Friday, 20 July 2018

The Google Reviews Filter raises the bar again

For longer than we care to think we have been banging the drum about just how vitally important it is to score well on Google; now Google have now turned the screw by adding '4.5 and up' to their filter...

...this means that any business scoring 4.4 or less will now not be shown - at all - to searchers that enable this filter (who - you and we might well ask - will select any other filter?).

Look at the difference it makes - this time for estate agents... is far from perfect (you might reasonably expect Chestertons to feature in the filtered search, for example), and we would like Google to think about factoring the number of reviews into their algorithm to add value (a single one star review next, and Imperial get filtered under this system - under a system that required a minimum number of reviews - say thirty* - few of these businesses would pass the filter, but the ones that did would have taken reviews seriously).

What more do I need to know?

This new benchmark - 4.5 - confirms what HelpHound has been saying for quite some time now: a business has to score in the high 4's to succeed. But still we meet business people that treat Google scores like an exam - '3 out of 5 is a pass' - no, it emphatically is not, and nor is 4. 4.5 is the new bar - and businesses must do everything in their power to clear that bar, staff training, effective CRM and - wait for it - professional review management.

This filter applies to all sectors and verticals now. Take action now.

*And a note on why we chose the number 'thirty' for reviews - it's at about that point that a savvy consumer begins to trust a business. Below that and the feeling that 'any business can get ten or fifteen friends and family to write a review' prevails.

Further reading

Friday, 13 July 2018

Why are online estate agencies using reviews sites, not Google reviews?

Regular readers will know our views on two important issues...

  1. Reviews sites
  2. Killer reviews

...but we are going to revisit them here for the benefit of all. The BBC, as some may know, has taken an interest in what the marketplace calls 'online' estate agents (Purplebricks featured on Watchdog recently). It was reported today that a BBC researcher is asking - via Twitter - for anyone with experiences of using 'online' estate agency. Should anyone doubt the angle the BBC is taking they would do well to note the title of the programme the researcher is working for: 'Rip-off Britain'.

Now, all disruptors come in for criticism - not everyone liked/likes Laker Airways, or Google, or Uber, or AirBnB - some of it undeniably justified (growing pains?) but there are aspects of the marketing practices adopted by some of these businesses - the online estate agencies - that bear further scrutiny, and that's what this article is all about - from the reviews perspective, anyway.

1.  Reviews sites

We have one simple question for these businesses (the online agencies, not the reviews sites): 'Why not ask your customers to post to Google?'

 All our clients' customers are asked to post to the business's own website (that's where Google sources the stars and rating at top left, as the 'Reviews from the web', centre right) and Google - helpful, for both business and consumer? We certainly think so.

Google provides a highly visible reviews platform, much more visible than any reviews site (see the screenshot above) and totally dominant in mobile search. So we are at a loss as to why any business would choose any other solution. Unless, that is, the reviews sites are offering 'added value' over and above Google. But they are not; what they are offering, consciously or not, is a mechanism that has the potential to be abused by the businesses in question.


You run a business. You don't want inaccurate or misleading comments appearing anywhere your potential customers may be looking - that's fair enough, but the key words we have used are fundamental: 'inaccurate or misleading'. But never a day passes here at HelpHound that we don't come across a business that is guilty of abusing reviews - mostly out of fear, sometimes cynically. Here are the most common...
  • 'Cherry-picking' - inviting only 'happy' clients to write a review - against the CMA regulations
  • 'Friends and family' - (actually, more commonly - staff). inviting only sure-fire bets to write a review - also against the CMA regulations
Then we move onto the reviews sites...
  • 'Invitation only' reviews sites - sites where the business controls who writes the review and when it is written - what we call 'closed' reviews sites: against the CMA regulations. These specifically state, in their core rules, that any reviews mechanism must be open for the customer - any customer - to write a review at a time of their own choosing
  • 'Malicious appeals' - some reviews sites will suspend reviews pending appeal. This function was no doubt introduced by the reviews sites with the best of intentions. The flaw (and abuse) begins when you understand how some businesses use this function: by appealing just about every negative review, knowing what the reviews sites will do next (and how they differ from Google). If you appeal a Google review, the review stands until Google are satisfied that the business has grounds for appeal - only then will it be taken down (and, trust us, the appeals process is rigorous). We know of at least one reviews site that will suspend a review immediately it is appealed by the business and only reinstate that review upon proof-of-purchase by the reviewer. This behaviour is also non-compliant with the CMA regulations.

