Remember the proliferation of bumper stickers hinging on doing random acts of kindness? Far longer ago than that, prophets and sages have urged us to do unto others and explained that what goes around comes around. Whether you think of it as creating good karma or giving praise where praise is due, rewarding local businesses you value by leaving them positive reviews is not only a way to do something nice, it is a tool for shaping your local business landscape as you would like to see it.

As I see it, citizens leave positive reviews in places like Google Maps, Yelp and Yahoo! Local for 2 good reasons:

1) To praise a business that served them well.

2) To help neighbors find the best answers to their local needs

Reason #1 is revolves around a feeling of intimacy between customer and business owner in which the customer appreciated the services rendered enough to devote a little free time to write about it. It's a type of thank you note.

Reason #2 stems from a sense of civic duty. The reviewer senses that his community, or visitors to his community, will be searching for local goods and services and that his positive review will help these searchers to find the best answer to their needs.

It's this second motive that I find most interesting, and most powerful, as a tool for local activism.

Is The Customer Really The Boss?

Wal-Mart founder, Sam Walton, once made the famous remark that the customer is the boss. It sounds like a nice thing to say, right? But, is it true? Do you feel like the boss when you shop at Wal-Mart, or in any of the other big box stores that have likely appeared along the highways of your local commerce scene over the past 2 decades? Or, do you feel like a number, there for the crunching, being processed through a system that funnels profits into some remote CEO's wallet?

It's hard to do these days in the U.S.A., but our family attempts to avoid patronizing the box stores when we can, and here are 5 quick reasons why:

1. Box stores raze the landscape flat, leaving no diversity and very scant opportunities for small businesses to compete. As Constitution-loving Americans, we resent and mistrust monopolies.

2. Box stores make you part of an agreement to buy cheap products in exchange for warehouse-style shopping, devoid of charm, pleasantry or a personal relationship with the business owner or staff. Your hard-earned cash does not earn you a feeling of buying power in a thriving, interconnected local economy. Rather, you rush into the huge, poorly lit, ugly box and slap down your cash, rush out with your products and really have no sense of the people with whom you've just transacted business. Spending your earnings didn't used to feel like this.

3. Box stores, in general, place a very low value on their workers, who are an eminently replaceable commodity. Failure to provide a living wage is one concern. Violating labor laws is another.

4. The majority of the products found in the big box stores are manufactured in foreign countries that have precious few, if any, laws protecting workers. Few Americans would genuinely feel proud of supporting sweatshop labor.

5. Made in India, Made in Honduras, Made in China means Not Made In Your Town, USA. Shopping at the box stores does not support your local economy. While a global economy was the proud, popular theme of the 20th century, every one of us is seeing what tacking gasoline costs onto commodity price tags is doing to our household budgets in the 21st century. These days, it's going to be cheaper and smarter to buy your apples from the nearest farmer than it's going to be to have them shipped to you from Chile, and doing so will hopefully mean that you've got some neighbors left who can still afford their mortgage payments. Local self-sufficiency is, in my opinion, the sane choice in an increasingly stressed economy and environment.

In a scenario where the customer has been deprived of diverse choice, a living wage, high quality goods, domestic-made commodities, ethical shopping options and the ability to keep his earnings within his community, he can hardly be called the boss.

Sleuthing Out The Good Stuff

If you want to buy a blender, a washing machine or a new winter sweater, finding a domestic manufacturer is going to be a challenge, let alone finding a local manufacturer. So, you do the best you can, and often the strongest choice left to you is to seek out Mom & Pop if they are still hanging in there anywhere in your town.

This means that instead of driving your car into the vast strip mall parking lots, often lit better than the stores they encompass, you go to the family-owned restaurant, camera store, home improvement shop, bookseller or auto garage. You do business with sole-proprietors who know that their reputation depends on your satisfaction and not a multi-billion dollar advertising budget. If the shop is small enough, you may even get onto a first-name basis with the staff who will come to remember that your husband needs extra-wide shoes or that your child is allergic to peanuts. I remember, shopping used to be this way when the majority of our needs were catered to by Mom & Pop.

And, when you've sought out and discovered where the most local local business are in your town, and you have a positive experience with them, you can become an activist. You can do it by leaving them a very well-crafted online review.

