Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Reviews websites reviewed - some worrying results

Here we are going to take as dispassionate look at reviews websites as we can. This article forms the third part of our recent series of pieces aimed at driving reform of the reviews market in the UK - links to the other two articles can be found at the end of this piece.

Trustpilot: On Google...

Consists of….

5*        5
4*        2
3*        -
2*        -
1*        44

Further analysis…

The 5* reviews:

One of another business altogether...

One extremely tongue-in-cheek – we are assuming!

Now Trustpilot are immigration consultants!

 Next: ratings – not reviews – we would question their worth.

The first of these 4* reviews is from someone that wants a job with Trustpilot (only four stars?).

The second would appear to be for some kind of ‘technical service’, possibly another review of a Trustpilot client posted in error.

The remainder are all one star reviews, mostly conveying the same sentiments...

On their own site, where you might expect to make more sense...

Seriously? If nearly a quarter of your reviews rated your business 'poor' or 'bad' – on your own platform - would you begin to worry?

You don’t have to look far for reviews like this…

Now: on (a rival platform):

A Google search on ‘reviews of Trustpilot’ returns this…

 So we click through, to find this…

Then we close the pop-up warning, to see this…

Followed by a breakdown…

That shows that less than ten per cent of reviews rate Trustpilot at five stars.

So we read some of the five star reviews that have apparently – according to – been ‘written by Trustpilot employees’. Here are the most recent examples of five star reviews of Trustpilot on…

Forgive us, but they don’t look like Trustpilot employees’ reviews. They look like genuine reviews of other businesses that have been mistakenly left on Trustpilot’s listing.

So – becoming increasingly mystified – we check for reviews of on Trustpilot (a very much larger site) and what do we find?

Not so many reviews, but a similarly awful rating.  To be fair, we conducted the same Google search as we did for Trustpilot. don’t appear to have a Google knowledge panel but their ‘alter ego’ does, and here are all five reviews contained within it…

And here is what the search for ‘reviews of’ throws up…

Now some of you were thinking ‘they’ve forgotten Feefo. So here they are. In a Google search:

No reviews on Google, when even the smallest plumber in the UK has a handful? Maybe Feefo is small too? Let’s see what they have on their own site…

622 reviews, mostly 5*, and not one of their happy customers found their way to Google? Feefo on Trustpilot?

And on

In summary

You are probably as confused as we are by now. If you think you understand what is happening here please don’t hesitate to contact us – there’s a box below.

But much more important - what about consumers (and, in this instance consumers means businesses and their customers, because the business is the consumer when it buys the services of one of these reviews sites).

Our conclusion

The first question we ask ourselves – and anyone else we meet in our professional lives – is ‘Why not Google?’ Google reviews are by-far-and-away the most visible and most credible reviews on the web. They are just about the only reviews a business really needs. So why are businesses [still] using reviews sites?

We can only think of two reasons…

1.     Legacy: Google reviews only came to prominence after most reviews sites were established, so some businesses have stayed with the reviews solution they signed up to back in the day. They should be urgently reassessing that decision in the light of the above.
2.     They were sold: the reviews sites have sales-forces, Google (in the reviews context) don’t. No-one is going to phone your business and sell you Google reviews.


The only body with the power to resolve the confusion detailed above is the Competitions & Markets Authority - the UK government body directly responsible for reviews.

Some of you will have read our recent open letter to them, if you have not, it is here.

Without such intervention we would suggest - and have suggested in this article - that reviews as a whole are in danger of losing all credibility, which would be a huge loss for consumers, as genuine credible reviews are a massive force for good.

The future for reviews - could it be bleak?

Writing in yesterday's Times - referring to the Sri Lankan's government's blocking of social media (Facebook and WhatsApp) after the horrific Easter bombings - Lucy Fisher, the Times defence correspondent said...

'The radical move would once have been condemned by the international community as the heavy handed tactics of a dictatorship determined to shut down free speech. In the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings last month, however, resignation is growing that the American companies that own and run these content and messaging platforms cannot sufficiently police themselves and enforce their own rules on content.'

