Nick Garner here: This is an article I wrote for an e-book with Linkdex back in 2014. I just thought it would be useful to resurface it here on our own blog… I hope you find it interesting… I certainly did when I wrote this whole thing up.


You want to buy a product or maybe use a service, so before committing yourself, you go online just to see if you can find information to guide your purchase.

You’re looking for trusted information to guide you on a decision path. These are customer reviews or authority figures giving you their feedback on whether you should buy or not. It so happens Google and other search engines make the internet a very efficient way of finding this information.

In this chapter we deal with a couple of relatively novel concepts:

  • Online Social Influence: this occurs when one’s emotions, opinions, or behaviors are affected by others.
  • Trust signals: An indicator of trustworthiness.

We incorporate these in an Organic Marketing framework to create sales uplift for a brand.

This chapter examines the various aspects of social influence online and gives a practical ‘how to’ when running your own online social influence marketing project.


According to Google [1] 84% of consumers purchasing decisions are influenced by what they see online.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project did a piece of research into search engine use over time and found most adult search engine users have faith in the fairness and accuracy of their results.


Source: Pew Internet |

Because users use search engines more frequently, they are now better able to find information to help guide their purchasing decision.


Source: Pew Internet |

On average web, users will look at 10.4 sources of information before making a purchase decision. This figure varies by sector as shown below. [2]



  • ‘Stimulus’ which is branding and general awareness of a product brand or service.
  • ZMOT: Zero Moment Of Truth i.e. when you check out a brand
  • FMOT: First Moment Of Truth which is when you are buying

Source: Google

It’s justifiable to say that consumers purchasing behaviour is influenced by what they read on the internet.

For a brand to build a body of ‘social influence’, they have to:

  • Demonstrate their ability to satisfy a need at a reasonable price.
  • Encourage the creation of socially influencing content.
  • Actively promote socially influencing content.

The most potent social influence is not what is said through a brand’s owned media, but through independent sources.

As social animals, humans are very good at acting upon ‘micro social signals’. These signals steer the behaviour that affects our social interaction and ultimately allows us to function in large societies [3]. We take this inbuilt skill for understanding ‘micro signals’ and use it in the selection process for a product or service.

Since the internet is how so many of us gather information to help us select the products and services we will buy, [4] as marketers it makes sense to stimulate this process to win more business.

Ultimately consumers want three questions to be answered:

  • Is this right for me?
  • Is this worth it?
  • Will this brand deliver what it promises?

If a consumer isn’t sure what is right for them, they will research to find out more. Once they’re sure it’s the right product or service, they will look for validation from others to make sure their purchase is a good one.

The following diagram shows the consumer journey over time, where online social influence reaches its maximum intensity in the active evaluation phase of the purchase cycle.


Source: 90 Digital

Trust signals & Social influence

Social influence

Social influence happens when a consumer’s emotions, opinions, or behaviors are affected by others. When applying social influence to the internet, its proven consumer buying behaviour is affected by it. [4] The underlying criteria for effective social influence is trust in the source of information, allowing it to influence you.

This is slightly different to ‘word of mouth’, where the driver is trusted personal referral directly leading to an immediate purchase. [5]

The internet has been a massive driver of social influence. In the developed world 77% of the population have internet access, [6] with 67.7% of us actively contributing content to it. [7]  With so much participation, the relevance and volume of influencing information is huge.

Sitting as the gateway into all this information are search engines. Consumers use search engines to seek more detail on a product or service. They then seek the opinions of trusted individuals or the collective assessment of less trusted individuals i.e. user reviews. Consumers then amass a body of ‘proof’ to influence a buying decision.


Source: 90 Digital

Background: ZMOT and Google’s 5,000 person study

In 2011 Google commissioned shopper sciences to do a 5,000 person study on the research behaviour of consumers. They wanted to understand how much search affected the buying process and wanted to give this process a mental framework. They called it Zero Moment of Truth. [ZMOT] [8]

The main idea behind ZMOT is that web uses will research online for products and services before they buy.

