Tuesday 17 December 2019

The kind of Christmas present no business needs

Bear with us - this story is about review management! But first, here is a piece in the Daily Mail (and many other publications have picked it up):

So what has this got to do with reviews? Let's look at how the business looks on Google today:

Those last two reviews have been posted by people that have read about the business in the press. Up until then, the business scored a 'perfect 5'. The article is responsible for them now failing the Google filter. 

Before (filter or no filter):

After (filtered):


Urgent action the business should take now
  1. Flag the two negative reviews.
  2. Appeal both those reviews to Google - on the grounds that the reviewers have 'no first-hand knowledge or experience of the business under review'. It's not guaranteed to work, but, framed correctly an appeal does stand a chance.
  3. Introduce a formal review management programme, designed to allow all their customers to write a review (in order to be in compliance with UK CMA regulations
  4. Then aim to get enough reviews to Google to lift their score back above the Google filter. To achieve 4.5 - the filter's cut-off - they now need another nine 5* reviews and no more 1*s. To be safe then they need the programme to keep the reviews rolling in. 
What the business - and any other business finding itself in its 'pre-press outcry' situation - looking good but with few reviews - should have done:
  1. Introduce a formal review management programme, designed to allow all their customers to write a review (in order to be in compliance with UK CMA regulations).
  2. Then aim to get enough reviews to Google to lift their score way above the Google filter. We always aim for 50 per location for our clients.
Look at this similar business - an estate agent, again in Kent - what would happen to its Google score if it received two spurious 1* reviews?

Its score would drop - perhaps - to 4.9. That would still leave it a safety margin of 0.4 clear of the Google filter. And it's highly unlikely its great rich snippets - the three shorthand guides Google provides under 'Reviews' at the bottom of the knowledge panel (above) would alter.

It would still appear in mobile/map search, irrespective of the Google filter (see that at top left in red under the Google logo?):

An added bonus? When the press looked the business up on Google at least they would see they are great servants to the home-owners of the community; it might not snuff out an article like this, but it would certainly give comfort to anyone searching for an agent in the weeks to come.

The lesson

Don't wait until your business it the victim of negative reviews before you engage. Review management should be part and parcel of every business's marketing strategy these days. it's not expensive - indeed, it should make you money (our clients generally see an uplift in call and clicks through to their websites in the region of 20 - 30 per cent) - and it will provide an excellent first line of defence in cases like these.

Tuesday 3 December 2019

London Capital & Finance - who still thinks reviews have no role to play in protecting consumers?

Continuing on our financial theme: a year ago this review of London & Capital Finance was posted to Google - and therefore visible to anyone searching online: 

We know, for certain, that at least 9 people have seen that review (see the 'thumbs up') and given that we reckon one thumb's up is equivalent to at least twenty views, the number begins to look significant). 

Meanwhile, in this week's news:

If the advice contained in that review had been followed by even one David Turnball then it must, self-evidently, be a good thing.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

How to choose a wealth manager

This was the title of the lead article in this week's Sunday Times Raconteur section:

In 2020 you might expect some reference to researching using the net. But there is none. So we will pick up where this article left off. 

The article references 'the damaging closure of high-profile Woodford Investment Management' so we will just add another three 'high-profile' names that have featured in the press recently to start a list of our own: St James's Place, Hargreaves Lansdown and Lindsell Train; we will then go on to examine the online presences of all the firms quoted in that article, after all, won't every investor looking for a new home for their portfolio be searching online as a first step - even if only to find contact details?

And right next to those contact details, in every single search? 

That's right, the firm's Google score - in lights - and a link to their own clients' opinions of them. If you were searching for someone to manage your life savings, even if you have had the firm strongly recommended by a friend or colleague, or you know an existing client who thinks they are the bee's knees, wouldn't you want to read what their other clients have to say? We would. So let's take a look, shall we?