So what has this to do with reviews? Let us try and explain (and please do feel free to comment). Here are five statements that might well have seemed contentious even eighteen months ago, certainly we would not have blogged them back then, but here we are, doing exactly that...
  1. The general public cannot trust reviews sites
  2. The general public cannot trust Google reviews
  3. Reviews can be bought or faked
  4. Neither the reviews sites nor Google have mechanisms in place to ensure that the reviews they publish are genuine 
  5. The regulators have done very little to address the situation
Let us examine each of these in more detail...

1. The general public cannot trust reviews sites

Pressure like this forces staff to get reviews from anywhere and everywhere they can (unless you believe this agent was completing in excess of ten sales a month!)

Reviews sites are paid for by businesses. This does not make them intrinsically unreliable, but it is interesting to talk to businesses that have used them. Invariably they make statements such as 'they allowed us to select who to invite and when to invite them' or 'they had a brilliant system that drove negative reviews straight to page two'. In addition to these very 'broad brush' complaints we have a detailed file on each of the major reviews sites going back over the years detailing patterns of review writing and suspect individual reviews.

2. The general public cannot trust Google reviews

Anyone with access to a computer can write a Google review. While the majority of Google reviews are undoubtedly genuine, we see evidence of businesses manipulating Google reviews every day (by cherry-picking, gating or simply asking 'friends, colleagues and family' to write reviews). This is not directly Google's fault, except that Google could, if it decided to do so, instigate procedures to identify and punish such reviews and practices. In Google's favour, they will, if presented with evidence, take action against firms that are gating (pre-qualifying reviewers).

3. Reviews can be bought and/or faked

You don't see advertisements like this on eBay (and many other sites) for no reason. These businesses have customers, and those customers are paying to have their Google (and other) scores inflated. Theses are just a selection from eBay today...

4. Neither the reviews sites nor Google have mechanisms in place to ensure that the reviews they publish are genuine 

Apart from Yelp's infamous 'filter' (that would appear to filter as many genuine reviews as it does fakes or malicious reviews) and Feefo's 'invitation only' system that relies on the business sending Feefo genuine customer email addresses, we see little effort by most reviews platforms to ensure the authenticity of their reviews or their reviewers, and few sanctions on businesses caught manipulating their systems. How many hotels have been 'red flagged'; by Tripadvisor? Ten? - in ten years? We could identify ten hotels in a single London postcode that regularly write negative reviews of their competitors.

5. The regulators have done little to address the situation

The CMA  - the UK government regulator directly responsible for consumer protection in the area of reviews has sanctioned one business since 2015. One. And here is the sanction...

And here is the full post on the CMA's website. Here are the CMA's regulations relating to reviews and our analysis of them. Here is our open letter to the CMA.

Why is this so important?

Because, increasingly, consumers base significant spending and investing decisions on reviews. Not just 'knitwear', but who to invest their life savings with, who to appoint to sell their house or who to entrust their healthcare with. Important, potentially life-changing, decisions.

It would easy for the government to simply say 'reviews cannot be trusted, they're banned'. But this would be to miss a wonderful opportunity to serve consumers' best interests.

Consumers' best interests

These are patently best served by having reviews that are genuine and therefore credible. There is an example for others to follow, and it's called HelpHound. At HelpHound we do everything short of forcing the system grind to a halt to ensure that our clients' potential customers are served genuine and credible reviews.
  • every single review is read by one of our moderators. They are trained to know what to look for and, while a very clever person would undoubtedly sneak a five star review past them on the odd occasion, they would never get a negative through without challenge; the chances of such 'fake positives' making a meaningful difference to an established HelpHound client's score, on Google or on their own site, are so small as to be negligible
  • reviews that contain assertions of fact or potentially misleading statements are always referred to both the reviewer and the business under review for clarification. This does not mean that negative comments are suppressed - far from it - just that those comments must be supported by the facts
  • We have a 'two strikes rule' that all our business customers sign up to when they join. This means that they are allowed one 'mistake' - one review that our moderators decide was written by a connected person (it is invariably a 'keen', often young and inexperienced, junior member of staff). After that they are on a warning, with the ultimate sanction being termination of their contract. How often in the last five years have we had to issue such a warning? Never. Simply because our clients get just how crucial the credibility of their review is
  • Overriding all the above is the core premise that, at the end of the day, the customer's right is to have their review, whatever it states, published on our client's site, and the automated invitation to copy that review to Google will follow as night follows day
So - if HelpHound can do it, why cannot others? That is a bit like asking 'why does Facebook allow live-streaming of mass murder?' - we don't know, we are not Facebook, but we do know what we would do if we were.

