Friday, 30 September 2016

A fundamental shift in search behaviour...

...and so many businesses have yet to respond to it.

Over the last two years Google has introduced changes that have fundamentally changed the way we, and all our customers, find businesses on the web. It is important that businesses adapt their online marketing strategies to address this. Here we explain what has happened and what strategy your business needs to adopt going forwards.

Until now...

If you wanted a hotel (or a restaurant)... consulted TripAdvisor (or Expedia, or

If you wanted a pizza... looked on Yelp.

If you wanted a plumber...

You went to Checkatrade.

If you wanted an estate agent...

You looked them up on Rateragent (or allAgents)

If  you were a business and wanted to look great on your own website - and in your own advertising (online and offline) and promotional material - you might use an independent review site like Feefo or TrustPilot:

By now you're probably getting our drift: there is a website out there for just about everything - from accountants to zoos - selling the opinions of your customers back to you as leads - we call them 'Hostage Sites'. And often taking a hefty commission for doing so.

But Google knew this - after all, all the searches went through them. So they decided they wanted in on this massive market. What did they do?
  • they boosted reviews out of Google Places and Google Maps to the knowledge panel in the right hand column in search. This replaced some very lucrative ad space, so you can understand the value Google imputed to this move
  • they introduced reviews - and review scores - into mobile search 
  • they introduced the Google filter - adding value for users by eliminating businesses with no reviews or poor scores
So where does that leave your business now? Our advice to our clients has become more and more definite over the last two years:

  's now all about your own website and Google...

On your own website you need your own verified reviews - not your customers' reviews that another website is selling back to you. Preferably verified by an agency (such as HelpHound) that can get your score - the one from your reviews - into natural search:

On Google you need to look as good as you possibly can, and this is where Google wins hands down...
  • Google reviews are by far the most visible on the web - always
  • Good businesses look good on Google, great businesses look great and bad businesses look just as they are: bad
It is the combination of these two factors that makes Google reviews so powerful - visibility and credibility. When was the last time you visited the website of one of the clients of an independent review site and saw them boasting 3 1/2  stars? Never - right? 

Here are just two examples of these, first on an independent site (left), then on Google (right). Credible? We'll let you decide:


There is zero point in engaging with reviews, or any kind of review management, if by doing so the result calls your own business's reputation into question. 

There is a better way...

What you see above is a business's own reviews - verified by HelpHound - displayed on their own website, many of which have also been posted to Google, by the reviewers themselves. 

Bearing in mind that:
  • any customer of the business can write any review at any time - to the business's own website
  • everyone who does post a review there is automatically invited to post that review to Google
 Resulting in:
  • complete credibility
  • total visibility 
HelpHound: today's - and tomorrow's - solution to today's review management needs - making the very most of your own customers opinions on your own website and on Google


Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Trust - the cornerstone of Reviews

We were speaking to the CEO of a large and well-respected web design business recently when he referred to one of the mass-market review sites as 'That 9.7 site'. What did he mean by that? He went on to say 'I have never come across a client of theirs who looks bad on the web - the same with the 5* brigade.'

What did he mean?

He meant that credibility - and trust - were the cornerstones of any review strategy, and that he would not recommend any such strategy to his clients unless he could be convinced that it passed those two tests.  

We all hear stories, from friends and colleagues, about 'fake reviews', so let's take a moment to look at the various kinds of fake review:
  1. The 'self-review': this is the most common - a positive review by the business owner, an employee of the business, or someone else with an interest in making the business look great online. There are many stories of hoteliers engaging in this on TripAdvisor
  2. The 'fake negative': written by a variety of interested parties - disgruntled ex-employees, employees or agencies of competitor businesses. Again, not uncommon on sites like TripAdvisor
  3. The 'rant': often written by someone who does not approve of something the business has done in the public arena, or the actions of one of its employees. Sometimes politically motivated, sometimes written to support the opinion of a friend or pressure group
Now let's look at what the various sites do to combat these:

Amazon: if a business employs an outside agency to 'puff' its products on Amazon, Amazon will sue. Amazon says that, since early 2015, it has sued over 1,000 people who posted fake reviews for cash. Now, the company is going after the retailers themselves. Amazon said that it intends to eliminate incentives for sellers to buy fake reviews for their products.

Yelp: Yelp claims its review filter eliminates [some] fake reviews. Unfortunately, because Yelp guards its filter algorithm more closely than Coca Cola guards the recipe for Coke it makes it difficult for any outside agency to comment on its efficacy. All we do know is that businesses that make the news almost always get flamed/trolled. Here is an example - of a small business that complained to Yelp about what they considered to be an unfair review - other Yelpers from across the country piled in and wrote one-star reviews of a business they had never used.