St James's Place (head office)

St James's Place (a typical office):

Hargreaves Lansdown

Linsell Train

Chase de Vere

Mattioli Woods

Brooks Macdonald

Quilter Cheviot

Barnett Waddingham

Brewin Dolphin

Last line of the article? 'It pays to do your homework'. All we can say is 'good luck' researching these businesses online, you'll get plenty on past performance (and we know what everyone, including the regulators, says about that) but next to nothing from their hundreds of thousands of existing clients about service levels. Even those that score well - see Brewin Dolphin above, where none of their three reviews appear to have been written by a 'real' client and Barnet Waddingham with a score of 4.9 from seven reviews, ditto (five being worthless ratings, four of which have been written by points-seeking local guides) have made no effort to harness the power of online reviews for the benefit of potential clients.

The article contained this survey:

We're going out on a limb here, but surely those who value 'personal attention' and 'quality and reputation' might also place a high value on a business that went to the trouble to invite and display customer opinions like this:

And this...

And this...

Surely the most cynical investment manager is going to acknowledge that at least some of their potential clients might be reassured by seeing that in excess of 100 of their existing clients were prepared to put 'pen to paper' to voice their approval of their service?

So why don't they?

We did the obvious thing. We asked some. They responded candidly (having been reassured their responses would be published anonymously). Here they are...

  • "We expect the responses - and ratings - to correlate with clients' subjective experience of the performance of their portfolios."
  • "We expect that our unhappy investors will be much more likely to post - therefore unfairly skewing our image."
  • "Many of our clients are simply not financially savvy enough to make a reasoned judgment."
  • "Our clients will object to being asked to publicly express an opinion of our services."
And, more than once...
  • "None of our competitors have engaged with Google reviews."
We mined further down. Why not? The answer, when pressed, was invariably fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of losing control. So here's our answer to that 'fear'.

Fear that clients will focus on performance

Performance is one - important - aspect of any investment management service. But remember that clients do not need the business's permission to post a review on Google. One surefire way to ensure a negative online impression over the long term is to leave the field clear for unhappy clients. Remember that the business can always respond to the review, and use that response to educate their potential clients as well as address the contents of the individual review. 

Fear that only those with an axe to grind will post reviews

This has been proven to be a 'false fear'; there is no evidence at all, across a range of high-value services where the business has proactively engaged. And that is the key: ignore consumers and the most disgruntle will post reviews, engage and happy loyal clients will way outnumber them.

Fear that clients don't understand financial services well enough to post an accurate review

This is where a service like HelpHound comes in. Our clients invariably invite their clients to write their review to them in the first place, this gives HelpHound the opportunity to moderate the review before publication. What is moderation? It is the act of checking a review for factual inaccuracies before it is published. Reviewers welcome it as much as our client businesses - after all, most reasonable people don't actively want to post an inaccurate or misleading review, they actually want to help their fellows make the right decision.

Fear that clients will resent being asked to write a publicly visible review

If anyone thinks that financial services are so sensitive as to be exempt from reviews then we would ask them to consider this client of ours, a Harley Street feminine health and wellbeing clinic.

There are perfectly reasonable grounds for this objection, after all, finance is a private matter. Our answer, based on extensive experience with similarly sensitive businesses, is that a - perhaps surprising - number of people are prepared, willing even, to share their experience for the benefit of their fellows. Remember that no one is forced to write a review, all that it takes is careful wording of the invitation (such experience we have in spades) making it quite clear to the recipient that their review is designed to help others and is entirely voluntary. 

No other financial services business has engaged with reviews

We hope we have made a strong case for reviews in the context of investment management and financial services. We are confident that the first financial services businesses that engage will see immediate benefits, in much the same way that estate agents (hardly the most popular businesses!) have done - here is the monthly report Google sends every business (we recommend you seek out whoever in your business receives it, the data it contains is invaluable):

Aside from your business's Google score which anyone can easily find by simply googling your business, it contains vital information on...
  • how many people found your business in Google searches in the previous month (2,653 in this client's case)
  • how many calls you received directly through Google (73)
  • how many visits to your website came as a direct result of finding you in a Google search (90)
...and, perhaps most important of all, any uplift in these numbers (important because the uplift, in this case, was as a direct result of joining HelpHound).

