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Are Online Reviews Better than Online Advertising?

The biggest hurdles for me over the years has been how to focus my marketing efforts when trying to reach people for the various businesses that I have started or been a part of. The frustration I’ve had is the difference in traffic between traditional search and the traffic various review sites get. As a person who provides services to consumers, I understand that a word-of-mouth review is the best thing I can have sitting in front of prospective client. The issue is getting those reviews in front of people at the right time when they’re ready to make a decision. That begs the question are online reviews better than traditional online advertising?

I’ve tried my best to be an early adopter of the various technologies that allow us to connect with each other online. Of course the main thing that I have tried is to rank well in organic search. The problem with organic search is that it is beginning to take a lot of time to maintain a good ranking. The average business person does not have that kind of time. Maintaining your website takes enough time as it is, even just to keep it current. But that isn’t enough these days, you have to have the various inbound links coming to your website in order to rise above your competition. If you provide a service or even a product locally this is typically easier yet if you live in a larger town or city is still very difficult to pull off. Beyond that, maintaining profiles and listings on various websites and directories is even more time-consuming. You make one change and you have to update multiple destinations to avoid conflicting information. You never know how people are going to find you, just because they do a Google search for you by name doesn’t mean that there cannot land on your website first. They could land on your Citysearch profile or your Yelp page and is the information there is old or incorrect they may not be able to get a hold of you and if that happens your competition earns the upper hand.

Right now I am attending the Search Marketing Expo (SMX) in San Jose California. I was fortunate to attend this event last year and I walked away with a lot of valuable information. As a small business person it’s very important for me to be current and up-to-date with my search marketing techniques. I would like to say that I spend a lot of time doing this and that my good rankings in the search engines are results of strategic work on my part, however I am mostly just lucky. My locally targeted businesses rank very well with little or no work on my part. Because I do good work, my customers talk about me on various websites and review sites. When I listen to the leaders in the search marketing industry, it refreshes my mind with ideas and things I should accomplish. As far as my local reach goes, if I implemented 5% of what I learned at this conference I would outweigh everybody in my local area. However, since I have a couple of online properties that have a worldwide presence, I am really looking to try and find new ways to increase viewership to those websites.

Using my wedding photography business as an example, most of my referrals, which come through my website, are the result of somebody finding me through another website. Rarely does an inquiry come from somebody who manually typed in my website address. When somebody manually types in your website address it means that they heard about it somewhere else. They could’ve been handled by business card by somebody, or perhaps was told about me by word of mouth. It is virtually impossible to track the origination of this type of lead without asking them directly. On my inquiry form, I do ask this question. Is very important to me to know how somebody found my website. Of course it is important because sometimes I spend money on advertising and I want to make sure that I am receiving proper ROI, but it was the result of a word-of-mouth transaction I want to be able to thank the originating source personally. I take word-of-mouth very seriously. Word-of-mouth is probably the best way that somebody could be referred to you. It means that somebody trusts you enough to tell their friend about you. To me that’s huge.

People are starting to get numb when it comes to online advertising. We are marketed to everywhere we go. Even when we view a photo on Facebook there are ads next to it. We have no desire of clicking on anything other than our friends photo yet we are being served ads. That is good for Facebook because they’re making boatloads of cash however we as consumers are learning to block these ads out. It has to really get our attention to even notice it these days. If you asked me to tell you what the last ad was that I saw online I wouldn’t be able to tell you and I have over 12 years of experience in website design and marketing. Even I blocked these things out. So does traditional online advertising even work anymore?