Before the internet, consumers would ask friends and maybe get information from main stream media. Once a decision was made, they would go to the shop and be heavily influenced by the sales person. This was because the salesperson had more knowledge than the consumer. Being driven by profit, the salesperson would sell the most profitable product. If the user had a bad experience, the negative feedback would be contained within the consumers circle of friends.

Today, consumers do their research, they know more than the sales person and so get what they want. Whether they are happy or not, they will share their views online for others to be warned. All of this makes online reputation very important.

In the following diagram we have:

  • ‘Stimulus’ which is branding and general awareness of a product brand or service.
  • ZMOT: Zero Moment Of Truth i.e. when you check out a brand
  • FMOT: First Moment Of Truth which is when you are buying
  • SMOT: Second moment of truth when you experience the product


Source: Google

Using data from the 5,000 person panel, this chart below shows the percentages of those influenced by ZMOT, broken into activities:


Source: Google

It’s interesting to note how social media only impacted ZMOT for 18% of all users, whereas search affected 50%, just ahead of friends and family at 49%.

Google found that users looked at an average of 10.4 sources of information before making a buying decision.


Source: Google

As you see, the bigger the investment the greater number of information sources are used.

It’s undeniable consumers extensively research online and they’re influenced by the information they see on search engines. The next question is how to stimulate and promote social influence in your favour.

Stimulating social influence

Social influence comes through what others say about you, so for brands the great question is how you stimulate social influence whilst remaining ethical, inside the law and retain credibility as a brand.

The route to influence lies in a simple idea; ‘It’s not what you say about yourself, it’s what others say about you’.

You can’t force someone to give you a genuinely positive review, it has to be earned. This leads to a fundamental question about your business; are you good enough to be praised?

If you’re lucky enough to have a business where the market HAS to use you, despite a terrible consumer experience, that’s alright until some kind of trigger event occurs and all that ‘bad karma’ comes back to haunt you.


Aside: Ryanair had a profits warning for Autumn 2013. Initially the CEO Michael O’leary promised to be aggressive on fare cuts and more advertising, but when shareholders raised their concerns, it wasn’t about fare cutting, but about how rude and abrupt their customer services culture has been. [9]

To heighten the negative sentiment towards Ryanair, the Daily Mail ran a story about a doctor whose family had died in a housefire and was charged £160 by Ryanair because he needed to take an earlier flight to see his dead family. [10]

The reason Ryanair had been able to carry on with this bad customer experience culture is because they have a partial monopoly on low fares to certain destinations and the consumer’s desire to save money has outweighed the unpleasant experience Ryanair offers.

Gather proof you are good

To build social influence online there are two sources for positive feedback:

  • Sources who are not customers
  • Those who are

For non customers, the best place to seek favourable feedback is with people who have authority and  visibility. If they only have authority and not much visibility, a brand can go ahead and market this content.

If non customers have visibility but not much authority, it’s not worth pursuing a relationship because ultimately users will not see the ‘non authoritative, high visibility’ person as credible. An example is a footballer praising a cooking product. The exception is where the footballer is famous for football and cooking.

For the second group, customers, the ‘influence gathering’ process is internal. If they have purchased online, they will a have a live email address. Provided the user has allowed the brand to communicate with them post purchase, there will be the means to ask for feedback.

Generate the right trust signals

To have social influence you need to be trusted by others, so it’s important to understand what signals count.

The signals

If you can answer ‘Yes’ to these trust signals, you’re most probably looking at an influencing source of information.

If it’s a non customer commentary:

  • Is the site already known to me through recommendation?
  • Is the commentary well written?
  • Are there comments from readers either agreeing and/or adding to the content?
  • Has this person been writing about this subject for a long time?
  • Are the social indicators good? i.e. enough Facebook likes, Google +1’s
  • Is there a body of other information on the site around the subject?
  • Are opinions balanced?
  • Does it reference others who are also authorities in the subject?

