Monday, 7 October 2019

Google adds 'key snippets' to your reviews

In order to give searchers an even faster shortcut to key information about a business, Google has added 'key snippets' (our name - we'll let you know what Google is calling them as soon as they decide) on top of the search.

What do they look like? see just under the headline score... can see the chosen 'key snippet' (in this case: 'patient') displayed in bold in each of the relevant reviews.

Google is still at the 'tinkering' stage - these appear and disappear and then appear again at the moment - but the message is clear: Google knows that users respond to key snippets like these, otherwise they wouldn't be doing this.

Implications for businesses? Now, more than ever, it is important that you supply the raw material. If a business looks like this...

...then it will have one more reason - on top of the score and the negative reviews themselves - to wonder why the phone is not ringing.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Why bother to obey the law when it comes to reviews?

These are posts in an online forum from staff that claim they have been asked - and in some cases incentivised - to encourage a certain class of customers to post favourable reviews of a business, in this case an estate agency. Almost every activity mentioned in these posts, on the business's side and on that of the reviews site, if it were true, would be in breach of one or more of the CMA regulations.

You may - or you may not! - be surprised just how often we are asked this question. Even those of you that are surprised that the question is asked might be surprised if you knew which businesses are asking the question! In this article we will make the case for obeying the law, not because we believe that those currently breaking the law are about to have their collars felt (although that may well be the case - the CMA do not give specific warning of action, but they have been active in making noises about non-compliance where reviews are concerned for a while now) but because there are other implications other than being arrested and fined that flow from non-compliance.

First, let's recap on the main breaches we see:
  1. Cherry-picking: the practice of only inviting reviews from satisfied customers. Illegal.
  2. Gating: the practice of systematically identifying happy customers before the business invites them to write a review, often done by sending a customer survey to identify those most likely to write a five-star review. Illegal.
In the context of the rules, both of these are serious breaches - and therefore illegal. why? Because they are designed expressly to tilt the impression given to any potential customer in favour of the business. That's fine in the context of testimonials - because these, by their very nature, are understood to be selected positive comments. But with reviews - absolutely not. The rules are clear...
  • if a business invites reviews at all, it must enable all of its customers to write a review
  • the timing of such a review must not be controlled by the business, it must be at a time of the customer's own choosing
So - back to the question in the title of this article: why bother to obey the law? The simple answer would be to say 'for the same reason you obey any other law' but, at the moment we are hearing far too many businesses say 'but the law is not being enforced' and they are right. No business has - yet - been prosecuted for manipulating reviews, so back to the question. Here's our answer: 'because your competitors will use your non-compliance against you'.

How so? Nowadays not a day goes by when the press doesn't run an article about reviews being manipulated in some way, so consumers are aware that playing fast-and-lose with reviews happens. It only takes a nudge from business A to say 'do you know how business B has so many great reviews?' to sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of a savvy consumer.

An example

This innocuous little button is key to compliance for all HelpHound clients

We have a client in South London, an estate agent. They had two Google reviews when they joined HelpHound, they now have well over two hundred reviews on their own website and over a hundred on Google. They know...

  • any of their customers, indeed anyone at all, can write a review to their website at a time of their - the customer's - own choosing. Why? Because there is a button on their website inviting them to do just that.
  • everyone who has a review published on their website is invited to copy their review to Google, automatically
  • they are, therefore: complaint with the CMA regulations
But their competitors? They mostly decided they could do without such complaince. They also started with a small handful of reviews (sometimes none), but - to remain competitive with our client - they decided to break the law. How? By cherry-picking or gating (see above), sometimes both. How do we know? Because, surprising as it may seem, staff move jobs, and when they do, they tell staff at their new employers just how their previous employer managed to look so good. And that information in the hands of a competitor? 

"Yes, Mr & Mrs X, ABC estates' reviews do look very good indeed (but are you aware that they only invite their happy customers to write reviews)?"