TripAdvisor: TripAdvisor makes no bones - it advises users to read reviews with caution. The Sunday Times - no fan of TripAdvisor since it set up its own fake hotel many years back (and got it into the top ranked hotels in London) constantly runs exposes like this. TripAdvisor does operate a 'red flag' system for hotels that it considers are writing their own reviews, but it is rarely used. It is possible to contest negative reviews if they contravene TripAdvisor's T&Cs - we have a great track record of appealing unfair negatives on behalf of our clients.

The smaller independent review sites: One of the simplest systems used by the smaller independent sites is the 'invitation only' review. This works well for products - the consumer can be sure that the reviewer purchased the product in question, but has two drawbacks: the review is only written within days of purchase, when the shoes/shirt/kettle are shiny and new and a disproportionate amount of reviews are actually reviewing the delivery service not the product. Five stars are awarded because the product arrived the next day, one star because it arrived late. This system - which we call 'closed' - also works well for a hotel site like, where the product and service have been consumed or used before the reviewer is asked to write their review, less well for ongoing services where a consumer's opinion may change over time.

Now for the big daddy of them all - Google:

Google reviews are important for both business and consumer because they are invariably the first (and often the only) reviews the consumer will read. In the early days - remember Google places? - anyone could write a review (or even just leave a star rating) of any business, whether they had used it or not. Thankfully those days were put firmly in the past when Google dovetailed Google Places (and Maps) withe Google Plus (G+) and Google for Business. Now a Google review must be attached to a defined Google user. That does not mean that it's no longer possible to leave a fake review, but it means that anyone doing so must jump through quite a few hoops, and, probably most important of all, leave an online trail that will either identify themselves to Google as a malicious reviewer or as connected with the business. We have several cases on file at HelpHound where we have been able to prove that a (negative) review was written by a competitor or a (positive) review was written by someone connected to the business. But that is the key: they are identifiable and appealable.

Here is the story - that reached the national press - of a malicious Google review where we conducted a successful appeal on behalf of the business.

What about HelpHound?

The $64,000 question for us and everyone who relies on us - both our clients and their customers.

If we take a quick look at the HelpHound process:
  1. The business sends an email to its customer inviting the review, or the customer sees the 'write a review' button on the business's website
  2. The review is moderated by HelpHound
  3. Positive reviews are posted to the businesses website
  4. Reviews containing criticisms, inaccuracies or potentially misleading statements are forwarded to the business for comment - after which the reviewer is invited to post their review to the business's website
  5. All reviewers are invited to copy their review to Google
How does this prevent a fake review being published? In one of two ways: if the review falls under 4. above the reviewer will be contacted by the business - this immediately eliminates fake negative reviews. If the review is positive, it could, in theory, have been 'seeded' by the business (the business could have emailed a 'tame' reviewer who would then pose as a client and write a glowing review). But remember that HelpHound:
  • moderates reviews: and our moderation system is very good at spotting anomalous reviews
  • has a 'flagging' system, where anyone reading a review on a client's website may, at any time, flag that review for further investigation
  • has a 'two strikes' rule: that any client who is guilty of seeding their reviews is given one warning and then excluded
This latter point bears further examination; some have asked 'Why two strikes, why not just one?" The answer is simple: we understand human nature - and there is sometimes a fine line between enthusiasm and outright fraud. We have seen cases, admittedly not many, where employees of client businesses have written positive reviews in what they considered to be good faith: they had bought or used their employers product or service. We have a firm rule that states that in this instance the employee must indentify themselves as such in the body of the review and, if that review impacts on their employer's overall score, it will be discounted.

We have seen an example of an independent review site where the site requires proof-of-purchase before they will publish a review, but we discounted this as, besides placing a heavy administrative burden on the reviewer, it eliminates what we call 'collateral customers' - those who have used a service without being the person directly paying for it: guests at a wedding or a dinner at a restaurant,

It would, however, be perfectly possible for someone in no way connected with either
HelpHound or our client business to write a positive review, but - we ask ourselves - why would they?

So: back to the original point: credibility and trust

Anyone looking at one of our clients' websites is able to read or write a review at the click of a mouse, whenever they wish: we feel this goes a long way to establishing the crucial elements of credibility and trust that drives business through our clients' websites

We believe that a HelpHound verified review has as much credibility as any review on the web today, and more than most. 

