THETFORD CENTER, VT: Consumers in the US and Canada are increasingly drawn to online customer reviews when evaluating local businesses, according to new research.

The Local Consumer Review survey, from SEO specialist BrightLocal, drew on 2,104 replies from a 5,000-strong panel that was split 90:10 between the US and Canada. 

Marketing Charts reported that 88% of respondents regularly (39%) or occasionally (49%) read online reviews to determine the quality of local businesses, up from 85% in 2013 and 71% in 2011.

Almost one-third (32%) of the panel said they trusted these comments if there were multiple reviews to peruse, up from one quarter in 2013. Two-thirds of participants had to read up to six reviews before they felt they could trust a business.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of individuals reading positive reviews would then take action of some kind, usually visiting a firm's website (57%) or calling the organisation concerned (15%).

Reading reviews, BrightLocal noted, is one of the final stages on the path to purchase, and has a direct impact on converting would-be-patrons into real customers.

Reliability, expertise and professionalism were the most important "reputation traits" that consumers were looking for in local enterprises, ahead of factors like accreditation and friendliness, even though these two characteristics were frequently promoted by businesses and consumer reviews respectively.

The scores that companies received from reviewers were also significant. A four-star rating helped 92% of respondents opt for a local business. That figure fell to 72% for a three-star rating and 27% for a two-star rating.

Word of mouth remains the most popular way of recommending local businesses, however, with 61% of participants having engaged in this activity. Social media was also a significant factor, with 38% of the sample having made recommendations on Facebook.

Google+ Local, however, was only used by 10% of interviewees. "It has an overwhelming influence on the lives of search marketers," BrightLocal noted, "but it's adoption by real-world users remains low."

Data sourced from Marketing Charts, BrightLocal; additional content by Warc staff