How To Write A Powerful Review And Potentially Change Your Town's Economy

Go to a user review entity like Google Maps, Yahoo! Local or Yelp and search for any type of business + location. Each of these entities will begin by showing you snippets from any of the reviews people have left for businesses that meet your search's requirements. *Take note of the fact that all 3 of the review sources I've mentioned bold the keywords you've type into the search box if they can find these keywords in the reviews that have been left.

Every user review entity has its own algorithm for ranking businesses, and number of reviews plays a part in this to differing degrees in different places. One thing that I have learned in my on-going study of Local Search is that when a search engine like Google discovers reviews or citations of a business that include either goods/services or geolocation information relating to that business, this appears to impact Google's belief in the authority of that business as a legitimate local provider. In short, when Google finds a review for a 'lamp shop' in 'Novato, California' and that review references either of these key phrases, Google can take note of that data as reinforcement of the concept that the business is a trustworthy local resource.

If you are at all dissatisfied with the big box experience, here are 3 things you can do to reward true local businesses when you write reviews of them.

1. Include their main offering + location in the title of your review.

In other words, don't title your review, "I like shopping here." Rather, shoot for something like "The Friendliest Lamp Shop in Novato".

2. Repeat the service + location phrases within the body of your review.

Think along the lines of, "I've visited all 3 of the lamp shops in Novato, and I like Bright Lights the best because their selection is about 10 times as big as that of any other local store."

3. Make your review one degree more helpful by detailing what the business provides.

Your neighbors may be searching for specific products (Tiffany lamps, Arts & Crafts lamps, desk lamps, porch lights, solar lights, etc.) Mention specific products or brands you've purchased or noticed at the shop you're reviewing. This can help your neighbors and can also reinforce the business' authority as a local provider of these exact items.

Why Do This?

The fact is that the major effort to achieve top local rankings rests on the shoulders of the business owner. It's up to him to run a great, informative website, claim his local business listings in the major entities, populate his listings with helpful and thorough information and serve his customers well so that they are inspired to leave him positive reviews. But, you can help him, in your role as local activist, by writing the type of careful review I'm describing.

I confess, when I decided to write this article, I wondered if people might think I was advising people to do something unnatural to them in order to artificially manipulate Local Search rankings. I wondered if people might not feel that citizens should write their reviews as they see fit, without regards to how search engines and review sites might interpret them. But, I support education, and just as it's helpful to have someone explain to you how to write a good job application or a stylish business letter, I think it will be useful for people to understand how to write a clear and powerful review. It's a new medium, and I'd like to help people understand how it works.

By rewarding the local businesses you want to support, the number and useful quality of their reviews will grow and this will increase their chances of being ranked above businesses you don't want to support. The higher your favorite businesses rank, the better chance they have of winning new customers, thus increasing their ability to stay in business and compete against the big box stores that are attempting to homogenize and monopolize the place you call home.

Taking five minutes of your time to write a skillful review may seem like a very small thing to do. But the implications are large when it isn't just you doing it. When it's every neighbor on your block, every family in your neighborhood, every small business in your community supporting local values in the form of a vote for valued small businesses, you have discovered a legitimate power to shape local commerce, keeping as much of the local wealth at home as you can.

With the recent mega-bucks bailout plan going forward on Wall Street, I hear many citizens expressing doubt that this activity will provide any financial benefits to common folk. It's all taking place at some corporate level, and as a nation, we have grown somewhat dubious of trickle-down economics.

I'm by no means an economics expert. Like most of you, I read the news and try to make sense of it. But what I do know is this: when I spend my earnings at a shop owned by my neighbor, that money is going to make sure he can stay my neighbor. He can continue to afford to maintain his family and afford to live here. And, because of my purchasing choices and the fact that he knows me, he is a lot more likely to hire me to do some copywriting or SEO work for his website than if his small business fails because I decided to shop at Wal-Mart.

Think about this scenario and see if you feel a little nod inside from the activist in you.

October 10, 2008

Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.


Excellent article Miram as usual. I wish that local web dev shops would see the need to be more client concentric then they are (maybe it's our area only) and treat the client as if they really wanted our business.

As for local businesses and the economy, I agree with most of what you have said, but I have had some same experiences at "local/Mom-Pop busineeses as the "big box" stores employee attitudes. I think any business that has staff that greets me as if I just interuptted them no longer deserves my dollars. I don't think wage is the sole reason for poor social skills exhibited at businesses now-a-days. I feel the coming generation of workers have lost any respect for others and carry this effect to their work attitude. It's a lose/lose for everyone.