Important note: using a non-compliant reviews mechanism has far-reaching implications for businesses...
  • the CMA has the power to impose significant fines - and will use that power
  • those fines come with publicity
  • competitor businesses - if and when they become aware that a business is using a non-compliant solution - will draw potential clients' attention to that fact in negotiations
  • it leaves an indelible paper-trail - there for all (CMA/competitor businesses) to see, forever

Is there any solution?

More and more now we are meeting businesses that are aware of the CMA regulations - and have therefore decided to retreat from any reviews solution ("if we have to invite everyone, then we would rather invite no-one"). They understand the power of reviews to drive business, but they (quite rightly) have weighed this against the possibility that the solution they choose may be non-compliant. 

How does HelpHound square this circle?

Every HelpHound client has a 'Write a Review' button on their website - enabling anyone to write a review at any time. This sometimes concerns businesses until they realise that if they don't allow unhappy customers to write to them (where the review will be moderated, at least) they will take a much less desirable alternative - they will write their review to Google

By focusing first on our clients' own websites - we enable them to invite reviews there (from anyone at any time - therefore compliantly). At this point all reviews are moderated and with any that are inaccurate or potentially misleading - that crucial phrase again - we invite the business and the reviewer to engage with each-other, pre-publication. Both know that the reviewer has an absolute right to have their review - whatever its content - published, but in practice the system works wonderfully well, for both parties. The company is saved the pain caused by an inaccurate or misleading review, the reviewer is almost always grateful that they have avoided being corrected in public (via either HelpHound's or Google's response mechanism), and, perhaps most important of all, consumers who read the reviews (and use the business's Google score as a guide - as so many now do) are not misled one way or the other.

At this point - after the review has been published on the business's website - the reviewer receives an automated invitation from HelpHound to copy their review to Google (it could so easily be a reviews site instead, but why would it be?).


We would like to say that results are universally great, and they almost always are. Our clients, by definition, tend to be good businesses run by committed management. But we cannot make a bad business look good - it's one of the reasons that we are popular with businesses and consumers alike: if a business looks good on HelpHound it is good! As one client - in estate agency, no less - said to us 'HelpHound is the gold standard - and we wouldn't have it any other way; we look good on HelpHound because we are great at what we do for our customers.'

Good businesses will thrive with proper professional review management

But that's not the only feedback we get from businesses - there is another positive benefit (that feeds through to the consumer): 'As soon as we introduced HelpHound to our staff they all upped their game - because they knew they were going to be reviewed.'

The key, though, is that HelpHound is currently the only viable solution for high-value service businesses such as estate agency, wealth management, accountancy, legal and medical services - where the accuracy of reviews is paramount for everyone concerned.

Further reading...
  • Fear - don't be afraid of adopting review management for your business
  • Review aggregators - moderation is so important, that's why aggregator systems - which, by definition lack moderation (if there's a damaging review on Google or Facebook an aggregator will show it on your site) - harm their clients reputations in the long run
  • Independent review sites - this article is nearly two years old - how right were we then?

Friday, 6 July 2018

Hotels - OTA commission or PPC?

Adam Raphael's latest article on the GHG blog - always good value - focuses on the behaviour of the OTAs.

But he also asks a pertinent question of hoteliers:

"If hotels, particularly the sort of small owner managed properties that the Guide specialises in, spent more time and resources on direct marketing that would help wean them off the quick fix that hotel booking sites provide."

An example of TripAdvisor's unfriendly behaviour is given, using Frog Street Farmhouse Hotel near Taunton (read the full article here). This is what they look like in search...

...and this is what they look like in a map search... what could they do? How about the following...

  • ask all their guests to post a review to Google - they currently have just nine
  • tell all their guests who have booked through an OTA just what the OTA has creamed off - and encourage them to tell all their friends and acquaintances
  • tell all their guests that they are prevented from offering a discount by the OTA T&Cs
  • tell all their guests to book direct next time - and every time they stay at a hotel (and tell them exactly what the OTA T&Cs will allow them to offer in return for doing so)

...and what could the GHG do? How about a campaign to alert guests to just how much of their hard-earned cash is being trousered by the OTAs? A PR push (after all, the mainstream press has lost all that revenue from hotel advertising to the OTAs!)? Just a thought.