If it’s customer reviews:

  • Are there enough reviews, ideally 10 or more reviews is sufficient
  • Are the reviews balanced and coherent
  • Do the reviewers justify their opinion
  • If it’s a negative review, is their argument and reasoning coherent?
  • Are the reviews on a site you trust
  • Are they validated? i.e. Amazon Verified Purchaser
  • Were the reviews helpful? i.e. number of people saying they were?

As we know it’s very hard to quantify things like ‘balanced opinions’, however if you subscribe to the concept of ‘wisdom of crowds’ i.e. where an aggregation of opinions is more balanced than a single opinion,  you’ll trust anything where there’s a general consensus amongst many contributors. [11]

So experts who have consensus and reviews that all ‘line up’ and in great enough volume, are great trust signals and will influence potential customers.

Timing, relevance and influence

Great trust signals mean nothing if they’re unseen by potential customers. This is where search engines come in.

Search engines are aware that many users want to go through a research process before buying products and services.

Once online consumers have made their purchasing decision, they want the most direct route to a purchase. This is where search engines make their money as a middleman, charging advertisers for prominence on search phrases with high buyer intent. This is called Pay Per Click [PPC] advertising.

Aside: We often think of paid search adverts taking up a huge percentage of clicks on the internet, but in reality PPC only accounts for about 7%. The other 93% of clicks is from natural search [12].


When search queries are looked at by intent , the breakdown is roughly as follows: [13]

  • Transactional searches are  i.e. ‘buy [product]: 10%
  • Navigational searches are repeat searches for a known destination i.e. ‘facebook’: 10%

  • Informational searches are i.e.  ‘reviews [product]: 80%


It’s in the interests of search engines to help consumers find the best information possible to help make a buying decision and guide them through PPC advertising.

This is one reason Google have been pushing ‘Authorship’ so hard. [14] By attributing content to certain individuals and ranking this content on their search engine, it makes it easier for consumers trust those pages with known authorship.



On Google there is also aggregated review information displayed on their search results. They are called rich snippets and give consumers a quick reference for how popular and well reviewed a product or service is.



Finally, if we assume first search result is best, then if we trust search engines to get the right information for us, we will trust high rankings results more than low ranking ones.

According to Eidleman trust barometer, in the developed world, search engines are trusted more than hybrid media, social media and owned media. The only media trusted more than search engines is traditional media like TV and newspaper. [15]

However with TV and newspapers, they are both broadcast media, so there is no two way interaction. You just consume and if the relevant information isn’t there at your time of consumption…it’s gone forever. This is why search engines are more relevant and timely.


Source: Edelman Trust Barometer

So if a search result has authorship, review ratings and is 1st for a query, it’s a strong set of trust signals. Not only is it trustworthy, it’s relevant and timely. All of this makes natural search a huge driver to influence consumer online.

In the developed world, where search has 51% trust score, social media only has 26%. This is because Social Media tends not to structure social feedback in a way that is easy for consumers to make use of. Also in social media content is ‘discovered’ rather than sought out, so there is a bias towards populist content which will probably not be about a niche product or service. All of this means Social Media is a less trusted source for consumer advice.


Social influence is driven by consumers feeding back their experiences and others seeking answers to purchasing questions. Left to develop unaided, this is a powerful tool for a brand, but when this natural process is given marketing stimulus, it becomes completely game changing for a business. This is where Organic Marketing plays it’s part.

Organic marketing


Organic Marketing is defined as “a multi-disciplinary marketing activity with the specific goal of publishing and promoting online content that people like, search for, and want to share. Visitors find what Organic Marketers have published on search engines like Google, social networks like Twitter and Facebook, without ongoing paid media transactions taking place.”


Here, we go through how to incorporate Organic Marketing as a way of leveraging Social Influence. In other words, take content that is influential, but has very little visibility and give it prominence using an Organic Marketing toolset.


