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.

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