Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Avoiding cowboy builders - and other trades - the solution is hiding in plain sight


As reported in the Times and many other papers, Mark Gardiner MP introduced a private member’s bill  last week calling for the mandatory licensing of construction companies. Unfortunately government regulation - financial services, communications, transport and so on - has a far from satisfactory record when it comes to ensuring the public are properly served through regulation.

But, as our headline suggests, there is a simple solution that reputable businesses, whether they be builders, plumbers, electricians or lawyers, financial advisers or accountants, can adopt to reassure potential customers - and differentiate themselves from less than scrupulous businesses of whatever kind: reviews. Specifically their own reviews and Google reviews.

Now, we know what some of you will be thinking: Google reviews are not foolproof. But nor - as we have already mentioned - is government regulation. At least Google reviews already exist and are free. Government regulation will take years and comes at a very high price (UK financial services regulation, for example, costs £1.2 billion a year - money straight out of the pockets of savers).

Let's look at some examples so we can refine this advice for the benefit of both businesses and consumers:

How all businesses can safely adopt reviews for everyone's benefit


1.  Businesses with no Google reviews at all



According to Google - which now lists such facts in map search - this business has been in existence for 'more than 10 years'. Now, we fully accept that businesses are not forced to have Google reviews, but we would certainly advise anyone considering such a business with zero reviews to ask some very searching questions before using them.

What should this business - and businesses in a similar position - do? It's never too late. Begin inviting customers to write reviews - compliantly (here's a useful article that covers all the basic compliance). Aim to have at least 50 reviews by this time next year. Then keep on going past 100 and onwards. Note the impact this has on enquiries; we are sure you will be pleasantly surprised.


2.  Businesses with Google reviews, but fewer than 50 


Nine great reviews. The point, though, is that it is possible to acquire a handful of reviews by nefarious means. Even twenty or thirty, But upwards of fifty - or a hundred? That requires some serious mischief. We have been in this business for over ten years and have rarely come across a business with over 100 Google reviews that were not predominantly genuine (100+ reviews on a review website? That's another matter entirely).

The exception is where a business is cherry-picking (choosing only proven happy customers to invite to write a review) and/or gating. Gating is where a business uses a mechanism to establish which of its customers are most likely to write a five star review and then only invites those people to review it. This is almost always done in one of three ways:

  • by getting staff to identify 'happy' customers (known in the trade and by regulators as cherry-picking - illegal in the UK - see how Yell gamed their Trustpilot reviews here)
  • by misusing/manipulating customer surveys: email the customer asking if they are happy and then only invite happy customers who respond to post a review
  • by using a less visible review site (all review sites are less visible than Google): invite reviews to the site and then only invite those customers who post a five star review there to copy their review to Google
What should this business - and businesses in a similar position - do?  Keep inviting customers to write reviews - compliantly (here's a useful article that covers all the basic compliance). Aim to have at least 100 reviews by this time next year. Then keep on going. Note the impact this has on enquiries; again: we are sure you will be pleasantly surprised.

A note here on what stops so many business from actively engaging with reviews: fear of unfair criticism. There is only one way to compliantly ensure that the absolute minimum of unfair, misleading or factually inaccurate reviews see the light of day: moderation.

Moderation is the act of checking each and every review pre-publication. Self-evidently this can only be done by an independent agency - HelpHound is one such - but has the important added benefit of allowing the reviews to appear on the business's website before the reviewer is invited to post them to Google. This article explains the process in full. Ask any business about the value of moderation and they will generally put it in the top three benefits of professional review management. A factually inaccurate or misleading review on Google can literally stop the phones ringing (we call such reviews 'killer reviews' - here are some examples).

3.  Businesses with upwards of 100 Google reviews




Such is the paucity of building firms that have actively engaged with Google reviews we have yet to find one with more than 100 reviews! This is the nearest we could find. Do let us know if you know of one.

As previously stated: if the reviews themselves have a ring of truth - and we always recommend reading a good handful - and the dates are spread across the years, not just all at once (that can be indication of a concerted gating effort) and the business's response to the reviews looks genuine, then we would suggest the consumer is reasonably safe in assuming the business and its reviews are genuine. That does not mean they should instantly appoint the business regardless of any other factors, but they should be safe in proceeding to the next stage: speaking to or otherwise contacting the business.



Conclusion:

Consumers trust Google reviews. Businesses that take reviews seriously and incorporate them into their marketing strategy thrive. Businesses that 'game' reviews run the long-term risk of CMA sanction but they also expose themselves to attack by their competitors in the short term (how many times have we heard 'I used to work at XYZ, they systematically cherry-picked'?). 

