, respond with a big “thank you” or an invitation to “come see us again!” If they give you a bad score, openly help them into a more positive perspective. It will show future shoppers that customer service is how you roll. Here are a few more bullets to keep in your belt:

  • Don’t post fake reviews. Not only is it unethical, it’s illegal and could lead to huge fines—not to mention Google’s search ranking “death penalty.”

  • Don’t anger customers as an easy tactic to increase reviews. This has worked for a few slime balls in the past, but sentiment analysis is coming in to play.

  • Don’t post negative reviews about competitors. It’s unethical, illegal, and just plain uncool. Besides, Google is devoting energy to negate these sorts of tactics.

  • Don’t bribe people or buy or trade positive reviews. It’s against the terms and conditions of a number of review sites, who can in fact track IP addresses.

  • Don’t obsess too much about negative reviews. Having too many positive syrupy reviews makes people skeptical. Take the opportunity to be transparent and improve.

  • Ask customers to review you. Some managers may hesitate to ask for reviews, so try to incentivize. Adwords are >$5 a click; why not offer a $5 bonus per review?

  • Encourage frequent reviews. Incorporate requests for online reviews as part of your ongoing practice. There’s some evidence that velocity and freshness are ranking factors.

  • Get reviews from multiple sources. Ask willing renters to review on different sites—Superpages, Yelp, InsiderPages, CitySearch, Yahoo, Google Hotpot, Yellowbook, and YP.

  • Give incentives to renters for posting reviews. Discount coupons and gifts are acceptable tactics if you’re trying to predispose them to write, as opposed to bribing them for a particular outcome.

  • Respond to reviews. Some sites allow owners to comment back to reviewers and respond to things said about them. In the world of SEO, it’s time to engage and be social.

chart of customer reviews

Major sources for this story include SEOmoz.com, SearchEngineLand.com SMX West 2011 conference, LocalSEOGuide.com, NewYorkTimes.com, Blumenthals.com, Tamebay.com, VerticalLeapNews.com, BusinessNewsDaily.com, SocialCommerceToday.com, PowerReviews.com and BrightLocal.com.