Monday 25 March 2019

The Times criticises Trustpilot and three of their clients

Saturday's Times carried an article alleging that Trustpilot allowed their clients to manipulate their reviews on their platform. There's a link to it here (for Times subscribers) and here is a link to an article on Property Industry Eye that repeats most of the Times article.

In this analysis we will attempt to stick to verifiable facts. Now let's take the accusations levelled by the Times in order, one by one (screenshots direct form the Times online).

Comment: It is possible that a business might 'save up' invitations to its customers and then invite them in one lump, Most online retailers simply embed the invitation into whatever CRM software they are using and the invitation - as many reader will know from first hand experience - will follow within days of the purchase being made. So why 'hoard' invitations? We cannot think of a single sensible reason to do so, but we have seen instances of this happening when a business is 'gating'.

What is gating? Gating is the practice of pre-qualifying reviews/reviewers to establish what they are likely to say. The business will usually do one of two things: it will email customers asking them to pass an opinion or they will invite reviews to one of the less visible reviews sites. Only when they are as sure as they can be that their customer will rate them five stars will the customer be asked to write a review to the site that really matters - often Google, but sometimes sites like Trustpilot. We have seen instances where Trustpilot is almost certainly the victim of this gating - where customers are all invited to write a review to Trustpilot and then only those who have rated the business 5* on Trustpilot are then invited to write a review to the site that really matters to the business.

Comment: Filtering? We were surprised to see that Trustpilot were happy to see their clients displaying only 5* reviews on their own websites - citing, of all things, the behaviour of publishers and cinemas as justification. 

Comment: Accusations of this kind have been endemic for a while now: a common accusation is that estate agents have been asking for review upon instruction. Even more misleadingly businesses have been passing off reviews of single customer interactions - e.g. a simple phone call - as a bona fide review of the whole service on offer.

We commented on this when it happened back in early 2016 (the full story is here). 

Here is the Times' infographic showing the pattern of reviews for all three companies mentioned in the article. We are surprised that Foxtons did not address this in their response to the Times.

More of the same.

Comment: In this instance the Times is comparing one large Trustpilot client with another large business that is not inviting reviews to Trustpilot. Apples and pears really. What it does show is that a business that does not engage with a reviews platform, be that Trustpilot or - much more importantly - Google will leave the way clear for its detractors to dominate its image there. Look good on Google or Trustpilot? We know which most of our client businesses will choose.

Comment: The reviews sites, along with social media sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), make out that it is an uphill struggle to moderate their content. We are nowhere near as large as any of these sites, but we stand by each and every one of our reviews as published on our clients' websites - because they are all moderated. It is not for want of resources that sites like Trustpilot don't moderate reviews:

Comment: There is an element of 'they would say that...' here. The business's comments are more interesting for the points they do not address - especially the 'bulk' reviewing and the use they make of Trustpilot's own 'quarantine' feature, whereby a business may challenge any review. Here are the statistics, published on Trustpilot's listing for Purple Bricks, showing just how many of those reviews went on to be published:

Comment: These show that Purple Bricks challenged ('flagged') 168 reviews and were successful in having 151 of those taken down. This statistic is interesting in itself, but even more so when you compare the 5,666 number with the headline number - 62,521 in Purple Bricks' main listing on Trustpilot:

If anyone has the answer to this, please don't hesitate to contact us.

Comment: This is just one of many instances we have seen. Trustpilot must ensure businesses do not manipulate any aspect of its platform for their own illicit purposes, otherwise trust in the whole edifice is threatened.

Comment: This, we believe, is at the heart of most reviews sites' issues. They were invariably founded to service the online retail market - to enable businesses to show reviews and ratings of products. But with competition hotting up with the (mostly) US giants entering the market (Yelp, Reevoo, Amazon) and big retailers coming up with their own solutions (e.g. John Lewis) the reviews sites were forced into unfamiliar territory: services such as estate agency and banking. The difference, which will have surprised them, is that while consumers will happily buy a shirt or a tumble drier that scores 4 out of 5, they demand far higher scores from service businesses. Just think a minute - would you appoint an estate agency where twenty per cent of customers said 'don't us them'? Or a financial adviser. Or an oncologist? This, combined with almost overwhelming competition from Google, has made life very difficult for the reviews sites.

