SOCi Study Finds 62% of Google Reviews Are Written by Local Guides

This is the first in a series of data reports from SOCi that uses a new data warehouse we’ve been building, one that currently contains Google Business Profile attributes and Google SERP features for over a million businesses. For this report, we looked at Google review features for approximately 1.1 million business locations across the US and analyzed the reviews associated with them. In total, the dataset for the study comprised 169 million reviews, or roughly 154 reviews per business location.

We were intrigued by the growing influence of Google as a source of consumer opinions about local businesses, and by certain related factors, such as the influence of Google’s hugely successful Local Guides program. Local Guides are a special class of Google users who volunteer to contribute reviews, photos, and information about local businesses in exchange for points and badges; their number has grown steadily since the inception of the program in 2015 and as of March 2021 consisted of 150 million people around the world. 

We were also interested to examine the rate of engagement with local reviews from business owners themselves. Businesses are encouraged by Google to respond to reviews because, according to Google’s help documentation, doing so “shows that you value your customers and their feedback.” But many businesses struggle to keep up with the pace of new reviews, neglecting an important priority in local marketing. 

The Influence of Local Guides

Anecdotally, it has seemed in recent years as though Local Guides are playing an increasingly dominant role in all user-generated content that can be added to Google Profiles, from suggested edits to photos to Q&A and reviews. We may eventually extend our analysis to some of these other items, but for now we wanted to drill down on the role of Local Guides within the Google review ecosystem. 

We found that, overall, Local Guides write most of the reviews on Google today — about 62% of all reviews, in fact. In the restaurant category, the dominance of Local Guides is even greater, with Local Guides writing about 69% of all reviews. 

Knowing that Local Guides played an outsized role in the creation of reviews, we wanted to find out whether the data would reveal notable differences between the kinds of reviews written by Local Guides, compared to other Google users. For instance, are Local Guide reviews more likely to be positive? 

Interestingly, we found that Local Guides write fewer five-star reviews than other Google users, though Guides and non-Guides write more five-star reviews than reviews of any other kind. As you can see from our star rating distribution chart, 53% of Local Guide reviews carry a five-star rating, compared to 62% of reviews by other users. However, Local Guides do write more four-star reviews than other users, and a combined 78% of Local Guide reviews might be considered positive (four to five stars), compared to 76% of reviews by others. Overall, the average rating of a Local Guide review is 4.14 stars, compared to 4.09 stars for other reviewers. 

Local Guide reviews are not, therefore, strongly biased in comparison with other reviews, though it’s notable that roughly twice as many one-star reviews by proportion are written by other users as by Local Guides, whereas Local Guides are more likely to go neutral at three stars than their Local Guide counterparts.

What about the length of reviews? Are Local Guides more likely to leave ratings with no text, or to write very short reviews, in an effort to amass as many points as possible with perhaps less of a focus on quality?

In fact, our data did find some support for this hypothesis. For every star rating, Local Guide reviews tend to be significantly shorter than reviews by other users. While shorter reviews are not necessarily poorer in quality, the consistency of this trend does tend to suggest that Local Guides are somewhat more likely to write briefer reviews than those written by others. 

It’s also worth noting that for both groups, negative reviews are substantially longer than positive reviews, with one-star reviews tending to be the longest of all at 288 characters for Local Guides and 363 characters for others. Though no one likes to see complaints, the fact that negative reviews tend to be longer can be seen as an opportunity for businesses to mine that content for constructive feedback. 

The only exception to the rule that negative reviews are longer is the slightly greater average length of five-star reviews compared with four-star reviews, suggesting perhaps that people tend to write more when raving about a business than when their experience is only moderately positive. 

In contrast with our analysis of the length of reviews, we did not find a significant difference in the proportion of ratings without text for Local Guides in comparison with other users. While it may have seemed reasonable to assume that Local Guides would leave more quick ratings-only feedback, they actually do this slightly less often than other users, about 47% of the time as opposed to 48%. The more significant story in this finding is that so many Google reviews lack text, making them on the whole less valuable to consumers and more challenging for businesses looking to understand consumer feedback (a critique Yelp recently levied at Google). Overall, we found that only about 53% of Google ratings are accompanied by text.

Trends in Review Response

Though all local search consultants and service providers encourage review response, many businesses either struggle to keep up with the pace of reviews or do not yet recognize the value of review response. Based on our own experience, we expected the rate of response to be relatively low overall, but we were curious if correlating factors might tell a more comprehensive story. 

We were interested, for instance, to discover whether businesses were more likely to respond to negative reviews. This hypothesis would seem to make sense; in fact, we know of companies who feel they don’t have the bandwidth to respond to all reviews, and therefore deliberately focus on the negative reviews on the assumption that doing so is more critical. 

The data tells a slightly different story. Though we found, as expected, that response rates overall are low — only about 14% of the reviews in our dataset had a response from the business owner — the distribution of responses followed more of a curve than we might have expected, with the largest proportion of responses falling to one-star reviews at 18% and five-star reviews at about 16%. Two-star reviews had the third-highest proportion of responses at about 14%. 

Are businesses more likely to respond to reviews written by Local Guides or by other users? We didn’t have much of an expectation beforehand in this case, and were somewhat surprised to find that the response rate was nearly double for reviews written by ordinary Google users in comparison to reviews written by Local Guides. 

If this reveals any preconception on the part of businesses, it might be that Local Guide reviews are somehow less “serious” than others and therefore less deserving of attention – assuming businesses are aware that Local Guides receive incentives for volunteering. But if businesses do have that perception, it’s worth correcting. Review response is important not only because it lets you address the feedback of specific customers, but also because responding to feedback shows the business in a good light to other customers, the majority of whom now read reviews before making purchase decisions.

Takeaways

Our study finds that Local Guides do in fact play a highly significant role in the Google review ecosystem, writing substantially more reviews than other Google users. Local Guides are clearly an important contributing factor — perhaps the most important factor — in the establishment of Google over the course of the last five or so years as the single biggest source of local business reviews. 

To some degree, Local Guides exhibit different behaviors than other reviewers, writing shorter reviews on the whole. But they are not more likely on the whole to write reviews that are more positive or negative, nor are they more likely than other users to leave ratings without writing a review at all. 

As for business owners, our findings reinforce the fact that review response is an area of activity that needs improvement. Businesses are somewhat more likely to respond to very negative or very positive reviews, but the overall response rate of 14% is lower than most local search consultants would want to see. Businesses also seem to find it less important to respond to reviews written by Local Guides and should understand that review response plays an important role in building positive brand reputation at the local level, no matter who’s leaving the review.

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Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is Director of Market Insights at SOCi and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. SOCi is the publisher of Street Fight.
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