Further reading...
  • Thousands could lose their life savings - why reviews matter (this article was written well before the Woodford storm broke, but would have been just as relevant in that context)
  • Estate agents were - understandably - wary about adopting a proactive stance with reviews; see what five of them say here
  • Unfair, fake, misleading or just plain inaccurate reviews do no-one any good, and they can seriously impact a business. Here's the happy ending for a case involving a client of ours.

Monday 25 November 2019

Inviting selected customers to write reviews of your business? - it's illegal

This article is aimed at two distinct audiences: clients who find they are competing with businesses that are flouting the CMA regulations and those businesses themselves.

The regulations

Most businesses (and all regular readers of this blog) are aware by now that two actions are illegal...
  • selectively inviting 'happy' customers to write reviews - known as cherry-picking
  • Using a filtering mechanism to identify such customers - known as gating
There's more on the detail of these regulations in this article. But, as with all laws, they are ineffective if enforcement is lacking. The CMA has much besides reviews on its plate, so, as is common with government bodies of this ilk (HMRC anyone?) they rely heavily on whistleblowers. Here is the kind of letter a whistleblower might easily, and with complete justification, write...

At this point, the CMA would be bound to open an investigation. The nature of this investigation will depend on the CMA's assessment of the severity of the infringement of its regulations. This assessment, in turn, will depend on the potential harm the infringement may do to consumers. Businesses playing fast-and-loose with reviews self evidently seek to influence consumers to take an action - with financial consequences - that they might not otherwise have taken had the business been in compliance with the regulations.

The CMA has teeth

In summary...

If your business is doing any of the following...

  • inviting selected customers to post reviews to Google
  • using any kind of mechanism to establish what kind of Google review a customer might write - a feedback system, another review site, a questionnaire, simple 'shop-floor' feedback from staff
...it is breaking the law (the business and its directors personally). You should stop any such activity immediately and seek advice on compliant review management.

Further reading...

Sunday 24 November 2019

Google now invites visitors to your website to write a review

Google has expanded its outreach to your customers a step further. Now, when someone visits your website, they will get an invitation from Google like this:

The implications for businesses:

  • Those that are currently ignoring Google reviews: you will begin to get them (Google Local Guides are incentivised to write reviews - see the 'level' and 'points' above and this article), and, given human nature, unhappy customers are about fifteen times as likely to post as happy ones. 
  • Those currently using another reviews system: your dissatisfied customers will begin to post to Google, especially if they happen to be Local Guides. This is a syndrome we call 'deflection' and there is more about that here.
Our advice:
  1. Adopt a proactive review management strategy. How ever much you and your colleagues are still saying 'who posts these reviews?' and 'what king of people pay attention to these reviews' you know the answer to the second question is certainly not 'no-one': apart from studies from the likes of Harvard Business School there is the amount of real estate Google now dedicates to reviews in search and the hard evidence from those that have adopted such a strategy (20% more calls and 30% more visits to your website anyone? See this case history).
  2. If your review management strategy currently involves a reviews site (other than Google): change to a Google-focussed strategy (see the results of doing this in the link above - the client in this case study moved from a reviews site to adopt professional review management).
  3. If you are currently breaking the law (and many businesses, wittingly or unwittingly are): conduct a thorough compliance audit to ensure you are not either cherry-picking (inviting selected customers to post reviews) or gating (using a more formal mechanism to identify happy customers - e.g. a survey, or even another reviews site - before then only inviting proven satisfied customers to post a review).

Thursday 31 October 2019

Victim of a fake or malicious review? HelpHound can help

Negative reviews harm businesses. Fake or malicious reviews harm businesses more - simply because they are written expressly to do harm. Neither of those two statements is contentious any more - if in doubt just speak to a business that has been on the receiving end: the phone can literally stop ringing.

Take this review for example:

It was written about a client business three weeks ago - and the allegations it makes are totally false. We sprang into action and followed the Google procedures that we know so well. One flagging and two formal appeals to Google - drafted by us on our client's behalf - and the review is no longer. Can you imagine how relieved the client is? Here is what they had to say...

"...such a review would have been damaging and detrimental to the reputation of the clinic and destructive for our business had it not been taken down. The damage from a financial and personal point of view could have destroyed us, not to mention deflecting patients away that would have benefited from seeing us."

As well as...

