Wednesday 29 October 2014

BBC Radio 4's 'The Bottom Line with Evan Davis' tackles Review Sites

Subtitled 'TripAdvisor etc: The sites that can make or break a business' Find the podcast here.

 This makes interesting listening. Three big hitters in the world of reviews are featured:
  • Steve Kaufer - founder and President of TripAdvisor
  • Kevin Byrne - Founder and CEO of Checkatrade 
  • Colleen Curtis - Vice President of European Marketing at Yelp
Evan is his usual friendly self and asks the questions his listeners are asking themselves. if there are any surprises they are in the 'omissions' category. But these 'omissions' are important to understand, both for our clients and for consumers in general. As Evan quite rightly points out, it is all about trust, and without complete trust these sites may (even inadvertently) be imperfect in their ability to lead consumer towards the right conclusions.

Let's begin by commenting on the answers to Evan's specific questions.

"There are quite a few listings websites...what makes Yelp special?

Colleen "Locals, writing their local opinions about their local businesses.'

Were not so sure here, the vast majority of reviews written on are written by US nationals. We're not saying that is necessarily a bad thing, but it would be misleading to describe the reviews as written 'by locals'.

To Steve: What's the deal? 

Steve 'It's an advertising model...we earn a small commission.' 

We don't think consumers have any idea just how much of the cost of their holiday or hotel room is taken by TripAdvisor or the OTAs. If this was the financial services industry both would undoubtedly be forced to disclose their 'small commissions'. Just how many consumers would revert to booking direct then?

Evan: "The absolute key, totally at the heart of it...that you trust the reviews."

To Colleen: "How reliable are your [Yelp's] reviews?" 

"Our Elite reviewers... are the most trustworthy reviews we have on the site." "They are not paid." "Our recommendation software...shows the 75% we believe to be most trustworthy."

So the 'average' reviewer's opinion is not as valued as the Yelp insiders'? We can see how this might work in the consumers' favour if it were not for the fact that Yelp Elites were originally rewarded with free food and drink at what have been called 'Yelp-fests' (or, less politely, Yelp Elite 'invasions') where Elites gather at the 'invitation' of the chosen hostelry. This model patently appeals to the younger consumer, which may have resulted in the college/twenties profile of most Yelpers and Yelp Elites. It has also meant that the focus of Yelp reviewed businesses is very much centred on the types of business frequented by that demographic.

"That is de-recommending [love that word!] ones that may be fake or biased."

This is a massive bone of contention for small businesses who have had positive reviews 'de-recommended.' They all accept that having great reviews on Yelp (or TripAdvisor) drives business through their door; it is just that power that means that everything these businesses do should be open and transparent. Neither the way they are remunerated nor the way they 'manage' their reviews is.

Evan: "Steve, how reliable are your reviews?"

Steve: "We have, you know, dozens of people, an entire department frankly, set up to focus on automatic detection of reviews that are suspicious. We have enough reviews so that there's this image of honesty in numbers. No-one is going to pay the review that is all terrible."

"Having a variety of opinions enables the consumer to believe the good ones and the bad ones."

We see these two statements as contradictory. And contradictory to the detriment of both businesses and their consumers. Negative reviews hurt businesses - full stop. Maybe not Hilton or Marriott (businesses with strong brands) but they can hugely hurt independent businesses. See what Kevin has to say:

Kevin : "One third of negative complaints are bogus."  "These businesses are frightened, they know that if they get one bad review then, for the next month, their phone is not going to ring."

There follows a discussion of Pimlico Plumbers' law suit against Yelp. It surrounds one negative review. There is much joshing along the lines of "They have a four-and-a-half star rating, why should they worry?" 

They are worrying because that single review is harming their business.

Evan says to Kevin: "You are conflicted." 

TripAdvisor and Yelp got off lightly here: just like Checkatrade, they make their living from the businesses.

Evan: "Do businesses care?"

Steve: "Businesses care a lot [his stress] about their ranking on review sites."

And quite rightly. The problem is not that review sites don't drive business, it's that they have the reverse ability: to unfairly drive business away. This is partly due to a phenomenon that Evan just barely touched on when he said "Who are the nutters who write reviews?"

