How to Repair and Improve Local Business Reputation via Google Star Ratings and Reviews

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Six in ten consumers require a minimum 4+ star rating in order to consider patronizing a local business and over ⅓ say it’s the star rating that is the key differentiator between local brands. If you’re marketing a company that is just starting out or an established business that has hit a reputational rough patch and your overall ratings fall below this magic threshold, revenue is being lost.

But hope is not lost!

In today’s column, you will find a set of sensible, actionable steps you can take to raise your Google Business Profile star ratings, improve your reviews, and begin developing the good online reputation you need in order to realize the full profit potential of the local businesses you market.

Defining local business reputation

In this context, a local business has both an offline reputation that resides in the word-of-mouth sentiments expressed by members of the community it serves and an online reputation that is most visible within the rating and review systems of platforms like Google Business Profile, Yelp, Nextdoor, TripAdvisor, etc. This article focuses specifically on Google, but its advice can be applied to most platforms that host local business reviews.

For detailed, original data on the many dynamic aspects of online reviews, read Moz’s formal review survey report but for today’s topic, it’s important to know that just 13% of consumers insist on a perfect 5-star rating to consider doing business with a company and that a dominant 51% will consider a brand with a 4-star overall rating. Thus, both 4 and 5-star ratings are considered a great or good reputation by the majority of consumers.

Yet, hope can be found in the fact that about ⅓ of consumers may still give you a try if your organization’s overall reputation is only 3 stars. This could give you the grace period you need to keep the lights on while you strategically improve your operations to start winning more trust and business in your community. We’ll grade a 3-star reputation as “needs improvement”. The work involved will be harder if the reputation has dropped to 2-or-less stars, as only 2% of the public is likely to consider patronizing you. This rating would be considered poor, but you can improve it with a serious commitment.

Task 1: Look your business up on Google and note down its overall rating and number of reviews.

How do Google ratings and reviews work?

A 1-star Google review and a 5 -star Google review creating an average rating of 3.0 stars.

Before you begin the necessary tasks for improving your reputation, it’s important to understand how Google’s system works. Local business ratings and reviews are part and parcel of Google Business Profiles as well as Local Finders and Google Maps. Reviews are text-based sentiments left by consumers, as shown above. Ratings are the 1-5 star symbology Google uses so that people can gauge a company’s reputation at a glance. The overall rating a business receives is based on Google’s average of all the individual ratings customers have left. As our example demonstrates, if a business has just two reviews, and one has a 1-star rating and the other has a 5-star rating, this averages out to an overall rating of 3.0 stars. Google users have the option to leave both a rating and text, or just a rating.

Because of Google’s averages, local business owners with less than a 4-star total rating frequently ask how many higher-star ratings they will need to earn before they see their overall rating improve. The answer depends on the total number of ratings the company has already earned, but by my calculation, if a business with ten reviews has earned an overall 3.0 star rating and wants to see that bump up to a much better 4.0 star average, they will need to earn ten new 5-star reviews to move the needle. Similarly, if the business begins with one hundred reviews and a 3.0 star rating, they will need to earn one hundred new 5-star reviews to move up to a 4.0 star average.

Over the years, different surveys have measured how conversions increase when star ratings improve, with a very good recent report finding that when a business succeeds in increasing its overall rating by one whole star (such as moving up from 3.0 to 4.0 stars), it can expect a 44% increase in Google Business Profile conversions. That’s a big number!

Improving the rating is work that must be paced over time to avoid having too many new reviews come in at once, triggering Google to filter them out. Note, too, that it can take up to two weeks for incoming reviews to update the overall average. Local businesses suffering from a poor online reputation, then, can look at the averages and estimate how many new high-star reviews they will need to earn to begin seeing the benefits to their conversions, transactions, revenue, and overall good name.

Identifying causes of reputational damage

There are at least 9 common contributors to the erosion of star ratings and reputation.

  • Too few reviews giving too much power to a small number of voices

  • Neglect of review responses

  • Neglect of local business listings resulting in false information online

  • Bad/rude customer service

  • Bad products

  • Poor work on a job

  • Spam from competitors, past employees, and personal adversaries

  • Spam from the business owner and their staff or marketers

  • Scandals

For all but the last of these bullet points, achievable fixes are right within reach. For the last bullet point, though, the degree of the scandal may take the business outside the scope of this article. When a local business scandal is severe, the owner may end up having to cope with litigation and damage too permanent to continue operations. For the other eight very common scenarios, however, all the steps for determined remediation are yours to take.