Also the second link in your article "supporting sweat shop labor" has links out that are almost all 404, makes it hard to trust their sources.

Miriam, you hit the nail square on the head! Small businesses are being challenged each and every day to compete with the likes of the big box retailers! And at the risk of seeming self-promotional, that's exactly what we're all about at That is literally at the very core of CitySquares, helping the locally owned and operated businesses in our communities. You're article here was exceptionally well put. Thank you for calling this to other peoples attention!

Hi David,
It's nice to see you here, I appreciate your input on this.

I would say that I have my best experiences with small businesses where the owner is present in the shop. This is, after all, the person whose dream was running this business. I have also tended to notice that one gets better service from staff who are mature people rather than kids, but too often small businesses are left with kids minding the shop and this is seldom a good situation, so I can certainly see where you are coming from.

Your point about the web dev shops in your area is an interesting one, David. This is one of those special situations where local talent may be lacking...and like you pick talented authors to read from all over the map, picking talented web workers will likely need to be based on ability rather than geolocation. Many small towns may not even have a qualified web dev shop offering services.

Thanks for the heads up on the site I linked to. I didn't visit their links out; simply found the article important.

Welcome Ben,
I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

I've certainly heard of your company, but must confess, I'm not familiar with your policies. Is CitySquares only listing small businesses? Local indexes like Google's, of course, list all kinds of businesses...including the big boxes. Does your company have a different policy on this? I'd like to know.

Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Hi Miriam,

Thanks! It's wonderful that you've heard of us. That always puts a smile on my face. This month is our 3 year birthday too, so, quite a change from where we were even just 1 year ago.

CitySquares lists each and every business in our markets (New England and Metro NY, for right now) including the big box retailers, national chains, etc etc. And that's in order for us to be a reliable and credible resource. But we don't seek out their advertising dollars or ask them to enhance their profiles on our site. Our sales and marketing efforts are solely focused on the small, local, independently owned/operated businesses. That's our mantra, that's our mission - it's in our DNA, been there since day 1. Our entire 'thing' here is about Buying Local and supporting neighborhood business - Main Street USA, keeping the money local too.

I also blog about this at and we all do a bit of the same on

I whole heatedly agree with you. One of those big box stores the "W" one just about put my late husband and I out of business. My drive at that time, 15 yrs ago, was to try and educate consumers as to why they should shop with the "ma & pa" shops. Why they should not patronize the big "W". Some listened, most didn't. The ones that did not listen we would see back in our shop wanting us to fix whatever cheap piece of junk they had bought.
The fight continues for the "little guy".
Thanks for a great article.


This may be one of the best articles I've read in a while, specifically how using technology (local reviews) can finally benefit small business. The tips where great and on my own reviews I will start using a meaningful headline, example of the other stuff they sell and all of the other tips.

This could be a significant lever for small business to compete against big-box stores, Thanks

Dear A,
Thank you for taking the time to comment and share your personal experience with the big box stores. In so many towns, you drive around, saying, "remember when?" Remember when that great little hardware store, clothing shop, gift shop, fabric store, appliance repair place was here? The majority of these great old businesses are disappearing or gone where I live, and it sounds like you and your late husband put up a big fight not to go the way of the 'remember whens' with your business. And it sounds like the big W sent you some indirect business by selling shoddy merchandise! No doubt, people thought twice about the quality of what they were buying when they found themselves coming to you for repairs.

Glad you liked the article.

Greetings Dwight!

I greatly appreciate the kind words and am glad that you can see the potential in this scenario. Seems pretty powerful to me, and I'm glad if it's helped you think about new ways you can support small businesses. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.


The responsability to leave a meaningful review to drive actual business is often overlooked and I think your article does a great job of educating us on how and the importance to support local business online through our reviews.

In Portland OR, just launched as a place for people to review local businesses that are green-leaning regarding sustainable attributes. So, this article was very pertinent to me.



Often we forget the little guy, the SMB, in our discussions of the comings and goings of the Internet marketing industry. Sure there are times like this when a report surfaces talking about their issues and concerns but, for the most part, we like to talk about big brands and how they do the Internet marketing thing well or not so well.

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