Professional review management is proven to measurably boost both clicks and calls. Channelling your business's reviews through your own website gives you massive advantages:

  • the opportunity to correct misleading or factually inaccurate reviews before they are published - on your own website or Google
  • owning your own reviews - data that is hugely valuable these days
  • having your own reviews to display on your own website - especially important for those who don't arrive at your website via search

All of the above adds up to a huge USP:

"We allow anyone at all to write a review direct to our website, and all of them are published there for everyone to reference - and then the reviewers are invited to copy them to Google"

...is a massive win when competing for business.

Just look at what follows:






These reviews - and all the reviews the business collects - belong to the business, not HelpHound or any other entity (and certainly not a review site). Anyone visiting this business's website will see these reviews and will over a hundred more to read just by clicking on the number of reviews under the office name. 

Next to that is the crucial 'Write a review' button which allows anyone to click and submit a review. That review is then moderated by HelpHound to ensure, as far as is practicably possible, that it doesn't contain errors of fact or potential misleading comments before the review is posted to the business's website alongside the ones you see here. Then the reviewer - every reviewer - is sent a direct link to the business's Google listing and asked to copy their review there. Just about half do so.



 
Here's the same business in the vital local search. Top of the Google 3-pack. Top of organic search with their star rating - 5* - and number of reviews - 235 - generated directly from the reviews hosted on their own website. This leads to an uplift of between 20 and 30 percent in inbound enquiries and supports the sale  from beginning to end. Just read this case history on enquiries and the 'consumer's tale' midway down the same article on the vital support they provide in the sales process.


All of the above adds up to massive reassurance for consumers that the business they have found - whether by personal recommendation or by searching the web - is bona fide. It's all consumers need to take the next step: making contact with the business. Review management works, for everyone concerned.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Why you should respond to all your reviews

The overwhelming majority of businesses still don't respond to their reviews. In this article we will address just why it is so important to do so and we'll share our years of experience in advising businesses how, where and when to respond. 


1.  Reviews are one of the most visible references of and for your business there is, and the overwhelming majority of consumers now use them; current estimates vary from 75 - 90% of consumers referencing reviews before purchasing a product or even going so far as to enquire about a service (put yourself in the position of someone requiring an oncologist or a builder - would you take the minutes needed to read their Google reviews?). 

If a business responds to the review its response is just as likely to be read as the review itself. Look at this example:




The review is a fortnight old and already 4 readers have taken the trouble to vote it 'helpful' (we estimate that between one in ten and one in twenty readers bother to vote - on that basis between 40 and 80 people have seen/read this review).

All of the potential clients - for whoever else would be reading these reviews? - will have also read Natasha's response.

2. Your response is a great - and free - opportunity to highlight your business's USPs. Here's another response, this time on Google:



Again: besides being basic good manners (the client has taken the trouble to write a review, surely the very least the business can do is thank them?) the response gives the business a great opportunity to reinforce some of the compliments paid in the review.


3.  Now on to the less obvious. First: there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that shows that businesses that respond to reviews receive fewer negative reviews. Think about it: if you are not entirely happy with a business there is, these days, a temptation to resort directly to writing a review. When such an individual sees that the business they are about to review invariably responds to their reviews how much more likely are they to give the business a chance to rectify whatever issue they may have offline, at least in the first instance? 

Every single customer complaint should be viewed as having the potential to turn into a harmful - and publicly extremely visible - negative review. Here's just such an example - in this case the business has failed to satisfy the customer offline and a negative Google review has resulted... 




And the business's response? A classic case of 'ignore the key points raised that any other reasonable potential customer might be interested to hear the answers to'...



The requested title, given that the above is a review posted to Google, of 'Trust Pilot SOS' will only serve to encourage readers to go to that review site and be faced with nearly 2,000 one and two star reviews of the business there.


4. This leads directly to our next point: when responding address the issues the customer has raised. As much as the business might like the conversation to take place in private and offline - usually by responding with a generic 'I'm sorry, please could you contact complaints@business.com' such a request will not have the desired effect, not only for the reviewer but, importantly, for others who read the review and will be intrigued to see how the business responds (and addresses specific points which may well be of interest to them):




This, again, is an example of a business misunderstanding - or simply not thinking through - the role of reviews and responses. The reviewer clearly states their issues with the business and any sensible reader will be interested to see how the business responds to those issues. The business had a cardinal opportunity to communicate with all stakeholders: potential customers as well as the specific customer/reviewer. 

How much better, for all concerned, if the response had addressed the issues directly: 'Dear Mr* Gabbett () [insert reason for the initial delay]/[reason for only half of order being delivered]/[reason for the further delay]' along with the promise to contact the customer directly with specific details?

