Ask customers if they pay attention to online ratings and reviews and nearly all of them say they do. But ask business owners whether they monitor their online reviews and slightly fewer than half say they do. Those who have been ignoring them may wish to rethink their position now that dominant review site Yelp is about to get even greater exposure thanks to a new alliance with Yahoo.

Restaurant operators have a love/hate relationship with Yelp, but there’s no denying the site is the go-to information source for many, many potential restaurant customers. Yelp’s restaurant listings and reviews are likely to be seen by a wider audience than they already are now that online users will be able to find them more easily on Yahoo.

It’s part of Yahoo’s effort to increase traffic by revving up its local search results. Once the dominant Internet search portal, Yahoo now handles roughly 11 percent of all U.S. Internet searches, trailing Google and Bing.

How customers use search to find restaurants has become a bigger deal than some operators may think. Research consultancy Kantar’s new Consumer Search Behavior Study, conducted in conjunction with digital ad agency DAC Group, concludes that search activity has become much more complex. If your restaurant already has a website and you’re thinking about adding a mobile component, you are probably behind the curve.

Here are some of the key findings from this survey of 3,011 U.S. adults:

• 60 percent of Americans search for local business information at least once a week (30 percent at least a few times a week).

• 82 percent are conducting searches directly through search engines like Bing, Yahoo or Google, a 16 percent increase over 2012 (opposed to searches within company websites or directory listings).

• “Clicks to Bricks” relationships remain entwined (47 percent of consumers searching on mobile devices go directly to a brick and mortar location to complete their purchases).

• 68 percent agree that seeing a business show up in multiple places increases its perceived credibility.

• 90 percent reported that rating and reviews were at least a somewhat important factor to them when making a purchasing decision.

Are reviews important?

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DAC Group’s Nasser Sahlool sums up the study this way: "Once a simple add-on, online digital is now a proven high-performing element in earning a piece of consumers' wallets,” he says.

But while reviews—on Yelp and otherwise—are perceived as important by potential customers of businesses like restaurants, they seem less important to business owners. That’s the upshot of a survey of 261 businesses conducted by Woodbury University on behalf of review management service provider ReviewInc. The study found that while 49 percent of businesses monitor customer reviews more than twice a month, the other 51 percent simply do not.

That number was surprising because businesses owners seem vividly aware of the impact customer reviews can have. Eighty percent of this study’s respondents said that a one-star rating improvement would translate to at least a one percent gain in revenue, 65 percent would expect a five percent increase while 38 percent think they would see 10 percent gain if their online ranking improved by just a single star.
 
But what if a business’s rating were to decline one full star on a key review site? Seventy-five percent expect revenue would decline by at least one percent, 56 percent think they would take a five percent revenue hit and 29 percent would brace for a decrease of 10 percent or more.

This study looked at a variety of businesses, not just restaurants. But keep in mind how prominent restaurant reviews are on Yelp. On Yelp’s list of most frequently reviewed businesses of 2013, the top 10 were all restaurants.

The Yelp/Yahoo alliance means that Yelp will be spreading the word about your restaurant to a wider audience. Potential customers used to have to go directly to Yelp’s site to find out about your restaurant. Now they’ll get that information as the result of more general searches performed on Yahoo. Let’s hope the reviews that show up there are helpful to both your guests and your business.