All the evidence is that the people who write the reviews (and unwittingly control our opinions of businesses) fall into two distinct categories:
  • Habitual review writers. These are in a tiny minority (for instance: only one guest in 1500 reviews a hotel). They are not necessarily 'eccentric', but they are unusual
  • Unhappy consumers: all of us can be provoked into writing a review if our experience of the business is bad enough (a high proportion of TripAdvisor reviewers who have only written one review have made that a one, two or three star review) 

To summarise

Businesses must take reviews and review sites seriously: consumers are influenced by them, both positively and negatively. But we are still in the 'Wild West' phase as far as the individual sites are concerned. there is a lot of power without responsibility hiding behind the 'freedom of speech' mantra that was trotted out again in this broadcast. 

Businesses have a responsibility to themselves and their customers to take control of as much of the review management process as they can - and to engage professional review managers like HelpHound to help them. Then their customers will not be driven into the arms of review sites because they are the only solution offered.

Why do business with a HelpHound member?

 This may seem like an obvious question with an obvious answer, so first: our answer...

Because you will be able to trust them

There, did you expect that?

If you did: congratulations. If not - read on...

All HelpHound clients promise to respond to any (and all) criticism

If you have an issue with a HelpHound client, any issue at all, they promise to respond to you. They will explain what happened, apologise if they were in the wrong, and make suitable restitution if that is warranted.

And the effect of that simple promise?

All HelpHound members are great businesses

Not perfect - but is any business?  They have agreed to be bound by our terms and conditions - by which they explicitly promise to engage with all their customers.

In our book that makes them great - a great business is one that may occasionally get things wrong, but always does its very best to make good when it does.

There are businesses that do not make the HelpHound grade

Our members effectively self-select. If a business knows that by inviting comment it will be overwhelmed by complaints it will not join HelpHound in the first place. If we can identify this as an issue early in membership negotiations we will halt the process and advise the business to put its house in order before reapplying.

Does this make HelpHound reviews more valuable?

We would say it does. If you see HelpHound reviews on a business's website you will know...
  • That the business welcomes feedback from all its customers
  • That the business responds to all issues raised by its customers
  • That their customers are free to comment at any time
So were back to that single, but vitally important, word again:


You can trust a HelpHound member - to provide great service and to communicate, even when things don't go right all the time. It almost means that you can safely ignore all those lovingly written reviews, until you realise it is they that underpin the whole concept!

Sunday 26 October 2014

Dialogue™ for hospitality - whatever your objectives

If you run a hotel (and/or a restaurant) there will be certain key points of focus, and they are not the same for everybody. Whatever your individual priorities, Dialogue will help you address them.

Occupancy - higher and more profitable

Negative reviews (or a lack of positive reviews) will not help fill beds (or put bums on seats). Even if occupancy targets are being met, are you sure that this is not at the expense of rates?

Dialogue will mean that you have to make far less sacrifice in terms of rates to ensure that those occupancy targets are met. Dialogue also means more direct bookings through your own website, saving OTA commissions.

Rates and revenue - higher

Looking great online means that you can charge a premium; whether that be for a room or dinner. Dialogue will get you at least 25% more positive reviews to TripAdvisor (or Google) and deflect at least 75% of the negative reviews you might otherwise have.

You won't need us to tell you how this feeds through to revenue and profitability.

Feedback - accurate, not misleading

We all need feedback, but it is easy to be misled. If seven guests complain about the bed being too firm on TripAdvisor, do you replace your beds with softer mattresses? Only if those complaints are statistically meaningful. If they are seven guests out of a hundred, then maybe, but seven guests from ten thousand?

Dialogue will get you more feedback from guests who would not normally write a review on TripAdvisor (remember: only one in 1500 hotel guests leave a review there) so you will have the right kind of feedback upon which to base crucial decisions. You can even insert additional questions to 'survey' guests on a specific point and for a defined timescale.

Competitiveness - looking good, relatively

We all have competitors, and looking great by comparison is important. We monitor all our clients' rankings and scores against their designated competitors, so you can see just how well you (and Dialogue) are performing.

Staff: morale and recruiting - higher and easier

Looking great online means better staff morale and is an aid to recruiting. No-one wants to work in an environment where there is a constant drip of criticism (even if much of it is demonstrably unfair).

In summary...

