What are these businesses doing? There's quite a list, some obvious, some more devious, all designed to mislead potential customers, all illegal*:
- They are breaking the 'Cornflakes rule'; remember the competitions on the back of the packet when you were a child? They specifically excluded 'employees of the Kellog Company and those of all its agents and associates' from entering whatever promotion was then current. One of the first things many businesses do, especially if they consider they have been the subject of an unfairly critical review, is to get their staff and 'friends' to write a positive review.
- They are cherry-picking. Cherry-picking is defined in the CMA's regulations as the act of selecting those customers most likely to write a positive review - and it is illegal
- They are gating. Gating is defined as pre-qualifying customers in order to be sure of their attitude to the business before going on to formally invite them to post a review, not only is this behaviour illegal, it is against Google's own T&Cs.
- One subset of gating: email customers for 'feedback' ('the 'How did we do?' email) and then only invite those that respond positively to write a review
- Another: the 'customer feedback survey': send out the survey and then invite positive responders to write a review
- The most 'sophisticated': invite reviews to an independent reviews site that does not rank highly for given important searches, then invite those that rank the business 5* on that site to copy their review to the one site that matters (and is visible) above all others: Google
*illegal: reviews and their use are governed by the UK government regulator. For an analysis of these regulations read this article.
Google's attitude towards such behaviour
Google lives and dies by the quality of its search content; this means that it is constantly reassessing every relationship it has with the third-parties that deliver that content. Those third-parties range from individual businesses' websites to the reviews sites that currently belong to the Google ad partner scheme. This scheme was originally devised by Google to allow advertisers to attach their review ratings to their advertisements, but this was before two significant developments:
- Google aggressively entering the reviews market themselves
- Google becoming aware of the flaws - both regulatory and in terms of the potential for gaming - inherent in the reviews sites' business models and the potential for abuse by their business users
We understand that this scheme is now under review.
Google reviews are by no means perfect, but they have significant advantages, both for consumers and for Google itself (and the regulators):
- they are 'open': anyone can write one at any time
- they are attached to a 'known user': Google can track the reviewer's other activity on the web
And for businesses:
- visibility - they appear in every search on the business
- longevity - Google is not going anywhere any time soon
- credibility - in the scheme of things, Google has far more than a paid-for reviews site
Google will either drop entirely or severely restrict the use and visibility of external reviews scores in the near future.
Meanwhile, we would encourage businesses to report any examples of abuse that they encounter to the Competition and Markets Authority: firstname.lastname@example.org.