  Creating a great first impression with Google reviews is a high priority for most of our clients - and rightly so

We believe that Google reviews have credibility in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of consumers, which is just as well, because they are the reviews that every consumer sees in every search, whether or not they are actively looking for reviews. But without someone like HelpHound acting to make sure that inaccurate and/or misleading reviews don't make it that far, the credibility of Google reviews is diminished. HelpHound + Google = credible and trustworthy reviews where businesses, consumers and Google need them most - on the business's own website and on Google.

Friday, 23 September 2016

The Google Filter - don't panic!

  Unfiltered: a random selection by geographical location with a dose of SEO thrown in for good measure

 Filtered: only businesses scoring 4.0 or more showing (spot the HelpHound clients!)

With an estimated 80% of businesses in the UK falling victim to the Google review filter, it's understandable that there are some pretty heated discussions going on around boardroom tables at the moment - and considerable pressure being brought to bear on marketing departments to 'find a solution - and fast!'

So here's our considered advice...

First - the Don'ts
  • Don't go into denial: Reviews drive business - towards you if they are positive, away from you if they are negative. Doing nothing is no longer a viable option for any business in the 21st century. Develop a strategy for managing reviews. If you don't, human nature (the tendency to only write reviews unbidden if we've had a negative experience) combined with the Google filter will harm your business
  • Don't invite customers who have written positive reviews on another site to copy them to Google. It's called 'cherry-picking' - and it's easy to spot by simply copying the glowing reviews in question into Google. It hands another PR win to your competitors
  • Don't invite clients to write reviews direct to Google: you are wasting a great opportunity to host reviews on your own website and you run the risk that inaccurate and misleading reviews will be posted to Google. All you need is one disgruntled customer to work out that they were not asked to write a review and post a review saying that and you are back being accused of cherry-picking again
  • Don't import your Google reviews into your own website: it looks like a great idea when you have nothing but positive reviews on Google, but see how you feel when the first negative appears there. You won't want to publish that on your own website - we guarantee it - and credibility will be threatened again
  • This will be stating the obvious for many, but we still see it too often - resist the temptation to ask staff to write reviews. It is so easy to cross-reference social media these days - and we have an ever expanding file of Google reviews where the reviewer is easily found on Linkedin or Facebook, often, but not always identified by name. We know of at least one company where each branch's reviews are written by the staff of the neighbouring branch 
  • The same goes for 'friends and family': there is a well known instance of the spouse of member of staff of a reputable home counties estate agent who sold their house through their employer, wrote a glowing review and then the review was quoted in an advertisement in the local paper. It did not take long for their competitors to spot it - and a PR coup was rapidly turned into a PR disaster 
  • Don't call your testimonials 'reviews'. Both have widely accepted definitions now, and you risk rupturing any trust when a customer works out that your 'reviews' are actually hand-picked testimonials. See the Wikipedia definitions: testimonials - reviews
See how many times the word 'trust' crops up here? It's not a relative concept. Trust - in your business and your brand is either present or it's not. The same goes for your reviews: the question our clients are most frequently asked is "How do I know your reviews are genuine?" hotly followed by "I bet you don't publish reviews from unhappy customers."*

*HelpHound clients can happily give convincing - and absolute - answers to these questions: "All our reviews are independently verified." and "All our customers can write a review, of any kind, whenever they want." and, on top of that "...and they are all invited to copy it to Google."

Now the Do's
  • Do switch your strategy from independent sites to Google: if you are currently asking customers to write reviews on an independent site, no matter where, your should be looking towards Google until you achieve critical mass there. Critical mass? The numbers will be different depending on the business you are in, but don't make the mistake so many are currently making by patting themselves on the back for getting fifteen Google reviews. Ask yourself 'How many reviews would I need to see to find the number convincing?' and I'm betting the answer is somewhere around three figures. Aim for that and you may be able to relax, for a while at least 
  • Do get reviews to your own website: understand the customer journey. It's: Google → your own site → contact. Reviews on your own website drive business. And by inviting reviews to your own site you will have a great opportunity to address errors of fact and misleading reviews before they are published
  • Do respond to reviews - wherever they appear. The benefits of doing so are threefold: firstly it impresses the reader, secondly, it gives you a great opportunity to amplify any positive comments made in the review and thirdly it warns anyone thinking of posting a negative comment that it won't go un-responded to.
  • Do employ professional review management: It's the only way to get credible and verified reviews on your own site (anything else is a testimonial). Pound for pound, you will get such good value for such a small monthly outlay that you will wonder why you ever hesitated.

In summary

The Google Filter - more here - has made professional review management, once seen by many as 'nice to have' into an essential tool for all properly managed businesses.