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Online customer reviews on apps like Yelp are often the first thing a customer learns about your business. Photo: yelp.com

As sites featuring online customer reviews grow in popularity it’s become clear that your brand’s reputation can be spread by more than just the usual word of mouth. Businesses have always lived or died by word of mouth, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. But new methods in how a customer’s opinions of a business or service can be seen and heard is changing the way a brand handles itself online.

Reputation is everything for many brands, especially restaurants and hotels. Before the internet, a business wouldn’t be around too long if it had too many unhappy customers passing on bad experiences to friends and family. In today’s marketplace however, a customer can say anything about a business and the entire world can see it in an instant. Just a few negative online customer reviews can crush a new business, and even well-known brands have to be wary of accumulating too much negative feedback. While many use Facebook and other social media platforms to personally recommend and share reviews about businesses to others, third party review sites like Yelp, AngiesList, and TripAdvisor, and mobile searches on Google+ Business Listings have become immensely powerful in directing traffic to businesses large and small.

So, just how powerful are these reviews? As a consumer, you most likely use Yelp and similar services all the time to read reviews or get info. But as a business owner these sites can really be a thorn in your side. Many restaurateurs have watched their free time disappear, along with their sanity, as they tried to manipulate their Yelp star rating and appease every last customer that was unhappy with their meal. But is all this really necessary? Do people read these reviews and trust them?

According to the search marketing company Bright Local, people do. In fact, over the last 4 years the company has conducted a comprehensive Local Consumer Review Survey that has yielded some surprising results.

The Power of Online Customer Reviews

There’s no questioning the power of online customer reviews when you look at the stats. Almost 9 out of 10 consumers looked at reviews in the last 12 months to help them make a decision about a local business. These numbers sync perfectly with the growing number of local mobile searches by consumers to find products. It should be clear to business owners by now that consumers are using mobile devices to search for their products AND to get reviews of the product at the same time! Even more important is the fact that 4 out of 10 of consumers regularly use these reviews in their daily shopping experiences. This emphasizes the importance of reviews and the priority that business owners should put on managing their reputation online. Business owners also need to make sure that their online customer reviews are abundant, positive, and current.

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As “occasional” users become “regular” users, online customer reviews will become more important to a business’ online reputation management.

Do People Really Trust Online Customer Reviews?

The latest results from the survey show that more than ever before, customers are trusting online reviews. An astounding 88% trust them just as much as personal recommendations! That’s up from 79% in 2013. Clearly, quantity and quality come into play in this statistic. Over 3 out of 10 people said they would trust online customer reviews as much as personal recommendations as long as there are multiple ones to read. Furthermore, 30% said they would trust the review as much as a personal recommendation if they believed it to be authentic. Trust continues to build as you can see in the graphic below. A hefty decline in people that didn’t trust online reviews was experienced from 2013 to 2014, and you can expect the numbers for 2015 will continue to show the public’s growing trust in these reviews.

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In just three years, a 20% increase in the trustworthiness of online customer reviews was noted by the survey.

Do Online Customer Reviews Affect a Consumer’s Opinion of a Local Business?

Results from the survey show that positive reviews do indeed have a great effect on the perceived trustworthiness of a local business. Normally, by the time a customer gets to reading reviews they’ve already established their need and which businesses can meet it. So they search for positive feedback to help them determine which business is the best one to satisfy their need. This shows that local businesses can’t sit around and let their online reputation slip as any negative feedback can directly impact new customer acquisition and sales revenue!

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Times are a changin’. Since 2013, over 7 out of 10 people will trust a business after reading online customer reviews.

What’s the Next Step a Consumer Takes After Reading an Online Review?

Here are the meat and potatoes of the survey, or the quinoa and kale for our veggie friends. With an amazing 7 out of 10 consumers taking direct, positive action to contact businesses after reading reviews, you can see that these online reviews are a big deal. Reading online customer reviews is one of the final steps in the path of purchase and has a direct impact on making possible customers into real customers. Almost 6 out of 10 people will visit a company’s website after reading a review, so make sure your site can handle the needs of those consumers. Displaying critical info like prices, phone numbers, addresses, and company history will help those customers quickly evaluate if a local business satisfies their requirements.

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More often than not, the next step consumers take after reading an online customer review is inspecting the product or service on a website.

Essentially, statistics from surveys like this one prove that online customer reviews should play a major role in your reputation management and your local online presence. Given the trends in local searches, you can expect that these reviews will continue to be valuable to business owners as mobile phone wielding consumers rely on other consumer’s opinions to make that final purchasing decision.

All infographics courtesy brightlocal.com