Reverse Engineering The Perfect Online Reviews

The secret to the perfect online review? It seems like an elusive thing, doesn't it? How are you supposed to identify the perfect review? Read More...
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Do you know it?

The secret to the perfect online review? It seems like an elusive thing, doesn't it? How are you supposed to identify the perfect review? Isn't that something customers choose for themselves?


Well doesn't that mean the perfect review is completely out of your control?

Not exactly.

Stealing gives you the formula for perfect reviews

Don't misunderstand.

I'm not suggesting that you plagiarize or steal your competitor's online reviews outright. That would be dishonest and frankly, pretty gross. Nine times out of ten, the word "steal" is synonymous with immoral activity.

This isn't one of those times.

No, I'm suggesting that you steal ideas. Not from your competitors, from their customers. From your customers. Another important point? I'm suggesting that you steal a very specific kind of idea.

Meta ideas.

What's a meta idea? The word meta is defined as:

A prefix used in English to indicate a concept which is an abstraction behind another concept, used to complete or add to the latter.

For our purposes here I'll explain it like this. A meta idea is an idea that transcends the topic of discussion. How does this translate to online reviews? Let's look at an example.

Idea: "When I hired XYZ agency, I was afraid it would be a bad experience."

Meta idea: Clients have been cheated, hurt or abused by their previous agencies.

See the difference?

This is what we're looking for. Meta ideas enable you to get to the heart of the matter. They give us the helpful details we'll need to create the perfect online review.

But the perfect review doesn't exist!

It actually does exist.

It's just very different from our expectations. When many people think of the perfect online review, they think of a single review that's all things to all people. They imagine a single review that has the power to convince hundreds or thousands of new customers to buy.

It's possible, but pretty unlikely.

What's far more likely is the online review that's perfect for a few specific people. With a specific interest or problem that's mentioned in said review for a small group.

Pretty obvious when I say that, right?


Let's take a look at some reviews. A brief analysis can give us the details we need to reverse engineer top performing reviews.

Review #1: Rebecca Perkins, Attorney at Law

Yelp Profile

Rebecca Perkins is a divorce and family law attorney in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. She's received a four star review from a happy customer.


What makes this review effective?

Vicki, the client, immediately leads with her problem. She uses clarity, specificity and details to tell her story. "I was having a hard time changing venues from one county to another... I showed her my rejected paperwork." These details ring true because they convey vulnerability and potentially embarrassing details in Vicki's review.

Vicki's review gets better.

"She (Rebecca) immediately saw why they were rejecting it and composed a letter right then. I hadn't even hired her yet and she did not charge me."

This conveys several important details to the reader (a.) Rebecca conveys value immediately and upfront. (b.) she didn't demand a retainer before providing value and (c.) Rebecca listened to Vicki, saw an opportunity to provide value and did so.

As a bonus, this review gives us:

  • The reviewer’s name
  • Profile picture
  • Location
  • Review history
  • Connections

This gives us good reasons to believe this review is more trustworthy (than not).

How do you recreate it in your business?

Find the fear. Identify the fear, frustrations and problems your clients bring to your doorstep. Ask about their reasons for buying. Then remind your clients about your solution to their fear. Get them to communicate that in their review and you'll have what you need to attract the perfect review.

Review #2: Eddie V's Prime Seafood

Yelp Profile

It's a popular seafood restaurant chain with several locations in more than 11 states. As the name suggests, they're focus is... seafood. They have 1,300 reviews on Yelp, close to 500 on Trip Advisor, 150 via Google reviews - you get the idea.


What makes this review effective?

This review focuses on the positives and the negatives. The negatives aren't deal breakers. They're minor and unassuming.

· Negative: "Okay to be fair the prices are steep so 'happy hour' was more like dinner on a night out. And their cocktails are only $2 off, which amounts to an average drink cost of $11"

· Positive: "... But once I tasted these bad boys, I realized that I'd come back JUST FOR THE DRINKS. They're solid."

Aileen's review repeatedly swings from negative to positive. At first glance, this seems horrible! Negativity is the absolute last thing you need in our reviews, am I right?

Wrong actually.

This back and forth creates clarity and focus. It gives customers details to watch for. But there's one more compelling detail this review adds to the reviewer's experience.


I'm talking about the storytelling kind. Not the dysfunctional, toxic kind of drama that makes life miserable. Drama creates a story that's compelling. What's so great about drama? Customers insert themselves into the reviewer's story, which eventually brings them to your business.