Are the OTAs offering added value for their enormous slice of the hospitality cake?

They were. When the internet was in its infancy, and hotel websites were next-to-useless - and, most important of all, before Google became as dominant as it now in the world of reviews - using a site like or TripAdvisor short-circuited the tedious job of finding a hotel and seeing what recent guests had to say about it.

But now, in 2018? A decent website, returned in a Google search for the hotel's location, with plenty of reviews on Google, is all that should be needed. It would be a brave hotel indeed that unilaterally cancelled all its agreements with the OTAs, but that does not mean they should simply lie down an accept that a massive chunk of their revenue is going to be passed through organisations whose software will cream off fifteen to thirty per cent of the gross while their shareholders are asleep in their very profitable beds.

And finally...

As much as the OTAs will shout about how they 'help' hotels and 'help' consumers, it may surprise some of our younger readers to know that people stayed in hotels well before the OTAs existed, and that it's conceivable that the one business the OTAs has really helped is AirBnB - by driving hotel margins down so far - and the resulting service - that many people see no added value in staying in a hotel any more. £35 for breakfast anyone?

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Mid-year update

What a first half of the year it has been - and so much to report to you all. 

2018 is going to go down in web history as the year...

  • Google finally replaced the independent reviews sites - totally and utterly
  • Businesses that failed to understand this began to suffer - on their own and against their competitors
  • The impact of reviews on a business's online reputation began to be really understood (Falling to 4, Review fatigue)
  • Results finally became measurable (Google My Business reports)
  • Businesses began to take compliance seriously - realising that the regulator - the CMA - has teeth and will use them

Lets look at these one at a time...

1.  Google replaces reviews sites

The independent reviews sites are dying. It's not their fault, Google has simply done what it has done to so many other areas of search: Google reviews are completely dominant now (and Google now offer a very effective 'product' review platform for free).

What do you see when you look up a business on your phone nowadays (and bear in mid that nearly 80% of all searches are conducted on mobile)?... see this - with two tabs at the top, just two: the 'OVERVIEW' and 'REVIEWS'. And where does the 'REVIEWS' tab take your potential customer?

Here, that's where. Not to an independent reviews site (although that might show under 'Reviews from the web' - in this case what shows is our client's own reviews - 282 of them).

Take any two similar businesses - one that has adopted a reviews site and the other has focussed on Google: the latter will swamp the former in any search.

2.  Businesses that don't embrace Google reviews suffer

Businesses are understandably wary of Google reviews - after all, everybody sees them all the time (and that, of course, is their strength!) - and we would never suggest anyone adopts a proactive Google reviews strategy without a professional review manager to ensure that the image they create by so doing is a fair representation of their business - and compliant to boot.

But businesses that shy away from Google reviews will suffer - either because they do nothing or because they adopt one of the reviews solutions mentioned under point 1 above.

This is what an 'engaged' client of HelpHound's looks like in a local search...

...scoring at (or close to) the perfect 5 out of 5 with so many reviews that even the most cynical potential customer will accept that they are great at what they do - in this case 76 reviews on Google and 160 on their own site. Then, right under the Google 3-pack ('map search') leading the way in the organic listings with their star rating, score and number of reviews.

3.  The impact unmoderated review management is being felt

It matters not what solution a business chooses - direct to Google or one of the reviews sites, or even one of the review aggregators - we now know what the results will be: a score of around 4 out of 5*. And we now know that's not enough. High-value service businesses need to score consistently upwards of 4.5 to be sure to attract custom, and that's only possible one of two ways...
  • by breaking the law, and only inviting 'happy' customers to write reviews or...
  • by breaking the law and restricting its customers' ability to write a review at a time of their own choosing (by using an 'invitation only' reviews system, for instance)
  • or... by adopting a moderated reviews system like HelpHound that enables them to engage with factually incorrect or potentially misleading reviews pre-publication
*and often considerably less. This is caused by two factors (for more detail see 'Falling to Four' under 'Further reading' below): the fact that dissatisfied customers have so much more motivation to write a damaging, and often inaccurate or misleading, review and a relatively recent phenomenon: happy customers going to write a review and seeing that there are already 'so many that I needn't bother'.