*using the reviewer's surname and the salutation Mr/Ms etc. can never be criticised, already irate customers sometimes react very negatively to the use of their first name


5.  However great the temptation, never ever get into a tit for tat exchange with the reviewer (remember that most platforms, including Google and Trustpilot, allow the reviewer to either edit their original review - as has happened under 3. above) or post a new one in response to the business's reply).

Far better to simply apologise, even if you have to grit your teeth - remember you are predominantly addressing the subsequent readers of the review (the reviewer may not even read your response - there is a common tendency to 'review and move on') - just explain the action your business took to rectify the situation in such a way that any reasonable person will shrug and say to themselves 'well, at least they apoligised and I understand what action they took, they did their best'.


6.  In the same vein: never, however much it may support your case, disclose personal information about the reviewer. Not only may this leave the business on shaky legal ground it also transmits an entirely negative message to prospective customers reading the response ('Do I want to be dealing with the sort of business that will publicly disclose personal information in this way?').

At first reading you may well be saying 'we would never do this' but we can assure you we see daily instances where personal information, often personal financial information, is disclosed in responses by businesses (examples consist of disclosing the - lack of - creditworthiness of the reviewer or the reviewer's supposed unwillingness to pay invoices, to name but two).


HelpHound members

All HelpHound members have a one-click facility that enables them to respond to every review on their website and we heartily suggest it is used, for the reasons outlined above. If you are in any doubt as to the mechanism or wish to receive advice on the wording of your response we are here to help.

The same applies to Google reviews. Just log into your Google My Business account at business.google.com and follow these easy steps:




Then select 'Reviews' from the left-hand menu...




And click the 'Reply' button found under any reviews yet to be responded to, remembering that as soon as you click 'Post reply' your response will be publicly visible under the review...



That's it!

Remember: we're here to help and advise. All the time. So if you are in any doubt whatsoever about procedure, strategy or wording just call us.


Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Have your cake and eat it!

 This flyer was sent out by a business this week...




What a pity.

Let us explain: how much more powerful would that have been had the business in question adopted a Google-focussed solution?




It has sixty-one reviews on Trustpilot, but what does a prospective client see when they search online?



Remember: Mobile searches now outnumber desktop by 2:1 and that number is growing every month


Google. How much more powerful if they had directed their sixty reviewers there? 

How much more credible? 

How much more visible?

So - no excuse - focus on Google. Or is there more to it? We have heard many reasons for going elsewhere - or even doing nothing - over the years. Here are some...

  • Fear. Pure and simple. Fear of the dreaded killer review appearing where it can do the most harm: on Google. There's some perverse logic at work here: a damaging negative is somehow acceptable on Trustpilot or Feefo, because 'it won't do so much harm' ! But why engage with reviews in the first place? To get them seen by as many potential customers as possible, of course. And that means Google. But with a safety mechanism: moderation. 
Employing a moderator boosts the value of your reviews for everyone: the writer of the review (who doesn't want to mislead anyone), the reader (who is relying on the veracity and accuracy of the review to make a crucial choice) and lastly, and self-evidently you, the business owner. 
 
A professional moderator will read every single review written to your business's website and then interact with whichever of the three parties to the moderation process they need to to, as far as is humanly possible, eradicate any factual errors or statements likely to mislead a reader.
  • Everyone else is with [name of review site]. So much of marketing involves looking at one's most successful competitor and then taking their lead. But here's a massive exception: Google don't have a salesforce where their reviews are concerned, so you're never going to get a call selling Google reviews. It's up to you to work out the right solution for your business. Here's a hint: if it is a service or professional business - as opposed to online product/retail - you need to be focussing all your review efforts on your own website and Google. 
And: your customer data is extremely valuable, so you need, as far as possible, to retain control over it, not be giving it away to a review site.
  • Consumers won't write a review to Google. We nearly left this one out, but so many businesses missed out on the early days of Google reviews because of this popular misconception. Google now hosts over ten times the number of reviews as Yelp, the biggest quoted review site. If you ask a hundred people to write a review, anywhere, you're never going to get 100 reviews. But we commonly - and confidently - advise clients to target to get 50% of their customers to write a review to their website and then 50% of those to copy their review to Google.
  • [name] review site gives us a drop-in widget that is so easy from a tech point-of-view. That's like saying 'I'm going to do what's best/easiest for my web designers rather than what's best for my business'. Google is so demonstrably the end focus of your review management, but you simply cannot afford to run the risk of inviting reviews unmoderated - see 'Killer reviews' - so your web people must be competent to fully implement a review management API, allowing Google to scrape your own reviews to boost your local SEO.
  • If Google is the right place to have our reviews, why bother with our own website? For two main reasons: first, if you are in a high-value service business or one of the professions you need moderation. It's not a 'nice to have' add-on, it's absolutely core. Without moderation it's only a matter of time before a factually inaccurate or potentially misleading review gets published to Google. And those have the potential to stop the phones ringing, it is simply too high a risk to take with your business's hard-won online reputation.
The second reason: owning your own reviews; don't give that valuable data away unless you're getting something equally valuable in return. In the case of Google you will be (an uplift in enquiries), but you will be far better off, both financially and presentationally, owning your own reviews in the case of those displayed on your website.