Dialogue will help you:
  • Enhance occupancy - at rates that make you money
  • Drive rates and revenue - enhancing profitability
  • Gain accurate feedback 
  • Look great against your competitors
  • Enhance staff morale

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Sarah Beeny and The London Standard - all in the same 24 hours

We hold no brief for either conventional estate agency or the online variety, but we are surprised by the conventional side's reluctance to emphasise the value for money they provide for their fees.

First: Sarah Beeny

The programme stressed the savings vendors could make by going online. Somewhat surprisingly, for a mainstream terrestrial channel, very few caveats or warnings were given. 

Prominence was given to fee savings:

The risks were pretty well glossed over. The advantages of using a conventional agency were listed but limited to the old familiar three:
  1. 'Local market knowledge'
  2. 'Accompanied viewings'
  3. 'Help in closing the deal'
Sarah's sellers made her job (and responsibility) easy by making comments like 'How much value can an agent really add?' and 'We know our house better than any agent'. 

Now in today's Evening Standard 

Again - only the savings are highlighted. Nowhere is it mentioned that a conventional agency with the right contacts might get the vendor closer to £20 million (in May a flat in No 1 Hyde Park was sold for £140 million, less than 500 yards from the house in question, and we're sort of betting it was not bought online). 

The point we're making... that these assertions (we particularly like it when the vendor quotes a price, whether £400k or £15.5 million, as if houses were currency, with a published price) are going unchallenged by the overwhelming majority of agents.
Where are the case histories? Where are the reviews from clients praising and thanking the agent? Nowhere to be seen on the agents' websites (sometimes we see testimonials - they are better than nothing - but these days consumers want independently verified reviews).

Do you think this kind of thing might just help next time someone questions added value...?

These are just two examples of the reviews that Dialogue gets for our clients, posted on their websites and then to Google.

Dialogue - working with professional estate agents to help them demonstrate the value their service can add.

Update 23 October: according to our Linkedin connections the Sussex property featured in Sarah Beeny's How to sell Your Home is now on the market with a conventional agent at a more realistic price.

Reviews - coming late to the party

We all remember the feeling from our teenage years: we arrived half way through a party by which time everyone else had broken the ice and were well on their way to having a great time.

Well, it is the same with reviews. But it is surprising how many businesses don't see it that way. If you are one of the many that think you have plenty of time before you need to start worrying about reviews, please read on.

People are much more inclined to write negative reviews

We have clients across the spectrum, and we know how consumers behave.

Take a simple example of two types of business: hotels and estate agents. A 50 bed hotel turning over £500,000 will typically host 7500 guests in a year; an estate agency turning over a similar amount might only be dealing with 100 clients. If 5% of the hotel's guests write a review, that's 375 reviews, by comparison the estate agent can only expect 5!

We know from extensive research that the average consumer will be at least twenty times more inclined to write a review if they are unhappy (for anecdotal evidence of this, just see how many people who have only written one review on TripAdvisor have written a one or two star review).

Where does that leave the hotel and the estate agent? It leaves the hotel with about 12% of its reviews being negative (TripAdvisor's own figures). It leaves the estate agent with a massive chance that nearly all its reviews will be negative.

If a business has even one negative review, it will put customers off

Read the following review...

Would you stay at this hotel?

Now we know that a percentage of the people reading this will say "I would always take a review like this with a pinch of salt" but some will be put off. It's statistically certain. Twelve people have taken the trouble to vote this review 'helpful', and we're sure it wasn't for 'helping me decide to book this hotel'.

The other reason we are certain that this review has affected business is because it contains two 'killer' comments, referring to the room as 'tiny' and being 'woken in the night'. Both are fundamental issues that everyone takes into account when choosing a hotel, and readers of this review have no reason to think that this guest was making them up.

It is all the more harmful for being one of a very few negative comments about today's number one hotel in London. Trust us, if the hotel could pay to have this review deleted there would be three zeros on the end of the amount!

If the first reviews are negative, the business will struggle to attract positive reviews

Recent research by Harvard University has proved this. This research says that future reviewers are drawn to the mean value of existing reviews. In plain English this means that if all your reviews are 5 star, the next review is more likely to be 5 star, but if many of your reviews are 1 or 2 star, the next reviewer, however happy they may have been, will subconsciously 'mark you down'. They may even decide against posting any review at all that 'swims against the tide'.