Comment: All a site needs to 'weed out suspicious reviews' is effective moderation and a flagging system for users.

What the Times article did not cover

The Regulators

We were surprised that the Times had not contacted the CMA - as the UK regulator ultimately responsible for reviews - to ask for their opinion.

The CMA regulations expressly forbid:

  1. Cherry-picking. It is illegal to select customers to write a review on any platform
  2. Gating. As described above, the practice of pre-qualifying potential reviewers
  3. Invitation only. Systems that only allow 'verified' customers to post reviews at a time of the business's choosing
The reasons for all three of these rules should be clear: businesses must not mislead consumers. 

And there's absolutely no need: this article, covering much of the same ground, includes results for our clients achieved without playing fast-and-loose with the regulations.

The Times criticises Trustpilot and two of their high-profile clients - but why would any business use an independent reviews site instead of Google anyway?

Many of you will have seen this article in the TImes on Saturday. If you did not here is a link here for subscribers or you can always email and we will send you a full copy of the text.

The two consumer affairs journalists have really gone to town on crunching the numbers on over 20,000 Trustpilot reviews of three businesses: Purplebricks, Foxtons and Vanquish bank and have, amongst other things, come up with this intriguing graphic...

They have used this to illustrate unusual patterns of review writing. But are they missing a bigger point? Why use an independent reviews site, instead of Google, in the first place? The answer is simple: fear.

Fear of...
  • unfair reviews
  • inaccurate reviews
  • losing control
Negative reviews? No, because everyone has the right to criticise a business - and that's enshrined in the CMA regulations, which have the force of law.

Unfair reviews

If a review is 'unfair' - the wrong agent has been blamed, or the wrong party in a complex transaction, for instance - this will come out in moderation. Let's be clear: the reviewer always has the right to publish whatever review they wish to, but most reasonable people, when our moderators forward the business's response highlighting the misconception, will either modify their review or decide not to publish it.

Inaccurate reviews

The same. We see cases every day where the customer has mistaken the price quoted for a service, or the terms of business for the business under review, and are delighted to be able to modify their review pre-publication.

Losing Control

Business's have to accept that consumers have a right to publicly comment - it's enshrined in the CMA regulations apart anything else. But that does not mean that businesses should not do everything legitimately in their power to ensure the accuracy of their reviews, and that's where HelpHound comes in.

It's so simple...

HelpHound enables businesses to invite reviews to their websites which are then moderated; the authors of every review published on the business's website are then invited, automatically, to copy their review to Google.

That's how our clients end up looking like this on Google...

And like this in local search...

Not 'perfect', but as good as they deserve to, without bringing the spotlight of media criticism - or CMA action - upon themselves.

Further reading...

Thursday 14 March 2019

Your monthly Google report - it's in your inbox today

We are surprised at just how many people say they don't see this crucial report...

Not only does it tell you how many times you were found on Google in the preceding month, it contains vital information about exactly how many of those searchers went on to call your or click through to your website...

Which in turn confirms whether or not changes in your online marketing strategy are working (this report was sent to us by Curchods after they implemented HelpHound, showing the uplift in calls and clicks).


Find out who in your business is registered as the 'user' with Google My Business. If you don't know, or cannot find out, consult us.

Further reading

Good news...

And bad news (they do say it travels faster - both these reviews are six months old)...

Again, if you cannot see these 'views' numbers on any of your phones, just call us.

Tuesday 12 March 2019

A professional business with more than a handful of Google reviews? Almost certainly breaking the law.

Let us be crystal clear here - because this is a very serious subject. We are not talking restaurants or hotels or any 'well-reviewed' type of business. We are speaking of what are commonly called 'the professions'. For clarity we provide a pretty full, but far from exhaustive, list here...

  • the law
  • medicine
  • education
  • accountancy
  • banking
  • insurance
  • investment management
  • estate agency
  • surveying
  • recruitment

The exception

The exception to the 'more than a handful' rule is the business that has attracted multiple negative reviews on Google. Here is an example:

And a sample review:

Now we make no comment on either the star rating or the content of this review. How could we? We know neither the business nor the reviewer. But we can comment on the impact this review is having: it has been viewed nearly 1300 times. 

