Thursday, 23 November 2017

Reviews sites - the end game

As regular readers will know, we have been 'sellers' of the independent reviews sites for quite a while now.  At a meeting with a potential client in early November we were rigorously examined over our reasoning and realised that the arguments against the independent sites and for Google reviews have, if anything, only become stronger in the last few months, hence this article.

We strongly recommend that anyone considering a reviews solution for their business read the following. 

Introduction and background

Reviews websites (including websites incorporating reviews - such as TripAdvisor and sprang up in the early days of what some were then calling Web 2.0 (shorthand for the responsive web) - in the mid noughties, from roughly 2004 onwards. Their USP - for businesses - was that their site would show prominently in search and would become the 'go to' site for consumers looking for that kind of business. Sites like Yelp (appealing to everyone) and TripAdvisor (for hotels and restaurants) boomed. That was then. At the beginning of the current decade Google joined the fray. 

This is where our story starts - Google disrupted the world of reviews as only they know how. In this article we are going to look at the current position of reviews sites by reference to two different models (we are calling them 'A' and 'B') and then comparing them with Google and Google reviews. Then we will go on to draw a definitive conclusion - for that, read on.

Review site A
  • is an 'open' site - meaning that anyone can write a review on whatever business they choose at a time of their own choosing
  • in order to 'ensure accuracy' the site has a mechanism whereby the business can challenge any review. That review is then suspended pending the reviewer providing 'proof of purchase'
Advantages - for the consumer
  • The ability to write a review of any business at a time of their own choosing 
Disadvantages - for the consumer
  • The same as under 'Advantages' - it is well-nigh impossible for the reviews site to identify fake or malicious reviews - written by competitors (negative) or the business (positive) or those with a grudge (disgruntled ex-employees, for example)
  • human nature being what it is, very few consumers - expecting to see their negative review appear live on the site - can be bothered to jump through the 'proof of purchase' hoop. This is seen as an advantage by some businesses (but see 
Advantages - for the business
  • The virtual guarantee of a positive review, providing the business picks the right target consumers and the timing of the invitation to review
  • Potential star rating in PPC through Google partnership*
Disadvantages - for the business
  • The 'open' nature of the site is open to abuse - by competitors or disgruntled ex-members of staff, for instance
  • Any system that makes it in any way difficult for a consumer to write a negative review on a reviews site will drive those reviewers to the obvious alternative - Google. We rarely go a day without coming across a business that has adopted a site like this that then goes on to look great on that site and much less good on Google

*Google partnership - reviews sites can become Google partners so their clients business's scores show under their Google ads. Seen in isolation this, at first, looks an attractive proposition. In reality - when Google reviews and the rest of the reality of this article is taken on board, that advantage is far outweighed by the disadvantages of such a solution. The message to businesses is loud and clear - look great in natural search and the calls and visits will flow.


On face value, a sensible solution. But - and there is a big 'But' - the system is open to abuse: businesses have been alleged to systematically appeal negative - as opposed to potentially inaccurate or misleading - reviews, leading to 'score inflation' and an inaccurate impression of the business being created, on the reviews site and in search. 

At the meeting referred to in the introduction to this article a director of the business began by saying "I hope you are not going to recommend one of those 4.9 sites?" We were able to reassure him that we were not.

Review site B
  • is a 'closed' site - meaning that the only people invited to write a review are those the business chooses, and the review is written at the time of the business's choosing
Advantages - for the consumer
  •  the knowledge that every review is written by a genuine customer of the business in question
Disadvantages - for the consumer
  • the inability to read reviews written at the time of the reviewer's choosing (for example: customers are commonly invited to review products immediately post-purchase - the consumer, asking themselves 'How did those shoes wear?' is unlikely to find an answer to their question on a closed reviews site). 
  • there is no facility for that same consumer to return to write a review after weeks, months or years' of using the product or service under review
  • there is no facility for multiple stakeholders in a transaction to write a review - in a property sale, for instance, there is often more than one person who may feel they have a valid reason to write a review. If they are not invited by the reviews mechanism employed by the business they have little alternative but to write their review on an 'open' site - Google being the obvious first port-of-call 
Advantages - for the business
  • the elimination of spurious reviews, such as those written by competitors or disgruntled employees - by only inviting customers with verified email addresses
  • the virtual guarantee of a positive - 4 or 5 star review
  • potential star rating in PPC through Google partnership
Disadvantages - for the business
  •  none (excepting reputational - see 'Conclusions' below)


This kind of site tilts the playing field too far in the direction of the business - especially in the case of service businesses where there may be multiple stakeholders in the transaction. It is also reliant for accuracy - and compliance with the CMA regulations - upon the business inviting reviews from all its customers - again, straightforward for product-based businesses such as online retailers but problematic from a credibility point-of-view for service-based businesses. 