The other end of the spectrum

We all know that hotels and restaurants have historically attracted the bulk of reviews. That's a factor of footfall. Other businesses are starting to attract reviews now, and that puts significant influence into the hands of their few reviewers.

If this were the only review of your business, anywhere on the web, and showing up in every search, would you be happy?

This review runs the risk of creating (one or all of) the following impressions:
  • That the reviewer is right - wouldn't the business have responded if they were not?
  • That the reviewer is right - wouldn't there be other reviews contradicting this one if they were not?
  • That the business is very small - wouldn't there be more reviews if they were not?
  • That the business does not care about what is being said about it by its customers
To summarise

Google reviews only matter more as time passes. Great reviews drive business your way, negative reviews have the opposite effect. You need to look good when consumers search for your business by name, and, just as important, you need to look better than the competition in generic search: [type of business] + [location].

If you care about the image your business presents online, you have to take reviews seriously. By getting them written to Google in significant numbers, by responding to all of them and by keeping them up-to-date.

Monday 20 October 2014

Reviews: an overview and update

Reviews: 2015 and beyond

Businesses that simply react to events tend to lag behind the curve, and this is no less the case where reviews are concerned. Our role is to make sure our clients are ahead of that curve.

Predicting the future

We don't envy those that make their living predicting what the global economy will do; they operate in a very uncertain environment. Our job is somewhat easier - predicting the future in the world of reviews - but it still requires full time dedicated attention.

It involves in-depth study into consumer behaviour, both on- and off-line, as well as constant monitoring of the major players (search engines and review sites in the main). From this we can predict the future with a fair degree of certainty; enough, at least, for our clients to be able to plan ahead.

Results so far

We publicise all our thoughts here on the blog. So anyone who needs to track their accuracy does not have very far to look! Here are some of the predictions that we have made over the years:
  1. That reviews will matter more and more. This is the 'big one', and as the years have progressed since HelpHound was founded in 2006, more in-depth studies have added to the welter of proof that consumers pay attention to reviews
  2. That Google will be the major player.  We predicted this way before Google even became involved with reviews. Then Google launched Google Places, then tied that to Google + and now we have Google My Business
  3. That other review sites will ultimately suffer as a direct consequence: Google wins by being the gatekeeper of the web for the majority of consumers, and it cannot be argued that it isn't a great brand (at least, compared with some of the less well-known review sites). Google reviews are now served first for each and every search
So, expanding on this 'big three', what about the detail?

Reviews Matter

Google invites anyone who cares to post a review of any business that they have used. Who cares most? People who have had a bad experience, that's who. We estimate that a dissatisfied customer is up to twenty times more likely to post a review.

Studies too numerous to mention, as well as massive amounts of anecdotal evidence, show the effect reviews have on consumer behaviour. Great reviews drive business, bad reviews drive business away.

Combine those two factors alone and it rapidly becomes apparent how important it is for all businesses to engage where reviews are concerned. 

Google - the major player

This has been (and continues) a major subject for debate. Google has not made life easy for any of us: constantly moving the goal posts. But what is now called Google My Business is well on its way to becoming the dominant force in reviews, for a host of reasons, here are just some which stand out...
  1. Verification: since Google introduced mandatory registration all Google reviews are attached to a verified account (YouTube, Google+, Gmail etc.). This gives them a distinct plus over sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp (where users can hide behind anonymity) in the eyes of consumers and business alike
  2. Coverage: Google provides a 'one stop shop' for reviews - of any business or service. Consumers will soon tire of looking up different specialist sites depending on what kind of reviews they need
  3. Ease: once registered, writing subsequent reviews is simple.
  4. Google is the gatekeeper: their reviews will always be shown before any others
  5. The new Google layout: providing much more information about each individual business, by default this drives other review sites down below the fold (or onto page two - the graveyard)

Other review sites will suffer

See how Google reviews dominate this business's listing. A year ago TripAdvisor's reviews would have been shown much more prominently, now they barely scrape in above the fold
Look at the Google search above. What do we see? We see lots of useful information: business description, contact details, locations and reviews with ratings and scores. Not as many reviews as TripAdvisor (yet), but just how many reviews are you going to need? 