So this business has forty reviews, but is, as far as we can see, not breaking the law (it only has two five-star reviews (and a smattering of five-star ratings). How so? Because it has done nothing to address the negative impression that is being shown in every Google search. If it had, and had proactively invited 'happy' customers to post reviews, simply in an attempt to redress the balance, it would have been in breach of one of the CMA's core regulations. It would have broken the law.

So - onto those that are breaking the law. The 'more than a handful' businesses. Here's one, and we will look at it in some detail so you will be left in no doubt that something is amiss.

As you can see, there are twenty-one reviews in total. Sixteen of those rate the business five stars out of five, one at four stars and four at one star. 

And the order those reviews were written in? The first was a one-star, the next ten were five-star reviews, then the second one-star, then another five, then two one-stars, then seven five-stars. 

What does this pattern tell us? As review management professionals with years of experience under our belts it tells us that the business was upset to receive that first one star review and so it asked ten clients that it knew were fairly certain to write a five star review to do so (it may well have asked more, but ten ended up writing reviews). After the second two one-star reviews it repeated the exercise, this time making sure to keep the reviews coming on a regular basis.

Note: for anyone thinking that the four negative reviews of this business 'don't matter' they should be aware that they have been viewed over four thousand times.*

*If you would like to know how to find the total number of views for any single Google review please read this.

What this business almost certainly does not know...

Is that it is breaking the law. That's why we have given them the benefit of the doubt and kept its identity to ourselves. And after all: there's an outside chance they could be inviting every single one of their clients to write a review in spite of only getting these twenty-one in the last year.

What should this business do now?

There's no winding the clock back, but they should take immediate action to become compliant with the CMA's regulations.

This will involve adopting one of the following courses of action...
  1. stop inviting anyone to write a Google review
  2. embed a link to their Google knowledge panel into their website and invite anyone to write a review at a time of their own choosing - thus addressing the CMA's two core regulations
  3. adopt a professional approach to review management, by paying as much attention and applying as much effort to reviews as they do to every other aspect of their marketing and public relations
Option 1. may be the best short-term solution. It will, at the very least, make the business currently complaint while it seeks out a long-term solution.

Option 2. will make the business compliant with CMA regulations, but will also expose it to factually inaccurate and potentially misleading reviews, as well as denying the business significant SEO benefits.

Option 3. will give the business the best of both worlds: they will be able to engage with reviews - on their own website and on Google - safe in the knowledge that unfair reviews will be very unlikely to see the light of day and that they are complying with the CMA regulations. On top of that they will look great in all types of search, simply because Google rewards businesses that host their own reviews on their own websites.

Whatever your business's current situation, we would encourage you to to contact us; at the very least you will know for certain what compliance issues, if any, you are facing.

Monday 11 March 2019

There's only one way to prove HelpHound will work for your business

And that's by doing it!

We can show you it working for our other clients - any of our other clients. And we can put you in touch with them so you can get their feedback first hand (just ask). And we can show you the numbers for a client who was gracious enough to share theirs the month after they joined...

But, at the end of the day, the only sure-fire test will be to do it for yourselves.

There's only one barrier - cost*, but given that the set-up costs plus the first three months' fees (by which time you will know for sure that HelpHound is driving new business) are likely to come in at less then £500, is there any significant risk?

*free trials? No. For the simple reason that we are not a widget driven solution like the reviews sites. We will need to be on hand - on the end of the phone or in person - for every day of those first three months to ensure that HelpHound is an unmitigated success for your business, and that will involve dedicated professionals providing very high quality advice (again: just ask any other client).

And finally...

Already got a solution? If you are 'doing-it-yourselves' (commonly by inviting happy customers to write a review direct to Google) you are inevitably in contravention of the CMA regulations - read more here - but, much more importantly you will be missing out on some of the most important benefits of professional review management. Wonder how the business above ranks so high in local search, and looks so good (stars etc.)? It's partly because Google loves businesses that host reviews on their own websites.

Using an independent reviews site? You may have noticed that some very big names have dropped these sites recently. Why? The answer is twofold: first, some of these sites are non-compliant with the CMA regulations and second, because they simply do not achieve what they promise. For further information on this subject, or on anything else reviews-related, please speak to us or read this article.

