Illustration by Liz Meyer Illustration by Liz Meyer

“Richelleo” says the huevos rancheros at Aphrodite’s in Vancouver had “faaaaaar too much cheese,” but the dish was still really good. “Fatty2009” had high hopes for Le Petit Hotel in Montreal, but was disappointed that the Wii Fit in his room had dead batteries.

Offhand comments like these, once shared privately over coffee, may now be the first thing people discover when considering which supplier to choose for a trip, a meal or a service. With the spread of online review sites, some of them focused on sectors or regions, anyone with an opinion now has an outlet for voicing it. And while you may stew over gripes that seem petty or worse, your business’s success can depend on getting as many reviews—good or middling—as it can.

That’s because the more reviews you get, the higher you’re likely to appear in search results. Phil Rozek, a Massachusetts consultant and blogger who specializes in search engine optimization (SEO), has a special fondness for how reviews exploit search functionality. “They mix the robotic—the ranking algorithms—and the human,” he says. Rozek calls online reviews the “great equalizer” because they can bump up search rankings for small businesses that lack web marketing budgets. “Links don’t count as much as you think in a competitive market in which everyone has a robust site,” he adds. “Google wants to see signs of life.”

Rozek’s research shows that the big sites, such as Google+ and TripAdvisor, dominate the reviewing arena—at least, in Canada. Yelp, which may yet become a verb for reviewing online, now claims more than 33 million reviews and 84 million monthly visitors internationally. Salt Tasting Room, in Vancouver’s Gastown, has been a Yelp Vancouver top 5 best-rated restaurant for several months, even though it hasn’t actively sought customer reviews. But Seán Heather, owner of Salt and six other restaurants in the Heather Hospitality Group, says the benefit has been significant. He now gets at least 20% of his business from recommendation sites (mostly Yelp), a figure that rises to 40% in the summer tourist season. “If someone from Iowa walks down the alleyway in the Downtown Eastside to find us, it’s not because of some guy on a street corner [beckoning them in]. It’s because they read about us online,” he says.

A Harvard study found that a one-star jump in a restaurant’s average rating boosted sales by up to 9%

The power of online reviews makes them hard for businesses to ignore. A Harvard Business School study of Yelp’s impact on dining establishments in the Seattle area revealed that 69% of restaurants there had reviews on the site, compared with 5% in the Zagat guide or the Seattle Times. And each one-star increase in a restaurant’s average rating corresponded with a revenue increase of 5% to 9%.

Figures like these can tempt businesses to post their own five-star reviews—or to hit their competitors with pans. Bad move. To ensure readers can trust the comments, Google+, TripAdvisor and other rating sites fight fakery with secret and increasingly strict filtering algorithms. “It’s OK to ask for reviews, but don’t set up a computer in your lobby with a ‘Submit your reviews here’ sign or TripAdvisor will penalize you,” says Brent Purves, partner at Stir Tourism, a marketing consultancy in Vancouver. “Reviews need to come from unique accounts, from real people in varied locations.”

Read: Sticks and Stones: what to do-and not do-about bad reviews

Rozek says the major review sites track the behaviour of their users and know when a post deviates from the norm. “If you contact your customers in a batch and a hundred review you at once, or if you ask someone to go on Google+ for the first time and write you a five-star review, those will likely never see the light of day,” he says.

To avoid the filters and have the review count in your search ranking, you need a diversity of ratings and opinions on a range of sites. That, in turn, requires a low-pressure approach. Experts suggest asking customers at the moment they’re completing their transaction with you to review your business as they see fit. (Rozek provides his consulting clients with handouts that explain to their customers how to use the various review sites.)

The squeeze between filtering and potential review manipulation has led some review sites to adopt distinct approaches. Angie’s List, a recommendation site for local businesses, is a “walled garden” for paying members, while Toronto-based, which focuses on home maintenance and renovations services, verifies every review’s authenticity.

Adel Majd, owner of 416-So-Clean, a Toronto carpet-cleaning company, says too many suspicious reviews on open communities like Yelp and led him to direct all his clients to Homestars through a link on his own website and a post-job thank-you letter that requests a review.

Majd sweetens the deal by offering each reviewer a $10 donation certificate to the charity of their choice—a program that, he says, stays on the right side of ethics and has raised his review rate from 25% to 50%. And although he has been asked, Majd won’t give discounts in exchange for good reviews: “Homestars wants to know that the client is telling the truth.”

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