I say that it does if it’s done right. If you have a relatively new website that doesn’t rank well at all for the search terms you desire to rank under you can always choose pay per click (PPC) campaigns. The only problem with PPC campaigns is that is the only place that you show up in search is in the paid search area you probably won’t be taken as seriously as if you show up in the organic search area. Organic search is the results that the search engines serve to us using their algorithms. The search engines algorithms are designed to find the most relevant content for us based on the search terms we enter into their search box. These out the rhythms are getting smarter and smarter every day. How many times have you avoided clicking on a website that shows up in the PPC area of the search results which are typically even highlighted with the words “sponsored link” underneath it? You are PPC campaign has to be spot on for it to resonate with the person doing the search. Organic search results are free, or at least the search engines don’t charge for them. The problem with organic search is that it is harder to rank. Think about the websites you typically click on when you do a Google search. How many times do you venture onto the second page? How many times do you even scroll down? Typically if we don’t see the result we are looking for right away, we change our search and if our research is to obscure, the search engines often give us suggestions. That sure sounds like a lot to think about, and it is. With online advertising, whether you are paying a search engine or not, it is best to show up as often as possible. If you show up in organic search, and you have competition who also shows up in organic search, how are you going to differentiate yourself between your competition? There are really only a few ways to do this. The first way is to make sure that the content the search engines are serving up sounds better than your competition’s does. This could be hard to accomplish while still maintaining a better ranking. What you should be trying to get the search engines to display is a whole another conversation. I am a big advocate of interruption marketing. By interruption marketing I don’t mean that you should get in the way of what the user is trying to achieve, what I mean is that you should be in more than one place at a time. Just because you rank well in organic search doesn’t mean you don’t have to think about PPC. If you are a local business, you should be ranking well for local search as well as organic search. If you rent decent for both, why not throw us thin layer of PPC over the top of that. How many times have you made a decision based on repetition. If the result shows up multiple times, chances are it’s a better option then the other results that don’t show up but once. It’s just the way our minds think. So with online advertising, those are your options. All of those require a decent amount of work to maintain and assure ranking doesn’t change. Even your PPC campaign can start to slide if someone else comes along and bids higher than you. Let’s talk a little about online reviews.

Online reviews don’t work for every business however it does work for most. How many businesses can you think of that don’t benefit by word-of-mouth? I can’t think of any. The positive online review is just as good as a face-to-face word-of-mouth referral. I feel like I can say this because I know how many times I have made a purchase of a product based on user reviews from people whom I’ve never met before. I spend a great deal of money on Amazon.com. When it comes to purchasing a product that I’m not 100% familiar with I always go to the reviews and read what others have to say about that product. Whether the product is $9.99 or $4000, if I’m unsure I read the reviews. One good written review has been enough to lead me to the shopping cart. You might think this is crazy but I’m sure you’ve done this before in one way or another. The number one thing we are worried about when making a purchase is minimizing the chance of that purchase being a mistake. Gone are the days where we have a local professional for every industry that we can go visit or call for their professional opinion. We live in an era of big box stores manned by minimum wage hourly employees who have a very minimal knowledge of the products and services they are selling. For the most part I have given up on asking the opinion of somebody working sales at such stores. There is a small chance that they will have personal experience with the product I’m interested in and most of the time they BS their way through trying to talk me into purchasing it. I end up wasting my time. Online reviews have led me down the correct path 90% of the time. Of course that’s a rough estimate.

As I mentioned before, I am in the service industry. My businesses are services that I provide either to other businesses or directly to consumers. I don’t have a tangible product or something somebody can hold and easily measure its value. I sell a service, which can only be described to somebody else. This is where online reviews, for me, work better than online advertising. I’m not saying that online advertising is not important, if anything both are important. What I am talking about is the difference between the two…

A positive or even a negative online review, is the opinion of the peer. Our whole lives we have looked to the opinions of other people, it’s just the way we were created. If we don’t know something, we want to ask somebody else. Some of us like to figure it out on our own, but even those people have their resources. To many of my friends and family it may appear that I figure out many things on my own, however I spend a lot of my time researching things. When I first got into digital photography I read the opinions of a lot of other people. I knew exactly what I wanted because I learned what other people were using to accomplish their goals. I bypassed a lot of mistakes that many people make when purchasing larger ticket items by learning from other people who are using the products rather than just talking to a sales person. Of course salespeople can be knowledgeable, but they are salespeople who want to sell you something. I don’t know why they would would decide to push one product over another, for all I know it has to do with how much money they make on the sale or what kind of promotions are going on at the time. I don’t want my purchasing decision to be based on somebody else’s sales goals.

Most of the time I have found that online reviews are a better representation of what I’m looking for then the opinion of a close friend or family member. Not to say that I made all of my decisions based off of the reviews of people whom I’ve never met before however their opinions are typically unbiased and since they’re not directly talking to me they are not really trying to influence me. For my photography business I have found this to be really true. Brides typically don’t ask around when it comes to choosing their wedding photographer. Many of them already know who they want their wedding photographer to be. This could be because they were in the wedding and enjoyed the photographer that was a part of that wedding or they could’ve seen some photos while ago online while they were single or dating. Those who had never had a run-in with a photographer whether in person or online before getting engaged typically go and read the reviews. I have lots of reviews on several different review websites. Most of these reviews are from wedding clients that I have had the past. I live in a smaller city where the idea of publishing your thoughts on a product or service is a relatively new concept. In larger cities this is been going on for some time.