Friday 8 March 2019

Many ways to get great reviews to Google...

Above: The 'Holy Grail' of review management - a great Google score, a great score on the business's own website and stars in organic search, all achieved in compliance with the CMA regulations and Google's own T&Cs.

Over the years we have encountered just about every strategy known to man or woman to achieve one single objective: a great Google score. Here we list all that we can recall.

  • Get happy customers to write a review to Google
  • Get all customers to write a review to an independent reviews site, then invite only those that post a 5* review there to copy it to Google
  • Use a system that allows the business to nominate those allowed to write a review
  • Use a system that is closed to members of the public not specifically invited to post a review by the business
  • use a system that allows the business to choose the timing of the invitation to write a review
  • Get all customers to email you with a report of their experience with your business and then invite those that respond positively to write a review to Google
  • Do the above, but then go the extra mile and set up a new Google account on behalf of the customer and then copy and paste their complimentary remarks there, adding a 5* rating
  • Send an email to the customer telling them they will be rewarded with cash/Amazon vouchers/M&S vouchers if the post a 5* review
Not forgetting...

  • Encouraging employees to leave a review
  • Inviting friends and family to leave a review
  • Inviting business connections to write a review

Let's examine them one by one...
  • 'Happy' customers
Illegal - the CMA regulations specifically prohibit what they call cherry-picking. If you invite a single customer to post a review you must be able to demonstrate to the CMA that all your customers are invited - and no, saying 'anyone can write a review to Google at any time' will not wash.

  • All customers invited to post to a reviews site and then those that score the business 5* asked to post to Google
Illegal - this is a practice known as 'gating' and it is self-evidently going to skew the impression any prospective customer is given when they look at the business's Google score and individual reviews.

  • Only nominated customers allowed to write a review
Illegal - the CMA regulations state that all customers should be able to write a review

  • Using a 'closed' system (often called 'invitation only')
Illegal - customers must be able write a review whenever the want

  • Inviting the initial comment by email (or even verbally)
Illegal - gating again.

  • Setting up a new Google account
Illegal - and, on top of that, strictly against Google's terms of service. 

  • Incentivising customers 
Illegal - and against Google's terms of service.

  • Employees
Just don't - no matter what.

  • Friends and family
Not a problem, but they should declare their connection (and have first-hand experience of your service)

  • Business connections
As for friends and family


The CMA regulations have the force of law. If a business is found to be in breach then they may be liable to...
  • an unlimited fine
  • publicity
  • being barred from acting as a director of a limited company in the UK
Google, on the other hand, will simply delete all of the business's reviews and flag all future reviews for special attention.

The overarching principle

The principle that the government, in the person of the Competition and Markets Authority, will apply in any investigation is as follows...

"Has any action or activity by the business engaged in the gathering of reviews the potential to mislead any consumer when reading the business's reviews and, furthermore, relying on those reviews when making a purchasing decision."

Put bluntly: Has the business done anything to make it look better than it otherwise would or should?

Further reading

Friday 1 March 2019

Google adds 'view' numbers to reviews

Is this the end of denial as we know it (for those new to this blog 'review denial' is when a business receives a negative review but says 'No-one will see it/read it/believe it')? 

We will let you decide. This week an estate agent in Exeter called in the receivers - now there are bound to be a myriad complex reasons leading up to this sad event, but the one thing we now know for sure (because Google has just introduced the number of views next to every review) is that an awful lot of people had seen and/or read the following two reviews...

We have edited out the text of both reviews (aside from the first line) because the point we are making here is not about what the reviewers have said (although that was certainly unhelpful for the business) it is to show you just how many people are seeing those reviews when they conduct any relevant Google search. 

The lesson is obvious - we hope - and that is to take Google reviews very seriously indeed, because they are being seen, being read and being taken notice of. Employ a review management system that includes moderation, so you have a chance to defend your business against unfair or inaccurate reviews before they make it to Google.

Here's the flip-side...

The number of people that are seeing and reading a business's positive reviews.

How to find these numbers?

They are appearing - so far - only on mobile and only on the reviewer's stream there. So you will need to click on the reviewer's name and then search down their list of reviews until you find the one for your business. Under that you will see the number of views.

Further reading...