Wednesday 24 February 2021

Trustpilot: what has it done to Summerfield Browne?

Many of you will be aware that a firm of lawyers successfully sued one of their clients who posted a review on Trustpilot - for those of you who are interested the full sorry saga is here.

But today we are focussing on Trustpilot's response, nearly two weeks on (so far - they are currently yet to finalise whatever action they may or may not take).

The story so far...

The customer/client posted this review:

The business - in this case a firm of solicitors - took the reviewer to court and won (£25,000) for 'loss of earnings directly attributable to the review in question.' Trustpilot was ordered to remove the review.

So what other action has Trustpilot taken?

They posted this on the business's listing:

We appreciate that this may be hard to read on some platforms, so here are the key points:

  • 'Please be aware that this business has taken legal action against a consumer for a review...'
  • 'We strongly oppose the use of legal action to silence consumer’s freedom of speech. As a public, open, review platform we believe strongly in consumers having the ability to leave feedback - good or bad - about a business at any time, without interference.'
  • 'This is the first time we’ve seen a business taking such extreme measures against a consumer voicing their genuine opinion. The vast majority of businesses on Trustpilot engage with their consumers or use our flagging tools to report content and resolve their issues.'
  • 'Unfortunately, we are required to remove the review which was the subject of the legal action. We are exploring our options to challenge this decision.'
  • 'The business’ actions have resulted in media attention and this profile has seen a significant increase in reviews that don’t reflect an experience with the business.'

Trustpilot is no longer accepting reviews on the business, pending 'further investigation'

But the following reviews remain on the business's listing:

The above is almost certainly - to our eyes anyway - written by the person who wrote the original contentious review.

And this:

This is obviously written by someone who has no experience of the business whatsoever, aside from reading about the legal action on the BBC website. 

Here is the business's Trustpilot score returned in search as of today:

We would like to make the following points:

  1. The court made its ruling and award on the basis that the single negative review had caused a fall-off in inquiries of nearly forty percent
  2. This shows the power of a single negative review
  3. So why would Trustpilot allow the second review by the reviewer in question to remain of the business's listing?
  4. And why would they allow the 'review' by 'Chris' to remain?
  5. If the forty percent drop in business as a direct result of the one negative review is true, and the court certainly believe it to be so, what impact will a 'frozen' listing containing the two reviews shown above - as well as the dreadful score in Google search - continue to have?

HelpHound's opinion

  1. Review sites where there is no right of appeal - or the right of appeal is somehow dependent upon paid membership - should be outlawed by the Competition and Markets Authority
  2. Selling the services of a review site predicated upon negative reviews from unverified customers should likewise be outlawed
  3. Reviews that are patently written by those with no first-hand experience of the business should be outlawed
  4. It should be made compulsory to explain to potential clients of reviews sites that there is a free alternative to the core services: review and display of reviews, provided by Google
  5. Reviews sites should not be allowed to promote  the suspension of negative reviews  'pending proof of purchase' as a benefit of paid membership

In summary

We believe that Google reviews - either of the business or its products and services - combined with the facility to show verified reviews on your own website are the only currently viable proposition for businesses. This is explained in detail here.

We also believe, firmly, that moderation services such as our own are essential to ensure the very minimum of factually inaccurate or potentially misleading reviews sees the light of day.

Fair for the consumer and, just as importantly, fair for the business.

And finally...

Our advice to Summerfield Browne: you have £25,000. Use that to put all the pressure you can on Trustpilot to reopen your listing and then get the two offending reviews deleted, by resorting to law, if need be.

But don't, whatever you do, pay Trustpilot. Instead: focus on your Google reviews. They are seen by every single person searching for your business, even just to find your phone number, and you currently look like this in every single search:

With this a click away:

And our advice for the legal profession as a whole?

Many law firms remain extremely vulnerable to a single well-written, but possibly malicious, negative review. In the case of Summerfield Browne they were probably lucky that the reviewer chose Trustpilot: if they had chosen Google the damage would have been greater by a significant margin - especially on top of the pre-existing negative review above.

It is important to keep an eye on all review platforms, but especially on Google, where we advise all our clients to achieve a minimum of 50 reviews as quickly as they possibly can and then aim next for 100, at which point a business can relax, but not to the point of ignoring reviews altogether; they are far too important an ingredient in every single business's SEO, apart from impressing prospective clients - in both directions, as is evidenced by the fall-off of enquiries to Summerfield Browne in London.