That simple sentence will be enough to unsettle most potential clients, especially when ABC estates' cannot positively demonstrate compliance.

The lesson to draw

Your business needs to be compliant, not simply to stay on the right side of the CMA but also to defend itself against this kind of perfectly valid attack on its probity.

Further reading...

Monday, 30 September 2019

Important - Google drops 'self-serving' stars in search

As we have been predicting for some time now, Google has finally decided that 'self-generated' review content is no longer to be shown in search. The whole article is here on Google's Webmaster blog. We recommend you read it in its entirety, meanwhile, we will focus on the most important aspects here.


Here are some of the FAQs...

Implications for our clients

There was never any proof that 'stars in search' drove clicks and/or calls (nice as they were to have, especially if a competitor didn't have them). We met with a client last week that monitors these very closely and they confirmed that there is a correlation between their Google score and inbounds but that they have never observed any change as their stars have dropped in and out of organic search. They did, however, ascribe significant value to the reviews hosted on their own website - both per se and, most importantly, for the moderation aspect of the process. The key indicator is, and remains, your Google reviews, your Google score and the flow of those reviews.

Update 10 October

Clients that have properly/fully implemented our API have retained their 'stars in search' - so far. The logic behind this, from Google's point-of-view, is as follows:

  1. The reviews are positively identified as being verified by a third party
  2. There is a direct link to a page on our website explaining our role ('What is HelpHound?')
  3. There is a click through to all the business's own reviews (plus the running total)

Implications for reviews sites

Google has yet to address this issue, but if we follow their very simple logic any review mechanism that gives the business any degree of control over their reviews - for example: the issuing of the invitation (Feefo) or quarantine (Trustpilot) would fail Google's new 'test'. Sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor are less likely to be affected as the business has no 'control' over the reviews process.

We have also consistently questioned the value of such content (you can be sure if there was any statistical evidence for the schema working in terms of adding value the reviews sites would be trumpeting it to the heavens). 

Implications for Google

As we have said many times before here (this article contains a 'to-do list' for Google), Google still has a way to go before its own review offering is anywhere near perfect. An example? Today's Times carried this story...

...but the business has managed to avoid having a Google My Business panel altogether (that yawning white space on the right would normally contain the business's Google Knowledge Panel)...

...whilst making hay with a reviews site...

...where, strangely enough, very few of its mostly glowing reviews mention the flaws that led to the Times investigation (or the fact that, according to the Times, one of the directors is on the sex offenders register - something that parents of daughters wishing to rent unlockable shared accommodation might be reasonably interested to hear).

It's the same with our old friend PurpleBricks - they even employ two reviews sites, where they look like this...

...and this...

But if you are sophisticated - or persistent - enough to find them on Google they look like this...

...and this...

We think Google needs to ensure that consumers see Google reviews for every business it lists, first. Without needing to mine the site for hours, and certainly before encouraging consumers to rely on paid-for reviews sites. 

Watch this space!

We felt it important to post this as quickly as possible. We will be updating it as Google's policy becomes clearer, but the message so far is loud and clear: focus on Google reviews, get a great Google score and keep the flow coming. Call us if you have any immediate questions.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Four ways businesses are hurting themselves by adopting DIY review management

These two searches (specific - on the business name - above; local/generic - on the type of business - below) show the 'holy grail' of review management, where all the following have been achieved:

  • great Google score
  • a significant number of Google reviews
  • Reviews from the Web (centre right - taken from the business's own reviews on its own website)
  • great rich snippets (the three extracts at bottom right)
  • stars in organic search (top left)
  • score ditto
  • a significant number of reviews from the business's own site (180 in this case - top left)

  • ranking high on the first page of local search (1st in this case) 
  • showing stars/score and number of reviews hosted on the business's own site, making the listing stand out from the crowd

All of the above has been achieved with the help of professional review management, but the Google part (reviews and scores) could have been achieved without - we see it all the time: businesses that have realised that they need to look great by having high scores and lots of great reviews on Google - and so far so very good. But then the pitfalls emerge. Here we go through these one-by-one; by the end you should be able to answer the key question faced by every business these days: 'should we continue to go it alone or does professional review management look like good value?'