And do we see Yelp or FourSquare or UrbanSpoon or Hardens? It's just the same whatever kind of search you conduct. 

Consumer behaviour and its impact on your business 

Human nature is the one thing that will not change. Happy customers will never write reviews in significant numbers unless you invite them; unhappy customers will continue to be much more likely to write a (damaging) review unless you find a way of intervening.

If you want to avoid the kind of negatively distorted image that so many businesses have on the web, you will have to engage in professional review management.

Engaging with Google reviews

You now have two options:
  1. Engage with Google reviews direct: but run the risk of inviting negative reviews that you can only manage or respond to after they have been publicly posted. Either that, or you will need to be selective in those you invite to post reviews, which, in turn, runs the risk that you will be accused of massaging your Google reviews (more on our Blog)
  2. Engage with Google reviews through Dialogue: Where you can confidently invite everyone to post a review; manage any issues in private and then invite everyone to post to Google. Then you can look all your customers in the eye and invite them to read your reviews (on Google and on your own website), confident that they present a full and fair picture of your business
And our predictions?

More of the same really...
  • Google will become ever more dominant
  • Businesses that engage with Google reviews will thrive
  • Businesses that don't engage with Google reviews will suffer
  • Other review sites, however dominant they currently appear, will suffer unless they manage to add significant value over and above simply hosting reviews
  • Google will eventually begin ranking businesses by their review scores (just as sites like TripAdvisor do now)

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Yelp really doesn't do itself any favours - Botto's Bistro

The amount of blog inches filled with comments about Yelp's filter continue to boggle. But it is the most powerful review site on the planet, so we must continue to take them seriously.

This time it's an article in the Northwestern about a tactic adopted by an Italian Restaurant...

Fed up with having good reviews filtered, the owner began inviting diners to write one star reviews on Yelp, he even offered free meals. And it worked: he got the one stars and (he claims) business is on the up.

But that's not why we're adding to the noise. If Yelp are so proud of their filter, why is Botto's listing choc-a-bloc with reviews (of all ratings) that are obviously written by people who have never visited Botto's (and in several cases never visited California)?

Like these:

If you would like to see hundreds more like them, just go to Botto's listing on Yelp. If anyone thinks Yelp's review filter needs tweaking, tell them, not us.

P.S. To see how helpful Yelp and Yelpers have been for this Washington D.C. eatery when it was visited by an NBC reporter who had recently returned from Liberia go here.

Monday 13 October 2014

HelpHound's Dialogue™ v. DIY

It is a question we are often asked, and to find the answer you need to understand exactly how Dialogue works (and just how damaging just a single negative review can be).


Dialogue enables you to invite reviews from all your clients, first to your own website and then to Google. In this single sentence are three of the keys to Dialogue's effectiveness:
  1. All your clients: if you are to effectively head off negative reviews to Google, those clients most likely to write them must be invited to post through Dialogue. That way they won't need to resort to Google (or any other review site)
  2. To your own website: Potential clients visit your website, and you need to display credible reviews there (not testimonials) to make sure they respond to your calls to action
  3. Then to Google: Only when you have addressed any issues their review might have contained does Dialogue then invite your client to post there

Many businesses have embarked on their journey with Google reviews without the benefit of Dialogue. They take the obvious route:
  • They choose clients who they 'are sure' will write a great review

The first problem with this solution is that it puts a heavy onus on your staff to be accurate in their choice of reviewer. Barely a day goes by when we don't send a review (through Dialogue) to a client who is surprised by the content. If only we had a penny for every time a client said 'We were sure that they were happy.' With Dialogue all that happens in private.

The second is that it leaves the back door wide open, especially if one your less than happy clients hears that you have been inviting reviews from others. We are not saying that no-one ever writes a negative review to Google once they have been invited into Dialogue, but it is an extremely rare event. And if it does happen, the business will always have the moral high ground: they will always be able to say 'We have dealt with this complaint, and we invited our client to make it.' You need to be able to look all your prospective clients squarely in the eye and say 'We invite reviews from all our clients.'*

The third is that you hand a stick to your competitors if you are seen to be cherry-picking: "Oh yes, ABC Ltd, of course they look great on Google - but that's because they only invite their happy customers to post reviews".