We advise all our clients to ensure their review management policies comply with UK law, and this is obviously extremely important for legal businesses. Far too many solicitors are currently in breach - we estimate at least four in ten - mostly by chery-picking 'happy' clients to ask to write reviews whilst ignoring others. Such action is against the CMA's core regulations and thus against UK law. There's more on compliance here.

And a final word of caution...

Do not, whatever you do - and however tempting the pitch may be - fall for any business with the words 'reputation management' in its 'About us' tab. We have a file full of horror stories of upselling, freemium schemes and long-term lock-in contracts. Businesses with pre-existing negative reviews are manna from heaven for so-called 'reputation managers'.

At HelpHound we don't expect any of our clients to sign any kind of term contract; if we have worked for a business for two years - or even ten years - it's because we produce the goods. They are all free to leave at any time.

Tuesday 16 February 2021

The end for review sites?

Last week a law firm successfully sued the author of an online review, written on Trustpilot, criticising the firm's services - and they were awarded £25,000 plus costs. It was a first for the UK.

You may wish to read the story behind this before we examine the broader question in the headline. Here it is (the article will open on a separate page, so you won't be taken away from this article).

So: what are the implications for review sites like Trustpilot?

The case for the defence

    • Reviews are popular - they are written in their tens of millions and every survey ever conducted shows that consumers rely very heavily on them when choosing a particular business or product 
    • Reviews provide reassurance - consumers use them to find businesses, and consumers write them to either let others know that they were satisfied with the business in question or not, as the case may be
    • Reviews enable SMEs to compete with larger businesses - by enhancing the small and medium-sized business's profile in search

The case for the prosecution

    • It is far too easy to write a 'fake' review, positive or negative
    • It is far too easy to have a malicious review published
    • Reviews are often factually inaccurate
    • Reviews are often misleading
    • Businesses can easily get friends, family and staff to write reviews
    • Businesses can easily cherry-pick happy customers to write reviews
    • Businesses can ensure that only positive reviews appear where they really matter by 'gating' negative reviews
    • Review sites offer businesses 'advantages' that in some way impinge on the reviewer's ability to have a negative review published - in order to justify their charges

Our conclusion

And it's one we came to many years ago - is that reviews would be a powerful force for good, for consumers and businesses, if the points made by the 'prosecution' above were addressed - but, with the emergence of reviews of both businesses and products on Google, the days of the independent review site were numbered.

So we addressed the 'prosecution' issues. How?

The first thing we did was instigate moderation. Moderation, in the context of HelpHound, means checking every single review pre-publication, for the following:

  • no experience of the business being reviewed - our view is that reviews must be first hand, not 'my husband told me' and definitely not 'I read about this business'. We reject this kind of 'review' as it is unhelpful; to those relying on reviews to make informed choices and it is manifestly unfair on the business
  • bad language - we take the position that reviews are not social media, where everyone is allowed to let rip with foul language and abuse. Reviews are there to enable future customers of a business to better understand how that business operates, and, in that context, no matter how aggrieved the reviewer, we insist on moderating such outbursts. That doesn't mean the review doesn't get published, but it does mean we will ask the reviewer to delete such foul and/or abusive language pre-publication. It's a rare occurrence - maybe one in a thousand reviews - but important none the less
  • Factual inaccuracies - these help no-one, so we do our very best to revert to the reviewer if we are sure their review contains one. It does mean that we need a pretty thorough understanding of our clients' businesses, but we see that as a central part of our role anyway.
  • Potentially misleading statements - the same as factual inaccuracies, but often as a result of misunderstandings between the business and their customer, or simply incorrect use of English
  • Friends, family and staff: we have a simple two-strikes rule: first offence (and you would be surprised how easy it is for a professional moderator to spot the offenders) and the review is deleted and a final warning is issued to the business, second offence: end of contract - our credibility and the credibility of our service is simply too valuable
  • Cherry-picking: our clients all invite reviews on their websites, from anyone. The absolute opposite of cherry-picking
  • Gating: there are two common forms of gating (which essentially means pre-qualifying what a consumer might say before inviting them to write a review): sending a questionnaire to every customer and then only inviting respondents who indicate complete satisfaction to go on to write a review and a sophisticated subset of that wheeze: simply invite all you customers to write a review to a reviews site and then only invite those that have posted a 5* review there to go on and post a review to Google

We should make the point here that none of the above may be used as an excuse to either delete or in some other way bury the review in question. The review will be published unless the reviewer either retracts or modifies their review. This is welcomed by the business as it will have had the opportunity to resolve whatever issue the review contained and it is equally welcomed by the overwhelming majority of reviewers who never wanted to publish an inaccurate or misleading review in the first place. Also bear in mind that the business has 'right of reply' right under the published review.