4.  Results are finally measurable

At last! Google now send you a monthly report that tells you exactly how effective your activity is - in terms of hard numbers or both calls and visits to your website. It looks like this...

 ...well, it does if you have joined HelpHound!

5.  Businesses are now taking compliance seriously

For a long time it was 'Oh, we will carry on cherry-picking/using a non-compliant reviews site' and then this year, whether the fact that the Competition & Markets Authority have begun fining businesses or simply because their message is finally hitting home, businesses have begun putting compliance at the top of their requirements for a reviews solution...

...which is great for HelpHound, because our solution is one of the very few that is compliant!

In summary

This is a much shorter six-monthly briefing than regular readers are used to - and that's because review management just got a whole lot simpler. The choices a business has have narrowed considerably since the back-end of 2017, thanks in part to Google and in part to the evolution of our understanding of just how consumers use the web (no one searches for reviews any more - because Google provide them without being asked - is just one example of this).

The divergence between online retail - 'product' - reviews and 'service' reviews is now so marked: consumers will buy a product that score 4 out of 5, but when they come to choose a service, especially a high-value service - financial advice, medical, legal, estate agency, any professional advice - they will look for a business that scores as close to the 'perfect 5' as possible.

There is only one viable solution to reviews now, and that is using a moderated, compliant, professional review management solution that works with your business and Google.

Further reading...

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Why do the restaurant multiples ignore the power of reviews?

  Last time it was Jamie's Italian, this time it is the Casual Dining Group

Regular readers will have seen this topic covered before, but we make no apology for raising it again.

Do the owners of these chains not realise what impact reviews have? That looking great can drive business through their doors? That looking 'not so great' has the opposite effect?

Well, if they do, we have seen few signs. Let's look at the first five Cafe Rouge outlets served in search...

...all scoring less than 4 on Google (who cares about any other sites these days?). All allowing a tiny minority to totally dominate their online images.

That 'tiny minority' - just how 'tiny'? Let's look at the first of these restaurants: Victoria Place - it scores 3.7 (a score that any millennial will tell you 'No way am I even considering that!') but just how many of its customers have led to that disastrous score? Nineteen. Nineteen, over a period of seven years - seven years since Google Local Guide Kenny Stoltz left their first review...

...and did they thank him? Did they ask him what they could have done to make him happier? No, of course they didn't - after all, they were piling in the customers in those days - why get involved with reviews?

That nineteen is under three negative reviews a year! Just two unhappy customers a year have destroyed that Cafe Rouge's online reputation. Bringing it below the Google filter and putting off countless potential customers.

What should Cafe Rouge have done? And what are the lessons for other businesses like them?

Assuming they have the product and the pricing roughly right - and we've eaten there and we reckon they probably tick those boxes in their marketplace (so did Jamie's Italian 'tho) they have made the following mistakes...
  • they have not engaged with reviews - by inviting customers for their feedback
  • they have not engaged with Google, by responding to all their reviews there

If they had engaged?

All their restaurants would be scoring north of 4.0, some by a slim margin, the better ones by a considerable margin. They would be looking like this...

...and, we're guessing - but it's a very educated guess indeed - not making headlines on the front page of the Sunday Times' business section.

For the cynics and sceptics...

We are not going to waste your - or our - time arguing just how influential reviews are in today's marketplace (we can hear the cries of 'they've been brought low by changes in spending habits' or 'it's the crippling rents in UK high streets that's doing it'). 

It costs so little to address a situation such as the one we are looking at here we would simply suggest doing it. Adopting review management and seeing the results for yourselves.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Don't - whatever the pressures - do this...

We never miss an opportunity to bang the drum about complying with the CMA rules - rightly, as I am sure any reasonable person would agree. And not just because breaking those rules may (should?) involve any business in a fine and some very unwelcome negative publicity, but because when a business plays fast and loose with reviews it undermines the very concept of reviews themselves. If consumers have their confidence eroded, as this commenter ('Attrix') on the Times online so obviously has...

