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.
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.
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