The next thing we did was address the issue of compliance with UK law - the CMA regulations. No review system works if it is not compliant with the law. But, surprisingly, reviews sites remain either fundamentally non-compliant or easily abused in non-compliant ways by their clients.

The law is not complex. Its core rules state that:

  • everyone should be allowed to post a review and...
  • the business should not control the timing of that review

There is a complete analysis of the CMA regulations here, but that is the nub of compliance. The CMA is on the case of businesses that flout these rules.

Review sites

All of these, from huge quoted companies like Yelp through the likes of Trustpilot with significant financial backing to relative minnows like Feefo, came into being before Google became a significant player in the review space. 

It is our contention that, had those businesses known that Google was going to commit such significant resources, they would never have entered the sector. 

Google reviews

  • Google reviews are free. No upsell, no freemium model. One offering for businesses, one for products. Google has the whole market covered, for free.
  • Google reviews are seen by more consumers, far more, than any review site's reviews. Witness the way Yelp has been relegated to fast food and small local services: larger businesses with professional marketing departments know it's Google reviews all the way.
  • Google reviews are trusted by consumers, and rightly so: Google knows whether a review is genuine or not, after all, they know just about every key-stroke the review has made and where they have been. Google reviews have to be attached to an identity, unlike reviews on most review sites where there is no confirmation of identity whatsoever.
  • Google has an appeals process: just try getting an unfair or inaccurate review of your business that's been posted on a review site taken down - it's well-nigh impossible. But Google will listen to a properly drafted appeal.
If a business is not using Google for reviews, an alarm bell should ring. Why would a business pay for a reviews solution when Google holds all the aces and is free?

So - to answer the question posed in the title of this article 'The end for review sites?' - our answer is 'the ones with significant financial backing will limp on, but as businesses become more and more aware of the contents of this article, the current crop of review sites will all fade away unless they can find a way to comply with the law and compete with Google. And that is going to be an uphill struggle of some proportions.

Our advice

In a sentence: 'Don't hitch your business's future reputation to a solution that manifestly doesn't deliver.'

Our advice has not wavered since the beginning of the last decade:

  1. Focus on Google
  2. Employ a review manager - like HelpHound - to moderate your reviews and enable you to publish them on your website
  3. Then get as many of those who write reviews to your website to copy them to Google - and any other locations that matter (Facebook and/or Instagram perhaps)
Simple. Long-lasting. Inexpensive (just ask!). Most of all: effective.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

A review is damaging your business - should you sue the reviewer?

A link for Times subscribers, substantially the same article in the Mail (free to view)

Many readers will have seen the story about the solicitor who successfully sued their client and won £25,000 in damages, plus an order for Trustpilot to take the offending review down. Is this a strategy that we would advise? 

First:  here is the offending Trustpilot review:

Second: on what basis did the judge make the award in favor of the claimant (the firm of solicitors)? We will let the judge speak for himself:

His full adjudication is to be found here.

While this may have severe long term implications for Trustpilot, we are mainly concerned with the implications for the business - in the short and long term - in this article.

The short term impact - pre-court

The claimant states and the judge has accepted, that the main financial harm done by this single review was a reduction of enquiries (and, by implication, the fees that would otherwise have flowed from those enquiries), fell - again, as a direct result of that one review - by nearly 40 percent. The resulting damages awarded by the court are direct compensation for that loss.

The short term impact - post-court

To fully appreciate this we need to look at two before-and-after scenarios: on Trustpilot and, far more importantly, on Google.

Before: 7 February 2021 on Trustpilot:

Before: 7 February 2021 on Google

Today, twenty-four hours later, on Trustpilot

And Google

What has happened?

You may remember the high-profile case of the Red Hen, a Democrat supporting restaurant in Lexington, Virginia that was reported to have ejected Sarah Sanders, the then President Trump's press secretary. What happened next was what the web calls a 'pile-on', where supporters of either, in this instance, political side write reviews, irrespective of the fact that none of the reviewers themselves has any direct experience of eating at said restaurant. It even impacted the wider town economy.