The main focus for Organic Marketing is to ‘market content’ and once it’s been given a marketing push where it becomes prominent, the content should become self sustaining. This means a continued flow of direct traffic, naturally occurring citations and links from other web sites, referred traffic from search engines and social ‘likes’ and ‘follows’.

The process

As with all marketing, efficient process is the way to effective execution of Organic Marketing campaigns.

Search Engines

Search engines like Google and Bing use a combination of content relevance, PageRank [16] and TrustRank [17], to decide what pages should be ranked where, for a given search term.

Greater the competition to be ranked highly for a keyword, the more relevant content has to be and the greater the amount of PageRank and TrustRank a page needs to rank. Both PageRank and TrustRank are affected by the number and quality of inbound links to a given page. The greater the number of appropriate links, the more likely a page is to rank on a competitive keyword, assuming on-page content relevance,

For search engine optimisation specialists, the questions are always ‘which web links’ and ‘what is relevant content’.

A good way of thinking about ranking and links is to think of a link as a vote. If a site links to another site, it is effectively a ‘vote’. With search engines, links from different sites carry varying ‘voting power’. Therefore links from the right sites will give you lots of ‘voting power’ and thus rankings. Search engines use this ‘voting’ mechanism as a partial way of getting the right pages to rank for the right keywords. According to, an authoritative site on search marketing, links account for around 40% of ranking factors. [18]

The degree of competition is largely dependent on whether it is a commercially attractive keyword.

Aside: A very useful metric for competition is Google Adwords cost per click data. Advertisers bid for prominence on commercially relevant search result pages. They want users to click on these adverts to convert them into customers. The more commercially attractive a customer is, the more an advertiser will pay for each click from Google. Thus you have cost per click as a useful indicator of search competition. According to Spyfu,an Adwords data aggregating business, as of September 2013, The highest known cost per click is $491.75  for ‘mesothelioma trial attorney’. [19]

To rank, you need links which can come from a combination of active outreach or passive natural linking to your content.

As a marketing channel, SEO is very effective on return on investment, as Econsultancy have shown 32% of respondents stating it had given excellent ROI.



Referred Traffic

This is where a 3rd party site might have a link to you and users come to your site through that link. Strictly speaking search engines fall into this category, however for the purposes of this article, lets exclude them here.

Arguably if users click on a the link to you, the content must be very attractive. Part of getting referral traffic is from actively promoting it through outreach. The collateral benefit is to obtain links which help you rank.

Social Networking services [social media]

These include Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and any other site where users are encouraged to make contributions within an online social network. [20]

Here the model for propagating content is different from search. It is driven by intent i.e. a user decides to actively search out information on something. In Social Media a user will typically discover information as they use a social media site. I.e. Social is passive, search is active.

Because content is discovered, it means you have to target the right users who have visibility in a social group or advertise to the right people in a very targeted way. Sites like Facebook have extremely accurate information on their users, so advertisers can zero right into exactly the type of person they want to communicate with.

Aside: As with most advertising, the more ‘commercial’ the messaging, typically the less well it is received. Search is the only real exception because they will deliver commercial search results when a user wants them.

This is very important to organic marketing because it means with the right social media advertising strategy, you can ‘seed’ the right content with the right people.

Assuming your goal is interaction and ultimately a sale Social media is a superb vehicle within Organic Marketing.

When all these routes to winning traffic are combined in an Organic Marketing campaign the effects are potent.

Tracking and measurement


Key Performance Indicators [KPI’s] come in many forms. Within social media alone, David Berkowitz lists over 100 KPI’s in a post about Social Media Metrics [21].

For a KPI to be trusted, it needs robust analytics. The foundation of online analytics is data. Data is usually collected by tracking tags which sit on web sites. When a site has converting traffic, it can usually attribute those conversions to the source of the traffic i.e. paid search, natural search referring site and so on.

