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
CEO
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.

Cherry-picking

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.

Gating

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.

HelpHound


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




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