How do you recreate it in your business?

Use the positive and negative details of your customer's story to create drama. If the details are there, don't be afraid to swing from problem to solution, from fear to relief. If the details of your customer's story are true, it's helpful and compelling.

It's a simple and straightforward way to attract and convert customer attention.

Review #3: MoData

G2 Crowd Profile

MoData sells SaaS software. Their sales intelligence tool uses real-time and predictive analytics to give organizations the sales forecasting and analytics data they need. It's an enterprise focused tool. Here's what reviewers think about it.


What makes this review effective?

This review is focused and concise. It gets to the heart of the matter immediately, identifying business problems, use cases and product concerns. These reviews are question driven so customers aren't required to figure things out on their own.

"They spend a considerable amount of time understanding your needs and requirements and based on the information collected help you build reports, views & dashboards catering to specific requirements."

Translation? MoData dotes on their customers. Compare that with software providers like Infusionsoft who require that you hire a consultant at $200 per hour if you need help using their product.

The review continues with dislikes...

"They are growing and have potential to expand and include much more than offered at the moment."

Translation? MoData is great, but they don't have everything we need.

G2 Crowd lists this reviewer as:

  • A validated reviewer
  • Verified current user
  • Review source

How do you recreate it in your business?

Create safety.

Let customers know they can be radically honest with you. Create an environment that allows them to share the good, bad and ugly parts of working with your business.

Why on earth would you do that?

When you give customers the platform they need to share their grievances you minimize the potential fallout. To you, your business and your customers. Here are three ways you can create safety for customers.

1. Give customers permission. Let them know you're looking for radical honesty and why. Customers may be skeptical at first. They may decide to test you, to see if you'll lose your temper with something small.

2. Lean into the pain. Ask customers follow-up questions about the unpleasant details. Dive deep into the problems they share. Uncover the who, what, where, when, why and how. Empathize with them, set your needs aside and focus on listening.

3. Thank customers for sharing. Good news, bad news, it doesn't matter. Even if it's bad news, it's good news to know. Your job is to listen, without judgment.

Want the perfect online review? Safety is a requirement.

Review #4: Dollar Shave Club

Dollar Shave Club Reviews Page

Dollar Shave Club took the personal care industry by storm with their innovative ads and affordable, easy-to-use service. They were quickly acquired by Unilever for a cool billion. That's makes sense when you realize 97 percent of their more than 3.2 million customers would recommend their product to a friend.


What makes this review effective?


The review Charles shares is excellent, but it's not compelling on its own. Dollar Shave Club has 32,700+ reviews with a 97 percent customer satisfaction rate. Are some of their customers unhappy with their service?


That's to be expected. They're human after all.

But Dollar Shave Club uses volume as a core component of their business. They sell low cost products relying on a large number of customers (volume) to make their money. As we've seen, they use that same strategy to acquire reviews.

It's not the individual review that makes such a huge difference. It's the overwhelming number of positive reviews that makes such a huge difference.

How do you recreate it in your business?

Use two ingredients.

Volume + Diversification

Review requests should be a standard part of your order fulfillment and customer service process. Research shows 70 percent of customers are willing to leave a review if asked. Which is precisely what most organizations don't do.

Don't make the same mistake.

Ask customers for reviews consistently. Then, ask them to share their reviews via a variety of platforms relevant to your business (e.g. Yelp, Google, Facebook, Trip Advisor, Angie's List, etc.). Do everything you can to build a complete profile.

Why you ask?

So you have the tools and resources you need to convert customers before they arrive on site. A large amount of positive reviews boosts your conversion rate, priming customers before they leave Google! The more reviews you have, the more diverse your review portfolio, the better your conversion rate.

Review #5: Lead MD

G2 Crowd Profile

Lead MD is a marketing agency that's focused on revenue acceleration. They work with medium to large enterprises to produce marketing results faster.


What makes this review effective?

This customer was unhappy with LeadMD. They felt they were being pushed into a solution that didn't fit their needs. They brought up their concerns and LeadMD acted immediately. They abandoned their framework, stepping outside their comfort zone to create results for their client.

They exceeded expectations.

Most customers are forgiving. They don't expect perfection, but they do expect you to work with them. LeadMD showed this client they were willing to go above and beyond to fix their mistake.

How do you recreate it in your business?

Don't run from negative reviews.