Task 2: Determine the key contributors to your low rating and document them. Read through the whole body of your reviews and make a note of each complaint, categorizing them based on the 9 types of problems listed above.

How to improve your local business reputation, step-by-step

Blue infographic explaining 9 common reputation problems and how to solve them, detailed in text below.

In your first and second tasks, you noted down your overall rating and number of reviews, and you categorized the complaints you’ve received into some of the nine different categories. Now, you’re ready to start addressing any of the categories that fit your scenario.

Too few reviews giving too much power to a small number of voices

This is often the first and most obvious cause of a poor overall star rating. When a business has too few reviews, the weight given to each review is extraordinary. As we saw earlier, if your company has just one 1-star review and one 5-star review, your overall reputation is just 3.0 stars.

28% of consumers lose trust in a business when it has too few reviews compared to its competitors, and 70% will read between 5-20 reviews before deciding your company is worth a try. One of the best and most sensible efforts you can make, then, is to launch a review acquisition strategy that ensures you have a steady stream of incoming sentiment and that no single customer has too large a share of voice in your reputation narrative.

Neglect of review responses

40% of your customers expect you to write an owner response when they leave you a positive review. When the review is negative, 64% of your customers expect you to respond. The truth is, these expectations are low, and local businesses should be responding to every single review as it comes in. Just as you would never ignore a customer visiting your physical premises, don’t neglect anyone who is speaking to you online.

11% of people expect your response within 2 hours of their writing a review. 21% expect to hear back within 24 hours, and an additional 28% expect to hear back within 48 hours. From this day forward, make it a priority to use the owner response functionality either as soon as you realize you’ve received a new review or at a given time each day. If you are having trouble keeping on top of this, Moz Local will alert you to incoming reviews across multiple platforms. This is a good plan for going forward.

However, if your review corpus currently consists of months’ or years’ worth of reviews that have received no response, take the time now to go back through the last six months of your reviews and respond to them. While delayed responses are unlikely to re-engage the customers who left the reviews, you can at least begin signaling to the general public that you are implementing a new plan of active responsiveness.

If further coaching in how to respond well to both positive and negative reviews would help, read Chapter 4 of the Essential Local SEO Strategy Guide, but in the meantime, here are quick facts to help you write excellent responses to negative reviews:

  • Do everything you can to solve a problem cited in a negative review, or 54% of consumers will avoid your business.

  • If you accuse a consumer of lying, 33% of customers will avoid your business, and if you argue with the reviewer, 46% will avoid your business. Keep your responses positive and professional, even if you think the customer is wrong.

  • Be sure your response to a negative review includes an apology, or 47% will avoid your business.

  • Know that 38% of consumers write reviews specifically to tell your business how it needs to improve – by fixing stated problems you are taking direct action to improve customer service and reputation.

Neglect of local business listings resulting in false information online

52% of local business review writers say they have written negative reviews as a result of encountering false or inaccurate information about local businesses online, including on local business listings. When business names, addresses, phone numbers, hours of operation, and other essential data are incorrect, it inconveniences, disappoints, and frustrates the public.

Fortunately, actively managing local business listings is one of the easiest steps you can take to safeguard and improve your reputation so that you are receiving zero negative reviews and poor ratings due to avoidable, basic errors. You have two options for this work:

1) Do a manual audit of Google’s organic search engine results for your business name and services, discover all the local business listing and review platforms on which you have a profile, audit those profiles for errors, claim and update them, and track them in a spreadsheet for regular updating whenever your business information changes. It’s a considerable workload.

2) Subscribe to a service like Moz Local which is designed to let you manage all of your listings on key platforms very quickly and effectively from a single dashboard, protecting accuracy and reducing negative customer experiences.

In addition to ensuring that your business information is accurate on formal listing platforms, it’s a good idea to see if other online mentions of your business (known as unstructured citations) contain inaccuracies. For example, if a local blogger wrote about your business two years ago and referenced your street address, and you have since moved, it’s important to search for such references and contact the publishers to request an update of their content whenever your business experiences a significant change.