Pitfall no 1 - compliance 

Or should we say 'non-compliance'. It is possible to run a CMA-compliant reviews system - here's how...
  • put a 'write your review here' button on your website leading straight to your business's Google knowledge panel, so you can prove to the regulators that you are enabling every single one of your customers to write a review in compliance with the regulations that state that...
    • every one of your customers must be able to write a review...
    • at a time of their own choosing
...but we can count the number of businesses we have encountered over the years doing this on the fingers of one hand; for reasons that will become clear as we continue.

There are two main issues with non-compliance, at least for UK businesses:
  1. They run the risk of coming to the attention of the authorities (the CMA) and they - the CMA - have the power to prosecute non-compliant businesses
  2. It is easy to spot a non-compliant business - all a competitor has to do is see that the business has lots of [positive] Google reviews and then check their website to see that they have no invitation to write a review there. This - the ability to say 'this business is only inviting reviews from happy customers' is a powerful weapon against the business in question in any competitor's hands
There's a whole article dedicated to compliance here. Five minutes spent reading it could save your business's reputation.

Pitfall No 2 - moderation 

This is the kind of review where moderation will help everyone involved: the reviewer, the business and those reading the review. Our moderators would invite the reviewer to expand on his allegations by providing facts, and then invite the reviewed business to respond, privately in the first instance.

First: what exactly is moderation in the context of reviews? It is the act of having your reviews read, pre-publication, by an independent body (such as HelpHound). Reviews that contain factual inaccuracies or statements likely to mislead future customers are then able to be challenged, not by the business but by the moderator.

No moderation? Fine for pizza parlours and online retailers. A score of 4 out of 5 on Google (with the 20% of negative reviews that entails) will not deflect many of their customers, so why concern themselves with the odd inaccurate or misleading negative review? But high-value professional businesses? These businesses need a mechanism that enables them to...
  • correct errors of fact, pre-publication
  • address potentially misleading statements, again - pre-publication
...and that's where moderation comes in. There's more on that important topic here.

Pitfall No 3 - SEO

There's only one way your business will get to the top of the Google 3-pack and the top of organic local search, and that's by having great SEO

Google will - understandably - never tell you exactly how much hosting your own verified reviews on your website will impact your ranking in local search, what they will say, however, is that it is a significant factor. Our attitude is 'look at our clients and then look at their rankings in search, do you need any more evidence?' 

You might also want to read this article written straight after we returned from San Francisco this June.

Pitfall No 4 - no independently verified reviews 

These two - the first a link to a full explanation of HelpHound's role, the second a note of reassurance, appear on our clients' websites.

What percentage of your potential customers land straight on your website? How much would they value an independently verified review resource there? You know the answer to the first question and we all know the answer to the second question because so much research has gone into answering it. Customers want reviews, not testimonials. And they want reviews they can trust. On Google and on your website.

Of course, there is a 'Pitfall N. 5' and that's cost. We pride ourselves that, unlike the reviews websites, we have a very high customer retention rate. If the cost of membership of HelpHound, which can start from as low as £50 a month, was not being outweighed by the benefits we - and you - know that would not be the case. Call us and we'll ask you a few simple questions and then quote you (and, by the way, there's no contract term either). Then you will be well on the way to achieving everything shown at the top of this article without any of the pitfalls.

Friday, 13 September 2019

BBC Watchdog - and how this horror story could so easily have been prevented

This week's BBC Watchdog, not for the first time, featured an elderly lady who had been ruthlessly defrauded by a tradesman, in this case, a tree surgeon. The story will be familiar: she sees a flyer advertising his services, he turns up with two assistants, quotes her £550 for what Watchdog's expert has assessed as a £350 job, does a dreadful job and then ramps up the charge to over £6,000, takes every penny of cash she has in the house and then 'helps' her make a bank transfer for the balance.