...then any value reviews might provide, for both the business world and the consumer, is lost.

This week we stumbled upon a really appalling abuse of Google reviews. The company in question - and its name, for the moment, must remain unvoiced - has systematically set out to create a positive impression through the medium of Google reviews, using methods which might be best described as underhand and at worst plain illegal.

 Impressive Google score? Too right - the sort of score that convinces consumers to use a business

What have they done? Let's look at their Google reviews history first...

  • three years ago they received their first Google review (positive 5*)
  • two years ago they received their second Google review, this time a negative rating them 1*
  • Immediately afterwards they received their third and fourth reviews, both rating the business 5*, both posted by reviewers that had only ever posted that single Google review
  • A year later, just a year ago now, the business received another 1* review, this time from a reviewer who had posted two other reviews (albeit, at the same time)
  • There followed eleven 5* reviews (and two more 1* reviews)
  • In the last nine months they have received over fifty reviews, all but one rating the business 5*

Now, this pattern is not unusual in itself (consumers have discovered Google reviews in a big way recently), but, when taken in the context of a detailed analysis of the positive reviews - almost all of them - there is grave cause for concern.

What did we find when we mined down into the reviewers and the reviews themselves? Well, let us state right at the beginning, no 'smoking gun' - no proof positive that would stand up in a court of law - but if you read on you might like to see if you agree with our conclusion at the end of this article...
  1. The pattern of review writing, while not unheard of, is right at the extreme end of the 'credibility scale'; a business gets no Google reviews for four years, then two, then fifty - unusual, to say the least.
  2. The reviewers themselves stand out by their (lack of) activity. Look at any business with 50+ reviews on Google and you will most likely see a cross-section of reviewer 'types', from the singleton (someone who has only ever written one Google review) through those that have written a handful, all the way up to Google Local Guides, who have often written dozens, sometime hundreds. The most any of this business's reviewers have written is five.
  3. Where the business's reviewers have written multiple reviews to Google, these reviews were invariably written in the same immediate time period as the review of the business in question. 
  4. The language used in many of the reviews has the same idiosyncratic use of English - the use of 'staff is' rather than the more conventional 'staff are' (as in 'their staff is great') is just one example.
  5. None of the [positive] reviewers have any other Google+ activity. Very unusual in such a large sample (for instance, none have posted single image to accompany any of their reviews).
  6. Almost all the reviews written by these reviewers of businesses other than the one in question exhibit very similar characteristics: they are 'one liners', they are extremely anodyne in their content ('the Ritz is a great hotel'), they are all positive (again, very unusual) and they never give any detail of the customer's experience of the business (in any sample of reviews you will normally see all the variables: long/short, well/badly written, good/bad grammar, and you will 'hear' different 'voices'. the reviewers' voices in this businesses positive reviews appear to be similar, if not identical).
  7. The business's responses to their positive reviews: are identical. This may be for all sorts of reasons (laziness, usually), but could also be an indication that the responder knows that they are not 'speaking' to a 'real' reviewer, and so need not bother to reference the content of the review.

As the saying goes 'If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...' This business 'is a duck'. It has set out, perhaps aided by some outside agency (there are plenty) to bypass its own customers and simply concoct a great score and image on Google.

This is wrong on so many counts, but mostly it is committing the crime of wilfully misleading potential customers, who increasingly rely on reviews, especially Google reviews, as a guide.

Lessons for other businesses

Don't do it! We sometimes hear pleas from businesses when we first meet: 'We were only protecting our reputation' in defence of all kinds of rule breaches (here's an exhaustive list) but the fact remains that the worst possible thing that can happen to any business in relation to reviews is to be found to be rigging their Google score by posting fraudulent reviews (the word 'fake' is simply not strong enough in this context).

The Competition & Markets Authority is committed to stamping out this kind of practice - see their statement here, along with our commentary, but it should be just one concern of many. What happens when a member of staff leaves to join a competitor, and tells that competitor just how 'Business A' got to look so great? We are sure you get our drift.

There's no reason...

Lastly, if you run a good business (and it need not be perfect), proper professional review management should have you scoring at least 4.5 out of 5, on your own website and on Google (and anywhere else that matters - Facebook, for instance). There for all your potential customers to see - and, crucially, rely on.

