Local SEO specialist BrightLocal has compiled the results from their annual Consumer Review Survey, which looks at the how, why and when consumers search for, and interact with, local businesses.
The survey was taken by 2,100 people, and was completed over a 6-week period in January/February 2013. Ninety percent of respondents were from America, and the remaining ten percent came from Canada.
While the sample size is not giant, the results certainly show a sea change in how consumers are using the Internet to seach for businesses - and how user reviews are increasingly taking the trusted place of personal recommendations in users' determinations on what businesses to frequent.
As hospitality businesses continue to grapple with the nuances of different review communities, a continued understanding of how reviews are used in the decision making process - and why - is essential to successful navigation of these treacherous waters.
The report, which can be downloaded here, compiles the data into key charts, some of which we have reproduced below.
Consumers are reading fewer reviews while also trusting reviews more
One of the primary concerns facing the online review space is just how consumers form opinions of a business that they have not yet experienced - do consumers consider negative reviews alongside the positive reviews?
Tnooz has looked at some of the research in this space, and the results from this survey show that users are increasingly relying on fewer reviews to form an opinion about a business.
Whether due to information overload, the increasing sophistication of review algorithms, or the user's ability to more quickly catalyze information, there has been a 22% drop in the number of consumers reading more than seven reviews.
This should concern all hospitality professionals, as fewer reviews considered makes the reviews much more powerful in the mind of the consumer. Multiple bad reviews have the increased potential to scuttle an online reputation if the user is not taking the time to consider different viewpoints.
Consider the results showing the year-over-year results of how many reviews are read before respondents make an opinion.
Since 2011, there has been a 5% drop of people who check no reviews whatsover. This portends the increasing importance of reviews in online business research, as more and more consumers are not making any decisions without first referring to an online review site.
Also since 2011, the number of respondents who check only 2-3 or 4-6 reviews has jumped over 10% in each case. Over the same time period, the numbers of fastidious researchers declined. Barely over 20% of consumers considered over 7 reviews before making an opinion this year. And while this is still a very healthy 1 in 5, the writing is on the wall - consumers are considering fewer data points when researching businesses.
For hospitality, this puts ever more pressure on maintaining a solid, consistent and representative set of online reviews.
Younger, female consumers trust online reviews more
No surprise here, but younger, female consumers are the most likely and willing to trust online reviews. The older cohort are much more likely to not trust reviews in any capacity.
And while female consumers are the most likely to question the authenticity of reviews before trusting them, males are not that far behind as far as trusting online reviews that feature multiple viewpoints perceived as authentic.
Restaurants/cafes continue to be the most searched and scrutinized, hotels close behind
Online reputation management has become a big business - and a vital core competency of anyone involved in the hospitality business today.
Unsurprisingly, hospitality businesses in which service is a primary value differentiator are the most scrutinized - because it's where reputation truly matters. Guests don't want to spend money on a sub-par experience, so will be seeking out reliability and consistency in the online reviews.
This also shakes out when respondents were asked which traits were the most important to them when selecting a business to frequent.
Despite the reliance on online reviews, word-of-mouth thrives
Yelp and TripAdvisor have become de facto arbiters of online reviews in the past few years, and yet respondents in this particular survey recommending businesses using traditional word-of-mouth in far greater numbers than any online review sites or directories.
This suggests that the minority is writing the reviews while the majority is consuming them generally as trustworthy and authentic representations of a business. The 80/20 rule applies here, so online review sites maintain their importance merely because consumers seek them out for more information on businesses around them.
Financial incentives for sharing a business have also lost some of their cachet, possibly due to consumer fatigue with constantly being offered monetary compensation for spamming friends with 3rd party deals.
While the language in this question is more vague, suggesting benefits beyond financial, it points to the underlying ethos behind the trend: customers want to recommend great businesses, and businesses should give customers reasons to organically recommend them via a great product and excellent service.
Reviews remain resilient
The overarching conclusion here is that reviews remain resilient to any outside interference, and that they continue to be a vital point of consideration when consumers are choosing businesses based on online research.
By embracing this fact, hospitality professionals should encourage their best, happiest customers to share reviews online - and quickly address any outstanding concerns posted via online review platforms.
The full report is available here.
NB: Restaurant image courtesy Shutterstock.