The people involved in the pile-on write two kinds of review: the first kind makes no attempt to look like a genuine review of the business and simply either supports or criticises the political (in our case strategic) stance taken by the restaurant; the second - and, some might say, cleverer - review purports to have visited the establishment (in our case, been a client of) and rates it as 'excellent' or 'poor' depending on their political affiliation (in our case, personal point of view).

What you see in the screenshots above is one of the most extreme examples of a pile-on we have ever seen in the UK (there was a questionably funny one of a flop-house in Glasgow that was boosted into the top 100 hotels in the UK there a few years ago).

The reviews are almost all along these lines (Trustpilot):


If that weren't enough, look at the up-votes from those who support the 'reviewer's' position.

And, lo-and-behold, another review from the defendant (or, at least, someone purporting to be him):

Now the medium to long-term impact

On Summerfield Browne

If we accept that the one single review impacted enquiries and resulting fee income by nearly forty percent, what now? 

We can only apply common sense combined with our considerable experience - over ten years of helping businesses with what they have considered inaccurate, misleading or just plain unfair reviews. Just one Google review, based on the reviewer having watched a TV programme featuring the hotel in question, resulted in the business's phone going completely quiet. No bookings whatsoever.

Here's the offending review on Google - which we were able to get taken down, to the intense relief of the management:

The point here is much more a PR question than a legal one. We cannot be positively sure what our exact advice to Summerfield Browne would have been without access to all the facts of the case, but based on the review itself this would have been as follows:

1. Respond to the review on Trustpilot - no need to join or pay Trustpilot, simply respond on the site with a reasoned and reasonable answer to all the points the review raised, remembering not to breach confidentiality and that the reviewer always has the right to post a subsequent review. 

2.  Adopt a proactive review management strategy to get a consistent flow of reviews to both Google and Trustpilot, with the objective of ensuring that the overwhelming majority of reviews reflect the reality of the business.*

*Bearing in mind that the CMA regulations stipulate that any business inviting reviews must enable all of their customers to do so. See here for more details on this important subject.

But we have no doubt whatsoever that the impact of both the multitude of press coverage plus the company's image in search and on the review sites, both Trustpilot and much more importantly Google - where they had a reasonably clean sheet up until last week - will be detrimental. 

In summary

There are salutary lessons here for all businesses:
  • ensure you have a proactive review strategy in place: playing catch-up when things go wrong simply doesn't work. This business will take a long time to recover, even if they do adopt the right strategy going forwards
  • have professional advice a phone call away; if a lawyer can get things so wrong, what chance an ordinary business?
  • always respond to all reviews. And always take professional advice before responding to complex negative reviews
  • There are tens of thousands of businesses like Summerfield Browne, who thought they could safely ignore reviews until something like this happens. Get a considerable presence on the review platforms that matter: Google first and foremost. What is a 'considerable presence'? 100 reviews, minimum. 
  • Don't pay a reviews site. Google is free, and it is by far the most powerful in terms of reach and influence

And the $64,000 dollar one here:
  • Never resort to litigation unless you are absolutely sure that the negatives aren't outweighed by the advantages. 

Friday 5 February 2021

HelpHound - let's break down the value

Where's the most value in HelpHound? It's a question we're often asked, so here we are going to take some time out from the pandemic and attempt to answer it.

The first thing to make clear is that different businesses get different levels of benefit depending on how they use HelpHound - we will try to expand on this point with examples as we go along. For that reason we haven't numbered the benefits, they could be in any order, depending on the kind of business you run and just how that business is run. And if you spot any that we have missed, please don't hesitate to let us know by commenting.

The benefits as we - and our clients - see them

  • Displaying independently verified reviews on your website

Reviews on your website? - great. They drive clicks and contacts. Most important of all they're not 'testimonials', they have the inherent credibility gained from having an external moderator and the promise to publish. 'You've hand-picked those reviews?' 'No.' You screen your reviews?' 'No.' 'You mean anyone can write a review whenever they want and you will display it on your website?' 'Yes'. How powerful is that?

On top of that, we find that the quality of the reviews written through HelpHound is pretty universally high - and reviews such as that one above will drive contacts through your website - just read this one and ask yourself 'Does this inspire confidence?'

  • Owning your own reviews

They're your reviews - not ours or anyone else's. To display as you see fit, and where you see fit: anywhere on your website - on your social media - in your marketing, PR and advertising. 