As a general rule, meaningful metrics are ones which show you ‘what success looks like’.

Organic Marketing KPI’s

In organic Marketing the core metrics include:

  • Keyword organic visibility
  • Organic traffic [brand vs non-brand]
  • Keyword reach [Number of keywords]
  • Content performance ratio [Pages / Visibility]
  • Social / Referred / Direct traffic / Revenue / Goals e.g. subscribers
  • Number of unique referrers
  • Brand / key product ZMOT profile
  • Website technical optimization
  • Content creation and socialization metrics
  • Publisher and Authorship engagement
  • Key influencer relationship stages / life cycle
  • Key influencer outcomes / results
  • Following [Social / Subscriber]
  • Domain trust metrics e.g. TrustRank


Where tracking breaks down is when users might go to a 3rd party website, then to another site and finally to your site to convert. Along their journey users are forming an opinion of you, which persuades or dissuades them to purchase from you. Therefore if it’s agreed a KPI measures ’what success looks like’, then for Organic Marketing it’s worth adopting a more pragmatic approach to KPI’s.

The following diagram explains how a customer journey is in fact very complex and so hard to track.


Attributing the success of  social influence

Deciding what piece of content was the trigger to a purchase is very difficult. For this reason, brands should consider any social influence campaign as a ‘communications piece’ and not KPI it in the same way as PPC, affiliate marketing or banner advertising where traffic is directed straight to the web property on which the conversion occurs.

A useful metric for Social Influence is the Online Reputation Score™(ORS) [22] which attributes a ‘persuasiveness score’ to any item of content. The scores are tallied up and are summarized in a positive or negative percentile. This is an excellent way to understand whether your online reputation persuades or dissuades potential consumers to buy from you.

A typical application for ORS is in search results. If you have a target keyphrase which is influential i.e. ‘[name pr product] reviews’ or ‘[brand name] reviews’, you can score each search result and come up with an aggregate score for the results on that page. Typically Adwords results are not included because it is assumed users know they are paid for placement as opposed to organic search placements. The ORS score can be weighted by the position of the search result, the estimated traffic volumes for a keyword and to some extent the cost per click values.


Source: 90 Digital

The concept and scoring formulae are closely related to Net Promoter Score™ [NPS] [23]

Putting it all together

In this final segment, we go into the mechanics for how to use Organic Marketing in building Social influence.

At this stage, a brand will have a clear idea of what social influence is, what the attributes of a socially influencing piece of content is and what KPI’s sit with it. The brand will also understand Organic Marketing, the vehicle used for promoting social influence. Now it’s a case of lining up all the ingredients into a process to stimulate the creation of social influence content and promote it effectively.

Step one: Stimulating the content

As mentioned earlier, social influence content is either produced by non-customers or many customers.

Non customer influencer

It’s best to seek out individuals with authority and relevance. Linkdex, a SaaS tool specifically designed around Organic Marketing, has a useful feature which helps you find influencing authors of content. They are influential because when these people produce content, others either link to it or tweet about it.

Another way of finding influencing people is to use search engines. The logic is if they rank well on ‘influence’ keywords i.e. [brand name] review, or on keywords less closely related to a brand i.e. [name of competing product] review, then these people have both visibility and authority.

Customer Influencer

A brand will have a database of existing customers who they can reach out to for feedback. The important part of this is to ask them to give their review on a 3rd party site which has no clear association with the brand being reviewed. This is important because as mentioned earlier, ‘its not what you say, but what others say about you’. Therefore keeping reviews on a neutral third party site will give this review content far more potency.

Whilst it’s ethically suspect, a brand can elect to only reach out to customers who appear to have had a good experience and so are far more likely to give a good review.

Step 2 Promoting the content

A brand has done it’s outreach and there is a body of positive content on the internet. The next part of the cycle is to promote this positive feedback .

The main idea is to promote what other people say about the brand to steer social influence in the brand’s favour.

