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
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
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 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.
- Focus on Google
- Employ a review manager - like HelpHound - to moderate your reviews and enable you to publish them on your website
- 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)