"Without the expertise of HelpHound and their specialist knowledge when it comes to framing and wording such appeals we would have had zero chance of succeeding in this vital appeal."

If your business has been the victim of such a review...

Contact us. There is no guarantee of success, but the more information you can provide, the greater the likelihood of a successful appeal.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Google's going to invite your customers to review your business - are you ready?

Many of you will have noticed this invitation popping up after you have visited a restaurant or hotel...

...and it is a very short step for Google to begin inviting your customers to write reviews of your business. The technology - location finding - already exists, and if Google can spot that someone has visited the King John Inn, they can do the same for any business with a physical address.

Action you should be taking

These reviews, by their very nature, will be unmoderated. So you should be proactively inviting reviews yourselves - to Google. Through a (legal) moderated system. Why moderated? Because unmoderated reviews often contain factual inaccuracies or misleading statements that would be picked up and addressed in the moderation process, making your reviews more helpful for you and more helpful for your potential customers.

Why the word 'legal' in brackets in the paragraph above? Because most businesses' first reaction is to invite carefully handpicked happy customers to write reviews, and that is illegal under UK law. The CMA rules - bear with us regular readers - specifically forbid this; they call it 'cherry-picking'. For more information on the regulations read this article.

Further reading...

Monday 7 October 2019

Google adds 'key snippets' to your reviews

In order to give searchers an even faster shortcut to key information about a business, Google has added 'key snippets' (our name - we'll let you know what Google is calling them as soon as they decide) on top of the search.

What do they look like? see just under the headline score...

...you can see the chosen 'key snippet' (in this case: 'patient') displayed in bold in each of the relevant reviews.

Google is still at the 'tinkering' stage - these appear and disappear and then appear again at the moment - but the message is clear: Google knows that users respond to key snippets like these, otherwise they wouldn't be doing this.

Implications for businesses? Now, more than ever, it is important that you supply the raw material. If a business looks like this...

...then it will have one more reason - on top of the score and the negative reviews themselves - to wonder why the phone is not ringing.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

Why bother to obey the law when it comes to reviews?

These are posts in an online forum from staff that claim they have been asked - and in some cases incentivised - to encourage a certain class of customers to post favourable reviews of a business, in this case an estate agency. Almost every activity mentioned in these posts, on the business's side and on that of the reviews site, if it were true, would be in breach of one or more of the CMA regulations.

You may - or you may not! - be surprised just how often we are asked this question. Even those of you that are surprised that the question is asked might be surprised if you knew which businesses are asking the question! In this article we will make the case for obeying the law, not because we believe that those currently breaking the law are about to have their collars felt (although that may well be the case - the CMA do not give specific warning of action, but they have been active in making noises about non-compliance where reviews are concerned for a while now) but because there are other implications other than being arrested and fined that flow from non-compliance.

First, let's recap on the main breaches we see:
  1. Cherry-picking: the practice of only inviting reviews from satisfied customers. Illegal.
  2. Gating: the practice of systematically identifying happy customers before the business invites them to write a review, often done by sending a customer survey to identify those most likely to write a five-star review. Illegal.
In the context of the rules, both of these are serious breaches - and therefore illegal. why? Because they are designed expressly to tilt the impression given to any potential customer in favour of the business. That's fine in the context of testimonials - because these, by their very nature, are understood to be selected positive comments. But with reviews - absolutely not. The rules are clear...
  • if a business invites reviews at all, it must enable all of its customers to write a review
  • the timing of such a review must not be controlled by the business, it must be at a time of the customer's own choosing
So - back to the question in the title of this article: why bother to obey the law? The simple answer would be to say 'for the same reason you obey any other law' but, at the moment we are hearing far too many businesses say 'but the law is not being enforced' and they are right. No business has - yet - been prosecuted for manipulating reviews, so back to the question. Here's our answer: 'because your competitors will use your non-compliance against you'.

How so? Nowadays not a day goes by when the press doesn't run an article about reviews being manipulated in some way, so consumers are aware that playing fast-and-lose with reviews happens. It only takes a nudge from business A to say 'do you know how business B has so many great reviews?' to sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of a savvy consumer.