If any readers can add to this list we would welcome your feedback, simply use the 'Contact us!' box on the right and we'll include your point along with our response right here.


It's never too late!

Finally, resist the temptation to say 'well, we committed to X review site and its been hard work getting all those reviews, so we'll stick with it'.

We have had great success taking businesses with many hundreds of reviews elsewhere and getting them a well-established profile in Google reviews in short order. 

Have your cake (with lots of great reviews - that you own - on your website) and eat it (with lots on Google too).

Friday, 29 October 2021

Time for review stars to go?










Stars - they're great shorthand when you're looking for a business, no? Would you like a simple answer? Here it is: YES. For businesses. 

But - and this is a big BUT, we're afraid our experience over the last ten or so years means we are going to have to dig a bit deeper in order to come to a helpful conclusion for consumers.


Why stars in the first place?




A 'five-star' experience - a 'five-star' dinner - a 'five-star' hotel - where did they originate? Well, the first recorded rating system - using exclamation marks - was invented by Englishwoman Mariana Starke for her travel guides in the 1820s, but stars? Probably Baedeker in around 1850 and then Michelin in 1926. We had to wait until the 1960s and Craig Claiborne in the NY Times for stars to be applied to a restaurant review. Interestingly, while stars - and even tomatoes, rotten and otherwise - have been routinely applied to films, theatre producers have mostly resisted using stars on publicity material, sticking with quotes.

But one of the best drivers of a star system we have found quoted in the media is the move by the Scotsman using stars for shows on the Edinburgh Fringe, when it had grown to more than 1500 shows. The Scotsman introduced stars as a convenient short-cut for readers. And herein lies a clue as to our growing disquiet about stars when applied to high-value service businesses. Fine - maybe - for a night out, but as a way of choosing a medical practitioner or a financial adviser?

The numbers game

One of the main issues arises when we see businesses playing the numbers game to keep their star rating up: got a lot of negative reviews? Just get more positives, almost any way you can.

Engagement v. non-engagement (what we call 'review denial')

Savvy businesses have learnt that they can up their ratings simply by engaging with their customers. Look at this quote about Trustpilot:




Paid for or free?

Why would a business pay for a reviews site when Google reviews are free - not just free, but more visible and more credible (after all, it is far harder to create a fake account on Google than it is on a review site to write a review)?

There are only two credible answers to this (aside from the business falling for a sales pitch by the review site):

  • the review site is being used by the business to gate reviews to Google ('gating' means pre-qualifying customers so the business is as sure as it possibly can be that is only inviting those most likely to write a positive review to do so; so it may invite all its customers to post to say Trustpilot and then only invite those who rate them 5 stars to go on the post their review to Google. It can also be done by using the tried-and-tested 'customer survey' route.)


Thanks Yell and Trustpilot - and thanks to Richman SEO: read their full piece here

  • the review site offers the business 'advantages' that Google does not. Trustpilot, for instance, allows businesses to challenge reviews and then insists the reviewer provide 'proof of purchase' for instance, otherwise their review is taken down. While a great idea on the surface, this has the real-world effect of making sure the absolute minimum of negative reviews are published.


Yell 'flags' 109 reviews in the last 12 months - 101 of which are negative - and only 27 of those remain on the site.

  • other review sites may allow businesses to cherry-pick those they invite to write reviews. Feefo, for instance, is an 'invitation only' review site. And what business is going to wilfully invite known unhappy customers to post a review? Such a solution may be fine for online retail, but for life-and-death (medical) or financially crucial (investment managers, estate agents) services?

All of the above only serves to undermine consumer confidence in reviews in general. And a near five-star rating on any of these sites should be viewed with a high degree of scepticism. Indeed, the day is fast approaching when consumers should assume the worst when faced with a business that employs a review site rather than simply inviting its customer to post to Google.

