Solid Review Optimization Strategies and Changes at Google Places/Maps

News came out yesterday that Google has removed from Places and Maps all third party reviews, including (especially) those for hotels and restaurants. In my world, the world of social media/reviews/mobile/ for hospitality, this is very big news. I've got two immediate guesses as to why Google is doing this: 1) Proactive effort to head off ongoing legal challenges from players like TripAdvisor, buoyed by the fact that (through Android) Places/Maps are getting close to achieving critical review mass, or 2) This is a first step in creation of a B2C travel offering from Google where it wouldn't be appropriate or legal to include 3rd party content. If you’ve got thoughts on this, please share them in the comments.

I will admit that, upon reading the headline alone, I was concerned that the cornerstones of some of our fundamental strategies at DMW had just been pulled out. But, then we began to do what we do best at DMW: we rationally went through the meaning and effects of this change and highlighted what this does and does not mean for hoteliers, in particular, who are focused on developing a review optimization strategy. DMW’s analysis begins below. We currently have a few open questions and a few hypotheses, but we also have a good set of facts and best practices that we believe still hold true, regardless of the source of reviews that Google displays on Maps and Places results. We believe that many of our recommended strategies and best practices remain solid because we focus on thinking about context, not specific platform. Yesterday’s news served as a very important example of why this is so important.

So, let’s have a closer look. The comments from Google stated clearly that review snippets, ratings, and review counts from 3rd parties will "no longer appear" on Google Places and Maps. The article makes no mention of whether that data will still influence the rank of venues in Places/Maps or in organic search results, however. For me, this is the primary open question at this time. I see two possible general outcomes…

Outcome 1: While reviews are no longer visible, review data (quantity of reviews and average star rating) still influence rank results in Maps and Places. Here’s an example: Data from TripAdvisor reviews contributes to the ranking of a given hotel on Places, but consumers do not see those reviews. This would be similar to a given webpage being ranked first by virtue of inbound links to it (the core of Google’s algorithms), even though we are not shown the inbound links themselves. If non-Google review data still influences Maps/Places results without being visible, review optimization strategies are still 100% viable.

Outcome 2: Reviews do not influence Maps and Places but do continue to influence organic results. In my mind, this is all but a certainty. Inbound links to reviews will still push hotels up through Google’s organic results. End result: Your hotel’s top organic listing could possibly be on TripAdvisor (instead of a best-case scenario of being your own branded website). However, that’s still better than your competition’s hotel taking the top listing. Again, review optimization matters.

In both cases, it is important to remember that Review Optimization is still a valid strategy because it optimizes listings within each platform that contains reviews for a given hotel. DMW has conducted analysis that proves most hoteliers’ instinct: there is a direct correlation between better (and more) hotel reviews and ROI from the channel that hosts those reviews. Now that Google is becoming a review platform in its own right (versus just a review aggregator) a full Review Optimization strategy should actively focus on monitoring and responding to Google reviews, too.

So, the takeaway for today is that the players and services have shifted some, but the context and best practices remain very valid:
  • Customers will still be looking for reviews and shopping via Google. 
  • Google will still display reviews (albeit only their own, for now), and 
  • Review/OTA websites like TripAdvisor, Orbitz, and Priceline will remain with their reviews and business models, too. 
With a “what’s-not-changed” list like that, pursuing a Review Optimization Strategy absolutely remains a safe bet.