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On one hand, reviews were estimated to be the least important ranking factor for local organic results: just 5%. However, reviews were also estimated to be the second most important ranking factor for local pack results: 17%, outweighed by only GMB/GBP (36%). By comparison, these figures were respectively 6% (slightly higher) and 16% (slightly lower) in the 2020 report. In the 2018 edition, which is the next available version prior to 2020, the respective percentages were 6.47% (again, slightly higher) and 15.44% (again, slightly lower).
The expert consensus is that reviews are an increasingly significant ranking factor when it comes to the local pack — which, according to MomentFeed, can increase the number of clicks your business receives by as much as 100%. Make sure your business is leveraging reviews efficiently to generate leads, improve client retention , boost revenue, and drive growth.
Whitespark’s survey distinguishes between local pack ranking factors and local organic ranking factors, so let’s provide a quick overview of each.
2021 Local Search Ranking Factors: How Important Were Business Reviews?
According to the report, “negative sentiment in Google reviews” was #8 in Whitespark’s Top 20 Negative Ranking Factors , making bad reviews even more harmful than issues like hidden business addresses on GMB/GBP (#12), incorrect map markers in GMB/GBP (#13), and certain types of incomplete or missing data (#19). Interestingly, low ratings were found to be slightly more damaging than negative “sentiments,” with “low numerical ratings of Google reviews (e.g. 1-2)” coming in at #6 on the list. (Conversely, “ high numerical Google ratings (e.g. 4-5)” ranked #6 on an opposite list, appearing on Whitespark’s Top 20 Local Pack/Finder Factors in 2021 .)
Whitespark differentiated between over half a dozen “ranking factor groups,” such as:
As we mentioned above, the local pack (sometimes called the “the Google Map Pack”) is a group of three businesses that are relevant to a search. The local pack is displayed at the top of the first page of Google search results in response to a search with local intent (such as “tacos near me” or “dentists in Chicago” ). In addition to their prominent positioning, local pack results also show star ratings, distance, and other key pieces of information about the business.
For more about including keywords in owner responses (which some experts disagreed with ), check back on our blog later this week when we’ll dive deeper into that topic. For now, let’s examine the relationship between bad reviews and local rankings.
First, we wanted to provide some quick background information about our source for this article, the 2021 edition of Whitespark’s Local Search Ranking Factors report. According to Whitespark, it “was developed by David Mihm in 2008 and taken over by Darren Shaw in 2017.” Whitespark describes the report as “the industry’s go-to resource for understanding how to rank in Google’s local search results,” making it a rich source of information for business owners and digital agencies. You can view the full report here , including a complete list of contributors, along with an archive of previous editions.
Making sure that clients engage with their listings, with Q&A, with reviews, etc. is a priority – so that potential customers can see they’re involved and customer focused. —Claire Carlile The time and resources that were once earmarked for citations, should be shifted towards responding to reviews and Q&A initiatives. —Matt Lacuesta For a number of multi-location clients, we’ve been testing including limited but relevant keywords in owner responses to reviews, services, and posts to help capture more unbranded traffic and seeing some positive signals when applied consistently. —Krystal Taing.
In other words, the data shows us that review signals (such as velocity and diversity) have grown consistently more significant over time since 2018, at least when it comes to ranking in the local pack. Whitespark acknowledged this trend in the 2021 edition of their report, stating, “There has been a steady increase in the perceived importance of reviews.”
How Much Can Negative Ratings or Reviews Hurt Your Local Rankings? (And What Can Your Business Do About It?)
Participants in the report were asked to estimate “how much weight Google attributes to each” of these groups, providing separate estimates for local pack results and local organic results. The outcomes were surprising — and fascinating.
Notably, “quantity of reviews” also scored as the #7 factor that experts were most focused on in 2021 . While you can’t control the content of your reviews, you can help increase their quantity by:
Whitespark states, “The 2021 survey had 132 potential factors that local search experts think Google might use to rank businesses in the local pack/finder/maps and local organic results. We don’t have any special access to the internal workings of Google’s local search algorithm.” However, the results of the report were based on more than “a decade of analysis, experience, research, and…testing,” offering business leaders a valuable inside look at some of the “specific signals Google is using to evaluate and rank businesses.”
Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the process of continuously adjusting and improving your website to help it rank higher on Google. For example, some common optimization strategies include publishing useful content; building high-quality backlinks; increasing your site speed; and of course, ensuring your website is mobile-friendly.
Optimizing your GMB/GBP listing is also critical for ranking in the local pack — for example, ensuring that you have not chosen an irrelevant or otherwise incorrect business category. If you have not already created a Business Profile on Google, you can get started for free here .
Where Does the Data Come From?
You’ve always known that bad reviews on Google My Business (GMB), also k nown as Google Business Profile (GBP), c ould be harmful to your business — especially if they’re handled improperly by your review response team. But in its report, Whitespark was able to quantify just how harmful they actually are.
Of course, you can’t dictate the content of user-generated reviews or choose how many stars your business is awarded, giving you limited power over these two particular ranking factors. However, as we explored in a previous post , you are more likely to retain unhappy customers — and attract new ones — if your team consistently provides reviewers with swift, friendly, and helpful responses.
In addition to low ratings and negative review sentiments, Whitespark also included fake reviews in its Top 20 Negative Ranking Factors, with “reports of fake reviews on your GMB listing” landing at #16 on the list. Learn more about the pitfalls of paying for positive reviews , consider how you can leverage bad reviews to your advantage , or discover useful strategies for dealing with 1-star and 2-star ratings . You can also browse our tips for responding to negative reviews , or brush up on some do’s and don’ts when replying to legally sensitive reviews , such as comments involving safety or discrimination at your business.
Before we take a look at the effects of negative reviews, which we’ll explore in the next section, we wanted to share a few quotes from some of the experts featured in Whitespark’s report, which you can browse in the commentary section . Consider the following words of advice from some of the industry’s leaders:
Local organic results are unpaid search results that are displayed below the local pack. They generally contain a brief description of the business called a “meta description,” unless an issue is preventing the text from displaying properly. Ideally, your business should strive to appear in both the local pack and organic results sections — a goal that gathering and responding to reviews may help your business attain. Continue reading to learn about the impact of ratings and reviews on local search rankings, including some notable trends over time and shifts from previous years.
Reviews were significant to local pack rankings in several ways. Whitespark’s top 20 local pack factors in 2021, which are compiled in this section of the report, notably include the quantity of Google reviews with text (#12); keywords appearing in Google reviews (#9); and, as we discuss in the next section of this article, having high Google ratings (#6).