Out-of-date reviews

Must be archived - at least as regards the business's score. Why? Because businesses evolve, and not always in a good way. Take an obvious example: online retail. The business has established a reputation for quality and its backers think it's about time they made some serious money. What do they do? They change from a high-quality supplier to a sweat-shop. Same shirt, inferior fabric, inferior machining. And thousands of out-of-date five-star reviews keeping the sales coming in. Another: takeovers. Business A buys business B and replaces all their great staff. But keeps all their great five-star reviews. We have a file full of such examples.

The solution?

The problem, you will see, is not with the review score - be it five, four, three, two or one stars, it's with the market and its regulation and the enforcement of those regulations.

For consumers

Slow down. Don't just go by the score. By all means use it as a basic guide but then read the reviews. And the business's responses to those reviews.

For the regulators

Insist that the rules are followed. Cherry-picking and gating are both illegal, at least in the UK, but they're currently at epidemic levels. So enforce the rules. Fine those that breach them - businesses and review sites. Publish your action.

For Google 

Archive all reviews over a certain age. Two years? Since a major business reorganisation? Reward businesses that respond to reviews. 

For the review sites

Guys, you're running canals. The railway has arrived. Find something else to do. It's Google all the way now. At least until you find some value that you can add over and above Google reviews that doesn't involve 'helping' businesses to look better than they really are.

For businesses

Stop buying the latest flavour of the month. Stop giving away your incredibly valuable customer data. Find a reliable review manager. One that incorporates professional moderation into its basic offering and focusses on reviews to your own website - reviews that you own - and to Google. 


A case history

Here's a local search...and the first two results: 


You will notice that one business has a star rating, a score (4.8) and the number of reviews that have been counted towards that rating (240) just under its listing. They're taken, by Google, direct from the business's own reviews on its own website. 

But the important thing here, in the context of this article, is that every single person who ever has had any contact with the first business can simply visit its website and write a review...





...by clicking the 'Write a review' link above. Once that review has been moderated to ensure, as far as is possible, that it contains no errors of fact or statements likely to mislead the reader (who may be relying on it to choose an important and costly service) it will be published on the business's website.




240 reviews, which the reader can filter at will...




The reviewer will then receive an automatic request to copy their review to Google. Every reviewer. Whatever the content of their review or star rating...




So there is a system that works equally well for the business and their prospective customer. That is virtually impossible to game. That gives consumers a reliable resource to rely on when choosing high-value services.

So the answer to the question we pose at the top of this article 'Time for review stars to go?'

No, but time for businesses, review sites, Google and the regulators to act to ensure that, as far as reasonably possible, consumers - especially consumers of high-value services - can rely on those stars.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Reviews: the future

If you wonder whether the world of online reviews has evolved very far from the primeval swamp of fakery that existed at the outset of Web 2.0 please read on. If you are as concerned as we - and responsible bodies such as Which? - are that online reviews become a reliable consumer guide, rather than just another way for less than scrupulous businesses to attract more custom, also please read on.


Review Sites and Google reviews


32 of them! And the only ones your business needs? Numbers 12 and 32. Consumers can add No. 6.

Review sites came first; not before Google, of course, but quite a while before Google reviews. And still, review sites have a clear field to forage in - as Google has not yet directly monetised its reviews offering. But Google reviews, for reviews of individual businesses at least, are currently the most credible, most reliable, most traceable, and most visible reviews there are. And it's worth remembering that just about every consumer needs to get past Google to read reviews on any other platform.

It is our firm opinion, repeated many times here over the years, that review sites, as they are currently structured are, in the main, redundant. And this opinion is reinforced every working day of our lives when we see the comparative results that our clients achieve by focussing their efforts on hosting their own reviews on their own websites and then getting them across to Google. Businesses are far better advised to focus their efforts where their consumers are: on Google. A single Google review is worth a dozen reviews on any review site (and maybe many more).

 

Product reviews

 


This piece by Richman SEO contains many nuggets: this one illustrates that the mere fact of using a review site tilts the playing field in favour of the business. But before you rush to join, please read the rest of this article!

 

Product reviews by consumers are virtually worthless. Why? Because few consumers have the requisite expertise or breadth of experience to comment with any authority on all but the simplest of products. The best one can expect for a consumer review of a product is 'I bought it to do X and it did X'. Once we enter into comparative territory - 'it did X better than product Y' then we begin skating on very thin ice indeed. 

Until someone comes up with a way of qualifying the writer of the review the blind are invariably leading the blind where product reviews are concerned. Consumers are far better advised to consult expert professional reviews of products. If you ever needed more proof of this contention just find a business that's paying Trustpilot or Feefo for their review solutions to boost sales of their products that scores less than 4 out of 5!