Search engines

Firstly a brand has to do a keyword audit to work out which keywords are the most likely to affect a consumer purchasing decision. Typically this will be [brand], ‘[brand] reviews’, [product/service], ‘[product/service] reviews’, and other phrase like ‘[brand] stole my money’.

Once the keywords have been picked, a competition analysis needs to be done. This determines how much resource is needed to rank a given piece of content on a given keyword.

The brand will have a body of relevant, influencing content which it will do link building on. A brand then decides which pieces of content are most persuasive and most relevant to a given keyword. The content which meets both criteria are promoted.

Once the pages are ranked, the relevant ORS scores will begin to rise and there should a trackable uplift on conversions from natural and paid search.

Social Media

There is an aversion to commercial content in social media, so the aim is propagate awareness of certain pieces of content amongst a very targeted audience.

Facebook is very effective at extremely targeted advertising. It’s therefore very important to have a  defined picture of exactly who the brad is interested in reaching out to.

The ideal content is non commercial i.e. Without a strong call to action and references other sources of advocacy about the brand’s product or service. Once again the strategy is to promote what others say about you.


Retargeting is a form of online targeted advertising by which online advertising is targeted to consumers based on their previous Internet actions, in situations where these actions did not result in a sale or conversion. Source:

Web publishers become a part of an advertising network, so when a web user visits a given website, cookies are dropped and the user will see adverts related to that web site as they navigate through other sites on the advertising network. This is why users feel like they are ‘being followed’ on the internet.

To promote influencing content, a brand would create a series of banner adverts promoting the number and quality of reviews for their product. The brand might have a landing page linking to reviews and feedback on the product, along with a call to action to buy the item.

This tactic is used when promoting movies and theatre shows.

The relevant KPI is not click through rate, but number of impressions on relevant web sites and so would be accounted for in the same ways as brand spend.

Offline Media

There is a place for offline media in the influence mix, however because of its characteristics, it tends to be best for building authority and brand awareness.

Case studies

Kia Motors

Kia motors has had a reputation for producing uninspired cars, however they have an excellent reputation for reliability. In a recent advertising campaign they focused on positive feedback for their cars. At the end of the TV advert there was a call to action asking viewers to visit their site to see the huge body of socially influencing content stating how good their cars are.


Source: Kia Motors |

Because 52% of us are likely to be using an internet enabled device [24] whilst watching TV, it made sense for Kia to try a campaign with a call to action for user to go online.


Source: Kia Motors |

Whether a user goes straight to, or does a search for ‘kia reviews’, they will end up on the home page of the site where there is a clear reference to ‘Kia reviews’.


Source: Kia Motors |

At the core of the campaign are the reviews, which are very positive. Presumably aggregating these reviews had been a big task, because Kia would have had to contact new and existing owners asking them to review their car. However the outcome is impressive both from the high review scores and the large numbers of reviews.



Conclusion. This is a great example of social influence being leveraged in mass media.

Wetherell Estate Agents


Not every brand wants to allocate huge budgets for television campaigns, so its helpful to look at smaller more nimble influence campaigns which don’t necessarily use online reviews as a social influencer.

Wetherell’s specialise in the top end of Mayfair the property market. The highest valued house on their books at time of writing is £35,000,000. (Equivalent to 144 average houses in the UK).  With so few buyers and sellers in this price bracket, trust and reputation is core. People ‘buy’ into Peter Wetherell’s influence and ability to get huge deals transacted.

For this campaign, Peter Wetherell, the owner of Wetherell estate agents had adopted an advocacy strategy by positioning himself as the main driver to build renewed awareness for an exclusive part of Central London called Tybernia. [25]



The strategy was to build an influential online footprint leveraging all the offline PR activity led by Alex Lawrie a property PR specialist. The aim was to rank an article from a news paper No1 for keyphrase ‘tyburnia’.
Alex won placements in The Sunday Times, Metro, City AM and The Evening Standard . The Online agency 90 Digital, wasn’t able to work with the Sunday Times story because they had put up a paywall. The Metro and City AM, whilst good papers didn’t have the authority of The Evening Standard.
The Evening Standard was the only paper which 90 Digital wanted to promote because it had a combination of search engine friendliness relevance and the most authority.