Bad/rude customer service

65% of review writers have written negative reviews due to bad or rude customer service, making this scenario the dominant cause of negative online sentiment and low ratings. Unfortunately, if your worst reviews fall into this category, it may require structural rather than simple fixes. Every business scenario is different, but here are eight key questions to ask to help you determine the root causes of customers feeling poorly treated at a place of business:

  1. Has every member of my public-facing staff received adequate training in company products, services and policies?

  2. Are ongoing training sessions part of our program so that skills can be developed and improved?

  3. Has every member of my staff received training in complaint identification and resolution so that problems are resolved at the time of service, rather than ending up online?

  4. Is every member of my staff trusted and empowered to use their own initiative and creativity to relieve customer pain, and do they know the correct hierarchy of escalation for problems beyond their direct control?

  5. Does every member of my staff earn a living wage, enabling them to bring resources of inner stability and happiness to the workplace?

  6. Does every member of leadership role model company values to be emulated by employees?

  7. Is a formal DEI council or policy in place to ensure that all staff and customers receive equal consideration, treatment, and service?

  8. Has a policy of customer rights been created by the business, and is it adequately distributed to both the staff and the public?

If any of the answers you gave to the above questions is a “no”, then you have identified a possible cause of negative reviewers feeling that they have been treated poorly or rudely. By addressing the underlying causes of staff failing to convey professionalism, respect and happiness to customers, you will be fixing serious structural problems in your organization. When solutions are implemented, new higher ratings and better reviews should begin to outweigh negative ones over time. For a more in-depth look at the complete customer service ecosystem, return to chapter four of the Essential Local SEO Strategy Guide.

Bad products

Planned obsolescence (manufacturing products that are intended to break) is making headlines and being outlawed in different places around the world, and it’s clear that paying good money for bad products is a sting keenly felt by consumers. 63% of reviewers say its a cause of them writing negative reviews, and for consumers aged 18-29, it is the #1 cause of such sentiment. In America, youngest people are also poorest, and it makes perfect sense that they would be the most distressed by spending hard-earned money on shoddy merchandise.

Supply chain breakages over the past few years have doubtless exacerbated this scenario, with local businesses often having to stock whatever they can access rather than what they know to be top quality. Sustainability, too, plays a key part in this conversation, as the public is reevaluating the climate impacts and pollution that result from a throwaway culture.

If some of your negative reviews fall into the “bad products” category, it could help to know that the latest marketing thought leadership envisions business owners as guardians and stewards who are responsible for offering the highest quality, most sustainable products to their communities. For local businesses, this could mean replacing remotely-sourced goods with more local inventory when better resources are available nearby. It could mean adding new steps to quality control processes. This is not an easy fix, particularly due to the effects of the pandemic on manufacturing, but it’s a problem that takes on extra relevance if you discover that your worst ratings stem from an inventory of poor-quality products that are undermining your reputation.

Poor work on a job

Even if weeks or months have gone by since a customer wrote a review complaining of something like a botched home improvement, an unsuccessful repair, or an unmet deadline, your best course for reputation restoration will be to directly contact the unhappy client and see if there is anything you can do to make them feel better. You may have to redo the work. You may have to refund their money. Or, a simple, heartfelt apology and request for a second chance to “get it right” may be enough to transform the relationship.

While you cannot offer any type of incentive to prompt a formerly-unhappy customer to update their negative rating and review, what you should look out for is the point at which your follow-up has resulted in customer satisfaction to the degree that they might amend their online sentiment if asked. You’ll enjoy two victories if you succeed. First, the original customer will think well of you again and hopefully continue to do business with you. Second, when a negative review is updated to reflect a subsequent better experience, it is no longer a barrier to further leads from the general public.

These two statistics should give you tremendous confidence for the uphill work ahead: 67% of negative reviewers had an improved opinion of a brand when the owner responded well, and 62% of negative reviewers would give a local brand a second chance after an owner response solves their problem.

Spam from competitors, past employees, and personal adversaries

Of all of the major review platforms, it has been proposed that Google has the biggest problem with review spam, with an estimated 10.7% of its review content being fraudulent. Every review platform has its own guidelines, and many countries have rulings regarding what constitutes review fraud, but a general definition of it would include these factors:

  • Reviews written in exchange for money, gifts, discounts, or other incentives.