 

Services

 


Service reviews, on the other hand, are vital. But currently far too unreliable. Businesses game them - fake reviews, bought reviews, reviews written by connected persons, gating, cherry-picking, (ab)use of functions such as flagging*, using sites that allow them to pick exactly who writes reviews and just about anything else they can do to look better. And the review sites currently connive in this gaming.

And this - services - is the area where consumers so desperately need accurate and reliable reviews: medical, financial, legal and so on. Imagine you chose an oncologist based on their reviews and subsequently discovered that those reviews had been aquired using one of the many suspect techniques listed in the paragraph above?

*There are at least two types of flagging: you can flag a Google review of your business but Google will leave the review up unless they find it contravenes their TOS; on the other hand, there is the Trustpilot version, where the review is immediately suspended unless the reviewer can be bothered to respond to Trustpilot's email requiring them to prove that they have used the business. On the surface, the latter has huge appeal, both from the business and the consumer point-of-view, unfortunately far too many businesses would appear to be flagging far too many critical reviews once they realise that only a tiny minority of people can be bothered to respond to the email from the review site.

Gating: the act of establishing, often means of a customer survey, sometimes by using a lesser-known review site, exactly who a business's happy customers are - and then inviting them to post to a key review site, often Google.

Cherry-picking: choosing which customers to ask to write a review. Illegal. But currently extremely common.

 

Lead generation sites with reviews 


If we meet 100 businesses using sites like these we invariably find that 99 would have been better off saving their money and focussing on Google reviews.

These pop up with the regularity of mushrooms, and their blandishments have distracted many a business that might otherwise have established themselves on Google with hundreds of Google reviews. They are the heroin of review marketing: 'We'll get you reviews from your customers/clients/patients and then more customers/clients/patients will have the confidence to contact you/use your service' is a very powerful message. 

That is until you realise that all that effort - and expense - has simply gone to further entrench your business's addiction to that lead generator. Google is free. Google reviews are free. Google reviews are more visible and more trusted and will, as a result, generate you far more leads for far less expenditure over the long run. 

 

Reliability

For reviews to have any value whatsoever for consumers they must be as close to 100% reliable as is possible. Not 'mostly reliable or 'quite reliable', reliable full stop.

For reviews to achieve this reliability the ways in which those businesses that host reviews and those that mobilize them in their marketing must be made absolutely accountable for their veracity. If you fall foul of the ASA rules on advertising you will be sanctioned with a fine and publicity, the same - now that consumers trust reviews more than they trust advertising - must apply to businesses and the CMA.

 

Law enforcement

Law, in the UK at least, already exists to enable enforcement of the CMA regulations (UK). The US Congress would do well to repeal section 230 of their Communications and Decency Act which, since 1996, gives online publishers immunity from prosectution. 

 

Time frame

 


So old as to be next to worthless - reviews this old should be archived.

 

Five-year-old reviews are worse than useless, they can be woefully misleading. Useless for consumers and useless for the reviewed business. We are fully aware that 'data is money' and that the review platforms are, for this reason alone, reluctant to archive their irrelevant time-expired reviews but they need to bite the bullet and do so. 

This does not need to harm their business models as businesses that rest on their laurels with thousands of past their sell-by date reviews and a great resultant score will need to up their games and keep their reviews refreshed with a constant flow of new reviews, so consumers know exactly what to expect of their businesses now, not in the distant past.

 

Moderation

All reviews must be moderated. That they are not is a source of shame for every platform that hosts reviews, from Google to Yelp! to Trustpilot to TripAdvisor. It is of no concern to us that these vast businesses with almost limitless financial resources claim that they are taking all kinds of steps with their technology or their algorithms to clean up their review content. There is only one way to ensure reliable content and that is human moderation. They need to start paying real people to moderate their reviews. 

Until Google and the reviews sites come on board, if they ever do, businesses must find an independent solution to moderation such as HelpHound (you will understand why it's not possible for a business to moderate its own reviews). That is, unless your business is immune to inaccurate and/or misleading reviews and the impact such reviews have on your potential customers.

 

Appeals procedure

It is not enough for those businesses that host reviews to hide behind 'freedom of speech' where reviews of businesses are concerned. No one should be able to libel a business on any platform without that platform assuming some level of responsibility, any more than a newspaper would. Governments need to intervene to establish rules for those entities publishing reviews. At the very least the platform should be obliged to verify the identity of any reviewer who posts a critical review if challenged. 

That does not mean that the identity of the reviewer has to be disclosed to anyone, including the business under review, but the reviewer should be required to prove beyond any reasonable doubt - to the review platform - that the review they have posted is a genuinely held opinion of a bona fide customer of the business.