Friday, 22 June 2018

'Falling to Four' - the inevitable consequence of unmoderated review management

As regular readers will now, at HelpHound we like to coin a phrase ('resolution', 'deflection',  'review management' - we think we may even have invented 'moderation' in the sense that it relates to reviews), well here's another one to add to the list.

'Falling to Four'

'Falling to Four' is what happens when a great, well-managed and consumer-engaged business becomes proactive in the reviews space.

It means that no matter how hard the business tries to keep its score where it needs to be - as near to a perfect 5 as possible - its score, on Google or any other site will fall towards, and often past, the Google filter at 4.0.


Because of human nature. When a business decides to become proactive with reviews (as all business should be) and therefore invites all its customers to post a review (as the rules state it must), roughly twenty per cent of those reviews will be negative - scoring the business one or two stars. The reason that so many reviews (remember we are discussing good businesses here) will be negative is simple: a dissatisfied customer is about fifteen times more likely to write a review than a satisfied one.

Let's look at some numbers - and then some examples. Let's say the business - over a period - invites a thousand customers to write a review (all they do is send an email, no incentive, no follow-up). What do we think the response rate might be? About 3% perhaps? That's thirty reviews.

Let's look at the motivation behind those thirty reviews - it will be one of two things...

  • the business did a great job
  • the business, in the opinion of the customer, did a bad job
But then we need to apply our multiplier ( x 15 remember?). If the business has managed to satisfy 97 out of 100 of its thousand customers that leaves a pool of 970 happy customers and 30 unhappy customers.

To reduce the business's score from 5.0 (assuming their very first review scores them 5 stars) to 4.0 only six of those thirty need respond. And they will!

In this example nine out of the thirty-nine reviews posted are negative...

...and here they are again on an independent site...

...'Falling to 4' again.

There is only one solution that we know of...

...and it's not 'cherry-picking' (selecting happy customers to write reviews - against the CMA regulations - see Point 4 here).

We call it Resolution™.

There's a very detailed explanation here - it is essentially an advanced form of moderation. It is not designed to filter out negative reviews or to give the business any unfair advantages. What it is is a mechanism designed to add value for all concerned...
  • value for the consumer, by improving the accuracy of the reviews
  • value for the business, for the same reason
  • value for Google, for the same reason enabling the business and their customer to engage if the review contains any potentially inaccurate or misleading statements.

No one benefits from inaccurate reviews - and we see them every day. When we first introduced Resolution™, some years ago now, we wondered how consumers/reviewers would react - the numbers continue to amaze us: over 95% of reviewers welcome the opportunity to address the issues Resolution™ brings to their attention - partly because, under the HelpHound system, they know that they always retain the right to have whatever review they wish published, even if it is at odds with the facts (remember, businesses have the right to respond).

In addition, our system - which automatically invites everyone who posts a review to copy it to the business's Google page - is blind to the content or score of that review.*

*We know of at least on reviews site that has a superficially similar mechanism, minus the invitation to post to Google, but when the review is finally published it is published as of the date it was originally written; this benefits the business in question because it can often result in the review being pushed down onto page two. HelpHound reviews are always posted to the date of final publication.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Reviews: CONTENT counts

Because of the way we consume reviews - first the headline score, then that score against competing businesses, then the number of reviews each business has - it is all too easy to lose sight of the power of the content of the individual review as a call to action.

Let's look at some examples...

...a Google rating...

A 'rating' is effectively a review without content, more helpful to the business than to the consumer - because it has a positive impact on the business's overall Google score - but giving no added value for anyone looking for concrete reasons to use the business in question.

...a 'standard' review...

Better than a simple rating ('super professional', 'always followed up', 'Highly recommend'), but more detail would help consumers reading this business's reviews. some typical reviews gathered through HelpHound....

These reviews are the kind that drive business through the door (or email or website).  Why? Because they give the consumer hard facts and concrete reasons to use the business.

Words and phrases such as 'service has been top notch', 'totally professional', 'worked hard', 'friendly and communicative', 'went beyond anything' - all from someone who is obviously an experienced consumer in this area ('I've bought and sold a few houses over the years') and just from the first of these three reviews - provide a powerful incentive for the reader to take the next step - contacting the business.