An example

This innocuous little button is key to compliance for all HelpHound clients

We have a client in South London, an estate agent. They had two Google reviews when they joined HelpHound, they now have well over two hundred reviews on their own website and over a hundred on Google. They know...

  • any of their customers, indeed anyone at all, can write a review to their website at a time of their - the customer's - own choosing. Why? Because there is a button on their website inviting them to do just that.
  • everyone who has a review published on their website is invited to copy their review to Google, automatically
  • they are, therefore: complaint with the CMA regulations
But their competitors? They mostly decided they could do without such complaince. They also started with a small handful of reviews (sometimes none), but - to remain competitive with our client - they decided to break the law. How? By cherry-picking or gating (see above), sometimes both. How do we know? Because, surprising as it may seem, staff move jobs, and when they do, they tell staff at their new employers just how their previous employer managed to look so good. And that information in the hands of a competitor? 

"Yes, Mr & Mrs X, ABC estates' reviews do look very good indeed (but are you aware that they only invite their happy customers to write reviews)?"

That simple sentence will be enough to unsettle most potential clients, especially when ABC estates' cannot positively demonstrate compliance.

The lesson to draw

Your business needs to be compliant, not simply to stay on the right side of the CMA but also to defend itself against this kind of perfectly valid attack on its probity.

Further reading...

Monday 30 September 2019

Important - Google drops 'self-serving' stars in search

As we have been predicting for some time now, Google has finally decided that 'self-generated' review content is no longer to be shown in search. The whole article is here on Google's Webmaster blog. We recommend you read it in its entirety, meanwhile, we will focus on the most important aspects here.


Here are some of the FAQs...

Implications for our clients

There was never any proof that 'stars in search' drove clicks and/or calls (nice as they were to have, especially if a competitor didn't have them). We met with a client last week that monitors these very closely and they confirmed that there is a correlation between their Google score and inbounds but that they have never observed any change as their stars have dropped in and out of organic search. They did, however, ascribe significant value to the reviews hosted on their own website - both per se and, most importantly, for the moderation aspect of the process. The key indicator is, and remains, your Google reviews, your Google score and the flow of those reviews.

Update 10 October

Clients that have properly/fully implemented our API have retained their 'stars in search' - so far. The logic behind this, from Google's point-of-view, is as follows:

  1. The reviews are positively identified as being verified by a third party
  2. There is a direct link to a page on our website explaining our role ('What is HelpHound?')
  3. There is a click through to all the business's own reviews (plus the running total)

Implications for reviews sites

Google has yet to address this issue, but if we follow their very simple logic any review mechanism that gives the business any degree of control over their reviews - for example: the issuing of the invitation (Feefo) or quarantine (Trustpilot) would fail Google's new 'test'. Sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor are less likely to be affected as the business has no 'control' over the reviews process.

We have also consistently questioned the value of such content (you can be sure if there was any statistical evidence for the schema working in terms of adding value the reviews sites would be trumpeting it to the heavens). 

Implications for Google

As we have said many times before here (this article contains a 'to-do list' for Google), Google still has a way to go before its own review offering is anywhere near perfect. An example? Today's Times carried this story...

...but the business has managed to avoid having a Google My Business panel altogether (that yawning white space on the right would normally contain the business's Google Knowledge Panel)...

...whilst making hay with a reviews site...

...where, strangely enough, very few of its mostly glowing reviews mention the flaws that led to the Times investigation (or the fact that, according to the Times, one of the directors is on the sex offenders register - something that parents of daughters wishing to rent unlockable shared accommodation might be reasonably interested to hear).

It's the same with our old friend PurpleBricks - they even employ two reviews sites, where they look like this...

...and this...

But if you are sophisticated - or persistent - enough to find them on Google they look like this...

...and this...

We think Google needs to ensure that consumers see Google reviews for every business it lists, first. Without needing to mine the site for hours, and certainly before encouraging consumers to rely on paid-for reviews sites. 

Watch this space!

We felt it important to post this as quickly as possible. We will be updating it as Google's policy becomes clearer, but the message so far is loud and clear: focus on Google reviews, get a great Google score and keep the flow coming. Call us if you have any immediate questions.