From all the above you can see that reviews have still got a long way to go to become universally reliable, although they are already relied upon. And that gap between perception and reality must close sooner rather than later. We could have gone on, to include our views on Google ratings, for example, but we will break out the champagne if the points we have made above become redundant any time soon.

 

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Trustpilot - Which? highlights areas that should be of concern to any business, and the regulator


On the face of the statement in the strapline - beginning 'In May...' - you would think a business would be crazy not to join Trustpilot, until you realise the organisation making the statement is Which? so it's obviously not meant as a compliment.

Let's mine a little deeper...

'In March, April and the first half of May, Sykes Holiday Cottages received more than 5,000 five-star ratings on Trustpilot. This was despite the fact that nobody could stay in one of its cottages at the time, because they were closed due to coronavirus.  At the same time, Which? was inundated with complaints about Sykes because of its policy of refusing refunds to customers for stays it had cancelled. There were so many that we reported it to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Although it also received more than 2,000 one-star ratings in the same period, its flood of five stars meant that, at the time, it had an average of four stars and was officially ‘great’. 

It wasn’t the only travel company that faced widespread anger from customers over refunds. We found many heavily criticised firms rated as ‘great’ on Trustpilot when we looked at their profiles in early May. One example was online travel agent Kiwi.com – which has maintained a ‘great’ four-star rating despite customers complaining about difficulty getting refunds.  Yet others, such as British Airways, Expedia and Tui, which have also faced criticism, were rated as ‘poor’. Even the widely praised Hays Travel was rated as ‘poor’. 

And now the punchline...

'All but one of the travel companies we looked at which were rated as ‘great’ had paid Trustpilot hundreds of pounds a month. None of those rated as poor had paid it anything at all.

Here is Sykes' listing on Trustpilot...





A simple question for Trustpilot: how does a company that leaves 21 percent of its customers so dissatisfied that they feel obliged to write a one-star review rate as 'Excellent'? That's over one in five and ten thousand extremely unhappy customers (read some of the reviews if you doubt that). How many negative reviews does it take to get down to just plain 'Good'?

Now it starts to get even more sinister...

'How did Sykes manage to get so many thousands of people to leave positive reviews in such a short period? Sykes pays Trustpilot for an expensive ‘Enterprise Account.’ This allows it to use Trustpilot’s systems to invite thousands of reviews a month. In April it sent out 5,698 invitations and 60% of these received five stars. In the same period it received 718 reviews that weren’t from an invitation and just 20 of those were five stars. Trustpilot confirmed to us that, ‘the biggest driver of a higher score is whether or not a company invites its customers’. It said invites ‘tend to activate customers who had a good experience*, but who wouldn’t otherwise have shared their opinion’.  It also said that companies don’t have to pay to send out invites. They can ask customers directly to leave reviews, or use Trustpilot’s own free plan that allows them to send out 100 invites through its systems. But only one out of 62 companies that we looked at used the free plan. 

This statement goes exactly contrary to all our, and our clients', real-life experience: inviting reviews activates dissatisfied customers far and away above satisfied ones. That's a big part of why HelpHound exists: to moderate inaccurate and potentially misleading reviews pre-publication. To say the contrary goes so against our years of experience that we can only assume that Trustpilot's sales and marketing department had a hand in this incredibly misleading - and dangerous for any business considering adopting Trustpilot - comment.

While Sykes Holiday Cottages was rated as ‘great’ on Trustpilot, Hays Travel was rated as ‘poor’. Yet Hays was the third best holiday company in our most recent Which? Travel survey, with customers giving it five stars for service. It’s also been highly rated elsewhere for its response to the coronavirus pandemic.  At the beginning of May we looked at the ratings for 32 travel companies that pay Trustpilot and 30 that don’t. The average for those who don’t pay was less than 2.5 – officially ‘poor’.  The average score for those who pay was just under four stars – officially ‘great’. Even when we checked the scores again in July – after many months of almost no travel – the companies that paid Trustpilot still had a rating of 3.7, while those that don’t pay had 2.4.

'[Holiday] companies are also able to flag** – and potentially have removed – reviews that they don’t like. Kiwi.com flagged almost 800 negative reviews in the year up to the beginning of May. Trustpilot removed over 650 of them.  This helped it to retain its ‘great’ four-star rating on Trustpilot. Companies can dispute a review simply by claiming its ‘not based on a genuine experience’ – meaning a one-star reviewer can be asked to prove they used the company.  Yet five star reviewers are much less likely to be asked to prove that they had a genuine experience.  Kiwi.com told us: ‘When a review is received for which the customer can’t be verified we flag it to Trustpilot.’  Trustpilot said: ‘If any firm were to misuse the flagging function they would be breaching our guidelines and we would take appropriate action.’  

