Monday, 11 October 2021

Reviews: the future

If you wonder whether the world of online reviews has evolved very far from the primeval swamp of fakery that existed at the outset of Web 2.0 please read on. If you are as concerned as we - and responsible bodies such as Which? - are that online reviews become a reliable consumer guide, rather than just another way for less than scrupulous businesses to attract more custom, also please read on.


Review Sites and Google reviews


32 of them! And the only ones your business needs? Numbers 12 and 32. Consumers can add No. 6.

Review sites came first; not before Google, of course, but quite a while before Google reviews. And still, review sites have a clear field to forage in - as Google has not yet directly monetised its reviews offering. But Google reviews, for reviews of individual businesses at least, are currently the most credible, most reliable, most traceable, and most visible reviews there are. And it's worth remembering that just about every consumer needs to get past Google to read reviews on any other platform.

It is our firm opinion, repeated many times here over the years, that review sites, as they are currently structured are, in the main, redundant. And this opinion is reinforced every working day of our lives when we see the comparative results that our clients achieve by focussing their efforts on hosting their own reviews on their own websites and then getting them across to Google. Businesses are far better advised to focus their efforts where their consumers are: on Google. A single Google review is worth a dozen reviews on any review site (and maybe many more).

 

Product reviews

 


This piece by Richman SEO contains many nuggets: this one illustrates that the mere fact of using a review site tilts the playing field in favour of the business. But before you rush to join, please read the rest of this article!

 

Product reviews by consumers are virtually worthless. Why? Because few consumers have the requisite expertise or breadth of experience to comment with any authority on all but the simplest of products. The best one can expect for a consumer review of a product is 'I bought it to do X and it did X'. Once we enter into comparative territory - 'it did X better than product Y' then we begin skating on very thin ice indeed. 

Until someone comes up with a way of qualifying the writer of the review the blind are invariably leading the blind where product reviews are concerned. Consumers are far better advised to consult expert professional reviews of products. If you ever needed more proof of this contention just find a business that's paying Trustpilot or Feefo for their review solutions to boost sales of their products that scores less than 4 out of 5!

 

Services

 


Service reviews, on the other hand, are vital. But currently far too unreliable. Businesses game them - fake reviews, bought reviews, reviews written by connected persons, gating, cherry-picking, (ab)use of functions such as flagging*, using sites that allow them to pick exactly who writes reviews and just about anything else they can do to look better. And the review sites currently connive in this gaming.

And this - services - is the area where consumers so desperately need accurate and reliable reviews: medical, financial, legal and so on. Imagine you chose an oncologist based on their reviews and subsequently discovered that those reviews had been aquired using one of the many suspect techniques listed in the paragraph above?

*There are at least two types of flagging: you can flag a Google review of your business but Google will leave the review up unless they find it contravenes their TOS; on the other hand, there is the Trustpilot version, where the review is immediately suspended unless the reviewer can be bothered to respond to Trustpilot's email requiring them to prove that they have used the business. On the surface, the latter has huge appeal, both from the business and the consumer point-of-view, unfortunately far too many businesses would appear to be flagging far too many critical reviews once they realise that only a tiny minority of people can be bothered to respond to the email from the review site.

Gating: the act of establishing, often means of a customer survey, sometimes by using a lesser-known review site, exactly who a business's happy customers are - and then inviting them to post to a key review site, often Google.

Cherry-picking: choosing which customers to ask to write a review. Illegal. But currently extremely common.

 

Lead generation sites with reviews 


If we meet 100 businesses using sites like these we invariably find that 99 would have been better off saving their money and focussing on Google reviews.

These pop up with the regularity of mushrooms, and their blandishments have distracted many a business that might otherwise have established themselves on Google with hundreds of Google reviews. They are the heroin of review marketing: 'We'll get you reviews from your customers/clients/patients and then more customers/clients/patients will have the confidence to contact you/use your service' is a very powerful message. 

That is until you realise that all that effort - and expense - has simply gone to further entrench your business's addiction to that lead generator. Google is free. Google reviews are free. Google reviews are more visible and more trusted and will, as a result, generate you far more leads for far less expenditure over the long run. 

 

Reliability

For reviews to have any value whatsoever for consumers they must be as close to 100% reliable as is possible. Not 'mostly reliable or 'quite reliable', reliable full stop.

For reviews to achieve this reliability the ways in which those businesses that host reviews and those that mobilize them in their marketing must be made absolutely accountable for their veracity. If you fall foul of the ASA rules on advertising you will be sanctioned with a fine and publicity, the same - now that consumers trust reviews more than they trust advertising - must apply to businesses and the CMA.

