We all know that consumer reviews and recommendations can make the difference between success and failure for restaurant brands, who must compete fiercely for consumer attention in local search and social media. After all, just about every consumer reads online reviews before making a local purchase decision, and a few negative reviews can quickly drive someone to seek elsewhere. But businesses too often feel they can do nothing more than observe the impact of reviews, when in fact they have the power to use this powerful tool to their advantage.

How restaurants fare with reviews on Google

Restaurant brands stand to gain more than many industries from a robust review management and response strategy, as shown in new research from SOCi. According to the findings, restaurants receive more reviews on Google than just about any brick-and-mortar business category, with the average chain or franchise restaurant location having about 1,500 reviews. This places restaurants second only to department stores in review volume by industry.

SOCi chart.

But restaurants do not fare so well when it comes to how positively they are reviewed, with the average Google rating for a restaurant brand coming in at 4.3. Though that rating may seem high, Google ratings skew high overall, and in fact it places restaurants eighth in order of popularity—toward the middle of the pack—among the industries covered in our study.

Likely, the lower ratings for restaurants compared to other industries is due in part to the competitive nature of the restaurant sector. With so many options in most local markets, consumers can afford to be choosy—and critical. But it doesn’t help that restaurant brands are largely not paying attention to the feedback they receive.

SOCi chart.

Respond to reviews and improve your conversions

A high volume of reviews with lower than desired ratings represents a problem—and an opportunity. Numerous studies have shown that consumer perception about a brand is formed and reinforced at the local level by the evidence in business profiles, including peer recommendations in the form of reviews. Consumer perception is also formed by the business’s responses to negative and positive reviews.

And restaurants, on the whole, aren’t responding to local reviews as they should be. According to our findings, restaurant brands respond to just 13% of the reviews they receive, placing them tenth among all industries.

SOCi chart.

If your restaurant brand isn’t responding to Google reviews today, you’re not alone. And yet, this means your brand stands to gain a great deal merely by getting started. It’s still fairly easy to outpace your chain and franchise competitors in this area, and to take on at least some of the characteristics of favorite local restaurants in the minds of consumers by adopting a friendly, customer-first voice at the local level.

SOCi’s study shows that engagement with reviews pays clear dividends. A brand that responds to 100 percent of its reviews on Google will convert searchers to customers 16.4 percent more often than a brand that neglects reviews. Review response can help improve star ratings as well by casting your brand in a more positive light. As your reputation improves, so will your conversion potential. For every 10 new reviews, conversion improves by 2.8%, and for every 0.1 star increase in average rating, conversion improves by 4.4%, according to our research.

Scale review responses with tools and strategies

So it turns out that there’s a lot your restaurant brand can do to improve your local reputation. The scale of the challenge, however, is not small. If the average restaurant location has 1,500 reviews, a chain or franchise with 150 locations is facing 225,000 consumer opinions that must be digested and replied to in a personal, caring manner. This challenge has many chain and franchise brands opting to use localized marketing platforms that can greatly increase the efficiency of review management.

With the right tools and strategy, national and regional restaurant chains and franchises can become local favorites. Using a review management platform, brand marketers can deploy templated responses for common situations, such as complaints about rude service or poor food quality. The brand representative can then customize the response before publishing, ensuring that each brand response is relevant and personal.

This strategy applies just as well to positive and negative reviews, and it’s just as important to thank your loyal fans as to listen to your detractors. After all, every response is a chance to reinforce your brand voice with local consumers and is likely to be read by many more users beyond the person who wrote the review.

What’s more, reviews can be a powerful resource for understanding consumer sentiment at scale. With the right tools, you can mine review content to find out how your customers feel about your offerings, prices, new meal items, hours of operation, and much more. You can analyze reviews by geographic region or track trends over time. Reviews are a rich resource, offered by your customers voluntarily, to help your brand improve in multiple ways.

With over a decade of local search experience, Damian Rollison, SOCi’s Director of Market Insights, has focused his career on discovering innovative ways to help businesses large and small get noticed online. Damian’s columns appear frequently at Street Fight, Search Engine Land, and other publications, and he is a frequent speaker at industry conferences such as Localogy, Brand Innovators, State of Search, SMX, and more.

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