  • Reviews that stem from competitors, owners of the business being reviewed, staff, and former staff, or other non-customers of the business

  • Reviews that are left on behalf of anyone instead of directly by the customer

  • Reviews that are manipulated (gated) so that only positive sentiment is displayed

  • Review removal requests in exchange for money, discounts, or other incentives

In the United States, review fraud is illegal. It is considered an unfair competitive practice that impacts consumers and businesses under section 5(a) of the US Federal Trade Commission Act. Unfortunately, Moz’s recent survey found that 40% of consumers have been offered money, discounts, or gifts in exchange for writing reviews. This could include brands and agencies paying members of the public to both positively review them and negatively review their competitors. An additional 11% admit to leaving negative reviews of their former employers. All of these practices are prohibited.

It’s important to know that Google will only consider removal of spam reviews if they demonstrably violate their stated guidelines, and Google typically won’t remove textless ratings. If you strongly believe that the erosion of your overall Google star rating is due, in part, to the presence of review fraud, you have three possible avenues toward resolution:

  1. Log into your Google account and look up your business by name. Using the New Merchant Experience interface that should appear in the organic results, click on the “read reviews” tab. Find the fake review, and click the three dots to the right of it to report the review. Wait at least three days and then check to see if the review is gone. If not, you can try to report the problem via this live chat form. For more information on reporting review fraud, read this Google help doc.

  2. If review fraud is stemming from a personal adversary or other known bad actor, you may need to seek legal advice regarding how to proceed toward resolution.

  3. If Google fails to protect you from a large-scale review spam attack, a PR campaign may be your only hope of resolution. While Google will sometimes ignore individual reports of review spam, they have often acted once the scenario becomes a publicized scandal picked up by mainstream media. There have even been instances in which Google has shut off reviews during negative review attacks.

Spam from the business owner and their staff or marketers

50% of consumers lose trust if it looks like an owner or their employees are reviewing their own business. 44% are suspicious when an overall review profile consists of all-five-star reviews without any complaints. 39% are mistrustful when the profiles of those leaving reviews look suspect and 20% are wary when a local brand has too many reviews compared to its competitor.

A poor reputation doesn’t always equal a low star rating. It can, instead, stem from customers quietly walking away because they rightly suspect that the review profile is filled with fraud instigated by the business, itself. If the business you are marketing falls into this category, the above statistics paired with the illegality of these actions are all the persuasion that should be necessary to take immediate action to remove any reviews that violate platform guidelines and government regulations. Any review left by the business or its staff should be deleted. If fraudulent reviews stem from having hired a marketing firm that implemented this practice, your brand may need to seek legal advice in order to prompt the organization to delete this content. Only when you have removed as many spam reviews as possible will you be able to start building the legitimate reputation that supports customer satisfaction and brand longevity.

Task 3: Begin implementing the fixes for each category into which your negative reviews fall, prioritize acquiring new reviews, and then give it time for the expected rating improvements to materialize. If all goes well, you should start tracking a lift in engagements and revenue as the result of your higher overall rating.

Summing up

A low-star overall rating doesn’t feel good, and stands as a major obstacle to you running and marketing the local business of your dreams. However, because you can categorize the roots of negative consumer sentiment, you will typically have considerable powers of improvement on your side. It may take weeks, months, or even a year to implement better practices, services, and acquisition campaigns that culminate in a sterling rating, but such work has become primary to basic local business operations over the past twenty years.

For local businesses currently struggling with a reputation of 3-or-less stars, the main challenge will be to make improvements quickly and then actively acquire new sentiment at a steady rate so that future customers stop being turned away by the sight of a poor rating. It’s good to know that very few customers are looking for 5-star perfection and that, in fact, lots of people find flawlessness suspicious.

The ideal outlook is to utilize negative consumer sentiment as a valuable source of business intelligence which, at its best, tells you exactly what needs to be fixed so that customers are more satisfied. This is what makes review management an ongoing local search marketing task, and even a business with a good or great rating today can never stop working at reputational maintenance via stewardship of reviews.

Eager to learn more about local search and local business reputation? These resources are at your fingertips:

  • Read The Impact of Local Business Reviews on Consumer Behavior

  • Read the Essential Guide to Local SEO

Get formal training via the Moz Academy Local SEO Certification