 

Law enforcement

Law, in the UK at least, already exists to enable enforcement of the CMA regulations (UK). The US Congress would do well to repeal section 230 of their Communications and Decency Act which, since 1996, gives online publishers immunity from prosectution. 

 

Time frame

 


So old as to be next to worthless - reviews this old should be archived.

 

Five-year-old reviews are worse than useless, they can be woefully misleading. Useless for consumers and useless for the reviewed business. We are fully aware that 'data is money' and that the review platforms are, for this reason alone, reluctant to archive their irrelevant time-expired reviews but they need to bite the bullet and do so. 

This does not need to harm their business models as businesses that rest on their laurels with thousands of past their sell-by date reviews and a great resultant score will need to up their games and keep their reviews refreshed with a constant flow of new reviews, so consumers know exactly what to expect of their businesses now, not in the distant past.

 

Moderation

All reviews must be moderated. That they are not is a source of shame for every platform that hosts reviews, from Google to Yelp! to Trustpilot to TripAdvisor. It is of no concern to us that these vast businesses with almost limitless financial resources claim that they are taking all kinds of steps with their technology or their algorithms to clean up their review content. There is only one way to ensure reliable content and that is human moderation. They need to start paying real people to moderate their reviews. 

Until Google and the reviews sites come on board, if they ever do, businesses must find an independent solution to moderation such as HelpHound (you will understand why it's not possible for a business to moderate its own reviews). That is, unless your business is immune to inaccurate and/or misleading reviews and the impact such reviews have on your potential customers.

 

Appeals procedure

It is not enough for those businesses that host reviews to hide behind 'freedom of speech' where reviews of businesses are concerned. No one should be able to libel a business on any platform without that platform assuming some level of responsibility, any more than a newspaper would. Governments need to intervene to establish rules for those entities publishing reviews. At the very least the platform should be obliged to verify the identity of any reviewer who posts a critical review if challenged. 

That does not mean that the identity of the reviewer has to be disclosed to anyone, including the business under review, but the reviewer should be required to prove beyond any reasonable doubt - to the review platform - that the review they have posted is a genuinely held opinion of a bona fide customer of the business.




From all the above you can see that reviews have still got a long way to go to become universally reliable, although they are already relied upon. And that gap between perception and reality must close sooner rather than later. We could have gone on, to include our views on Google ratings, for example, but we will break out the champagne if the points we have made above become redundant any time soon.

 

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Trustpilot - Which? highlights areas that should be of concern to any business, and the regulator


On the face of the statement in the strapline - beginning 'In May...' - you would think a business would be crazy not to join Trustpilot, until you realise the organisation making the statement is Which? so it's obviously not meant as a compliment.

Let's mine a little deeper...

'In March, April and the first half of May, Sykes Holiday Cottages received more than 5,000 five-star ratings on Trustpilot. This was despite the fact that nobody could stay in one of its cottages at the time, because they were closed due to coronavirus.  At the same time, Which? was inundated with complaints about Sykes because of its policy of refusing refunds to customers for stays it had cancelled. There were so many that we reported it to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Although it also received more than 2,000 one-star ratings in the same period, its flood of five stars meant that, at the time, it had an average of four stars and was officially ‘great’. 

It wasn’t the only travel company that faced widespread anger from customers over refunds. We found many heavily criticised firms rated as ‘great’ on Trustpilot when we looked at their profiles in early May. One example was online travel agent Kiwi.com – which has maintained a ‘great’ four-star rating despite customers complaining about difficulty getting refunds.  Yet others, such as British Airways, Expedia and Tui, which have also faced criticism, were rated as ‘poor’. Even the widely praised Hays Travel was rated as ‘poor’. 

And now the punchline...

'All but one of the travel companies we looked at which were rated as ‘great’ had paid Trustpilot hundreds of pounds a month. None of those rated as poor had paid it anything at all.

Here is Sykes' listing on Trustpilot...





A simple question for Trustpilot: how does a company that leaves 21 percent of its customers so dissatisfied that they feel obliged to write a one-star review rate as 'Excellent'? That's over one in five and ten thousand extremely unhappy customers (read some of the reviews if you doubt that). How many negative reviews does it take to get down to just plain 'Good'?

Now it starts to get even more sinister...