The fourth - and perhaps the most important - is that you won't have verified (and therefore credible) reviews on your own website; every business invests heavily in their own website and one of the most powerful new business drivers you can host on your site are credible, independently verified reviews.

Single negative reviews are damaging

Sometimes our prospective clients will say things like 'The odd negative can't be that damaging'. Even 'they add credibility'. The first problem with negative reviews on Google is that they impact your score (however mild the content of the review), the second is that negative opinions beautifully formatted by Google carry weight: they are read and they are believed.

Cropped to spare the estate agent's blushes! Reviews like this do put prospective clients off - as well as hurting your score

A salutary lesson:

A new client decided to invite their 'top 20' very best clients to write reviews to start with; the invitations were duly sent out, the follow-up calls were made. 

Thirteen reviews were posted, but to our client's astonishment they were not all 5* (although eleven were); the remaining two consisted of a 3* and a 1*. The 3* contained a pretty standard billing query which was easily resolved, but the 1* was written by a client who was seriously upset because a 'friend' had told them that they should 'not have sold when they did' as it was 'obvious' that the value of their property would continue to rise. This was resolved with some careful handling; had it been published (anywhere, but especially on Google) it would have had the potential to do serious harm to the agent in question.

So that's why you need Dialogue: because you can never be absolutely sure your customers' comments will be fair and accurate. It's one of the main reasons we introduced Resolution™ - as a safety net where unforeseen issues can be resolved - in private and to the satisfaction of both parties.

HelpHound adding value

There is a reason we don't lose clients. Partly it's because Dialogue works - in the strict financial sense: it more than pays for itself. But its also for less tangible reasons...
  • You will know you are right on top of reviews - all the time, whatever happens - because you have professional review management. You're never going to find out the latest change at Google from a competitor
  • All your staff will appreciate the discipline embedding Dialogue brings - no more focusing on reviews during a lull in business, they will become part and parcel of your day-to-day operations
  • You will come to appreciate the personal contact you have with HelpHound, at whatever level; we are always there to provide and apply our expertise on your behalf
At the end of the day it is all about control. And every business wants maximum control over what is being said about them online; Dialogue gives you that control in a way that is universally appreciated, not least by your own clients.

*This proves a real winner when introduced into the sales process: prospective clients love to be told that they 'will be invited to write a review at the end to the process', it impresses them that they are dealing with a business that will stake their reputation on each and every deal.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Google + the UK numbers

In the past getting clients to write review on Google has been a hit-and-miss affair; the following statistics should give you heart...

...and bear in mind your client does not need to be an 'active' user to be able to write a review; simply being 'registered' makes it easy for anyone.

Why it is SO important to engage with Google reviews NOW

One Google review (or none at all). What's to be concerned about? Let us take you on a journey.

We start in a familiar place, every business has been there: no reviews on Google. It shows like this...

Note: To illustrate this article we have used actual screenshots of real estate agents' Google listings, this means that each stage (1, 2, 3 reviews etc.) is shown using a different agent or branch.

Then the first review is written...

Does it matter? Not a lot - very few people bother to click through to read it. Most do not even notice the link (even though it appears three times in every search).

Another arrives...

Perhaps they are both 5* reviews, perhaps not. Still they are not that obvious. Prospective clients still need to click to read them, and who is going to take any notice of just two opinions anyway?

Number 3...

Everyone loves us (or perhaps they hate us), but who is to know? Again, only the few who notice and bother.

Now it's four...

Surely we ought to begin to pay attention. What happens when we get five?

This happens...

Overnight, lit up in stars, demanding attention. And it is shown three times for every search.

The stars say: 'Look at us, we represent a great business' or they say 'Maybe pass on by'.

Your strategy:

First you have to accept that reviews matter. That your prospective clients will read them, and they will be influenced by them.

Once that bridge has been crossed you need to formulate a strategy that will be effective in the medium to long term. That strategy needs to focus on:

This means:

Why every client? That's simple: each not-so-delighted client you don't invite is a potential one star review direct to Google. And every single one star review has, on its own, the potential to significantly damage your business.

What mechanism? We would say Dialogue, wouldn't we? Because Dialogue achieves all of the above, simply and efficiently, and shows the reviews on your own website as well (with complete credibility), which is why we don't hesitate.