Why are reviews of HelpHound businesses - on average - more 'helpful'?

We have looked long and hard at this question, as you might expect. The answer - based on hard research and speaking to the businesses in question - boils down to a combination of factors...

1.  The businesses has built reviews into its whole consumer experience, from first contact: 'We will be asking you to write a review of our performance', through every step of their engagement with the customer (for example: the customer pays a verbal compliment - the staff member will say 'Please remember to mention that when you come to write your review') to the final request to post the review: 'These reviews are so important for us - do mention anything that would be helpful for someone in your situation reading your review'.

2.  The management of the business know, and understand, why reviews are so important, and they have transmitted that to all their staff, both customer-facing and back office.

3.  The customers understand why the business has engaged HelpHound - and respect its reasons for doing so (independence, moderation - for the benefit of both business and consumer - and so on).

A note for the 'Google review naysayers'

We hear it less and less now, but still we meet businesses that are concerned that their customers will not write reviews to Google. These concerns break down as follows...

  • the customer will feel the request is a burden
  • the customer will not want to publish personal details for all to read
  • the customer will not have a 'Google account'
Our first response is simple: no business needs all its customers to write a review to Google. We go by the rule of 50% - that is: if you can get half your customers to write a review to you own website and then half of those to write one to Google, you will be doing very well indeed. That probably covers all those who don't/won't want to write a review.

As for the 'Google account' issue - the latest figures indicated that over half of UK adults now have at least one kind of Google account, and that's all they need to be able to write a review without any tedious 'signing up' or registering.

The proof is in the pudding: if you look at any Helphound client, conducting whatever kind of business, what do you see? Lots of Google reviews.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Google ban Review Gating. Hooray!

  The recent important change to Google's content policy

For years now we have sometimes been frustrated by our inability to convince some businesses that gaming Google was a bad idea. Read the 'Introduction' below and then we will go into some detail on 'Gating' and the other mechanisms both businesses - and some reviews sites - use to bend (more often break) the UK CMA rules and Google's terms of service to their advantage.


Reviews exist for one purpose - and one purpose only - to assist consumers when it comes to making an informed choice as to which business or service to buy or use. 

The expression 'informed choice' is critically important here: for reviews to be effective they must be trustworthy, not 'a bit trustworthy' or 'mostly trustworthy' - just trustworthy. That does not mean to say that every reviews system must be perfect, but to deliver it must do its very best to ensure...
  • accuracy - the reviewer should only review a business or product they have personal first-hand experience of
  • transparency - anyone should be able to post a review at a time of their own choosing
  • lack of bias - the reviews system should not favour the business or product being reviewed

and there are rules in place to enforce that, the UK CMA regulations (again!) and now Google have added anti-gating to their term of service.

Why? And what were/are they doing?

Service businesses (as opposed to online retailers - which can live with a Google score as low as 4 out of 5 stars*) realised some time go that just one well-written Google review had - and increasingly has - the ability to 'stop the phones ringing'. Often they then adopted one of the following four strategies described below...

*while a score of 4 out of 5 may look alright, even good - at first glance - it will deflect customers from making contact with service businesses. Why? Because a business scoring that 4.0 with 100 reviews will have up to 20 one star reviews, and those will be read by prospective customers, and will put a significant number off taking the next step: contacting the business.

1.  Denial

Here's a typical local search - the kind most people seeking a business make every time. What have the three business's listed in the Google knowledge panel (the holy grail of SEO) done to say 'come to us, we're great at what we do'? Little or nothing - classic cases of 'Denial'.

Denial was definitely the simplest solution - and was adopted, consciously or unconsciously, by many. It involves ignoring Google reviews altogether. They just did not engage - and hoped that their customers would not write [negative] reviews to Google.

   No reviews until three months ago and then...a Google score of 1.0 (and failing the Google filter). Not helped by the fact that the review is written by a Local Guide (their reviews are given more weight, both by Google and by users)

Consequences: Initially - no Google reviews to encourage those searching for a 'consumer qualified' business to click through a search to that business. Ultimately - two things: first, the business's first review is highly likely to be a negative one (simply because human nature dictates that a dissatisfied customer has so much more motivation to write a review), starting their Google score at 1.0 out of 5, second: the business will increasingly stand out against its 'engaged' competitors, some of whom will be doing 2, 3 or 4 below.