'How did Sykes manage to get so many thousands of people to leave positive reviews in such a short period? Sykes pays Trustpilot for an expensive ‘Enterprise Account.’ This allows it to use Trustpilot’s systems to invite thousands of reviews a month. In April it sent out 5,698 invitations and 60% of these received five stars. In the same period it received 718 reviews that weren’t from an invitation and just 20 of those were five stars. Trustpilot confirmed to us that, ‘the biggest driver of a higher score is whether or not a company invites its customers’. It said invites ‘tend to activate customers who had a good experience*, but who wouldn’t otherwise have shared their opinion’.  It also said that companies don’t have to pay to send out invites. They can ask customers directly to leave reviews, or use Trustpilot’s own free plan that allows them to send out 100 invites through its systems. But only one out of 62 companies that we looked at used the free plan. 

This statement goes exactly contrary to all our, and our clients', real-life experience: inviting reviews activates dissatisfied customers far and away above satisfied ones. That's a big part of why HelpHound exists: to moderate inaccurate and potentially misleading reviews pre-publication. To say the contrary goes so against our years of experience that we can only assume that Trustpilot's sales and marketing department had a hand in this incredibly misleading - and dangerous for any business considering adopting Trustpilot - comment.

While Sykes Holiday Cottages was rated as ‘great’ on Trustpilot, Hays Travel was rated as ‘poor’. Yet Hays was the third best holiday company in our most recent Which? Travel survey, with customers giving it five stars for service. It’s also been highly rated elsewhere for its response to the coronavirus pandemic.  At the beginning of May we looked at the ratings for 32 travel companies that pay Trustpilot and 30 that don’t. The average for those who don’t pay was less than 2.5 – officially ‘poor’.  The average score for those who pay was just under four stars – officially ‘great’. Even when we checked the scores again in July – after many months of almost no travel – the companies that paid Trustpilot still had a rating of 3.7, while those that don’t pay had 2.4.

'[Holiday] companies are also able to flag** – and potentially have removed – reviews that they don’t like. Kiwi.com flagged almost 800 negative reviews in the year up to the beginning of May. Trustpilot removed over 650 of them.  This helped it to retain its ‘great’ four-star rating on Trustpilot. Companies can dispute a review simply by claiming its ‘not based on a genuine experience’ – meaning a one-star reviewer can be asked to prove they used the company.  Yet five star reviewers are much less likely to be asked to prove that they had a genuine experience.  Kiwi.com told us: ‘When a review is received for which the customer can’t be verified we flag it to Trustpilot.’  Trustpilot said: ‘If any firm were to misuse the flagging function they would be breaching our guidelines and we would take appropriate action.’  

** We have addressed this 'flagging' facility more than once in previous articles: whilst superficially a 'good idea' it is almost universally used by businesses to place an extra obstacle in the way of customers posting negative comments (by insisting that they provide 'proof of purchase' to Trustpilot before their review is posted - can you imagine what the drop-off rate is?). How is that helpful to future customers of the business - who are relying on reviews to make an informed choice - that uses this facility in this way? It's not, of course; it's also against both the spirit and the word of the law

Here are Trustpilot's own numbers for another high-profile client: Purplebricks:



To be absolutely clear: Trustpilot appealed against 427 reviews; all of those were suspended by Trustpilot (hidden from public view), Trustpilot then contacted the reviewers concerned and asked them to provide evidence of their dealings with Trustpilot, 351 - that's all but 76 of the authors of the 427 reviews didn't respond to Trustpilot and further 19 failed to 'resolve the breach of Trustpilot's guidelines. Only 57 of those 427 reviews - a paltry 13 percent - saw the light of day. 

Our advice to consumers? Write your review direct to Google: it will be seen by so many more people and it will be published.

Our advice to businesses? Get reviews written to your own website and then to Google. Crucially, employ an independent moderator to ensure your reviews contain the minimum of factual errors and statements likely to mislead consumers.


Here's Hays Travel's Trustpilot listing...




On the surface, and according to Trustpilot: a 'Poor' business. But really? What we have here, in reality, is a business that refuses to engage with Trustpilot. Why? Not because it sees the obvious flaws in Trustpilot's offering, but because it uses a rival system over which hang perhaps even more question marks...





Hays have simply opted for Trustpilot-lite - or Feefo as it is properly known. Now with Feefo the business not only controls who gets invited to write a review - invitees of the business by email and absolutely no-one else - but it also controls the timing of the invitation to write the review (time to read the CMA regulations - link above - again!).

Now we have two methods by which businesses might, just might, be able to manipulate the numbers in their favour...

