Online reviews continue to garner power as reliable gauge of local businessesNews / OnlineBy Nick Vivion | July 15, 2014Share This article was originally published on Local SEO firm BrightLocal has updated its annual user review report, which looks at how users create and rely on reviews of local businesses. There were some questions added and a few dropped from last year's report, with thirteen questions making up this evolving perspective on the continued impact of user reviews in the local space. The respondents were in North America, and consisted of a 5,000-person panel with 2,104 entries from the US (90%) and Canada (10%). Consumption of user reviews The biggest surprise in this particular study is that consumers are actually using the Internet less to search for local businesses than they were last year. This is only a slight downwards trend - and those using the Internet almost every day actually increased. Perhaps this is a slight shift away from over-reliance on the Internet or maybe it's much easier to find businesses via other means. Nonetheless, some super-users are searching nearly every day for local businesses - 15% - which shows that local search is growing in importance for consumers. As far as types of business searched, users are still primarily using the Internet to find local food businesses. However, they are also searching for a broader base of businesses over last year:Restaurant searches went from 67% to 58% this year.Doctors and dentists are being searched for more often, from 35% to 38% this year.Fashion boutiques are also more popular, going from 28% to 34%.Lifestyle businesses drive increases in searches, given the larger frequency of visits. Other increases were seen for car garages, gardeners and gyms.Online reviews maintain stronghold, seen as reliable gauge of local business Respondents continue to consider online reviews a source for determining whether a "local business is a good business." This number keeps increasing, and has nearly doubled in the three years since the first survey was released in 2011. Now only 12% of respondents never consult online customer reviews. The graphic laying out this spread also suggests that the growth in the "yes, regularly" column comes from both the drop in the "No" and "Yes, occasionally" columns. The number of users consulting reviews, coupled with the increase in searches of businesses of all types, means that, at least with this cohort, the online review is only growing in importance for local marketing.This conclusion is confirmed by the responses to the question of what types of business reviews have been searched for. Nearly all segments have seen an increase in review consumption.Also, the survey found that the average number of business types that users have consumed reviews for has increased to 3.3 to 2.7, on average. Within this statistic, the Hair/Beauty Salon has seen the most growth, with 31% of respondents having checked in on a salon before purchase.Reviews are consulted more often - but are they more trusted?Reviews are certainly far more popular now than they were even three years ago. So how does this increase in consumption affect the perception of trust for these brands?There's been some marked growth in the amount of reviews that respondents felt they needed to form a trusted opinion - in fact, the number of folks that need to read more than 20 reviews to form a trusted opinion increased by 5% this year.Of the smaller number of reviews, 67% read no more than 6 reviews - which is down by 10% from last year. This either means that trust in online reviews has gone down or engagement on these sites has increased. From BrightLocal's analysis: For SMBs/SEOs the significance of these stats is that it sets a benchmark for the number of positive reviews that they need.With 85% of consumers reading 10 or less reviews then we need to ensure that we have at least 10 reviews to satisfy them, but more importantly that the most recent 10 reviews are all positive. If your most recent reviews are negative in sentiment & rating then most consumers won’t look beyond these to the better ones that may lie further down the page.It’s important to ‘manage’ out bad reviews and focus on generating regular, fresh, positive reviews.Share this quote As far as star rating affecting perception, this is still a very real part of a user's analysis of a business. The star rating system is a simple, visual tool that catalyzes the real content of a review - giving it outsize importance. This is how respondents interacted with star ratings:92% of users will use a local business with 4 stars.72% of consumers will use a local business with 3 stars.27% of users will use a local business with 2 stars.13% of users will use a local business with 1 star. That leaves a demanding 8% that would only patronize a business with more than 4 stars - a tough proposition, to be sure, for both the consumer and the business. The jump between 2 and 3 stars, as well as 3 and 4 stars, is very noticeable and is something that small business owners must truly understand and deliver a higher star rating to make online review researchers more comfortable with a purchase decision. Positive reviews have a clear and measurable impact on the perceived trustworthiness of a business, an impact that was initially visible in 2013 and which has maintained importance this year.This impact is further highlighted by the drop in respondents that feel online reviews are less trustworthy than direct, person-to-person reviews. This percentage has dropped to 13% from 33% since 2011.Other key pieces of information from the report:The next step that 57% of people take once they pick a business is to visit the business website.Reputation is the most important to the restaurant/cafe, doctor/dentist and hotel/B&B categories.Reliability, expertise and professionalism are the most important traits identified by respondents when selecting a business.Respondents have also recommended small businesses by word-of-mouth (61%), Facebook (38%), other review site (13%), Yelp (13%), Twitter (12%), Google+ (10%) and TripAdvisor (8%). Full report is here.