Embrace them. Lean into them. Give customers the benefit of the doubt. Show customers you're willing to be the bigger man, to apologize for the mistakes that were made. Show lurkers (future customers) you're willing to own your failures.

Then go above and beyond.

Once you've restored the relationship, give customers a chance to write (or update) their review. Encourage them to tell the truth about what happened whether that paints a rosy picture of your time together or not. Do everything in your power to provide them with the care, guidance and protection they deserve.

Review #6: Mr. Electric

Homeadvisor Profile

Mr. Electric is a licensed electrical contracting company in the Tennessee, tri-city area. Seems like they're just another contractor at first, until you look at their reviews. According to Home Advisor, 95 percent of customers would recommend this company.


What makes this review effective?


This company is responsive and highly engaged with the review process. They know the value of a positive review and they're doing all they can to keep customers happy. They're willing to communicate with happy and unhappy customers alike. They're polite, respectful and kind.

This shows customers that you care.

At a minimum, they'll know you care about your reviews. Do it right and they'll realize you're doing your best to take care of them.

How do you recreate it in your business?

Respond to the right reviews.

Responding to every review decreases the effectiveness of your review portfolio. Customers expect you to respond to negative reviews. They're looking for a prompt response that's helpful and focused on them. Customers typically aren't looking for a response to positive reviews.

How you respond matters.

When it comes to negative reviews customers are looking for a specific response. Avoid the four horsemen at all costs.

1. Criticism. Don't blame, bully, belittle or accuse customers of wrongdoing. Focus on stating the facts. If the reviewer in question isn't a customer, say so.

2. Stonewall. Ignoring negative reviews sends several messages, all of them bad. (a.) you don't care about your customers and (b.) the negative reviews are true. Engage with customers, if only to apologize.

3. Contempt. This is a relationship killer. Looking down your nose at customers. Treating them as if they're beneath you. These are great ways to destroy the relationship and ignite controversy.

4. Defensiveness says "it's not my fault." Most negative reviewers disagree. More importantly, they don't care what you think. They want you to own the problem and solve it. If you're at fault, that's a good idea.

The reviewer in question had a problem. Customers feel his price is too high. Instead of solving the problem they decided to argue with each and every customer whether the review was positive or negative.

There's a better way.

Train your customers. If your price is too high give them a compelling reason to accept that price.

Review #7: Nova Driving School

Google My Business Profile

Nova driving school has multiple locations throughout the Chicagoland area. They're fairly straightforward with their students/customers.


What makes this review effective?

People and relationships.

Service businesses like driving schools aren't all that different from each other. At the end of the day a driving school is a driving school, right? Actually no. The right instructor can mean the difference between passing and failing your driving test.

Take this quote for example.

"Each one was very knowledgeable (though they are very HANDS-ON when you drive - by constantly adjusting the wheel instead of letting you get the feel). A few instructors did this and it is pretty annoying. 4/5

My favorite instructor was Martha. Unlike the review above, she allowed me to get a feel for driving while being patient when I made mistakes."

According to the second customer, most of the instructors in this business were "controlling." Martha was the only instructor who did the opposite. Her name came up continually.

How do you recreate it in your business?

(a.) Ask customers for feedback on your staff. Get the names of staff members they've worked with. Get a sense of how things went (b.) outline the good, bad and ugly then (c.) act accordingly, rewarding employees who performed well and disciplining employees who performed poorly.

Use customer feedback to manage employee/customer relations.

Happy employees leads to happy, satisfied customers. Happy, satisfied customers produce more conversions and revenue.

Review #8: Dr. Shelly Shi, MD

ZocDoc Profile

Dr. Shelly Shi an Internist and Primary Care Doctor located in New York.


What makes this review effective?

This reviewer is focused on a particular problem. Tardiness.

"I like Dr. Shi! Her office staff are attentive, helpful, and fast. However, that day I was waiting for more than an hour (even people who came later than me got seen). I had to cancel my other personal appointments scheduled because of the unexpected lateness."

This customer is a happy, unhappy customer.

This review conveys some important details to clients and Dr. Shi. (a.) they like the dr. and her staff. (b.) the service is typically very fast (c.) the service today took more than an hour (don't let it happen again).

This is compelling to new clients.

How do you recreate it in your business?

Ask clients to tell the kind truth about your failure.

Your clients may not want to hurt your feelings. They may be afraid of the backlash and the unpleasantness that comes from being honest. It will probably feel terrible. This is where the conversation gets awkward.

