Commentary

5 Offline Local Business Factors That Surface In Online Reputation: Part I

Consumer sentiment counts. Look up almost any local business by name on Google and the results that rank highly and feature reviews make it apparent that the offline world is where local reputations are made and broken.

Organic results for a branded search of this kind for a restaurant cite cold food, a pharmacy is cited for long lines, a department store is the subject of complaints about having to hunt down scant employees amid endless aisles. The majority of positive and negative experiences play out in-store … the online part is simply where they get publicized after the fact.  

As local SEO matures into a fully fledged marketing discipline, local search marketers must look beyond the industry comfort zone of online visibility to the real-world factors that end up forming online reputation. The story of each client’s business can be read in its reviews and in social chatter.

Here are five elements that repeatedly surface when consumers contribute -- accurately or not -- to the Web-based reputation of local businesses, and a description of how this ties into local SEO..

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1. Staff Behavior

According to a GetFiveStars survey, 57% of consumer complaints relate to customer service and employee behavior. Who hasn’t experienced an interaction with an untrained clerk, been put on hold for fifteen minutes when calling a local shop with a question, or run into a rude manager or an unsmiling host? Online reviews overflow with such stories.

Considering that the very existence of each local business hinges on successfully serving customers, there are no factors more fundamental to “get right” than:

  • Creating a consumer-centric, detailed customer service policy
  • Implementing a thoughtful hiring process to ensure the best people are representing the brand to the public
  • Developing a meticulous employee training program (including periodic follow-ups) to ensure that each staff member is fully equipped to serve customers and carry out policy

For the local SEO agency, clues that a client is failing at any of the above three basic steps will be seen in consumer sentiment that mentions inadequate service (understaffing, long wait times/lines, lack of consumer protections), or service that is unprofessional in any way (unskilled, ill-mannered, disengaged). Negative social/review sentiment of this kind is a red flag that problems must be fixed in-house to begin to rebuild a positive reputation in the target community.

2. Atmosphere

Whether they are cozy, hip, peaceful, upscale or lively, local businesses earn repeat transactions when consumers come to rely on them for a particular type of experience. The fast-food industry codified this marketing principle with their discovery that loyalty can be won via consistency of service. Travelers on a road trip see McDonald’s golden arches ahead and choose to go there because they know precisely what kind of experience to expect.

It’s another rule of marketing that keeping an existing customer is far less costly than engaging a new one. Together, these two concepts form the basis for a real-world business plan that offers an environment to consumers to which they will keep coming back for more of the same.

The local SEO agency will quickly see clues in online consumer sentiment as to whether or not a client is successfully building a winning atmosphere. It’s important to recognize industry-specific language in this. A local B&B may be aiming to be described as “beautiful” by its guests, while a tax attorney seeks to promote an “efficient” atmosphere in the place of business. These are positive terms that can be expanded upon in all forms of online and offline outreach.

On the negative side, any local business being described by its customers as “confusing”, “cold”, “disorganized” or “hostile” is in need of atmospheric repairs. Given Google’s increased emphasis on associating attributes with businesses, this facet of reputation is growing in importance.

The trick here is that the business must have accurately identified a local consumer desire for a particular type of experience. Some cutting-edge restaurants are prized for being “noisy” and “busy,” while others are chosen for being “intimate” and “unhurried.”

The language of online reviews sets expectations for all future customers and can end up being tagged as highly visible “attributes,” signaling that a brand can be chosen for a particular experience. It is then the brand’s job to continuously live up to its best atmospheric reputation, to the best of its ability, to avoid consumer disappointment.

3. Cleanliness

Google, Yelp and other review platforms are rife with stories of people swearing they will never eat at a certain restaurant again after paying a visit to its dirty restroom. Given that virtually all consumers are united by the need to access public bathrooms, one surefire way to positively impact online reputation is with a flawless janitorial policy.

Beyond bathrooms, every surface of a business must be maintained in a good, clean condition to avoid embarrassing consumer complaints. From bedding to carpets to lobby seating and windows, hygienic practices are a must, and employees must be clearly tasked and then monitored with specific cleaning duties.

For the local SEO agency, a lack of any discussion of cleanliness in online sentiment is a good sign in most industries that consumers are not being offended by noteworthy slovenliness. Obviously, for the hospitality industry, the attribute “clean” is essential, but if an auto body shop features no mentions of this, it’s likely a safe bet that their lobby isn’t egregiously dirty. In other words, this particular factor is one of degree (more important for some clients than others) but any mention of a location being “gross,” “filthy,” etc. is a red flag that basic housekeeping practices are being neglected and likely turning potential customers away.

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