So come on government, come on the CMA, but most of all: come on UK Plc. Let's start giving consumers what they want. 

Genuine, reliable reviews of your businesses

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

An open letter to the Competition and Markets Authority

Back in August of 2016 the CMA wrote an open letter to businesses regarding reviews. It began like this...

Here is the full text of the CMA's open letter and our accompanying commentary.

And it referred to their 'Dos and Don'ts' for reviews sites and businesses using those sites...

The full text of the CMA 'Do's and Don'ts' is here on their website.

Here is the text of our open letter...

Dr Andrea Coscelli
The Competition and Markets Authority

Dear Dr Coscelli

Consumers have come to rely more and more on online reviews when deciding which product or service to purchase. In 2016 the CMA itself estimated that 'over half of UK adults use consumer reviews'. The intervening three years have seen a seismic shift in the area of service reviews (reviews of businesses and professions as opposed to product reviews). Google is now unequivocally dominant in this area.

At HelpHound we are increasingly concerned that abuses in the way businesses (and some of the reviews sites) approach reviews are wilfully misleading members of the public. Let me explain.


The CMA 'invented' this description in relation to reviews. As you know, it refers to the practice of selecting those customers most likely to post a positive review and then inviting them, and only them, to do so.


The process of pre-qualifying customers to establish the kind of review they are likely to write. First used by app developers (anyone downloading an app would receive an invitation to rate the app, if they selected five stars the rating would be posted straight to the app store, anything less and they would be invited to 'give feedback'). Now commonly used by businesses of all kinds and in a variety of ways.

The issue today

In the two-and-a-half years since your office issued the Open Letter three things have happened:
  1. Businesses have become much more aware of the power of reviews - especially Google reviews
  2. The independent reviews sites have, as a direct result of competition from Google, come under intense commercial pressure
  3. Businesses have begun to flout the CMAs regulations - in word and in spirit - in more and more ingenious ways

If the regulations were working:
  • great businesses would have great reviews and great Google scores*
  • less than great businesses would have less great reviews and worse Google scores
Giving consumers an accurate guide as to which businesses to use.

*this is a very important point. Many well run and intrinsically honest businesses have made a conscious policy decision to avoid all engagement with online reviews. They wish to be compliant with the CMA regulations but see their competitors flouting them; they see no honest - let alone compliant - way of competing, so they do nothing. This is demonstrably not in the best interests of consumers.

What has actually happened?

Businesses have learned more sophisticated ways of 'gaming' reviews (refinements of cherry-picking and gating). Here are just a few examples:
  • using 'online feedback forms' to identify potential five star reviewers, then inviting only those to post reviews to Google
  • using a reviews site to - compliantly - invite reviews, then invite only those that post a five star review to the reviews site to copy their review to Google
  • inviting feedback on non-contentious aspects of the business's service (e.g. 'How quickly did we answer the phone?') and inviting the review of that, as opposed to the business's core activities, in order to boost the business's overall score, whether on a given reviews site or on Google
  • inviting feedback by email and then setting up a Google account in the consumer's name and posting the review 'on their behalf' (this directly contravenes Google's T&Cs as well)
  • Using facilities made available by reviews sites to either a) prevent consumers writing a review unless expressly invited by the business or b) control the time - and stage of the transaction - at which the consumer may write the review or c) place negative reviews in 'quarantine'
  • Rewarding selected customers for writing positive reviews (we have seen discounts, gifts of products, Amazon and Marks & Spencer vouchers; this also contravenes Google T&Cs)

The present problem

As if all this were not enough, we are now encountering businesses that are bluntly saying 'the CMA has not acted to prevent [our competitor - or any other business] engaging in illegal practices so we have no option but to do the same ourselves'.

We would urge the CMA to use its powers on behalf of UK consumers to censure such businesses that are in breach of your regulations governing online reviews, so that consumer and business confidence that is fast being eroded (by the likes of this recent article in the TImes) begins to be restored.


We will keep readers - and our clients - posted as and when the CMA takes any action.