What should she have done?

Googled - or asked a relation or friend to Google - and then read the business's reviews (their Google reviews - more on that later*).

But - and this is currently a big 'but' - that relies on the business engaging with Google reviews. It is the business's responsibility to give its potential customers the confidence to use them. 

Currently, tree surgeons in Essex (where the story above came from) are doing a very bad job, not at tree-lopping but at giving their potential customers the confidence to use them:

What should they be doing? Let's search for a similar 'man with a van' trade - oven cleaners, this time in Sussex:

And Sussex Oven Cleaning's underlying reviews?

*why Google reviews, why not Yelp or Yell or Trustpilot or Feefo or Trustatrader or Ratedpeople?

It's simple really:

  1. They are the most visible reviews on the web - by a mile
  2. They are the most trusted reviews - again, by a mile, thanks in part to 3. below
  3. They are free for the business
So why pay for one of the other mechanisms mentioned above, unless they are providing some advantage over and above Google (feel free to comment by clicking the button below)?

The downside of adopting a Google-centric reviews policy?

There's only one: you will need to ensure that you are seen to be inviting all your customers to post a review, for two reasons: in order to comply with the UK law as it relates to reviews and to be able to look prospective customers in the eye and be able to say 'our reviews are an accurate reflection of our business'. 

That is where HelpHound comes in: aside from advising businesses on all aspects of reviews and review management we provide software to enable our clients to gather reviews and moderation for those reviews once they have been submitted by your customer.


The process is simple but essential: the review is submitted, it is then read by one of our moderators in order to establish if it is either factually inaccurate or has the potential to mislead someone reading (and relying on) the review. If that is the case we will refer to both reviewer - your customer - and the business under review; this inevitably results in a very high proportion of factually accurate and therefore helpful reviews (helpful to your potential customer and to your business). 

Our message - to every single business...

For the sake of your prospective customers: Engage with Google reviews!

And if you are concerned as to just how to go about it without putting your business's reputation at risk - speak to us.

Friday, 6 September 2019

TripAdvisor and fake reviews - again!

When will the world - the reviews sites themselves and the regulators (the CMA in the UK) -wake up to the damage done by fake reviews?

Regular readers will have lost count of the number of times we have written on this subject, and the articles go back nearly ten years. First, let us look at the points made by Which? and the BBC and TripAdvisor's responses.

Our points:
  1. Fake reviews are written by employees or agents of the hotel in question. Surely it is not about '[going after] fake reviews "very aggressively"' but more about going after the hotels themselves? What has TripAdvisor done to warn its users that the hotels in question have been guilty of seriously misleading the public? Nothing, as far as we can make out.
  2. There is another category of fake review that neither Which? nor the BBC has touched on: the negative fake review. These are written, in significant volumes, by competitor hotels.  
  3. "We are doing more than any other platform out there" That's not saying much Mr Kay; as far as we are aware HelpHound is the only reviews mechanism in the world today that moderates reviews pre-publication (and we are not claiming that our system is 100% watertight, but at least we do everything we can to ensure that it is as close as possible to the ideal). TripAdvisor has massive financial resources (it turned over nearly $2 bn last year) and staff (over 3,000 at last count) and it is constantly investing in just about everything except ensuring the veracity of its reviews, the very aspect of its business model that reassures its users so they use its platform to book their hotel and therefore earn TripAdvisor revenue.  

Our points:

  1. Naomi Leach of which is right on both counts: TripAdvisor has consistently failed, over many years, to give any concrete examples of action it has taken, on its own initiative, to prevent fake review appearing on its site and to prevent hotels gaming their Tripadvisor reviews.
  2. "Platforms like TripAdvisor should be more responsible for the information presented to consumers". Absolutely; we would just take the word 'more' out of this sentence.
  3. Show us your 'fraud detection tools'. TripAdvisor has consistently hidden behind the weak excuse that to expose its so-called 'fraud detection tools' would lead to further and more sophisticated fraud by hotels. That, to our mind, is a bit like saying that drivers will find a way around speed cameras.

