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.