Yes, Replying to Google Reviews Helps (Both) Your Search Engine Rankings

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Yelp and when my internal newsletter went out with this post the response was overwhelmingly positive. All told this wasn’t too surprising – the general consensus among small business owners is that Yelp has approval ratings on par with cable companies.

A single review platform is one thing, though, but what about the almighty lord of the Internet itself, Google?

There’s a lot of criticism one can aim at Google and I’d probably agree with most of it. For now though, I want to focus on Google Reviews.

Google Places and specifically Google Reviews are something I deal with extensively on behalf of clients. Addressing reviews both positive and negative is a regular part of my day. I still know some business owners would rather not have to deal with it at all given the general unpopularity of online reviews and after COVID-19 especially, I get it.

That still doesn’t change the fact that Google Reviews are integrated into Google itself – which brings us to the big question: Does replying to Google Reviews actually help your search engine rankings?

I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but anybody who claims to know the “secret” of Google search rankings is either lying to you or is disclosing secrets about Google’s notoriously secretive algorithm – in which case they’re about to get their door kicked in by Google’s lawyers. Everything we know about how Google search rankings work is given to us by Google itself.

To address this question let’s look at the “Quality of content” section since it’s most relevant:

After identifying relevant content, our systems aim to prioritize those that seem most helpful. To do this, they identify signals that can help determine which content demonstrates expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.

You’d need a microscope to read between the lines in that paragraph but the implication is pretty clear. Google prioritizes content based on trustworthiness, and Google has expressed how good it is to respond to reviews multiple times:

Customers can leave reviews many places online, including on your free Business Profile on Google. Reviews are important to both businesses and customers, and offer a great opportunity for businesses to engage with customers and build loyalty.

So no, they’re not explicitly saying that responding to Google Reviews improves your search engine standing, but they don’t have to. The implication is pretty clear that Google perceives responding to reviews on its platform as engendering trust and loyalty with customers, and Google itself notes that their system aims to prioritizes helpful content, which includes content that’s considered trustworthy. In short, it very likely does.

Google is actually much more direct about this when it comes to Google Places local results, as opposed to the organic search results. It’s not a coincidence that the places that appear high on Google Local search results tend to have a lot of positive reviews. Their separate article on how to improve local rankings spells it out:

Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a business, from across the web, like links, articles, and directories. Google review count and review score factor into local search ranking. More reviews and positive ratings can improve your business’ local ranking. Your position in web results is also a factor, so search engine optimization (SEO) best practices apply.

There you have it. Not only does Google flat out tell you how to improve your local ranking but they also note that your position in web results and your position in Local results are often related. So while Google doesn’t go quite as far as saying organic results are impacted by reviews they’re making it pretty clear.

This technically doesn’t address the act of responding to these reviews itself but again, given Google’s emphasis on building trust and how much of a premium it places on “quality content” they’re all but saying responding to reviews affects you positively. You’re making the effort to build bridges (or rebuild them) with customers which is something that, on paper, Google approves of.

Historically Google has been cagey about – well, a lot of things, but also whether or not its algorithm includes sentiment analysis, which inspects elements around a search result and determines the emotional consensus, whether it’s positive, negative or neutral. It would be hard to imagine a world where organic search didn’t reflect on the same sentiment analysis Google acknowledges that it has for its Local search results.

It’s also worth remembering that the only source of information worth its salt is Google itself – which is why I’ve been linking to them and why I’ve been emphasizing being wary of anyone trying to tell you they alone have the secret of SEO as long as you buy their marketing training course. Google’s algorithm is one of the most closely guarded business secrets in the world, so the only consistently reliable, up-to-date information is what they’re giving us.

As a caveat, note that Google says that positive ratings can improve your results. I expect what they’re getting at here is that is honest reviews will help. In other words, urge and incentivize customers and even friends to leave positive reviews but don’t race off to a service that you pay $100 to have a bunch of strangers named Joe Smith leave you positive reviews. Google is wise to that and there are consequences for doing it. None of us are smarter than the world’s biggest search engine!

So yes, I get the feeling that online reviews are an annoyance. I absolutely understand how frustrating it is to take time out of your day and address someone who clearly just had a day and you just happened to be in the crosshairs, or when someone is making an absurd criticism like calling a spicy food dish “too spicy.” All that being said, it’s Google’s playground and we’re playing by their rules.

You may as well get the benefits of playing on that playground, right?