** We have addressed this 'flagging' facility more than once in previous articles: whilst superficially a 'good idea' it is almost universally used by businesses to place an extra obstacle in the way of customers posting negative comments (by insisting that they provide 'proof of purchase' to Trustpilot before their review is posted - can you imagine what the drop-off rate is?). How is that helpful to future customers of the business - who are relying on reviews to make an informed choice - that uses this facility in this way? It's not, of course; it's also against both the spirit and the word of the law

Here are Trustpilot's own numbers for another high-profile client: Purplebricks:



To be absolutely clear: Trustpilot appealed against 427 reviews; all of those were suspended by Trustpilot (hidden from public view), Trustpilot then contacted the reviewers concerned and asked them to provide evidence of their dealings with Trustpilot, 351 - that's all but 76 of the authors of the 427 reviews didn't respond to Trustpilot and further 19 failed to 'resolve the breach of Trustpilot's guidelines. Only 57 of those 427 reviews - a paltry 13 percent - saw the light of day. 

Our advice to consumers? Write your review direct to Google: it will be seen by so many more people and it will be published.

Our advice to businesses? Get reviews written to your own website and then to Google. Crucially, employ an independent moderator to ensure your reviews contain the minimum of factual errors and statements likely to mislead consumers.


Here's Hays Travel's Trustpilot listing...




On the surface, and according to Trustpilot: a 'Poor' business. But really? What we have here, in reality, is a business that refuses to engage with Trustpilot. Why? Not because it sees the obvious flaws in Trustpilot's offering, but because it uses a rival system over which hang perhaps even more question marks...





Hays have simply opted for Trustpilot-lite - or Feefo as it is properly known. Now with Feefo the business not only controls who gets invited to write a review - invitees of the business by email and absolutely no-one else - but it also controls the timing of the invitation to write the review (time to read the CMA regulations - link above - again!).

Now we have two methods by which businesses might, just might, be able to manipulate the numbers in their favour...

  1. Trustpilot: don't invite customers you know to be unhappy, but run the risk that they'll find their way to Trustpilot anyway; although once they have written an uncomplimentary review there you can make use of Trustpilot's quarantine facility, whereby you may challenge the reviewer to provide proof of purchase otherwise their review goes into limbo, invisible to consumers.
  2. Feefo: don't invite customers you know to be unhappy in the secure knowledge that they cannot write a review to the platform in any other way.
We suppose it could be worse: at least Yelp, the largest quoted review site on the planet, has scurried back to the States and is no longer offering paid listing uplifts to UK businesses. But it is past time for the CMA to crack down on both the businesses and the mechanisms described here and in Which?'s article (something Which? evidently agrees with - see below).

It's only fair that we reproduce Trustpilot's response to Which? although even we were surprised just how weak it was...

'Trustpilot told us [Which?] that although inviting customers to leave reviews is the biggest driver of a higher score***, the process of inviting does not guarantee a higher score, nor do companies have to pay to invite customers. It said that ‘on every company profile page, we make it clear whether the company is actively inviting reviews or not – but the causation between paying and high scores does not exist’. It has also pledged, ‘to fight for and maintain trust in online reviews’ with several new initiatives. These include allowing ‘flagged’ reviews to remain online while they’re being investigated, no longer sharing reviews with search engines for companies that have breached its guidelines, improving transparency and banning incentives to leave a review. This week it announced the launch of a new research and development hub in Edinburgh, ‘to develop new, world-leading technology that proactively tackles the behaviour that threatens trust online.’ 

Action from the Competition and Markets Authority? The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently announced the second phase of its investigation into online reviews on major websites. Which? wants the regulator to investigate how sites collect, display and moderate reviews and whether that risks misleading people. It should also look at the robustness and transparency of sites’ T&Cs and how effectively these are enforced. If the CMA finds that sites are failing to take sufficient measures to protect consumers, Which? expects the regulator to take strong enforcement action.


*** Do we need to say 'No, it's not' again?

And here are links to articles relating to CMA regulations and action regarding reviews:

When you look at some of these dates you will see why we have become mildly frustrated by the CMA's relative inactivity. We have written to them on behalf of consumers in general and our clients in particular because our clients - who all obey both the spirit and the letter of the law - continue to find themselves competing on a playing field that is unfairly tilted against them as a result of the abuses by clients of sites such as Trustpilot and, to a lesser extent, Feefo, highlighted here.

It is testimony to both our clients and HelpHound, and to consumers in general, that this disadvantage has not translated into a lack of success in the marketplace. Just see how one prominent Plc client of ours has won market share by compliantly engaging with online reviews.