Look at the alternative: you sign up to an independent reviews site because they may look attractive today. But then a better alternative comes along (this has happened to so many businesses with Yelp/Trustpilot/Feefo when Google became the dominant force in reviews) - you lose all the reviews - and the hard work - and have to start all over again. 

In the example above the business has thousands of reviews - but they are hidden away on an obscure reviews site. How much better advised would they have been to get their own reviews to their own website and then to Google?

    • Having credible reviews

    Credibility means having an answer to the following key questions:
    1. Can anyone write a review?
    2. Can anyone write a review at a time of their own choosing?
    3. Do you publish all genuine reviews?
    It's as simple as that - but try applying those three tests to any other solution. The panel above enables your business to answer these three questions, to anyone who visits your website; it shows them:
    • that anyone can write a review - the 'Write a review' button at top right
    • and the same for 'at a time of their own choosing' - anyone can simply click and write a review whenever they like
    • The 'What is HelpHound' button leads straight to a full explanation of our role

    • Getting significant volumes of reviews to Google

    We aim to get one in every two reviews that are written to a client's website across to Google. Absolute numbers will vary depending on the customer flow your business generates but a great rule of thumb is to aim for at least half of your customers to write a review on your website and then half of those to copy their review to Google.
    • Having your reviews moderated 
    No one likes to see unfair, inaccurate or misleading comments on their business published in an online review, anywhere. At the very least they will be irritating and bad for staff morale - and at the other end of the scale they can literally stop the phones ringing.

    The only sure-fire way of preventing this is to have reviews moderated - checked for factual accuracy and misleading statements - pre-publication. All HelpHound reviews are moderated. Besides helping our clients sleep at night moderation is surprisingly 
    • Having an ally who understands the reviews space to appeal against unfair reviews - on any site
    We know the reviews space better than any other organisation on the planet - because we understand all the solutions on the market, not just our own. This means we can advise clients whatever their issue with reviews. An inaccurate or misleading Google review? We'll handle it.
    • Having a constant supply of marketing ammunition

    How much more do potential customers trust your reviews than your more conventional marketing? About three times as much, according to a Harvard Business School survey. So you need them to fuel your social media: tweet them, Instagram them, post them on Facebook - and use them in your mainstream marketing, PR and advertising.

    • Enhancing your business's potential to see stars in search

    With the correct coding, your reviews and review score should have a very good chance of showing up like this.

    • Boosting your chances of appearing in the Google 3-pack

    Statistically, a business will get more clicks and calls if they look great in the Google 3-pack.

    • Having your reviews show up in 'Reviews from the web' in your Google knowledge panel

    The knowledge Panel is where google gets all the basic information about your business - and it scores all your content held there for SEO (see below), including 'Reviews from the web'.

    • Boosting your SEO

    Google's ranking algorithm is obviously a well-guarded secret, but what is no secret at all is that Google values the contents of your knowledge panel. And the most influential of contents? 'Reviews from the web'.

    • Compliance with UK law and Google's terms of service

    Compliance* is oh so boring, but so essential. It's not just that businesses that select customers to write reviews and/or control the timing of those reviews run the risk of CMA action and enforcement (£375,000 fine, anyone?) but the act of non-compliance is so glaringly obvious these days that it will hand a win to your competitors in any pitch. Who wants to do business with someone who doesn't care that they are breaking the law?

    *see 'Further reading' below.

    So - back to the original question: 'How much value to attribute to these advantages?' Let's behave like a marketing director and allocate a monthly £SD value...

    • Reviews on your own website: £25 
    • Owning your own reviews: £5
    • Credibility: £10
    • Significant volumes to Google: £25
    • Moderation: £20
    • Support: £10
    • Marketing ammunition: £10
    • Stars in search: £10
    • Appearing in the Google 3-pack: £10
    • Showing in 'Reviews from the web': £5
    • Boosting your SEO: £15
    • Compliance: £10
    You can easily put your own value on each of these monthly 'values', but the estimates above add up to £150. You might simply value reviews on your own website at £50, reviews to Google at £50, and Moderation at £50 (you would certainly value the latter much higher if it had enabled you to manage a damaging review in that month!).

    But suppose all of this means you transact just one more piece of business every month or attract (or retain) just one more client?

    We rest our case.

    Further reading

    You may interrogate the 1000+ articles on this blog to find those that are relevant or of interest, but if you only read two more, let it be these:
    • Moderation: this takes the fear factor out of engaging with reviews
    • Compliance: with the UK law and Google's terms of service