We're socially conditioned to be nice.

Many of your clients may not want to tell you that you've failed or that you've let them down. Some of your more disagreeable clients will. It's your job to get the horrible gut-punching details from your clients. No one wants to recreate this.

But you must.

Hearing about your failure, leads to success. It gives you clarity about the job you're doing for your clients. If you're looking for amazing customers who are eager to spend money with you, you need failure.

Review #9: The Health & Fitness Center at Washtenaw Community College

Yelp Profile

The Health and Fitness Center is part of a community college. But it's also a business. Take a look at their review.


Notice a problem?

The customers at this gym are happy with the service and facilities. They don't seem to have a whole lot of complaints. So why the four stars?! Can we find out if we do a bit more digging?


See that there at the bottom of the second review?

What makes this review effective?

Confusion makes these reviews effective. Scroll through their reviews and you'll notice something interesting. They have lots of four star reviews but little to no complaints.

These online reviews are perfect.


They're helpful indicators, details that show you that you need to spend more time talking to customers. They're sharing reviews but they're not being completely candid with you.

This is very good news.

How do you recreate it in your business?

You don't, ideally.

These reviews create doubt in a sophisticated customer. "If they did such a great job, why did you only give them four stars?"

You don't want that.

So how do you deal with that. You create a survey.

Can't you ask directly?

Well you can, but it's not always the best idea. Customers are likely to feel bullied. "I give you a four star review and you harass me about it?!" It's easy for customers to take your question, why the four star review, as a criticism.

Surveys are a better option.

They allow you to praise by name, assess by category. This gives you the chance to discreetly ask customers about their review. You can use tools like Qualaroo or Survey Monkey or Google Forms to get the data you need.

Review #10: West End Salon and Spa

The West End Salon provides beauty, hair and massage services. Most of their clients are satisfied with their services. Most, not all.


What makes this review effective?

This customer is satisfied. More than satisfied. She was in town visiting for the week and "on a whim made an appointment for a massage." She mentions her masseuse by name, then she states this:

"Was assigned to Andy, and he was GREAT! This was truly the best massage of my life, and I've had many."

Still four stars.

She says her masseuse was thorough and that she felt totally relaxed at the end.

Still just four stars.

It's a four star review so it's not bad. But it's no five star review. It's effective on its own but her feedback still leaves room for doubt.

How do you eliminate this less-than-perfect review?

You don't.

You can produce amazing results for your clients. You can go above and beyond exceeding your clients expectations. They may even admit it. But some clients will steadfastly refuse to give you the five stars you deserve.

You may get three or four stars.

How do you deal with these stingy clients? You continue to serve. You give them your best work, but you spend 80 percent of your time on the 20 percent of reviewers who'll reward you as you deserve.

When these stingy reviewers move on, let them go.

Give them your best then allow the relationship to follow its natural course.

Engineering the perfect online review is impossible

You can't make customers say what you want.

Even if you could, there's no way to get them to say what you want and still be ethical about it. This skepticism sounds true, but is it true?

Not really.

As it turns out, you can get customers to say what you want. You can engineer the perfect online review. How exactly do you do that?

You ask!

This is the part that's counterintuitive. They ask for the wrong things. Wait a minute Andrew! I thought you said 70 percent of customers are willing to leave a review if asked?! Now you're saying we shouldn't ask for a review?

What gives?

Start asking for specifics, the things inside of the reviews.

Not sure where to start?

Here are seven to twelve templates you can use to make your pitch to customers. Okay, what happens when they say Yes?

You ask the right questions.

This is how you engineer the perfect online review. Not only is it possible it's something you can accomplish in five to ten minutes.


Want the perfect online review? Find the formula

Use the meta ideas inside reviews.

Use your reviews and your competitor's reviews to identify the right formula. The perfect formula exists, it's just not what we expect.

When we think of the perfect online review, we think of a single review that's all things to all people. A single review that has the power to convince hundreds or thousands of new customers.

It's possible, but pretty unlikely.

What's far more likely is the online review that's perfect for a few specific customers. Based on criteria customers choose for themselves. While it appears the perfect review is completely out of your control it's actually the opposite.

It's within your control, if you collaborate.

Your customers have everything you need. Work with them to find the answers and you'll find the perfect online review is something you create together.

About the Author

Andrew McDermott

Andrew McDermott is the co-founder of HooktoWin. He shows entrepreneurs how to attract and win new customers.