Once the story was released online, there was an immediate outreach campaign to promote this story, led by Aferdita Pacrami the team led on this project. Several sites subsequently linked to the Evening Standard story. This meant the story had a really good chance of ranking for the term ‘tyburnia’.

The promotional process:

  • Peter Wetherell published a report called ‘Tyburnia, Belgravia’s Sister’
  • His PR agency Lawrie Cornish, promoted the report amongst the traditional papers targeting placement in the Sunday Times, City AM, Metro, London Evening Standard.
  • Peter’s digital agency 90 Digital, co-ordinated with the PR agency and re-purposed the newspaper story for online consumption.
  • All the targeted papers published the story offline.
  • The 90 Digital focused on the Evening Standard’s online version of the story.
  • The Evening Standard online story was promoted to over 50 relevant sites.
  • When the story was taken by some of these websites, many of the ‘credit’ links went to the source story from the Evening Standard

The outcomes: The Evening Standard story subsequently ranked No1 for ‘Tyburnia’ on and two other pages from the ranked in 4th and 5th positions.


The 600 year old place name ‘Tyburnia’ is now associated with (amongst other things)

  • Peter Wetherell as a thought leader
  • A comprehensive property report on Tyburnia
  • An opportunity to buy property in this upcoming area.

Conclusion: This small example shows how timely and relevant online influence can be created through leveraging search to build the authority of a brand through ways other than online reviews.

Step 3 Determining what success looks like

As mentioned earlier there are 100’s of indicators to chose from, so its very important to always start from a high level and work your way down into detail.

A good way to think of this is to look at ‘distance’ from 100% trackability for a sale.

A personal referral might be almost completely un-trackable, whereas pay per click would be 100% trackable and then there is everything else in between. Online Social influence sits about half way because you can see the indicators showing influence, but because of cross domain tracking issues it’s very hard to work out which piece of content was the decider for someone to buy.


High level

Because online social influence has some means of attribution and trackability, it can be seen as a part of the online communications process a brand needs to undertake.

Mid Level

At this distance, Online social influence can be seen on a per site and per search results page basis.

Sentiment scoring systems like Online Reputation Score (ORS) can work well here. By weighting the prominence of negative or positive information based on its visibility and potency at any given time, you can come up with an accurate way of measuring the rise or fall of social influence for a brand online.

When looking at the influence of certain sites there is a useful tool from Experian Hitwise called Clickstream which reports on where traffic comes from and goes to for a specific website or industry. [26]

If you assume a given web site has socially influencing content, it is possible to get a rough idea for how much traffic has been ‘touched’ by this.

In this example from Experian you can see users had been to eBay and Argos, obviously to make a shopping comparison. If you know a site has influencing content, you can target that site for ‘reputation repair’ if there are issues. If the content doesn’t rank well, then you can help the positive content to rank better.


Upstream Websites Visited Before | Source: Experian Hitwise


Downstream Websites Visited After  | Source: Experian Hitwise

Low Level

It’s hard to come up with any decently granular attribution, unless you happen to own or have tracking tags on 3rd party sites that contain influencing content. In that case you can track whether they had been to a particular site and a particular page in their journey to a conversion. If there is a high instance of users converting that have been to a particular site or sites, then you have some correlatory indicators.