2.  Cherry-picking

This (score and number of reviews) is, of itself, no proof of cherry-picking. But when you know the business and its staff, both current and previous, its competitors and ultimately the regulators (especially if a complaint is made) take an interest, and then combine this with the pattern of reviews, then there is cause for concern.

This is the next obvious step on from denial (and by far the most popular - especially when the business has received a negative review and is in 'panic mode'): simply ask only proven 'happy' customers to write reviews.

Consequences: Initially: the business looks great - of course it does. But this practice was outlawed by the UK Competitions and Markets Authority in 2015. Read their regulations - which apply to all UK businesses - here.

3.  Independent reviews sites

Use an independent reviews site that offers some kind of filtering mechanism, either restricting consumers' ability to write a review: allowing the business to determine to whom and when the review invitation is sent/locking out anyone else or incorporating a mechanism that would lessen the impact of that negative review: allowing the business to challenge it and then insisting on 'proof of purchase' before publishing the review - forcing the [negative] reviews down the reviews timeline (who reads page 2?). 

Consequences: this drives disgruntled customers to post to a site that does allow them to post a negative review, a syndrome that we call 'Deflection' (a 'must read'). Which site? Maybe Yelp, maybe TripAdvisor (in the case of hospitality) but the overwhelming site of choice in 2018? Google. This results in the business looking good on the reviews site but much less good on Google - in other words, it is not only contravening the regulations, it is also backfiring on the business in the worst possible way.

4.  Gating

Put simply: use a mechanism to establish which of the businesses customers' were most likely to write a 5* review and then invite all of that subset to post a review to Google. Very common with apps, where good reviews scores are everything, and increasingly common with all other kinds of business.

When a business has few reviews (with mixed results) on Google for an extended period, but many on another reviews site and then suddenly acquires a flood of great Google reviews, it raises suspicions of gating. We have obscured anything that could identify the business in question because that would be unfair, but it would be easy for the regulators to conduct an audit and equally easy for Google to spot if such behaviour had been happening.

This is done in one of two ways...
  • send out a private email survey asking customers to report their experience to the business, then ask only those that respond positively to write a review to Google
  • use an [innocent] and relatively invisible - in terms of its Google profile - reviews site, gather all the reviews there and then only invite those that post a 5* review on the reviews site to copy that review to Google

Consequences: until now - few. If a competitor noticed then they might use that against the business: 'Of course their Google rating is excellent - you do know they are only inviting happy customers to post reviews?' - and also a form of cherry-picking (see 2 above).

an example of a TripAdvisor 'red flag'

Now: Google will delete the suspect reviews. And we don't know yet what other sanctions Google will apply (TripAdvisor and Yelp 'red flag' businesses in similar circumstances) but it is possible that Google will deem that all the reviews of the business in question - and their vital reviews score - have been acquired by gating. 

One version of a Yelp 'red flag'

On top of this, gating contravenes the CMA regulations, which are expressly written to ensure consumers get a full and fair impression of the business in question.

In summary

We have a great deal of sympathy for businesses that have adopted one of the above means of protecting their reputations from what they, mostly quite justifiably, see as unwarranted or unfair attack on the most important platform on the web - Google, as long as they have done so in all innocence.

Some readers - certainly regular readers - may be surprised at this statement, but we can assure you that we meet such businesses on a daily basis. They genuinely did not know that they were doing anything wrong. And they certainly did not know that there was a solution that would achieve the following legitimately...
  • great flows of independently moderated reviews to their own website
  • onward flows of reviews to their Google listing - to show in all searches
Welcome to HelpHound.

Further reading

A sorry P.S.

We thought the world had moved on from this, but still some businesses persist in misnaming testimonials (selected customer opinions) as reviews...

...just to be absolutely clear, reviews, by definition, must be independently moderated, otherwise consumers are being misled. Some businesses are confused by the likes of... retailers (John Lewis here) that host 'their own' reviews. In reality, of course, these reviews are not 'of John Lewis', they are 'of the product', manufactured by someone else (and in reality they are hugely helpful for the retailer - as well as the consumer - which will simply drop any line that scores badly).