Our points:

  1. The UK CMA has the power to sanction review sites or sites such as TripAdvisor that invite and display reviews as part of their business model. It is high time that they did so.
  2. The CMA also has the power to prosecute businesses that set out to fraudulently deceive consumers. They should do so.

In summary

We look forward to seeing TripAdvisor take action - publicly visible action - against hotels that post fake reviews. Years ago they did do so, here is the 'red flag' notice they used...

Surely the hotels that Which? identified in their investigation merit something similar, if only to warn consumers? After all, what are reviews for at the end of the day?

We would also like to see a thorough investigation by the CMA - and action taken.

Friday, 23 August 2019

A reviews solution for your business? It is a question of 1, 2 or 3

Important note:

In the following example we have used estate agency, partly because they, as a profession, are as engaged with reviews as any other. But what applies to them applies equally to any other business – financial, medical, any professional business at all. Online retailers, on the other hand, would be well advised to remain with the review sites.

Your business's choice? One of the following...



Now, assuming that your choice is not going to based on anything subjective (the colour of the salesperson's shoes, or even unsupported promises by salespeople) but our old friend ROI, pure and simple, we assume you are going to conduct the following tests:

1. Visibility: which of the above three is the most visible in search?
2. Credibility: which has the most in the eyes of your prospective customers?
3. Compliance: which is least likely to get you into hot water with the regulators?
4. Longevity: which will you want to look good on in five or ten years' time?

After this, you will choose Google.

 we hear - some of you - say. And then the following may be added...

'But... [insert name of major competitor] uses one of the others.'

'But... [insert name of reviews site] has promised me a massive leap in ROI as well.'

'But... Google has not tried to sell me their reviews system.'

And, perhaps most important of all...

'But... if I choose Google how can I be sure the reviews I get will be accurate and fair?'

Let's look at these, one by one:

Your competitor uses a review site:

They're wrong. Review sites are last year's solution. They evolved before Google came up with its own reviews solution. Heard of Beebo? Probably not (unless you were a teenager around the millennium); they were the No 1 social media site before Facebook happened along. If you want to be ahead of your competition with reviews: choose Google.

A big leap in ROI:

The only way to find out? Do it! You will know within weeks (a client of ours saw a twenty percent jump in clicks through to their website and a thirty percent rise in inbound calls from potential customers within six weeks of refocussing their efforts towards Google.

Google hasn't tried to sell me their system:

Of course they haven't, it doesn't earn them revenue. But PPC does, so choose a reviews site that's a Google partner and they will be very happy indeed.

On that point: some businesses choose a reviews site to get this - in organic search...

See the one with the stars next to it, that also happens to be heading natural search? Yes? That's our client!*

*Stars in search need three key ingredients:
  1. reviews hosted on your own website
  2. a regular flow of those reviews
  3. a web designer and/or SEO specialist that knows their business inside out
If you would like us to introduce you to a 'No. 2' please just ask.

How can I be sure the reviews will be accurate and fair?

Perhaps the most important question of all. Inaccurate and misleading reviews help no-one, not the reviewer, nor the people relying on the review to lead them to the right business nor the business itself. There's only one legal* way to make sure your reviews are accurate and fair and that's by having them moderated. Read this article to understand all about HelpHound's moderation system.

*Legal: we have all come across businesses that look great simply by virtue of selectively inviting those customers they know to be happy to write reviews, to Google or to any other platform. This is illegal. If you have any doubts whatsoever please read this analysis of the CMA regulations (the law).


As with any other decision of this importance, we would encourage you to speak to an existing client, someone who has experienced the journey for themselves. To speak to a HelpHound client, just contact us, we will be happy to effect an introduction.