Now for the 'big daddy'...
  • Google is an 'open' site - meaning that anyone can write a review on whatever business they choose at a time of their own choosing
Advantages - for the consumer
  • the ability to write a review of any business at a time of their own choosing
  • the knowledge that that review will be viewed by the widest possible audience
Disadvantages - for the consumer
  • the same as under 'Advantages' - it is well-nigh impossible for Google to identify fake or malicious reviews - written by competitors (negative) or the business (positive) or those with a grudge (disgruntled ex-employees, for example). If the review passes Google review policies it stands.
Advantages - for the business
  • visibility - second to none
Disadvantages - for the business
  • the 'open' nature of Google reviews is open to abuse - by competitors or disgruntled ex-members of staff, for instance
  • dissatisfied consumers are estimated to be motivated to write a review by a factor of fifteen times, so businesses who do not find a solution to Google reviews will statistically be over-represented by that kind of customer


Your business needs Google reviews. The reviews sites' visibility in search has been eroded to the point where no serious industry commentator would suggest that there is a viable alternative to Google reviews - especially if, as you inevitably will, you will be asked to justify your reviews mechanism to your customers. The only question each business needs now ask it just how to engage with Google reviews.


There are three issues at play here - and we will deal with them under three headings: reputation, competition and compliance.

  • Reputation
If your reviews solution is bought into question it is your business's reputation that suffers. Uncertainty over their reviews filter and the number of self-evidently fake reviews published by Yelp, for instance, has led to many businesses to fight shy of their reviews solution.

  • Competition
Your competitors are constantly looking for gaps in your marketing armour. If they are able to question your reviews solution they are able to considerably strengthen their competitive edge. No business should put itself in a situation where it has to defend its chosen reviews solution. Businesses who choose a solution other than Google will need to have a cast-iron answer for potential customers who ask them why they are not using Google reviews - and, currently, there is none (we would be the first to advise our clients if there were).

  • Compliance
The CMA has teeth and it will use them (see this). Here is an article that analyses the CMA's letter to businesses with a commentary on every point. The main thrust, though, is that businesses must not use a system that gives them an edge over their customers - the customer always has a prima facie right to have their review published at a time of their own choosing.

In summary: if reviews sites had not existed pre-Google reviews, no-one would be inventing them now.

And finally - the killer punch  

There are two kinds of businesses that harness the undoubted power of reviews: reactive - where there is no sales interaction, such as online retailers, and proactive - where there is a human sales process, such as estate agency or financial advice, where the business acquisition process is invariably competitive. Let us see why adopting the right solution is just so critical for the latter (we'll use estate agency in this example)...

An agent finds themselves pitching against a competitor (don't they always?) and the competitor has used reviews sites like 'A' or 'B' above. All they have to do is draw the potential client's attention to the flaw(s) in those solutions and their pitch - and, crucially, their probity, is fatally undermined. 

Our Advice

Business reputations take years to make and, Weinstein-like - can be ruined in minutes. It is incumbent on all businesses to choose a reviews solution that not only benefits them in the short term, but protects and enhances their reputation in the long-term. That is why HelpHound exists - as professional review managers we are here to ensure that our clients always have the best reviews solution for their business, and if A or B above were that solution, that is what we would be advising.

Google has disrupted the world of reviews to the extent, currently, that Google reviews are the only solution - they have the highest visibility (by such a margin as to be untouchable) and they are least open to attack under the three headings above. 

That does not mean they are the perfect solution for businesses or consumers, far from it. And that is where HelpHound comes in: we add value for both sides of the equation. For businesses we allow them to publish independently verified reviews on their own sites whilst minimising the chance that an unfair, inaccurate or misleading review is published (on their site or on Google) and for consumers we ensure that the reviews we and Google publish are a full and fair guide to that business's suitability to their needs.

Further reading:

Stockmarkets have consistently downgraded quoted reviews sites for years now. Here are just two articles...
...and, in both cases, the core issue, besides a rocky earnings path, is the bogeyman in the background: Google reviews.

Fear inviting reviews direct to Google? You would be right to do so - the following articles explain...
Some reviews sites think they have a powerful brand, and suggest that will help add credibility for the business. Yelp is the biggest reviews site in the world, with a market capitlisation just short of $4bn - but we meet people every day who have never heard of it. Rightmove recently conducted a survey of consumers and found that the major reviews sites targeting estate agency had name awareness in low double figures at best...

'Where reviews were read, most (42%) were on Google, followed by [the] agents' own website (36%), Trustpilot (11%), allAgents (6%) and feefo (2%)' 

And with that we will end.

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