“How can we improve online conversions for our underperforming locations?” That was the question faced by the marketing director of a large company headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with more than 60 locations throughout the United States.

They did all of the kinds of things you would have probably done if you were the marketing manager. They launched Google AdWords and Facebook campaigns, completed a massive website overhaul, but mostly they focused on SEO—organic keywords, keyword rankings, and content marketing.

SEO Isn't Always Enough

In the end, they concluded that SEO wasn’t enough. The one thing that mattered just as much wasn’t a key priority—online reviews.

As they analyzed their poor performing locations, a trend started to emerge. Those locations either had poor customer reviews (less than 4.0/5.0 average score) and/or were lagging behind one of their nearby competitors. In one particular case, a local competitor had an average Google review of 4.7/5.0 with more than 50 reviews compared to their score of 3.9/5.0 with only 5 reviews. To make matters even worse, that competitor was only 2 miles away. For prospective customers searching online, that’s one choice that would be an absolute no brainer.

Of course SEO is important. Your business needs to show up in the organic search results. But you can’t lose site of the crucial role online reviews (specifically Google). In fact, a recent study concluded reviews were the most prominent local SEO ranking factor in 2017. Here’s why.

Generating Clicks and Calls

Google reviews have a direct impact on your clickthrough rate which also impacts your SEO. When someone Googles your business, your Google My Business listing generally appears including any customer reviews. Seeing those stars in the search results and on Google Maps is a quick and easy way for people to narrow down their search and whether they click on your link or call.

Even if you dominate organic search and appear in the top slot for every organic keyword relevant to your business, if your Google reviews are only averaging 3.2 out of 5.0—or you don’t have any reviews at all—you’re likely undermining your brand and the effectiveness of your online marketing.

Improving Google AdWords Performance

Beyond organic search, Google reviews can also have a direct impact on your Google AdWords campaigns. If you’re using a location ad extension—something we almost always recommend—Google will pull those stars into your ad.

Similar to organic, a low number of stars can negatively impact your clickthrough rates and most importantly—your Google AdWords conversions.

Owning Your Google Review Strategy

Put yourself in the shoes of that marketing director in Dallas. There are so many things that are out of her control.

Google changes its organic search algorithm and, in an instant, their website traffic can change dramatically. Facebook announces they’re decrease the visibility of branded/business content. Blog posts they believe are going to boost their organic traffic don’t.

What’s the one thing you have the most control over when it comes to online marketing and SEO? Google reviews.

Having a customer review strategy allows you to get in front of your feedback and, in many cases, control the narrative.

Responding to Negative Reviews

Many small businesses are afraid of negative comments so they either avoid Google reviews altogether or fail to respond when someone gives them a low rating. Both are dangerous.

When someone leaves a negative comment (and it happens), you can’t ignore it. Instead, respond in a professional and timely manner and promptly take the conversation offline. We’ve seen businesses start of their response with “First of all…” which is never a good idea! We’ve also spoken to businesses that handled negative reviews correctly and actually had the negative reviews removed or dramatically improved--always the best-case-scenario.

Of course there’s always a chance things blow up. You’re dealing with emotions and frustrated customers and sometimes, despite your best efforts, even the best response to a negative review doesn’t always work. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Good or bad, customers are going to leave comments. It’s up to you to handle what happens next.

Encouraging Online Reviews

Create a process to get reviews on Google on a regular basis. Share the critical importance of online reviews with your management team and front-end sales people.

Train your team.

If your reviews are lagging behind, look for a positive way to incentivize your employees to improve your score. When you get a negative comment, be strategic about how you respond.

Meanwhile Back in Dallas

So what happened with online conversions for the underperforming locations for that company in Dallas? The marketing director worked closely with her regional managers to encourage and incentivize their staff to address any outstanding customer service issues and to regularly solicit Google reviews from new customers. They also started using Reputation.com, an online reputation management platform, to help monitor comments and manage responses. Last check, the underperforming locations have boosted their average Google review scores are starting to see an increase in online conversions.