When it comes to getting online reviews written for your business is best to let it happen naturally. I have tried to provide incentives to my past clients in exchange for their time in writing a nice review online. The problem is that they’re being incentivized and their reviews sound incentivized. When you write about something out of pure passion and enjoyment others can see that, they can feel it. I know that when I write things because I intend to receive an incentive, I try to write in length and of using a lot of platitudes. My incentivized review ends up sounding cheesy. When I have an absolutely positive experience with a product or service and I go to write a review words just flow right out of my fingertips onto the keyboard. What kind of reviews do you think are best to have? Still, getting your customers to post reviews is a challenge. If they don’t think to write a review it doesn’t matter if they have a good experience or not, chances are they’re not the right one. Most likely they will write one if they have a bad experience, and you don’t want that. Here are a few tips that I have found help when it comes to getting customers to write online reviews.

Complete your profiles: Make sure you have claimed and completed all of your profiles on the popular review sites for your industry. This means that your Google place page, yelp.com business page, Yahoo.com local listing, and profile on any other website relevant to your industry should be filled out completely. You want to make sure that it looks like you’ve been there recently and that all the information is current. If somebody wants to write a review but they come across to an outdated page they may not write a review in fear that their posting in the wrong place. There is nothing wrong with linking to these profiles on your website. I would even suggest we recommend people go interview them, especially if you have reviews there. I have more reviews than all of my competition, so I’m not worried about people leaving my website to go somewhere else just to see that I have more positive glowing reviews than anyone else in my area.

Link to your reviews: When somebody posts a review to a search engine or review site, copy and paste it to your website. There’s nothing wrong with having a reviews or testimonials section on your website. When you place external reviews on your website, make sure you link back to that review. This allows people to click on that review and visit it on its originating website. This shows authenticity. It also plants the seed. If somebody reads several positive reviews, decides to do business with you, and as a pleasant experience, they are going to want to be a part of that list. It’s all about planting the seed.

Asking for it: I mentioned before that the times that I have asked for reviews resulted in subpar reviews if I received any at all. This is because my timing was not right. You can ask for a review. The time to do this is whenever the positive emotion is highest in your customer. For example, the moment that I show my clients their wedding photos and they are on that high of reexperiencing their special day, I need to ask for that review. At the end of my meeting with my clients are thinking me for my great work I could then plant the seed. What I’ve done in the past, is provided them with a small list of websites they could post reviews on. I told him just to pick one and write a review to it. I used to tell them to write a review and copy and paste it to all the websites however that is a daunting task often getting put off and never completed. I want to make sure that I have as many reviews as possible so I need to make this as easy as possible. Most of the search engines and some of the review sites have extremely long URLs that lead to your page. Because of this I have used the URL shortening service bit.ly to provide my clients with a shorter website address that is much easier to type in. Depending on how the conversation goes at the end of the meeting, sometimes I just e-mail them asking for the review. I wish I could say that the majority of my clients post reviews however it is a small percentage that actually takes the time to do it. We’re just busy. Countless times I have even thought to write a review for a business and I end up forgetting. I don’t want to be that guy who hounds previous customers for reviews but that is resulted with me having less reviews than I could’ve had if I was a little more proactive.

So this is kind of turned into more of a conversation about online advertising and online reviews however I think it has given you a bit of information that hopefully you didn’t have before and an insight into the different ways that I do things for my business. This changes with each new bit of information that I get. The next two days at this conference could completely change the way that I do things. Online marketing is a constantly changing animal. There is no one way that won’t work forever and when I mentioned the word “traditional” earlier it is hard to even call it traditional because 10 years ago it didn’t exist in the sense that it does today. All I can recommend is to stay on top of it. That will keep you at least one step ahead of your competition. Even though it will take time, it is time well spent. The more times that you appear in search whether it be due to an organic listing, PPC, a profile on another website or a written review the better. It’s all about repetition.

I often talk about this topic on twitter and Google +. Many of the people that I follow online are professionals in this area and I like to be able to see what they are up to and learn from them as they figure out new ways to reach customers. Follow me on twitter or add me to a Google + circle. When I find the relevant information, I will share it.

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