Tracking is getting progressively more difficult because of the proliferation of different devices that users have. For Social influence marketing  the best thing is to make some basic assumptions:

  • Content can be anything from very positive to very negative and can be scored
  • Content has varying degrees of visibility and so can be weighted on degree of visibility
  • Content can have varying degrees of potency and so can be weighted

from this you can make weighted assumptions for what is important reputationally or not and work from there. Since search engines are such a huge driver of influence online, i makes sense to start with using search keywords, their relevance and traffic volumes and scoring the content which ranks on these keywords as core indicators for any social influence campaign

Un-gaming the review system

With the growing importance of social influence online, brands sometimes resort to trying to game the review system to mislead users. This either happens with large numbers unnaturally positive reviews or unreasonably damning reviews of competitors.

We can be influenced easily

A research paper written by professors Lev Muchnik, Sinan Aral and Sean Taylor had demonstrated in a set of 300,000 randomised reviews how they could be manipulated in a substantial way.

If the first manipulated comment was positive, this comment influenced other to comment in a significantly more positive way, increasing the likelihood of positive ratings by 32%, and a 25% increase in the mean rating over the five months of the experiment. [27]

Trust in review sites

David Ensing, Ph.D., of Maritz Research did a piece of research asking 3,404 people how much they trusted various review sites.[28]

In this chart there is a correlation between age and trust, with 25-34 year olds being the least trusting. This correlates with an assumption that they are a combination of the most ‘internet savvy’ and life experienced. Older and younger people typically tend to have less capacity to read ‘trust signals’ on the internet and so take what they read on face value.



In this chart we see the percentage of respondents and the degree by which they trust a given review site.



All of this leads to the question of trust in reviews. Sites like Yelp work hard to make sure their reviews are trusted, however according to this survey they are only completely trusted by 53% of respondents. Nevertheless, these sites are basically trusted and so affect purchasing decisions.


Yelp, the large US review site has had 42 million reviews since being founded in 2004. In 2006 Yelp estimated that about 5% of all submitted reviews were fake. This has jumped to 20% of all submitted reviews in 2013. [29]

Keeping on top of fake reviews is a huge task and one that’s critical for its long term prosperity.




There are very few review sites that use a proper validation process to determine whether someone is ‘qualified’ to write a critique or not. This is because it’s very hard to verify a user bought a product or used a service if the review is not on a seller site.

As a way of reinforcing trust in their reviews, Amazon will tag a review as “Amazon Verified Purchase”. This means the reviewer has purchased the item being reviewed, so the reader has some confidence in the authenticity of this review.




However saying that, Amazon still shows reviews from unvarified sources and In 2004, unintentionally revealed the identities of “anonymous” reviewers, briefly unmasking considerable self-reviewing by book authors. [30]

Most sites don’t have any thorough verification process because of the difficulties directly associating a purchase with a review. So review sites rely on a combination of trust and their own software to identify fake reviews.

Fines for fake reviews

In a recent case in New York, local district attorney set up a fake yoghurt shop and asked then posed as brands looking for help ‘astroturfing’ reviews i.e. giving fake grassroots reviews. The operation incriminated 19 businesses willing to post fake reviews on behalf of clients. These businesses were fined a total of $350,000. This highlights how seriously authorities are taking misrepresentation. [31]



Social influence affects income.

A highly-cited Harvard Business School study from 2011 estimated that a one-star rating increase on Yelp translated to an increase of 5% to 9% in revenues for a restaurant. Cornell researchers have found that a one-star swing in a hotel’s online ratings at sites like Travelocity and TripAdvisor is tied to an 11% sway in room rates, on average. [32]

Final Thoughts

Brands and governments are beginning to wake up to the vast power of Social Influence from the internet

Online Social Influence is here to stay. With an Organic Marketing framework, some resource and a good ethical strategy, brands can amplify their online social influence many times over.

Welcome to the age of Online Influence Marketing.

About the author

Nick Garner is founder of 90 Digital, the Digital PR, SEO and web development agency.

He is a regular conference speaker, Judge on the UK and International search awards and a thought leader on natural search marketing. Prior to this he was Head of Search for Unibet a large European iGaming business and prior to that search manager for Betfair.


  31. ttp://

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.