How We Got Here: The Rise of Online Reviews

by Bill Schroeder

Attend any veterinary CE event or open any of the trade magazines, and you’re bound to find mention of online reviews and their importance. I’ve often questioned what is feeding this phenomenon and thought I’d share my view.

While online reviews are a relatively recent form of communication and expression, they had to start somewhere, in some form. Below, I briefly chart the journey of the customer review, from strongly-worded letter on paper to colorful comment in the virtual sphere. Let’s begin.

The Strongly-Worded Letter

The seldom executed, yet often threatened “strongly-worded letter” has roots as far back as pencil and paper. Consumers relied upon this channel to notify business owners of unpleasant experiences and the threat to leverage a better “in the moment” service experience.

For many reasons I am not qualified to understand, these communications have generally shifted to the negative side as letters of positivity were seldom sent. Simple factors like understanding where letters should be sent, the process of mailing, timing, and the act of writing these letters held the volume of such to a minimum.

Distinguishing Businesses by Search Intent

With the rise of the Internet, Google and other search engines needed a way to separate and rank businesses (like your veterinary practice) from one another to present them in an order that aligns with search intent, and the business’ ability to solve the problems of the searcher.

Digital marketers quickly responded with techniques (some were approved by Google, while others drew penalties). These methods were often worked to death to the point where manipulation of the space was starting to steer towards Google not being able to serve up content as intended.

What the People Wanted

Google and other search engines showed how searches were being conducted–best, greatest, closest (near me), and most advanced fed most search intent. But the public wanted a referral source, one that could be as credible as the personal recommendation of a family member or a friend. They wanted a resource that didn’t rely on the overly manipulating populace, and which gathered and presented authentic comments and opinions.

Then We Went Mobile

As soon as online review sites begin popping up, phones started to evolve in capability from a “wireless” phone to a device that was capable of transmitting text and images. Soon after, apps began to surface.  This explosive moment allowed for businesses to connect with consumers on a level that was beyond the imagination of technology pioneers just 20 years prior. For the first time in history, it was possible for pet owners and veterinary practices alike to transmit timely information anywhere at any time.

In the Moment

If you accept the above claim that many “strongly worded letters” were not sent because of timing, you’ll quickly realize what happened when immediate reviewing became possible. That’s right…review sites grew at a feverish pace. Now, pet owners can literally sit in your practice and comment on the experience while they are in the moment. Practices immediately realized the need to improve customer service and communication.

The Differentiating Factor

The dramatic increase in review volume allowed search engines the ability to develop algorithms around consumer sentiment and recommend (rank) businesses as they relate to the need of the searcher (consumer). Great efforts have been made to create systems that favor authenticity and provide a view that parallels a never-before-available view of many consumer experiences.

Where We are Today

Successful veterinary practices realize the power of the online review and understand that business growth, new client acquisition, employee recruiting, and practice consolidation are all impacted by the review space. Businesses and systems have been built to gather online reviews, dispute those that are inaccurate, and position those that are accurate in a manner so that they have a positive impact on the pet owner’s decision-making process or ideas.

The Future of Online Reviews

While my magic eight ball is currently out of service, I can say that tomorrow’s veterinary marketing efforts will be even more aligned with the needs and opinions of the pet owner. Technology will make sharing opinions (reviews) even easier, and savvy veterinary practices will capitalize on the opportunity to intertwine storytelling and pet owner testimonials that most accurately demonstrate the experience clients can expect when visiting the practice.

My suggestion is that you put personal bias or feelings about reviews aside, and explore how online reputation management can help grow your veterinary practice! Online reviews are here to stay.