  1. Trustpilot: don't invite customers you know to be unhappy, but run the risk that they'll find their way to Trustpilot anyway; although once they have written an uncomplimentary review there you can make use of Trustpilot's quarantine facility, whereby you may challenge the reviewer to provide proof of purchase otherwise their review goes into limbo, invisible to consumers.
  2. Feefo: don't invite customers you know to be unhappy in the secure knowledge that they cannot write a review to the platform in any other way.
We suppose it could be worse: at least Yelp, the largest quoted review site on the planet, has scurried back to the States and is no longer offering paid listing uplifts to UK businesses. But it is past time for the CMA to crack down on both the businesses and the mechanisms described here and in Which?'s article (something Which? evidently agrees with - see below).

It's only fair that we reproduce Trustpilot's response to Which? although even we were surprised just how weak it was...

'Trustpilot told us [Which?] that although inviting customers to leave reviews is the biggest driver of a higher score***, the process of inviting does not guarantee a higher score, nor do companies have to pay to invite customers. It said that ‘on every company profile page, we make it clear whether the company is actively inviting reviews or not – but the causation between paying and high scores does not exist’. It has also pledged, ‘to fight for and maintain trust in online reviews’ with several new initiatives. These include allowing ‘flagged’ reviews to remain online while they’re being investigated, no longer sharing reviews with search engines for companies that have breached its guidelines, improving transparency and banning incentives to leave a review. This week it announced the launch of a new research and development hub in Edinburgh, ‘to develop new, world-leading technology that proactively tackles the behaviour that threatens trust online.’ 

Action from the Competition and Markets Authority? The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently announced the second phase of its investigation into online reviews on major websites. Which? wants the regulator to investigate how sites collect, display and moderate reviews and whether that risks misleading people. It should also look at the robustness and transparency of sites’ T&Cs and how effectively these are enforced. If the CMA finds that sites are failing to take sufficient measures to protect consumers, Which? expects the regulator to take strong enforcement action.


*** Do we need to say 'No, it's not' again?

And here are links to articles relating to CMA regulations and action regarding reviews:

When you look at some of these dates you will see why we have become mildly frustrated by the CMA's relative inactivity. We have written to them on behalf of consumers in general and our clients in particular because our clients - who all obey both the spirit and the letter of the law - continue to find themselves competing on a playing field that is unfairly tilted against them as a result of the abuses by clients of sites such as Trustpilot and, to a lesser extent, Feefo, highlighted here.

It is testimony to both our clients and HelpHound, and to consumers in general, that this disadvantage has not translated into a lack of success in the marketplace. Just see how one prominent Plc client of ours has won market share by compliantly engaging with online reviews.

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Results

For a long time we knew that having great reviews - on Google and on a business's own website - was good news for a business, and certain to lead to more calls and clicks for client businesses. 

But could we - and, most important of all, our clients - prove it? If the CEO asked the CMO for absolute proof - numbers? Well, no, not really. But those days are now well behind us; what follows are three concrete examples of HelpHound's review management directly enabling businesses to win business and win it more profitably in a way no other reviews solution possibly could*.


Calls Up, clicks up - and proven

With the advent of the Google My Business monthly report. Now any business that joins HelpHound will have absolute and definitive proof, in the form of hard monthly statistics.

Just look at this report after they adopted HelpHound.



It is notable for the marked uplift in clicks and calls received by the business post-adoption. It should be noted that no extra or unusual marketing had taken place over the period and market conditions had not changed (if anything market conditions had taken a turn for the worse - the period under report, the summer holidays - these of 2019 - are a notoriously quiet time for estate agents).

 

Trampling the competition - Winkworth in Putney and Blackheath

The following comment was made under an article on an industry forum by a respected third-party commentator comparing actual outturns for competing agencies in two separate areas of London: 


Great reviews and great scores do more than just drive enquiries. They enable businesses to maintain fee levels and win business against their competitors. Few businesses are more cutthroat than estate agency in this respect. See how Winkworth achieve a marked uplift against Foxtons.

Read the full article here.

 

Now - possibly most important of all - a consumer's tale 

This wonderful recounting of a single client's experience almost certainly has direct bearing on the success stories of the two Winkworth businesses described above - albeit it specifically related to another business in the Winkworth group. Just read what the client had to say and then extrapolate that accross however many deals - the numbers are astonishing. Astonishingly good.

 

 

Perhaps there's no better way to end this article.



* 'no other solution': moderation and owning your own reviews - both of these are unique to HelpHound - and critical for businesses that take their online reputations seriously.

  • Owning your own reviews: in this day and age no business should be giving away customer data to any other business - a review site, for instance. If it's worth money to them - and it most certainly is - it's worth money to your business too. 
  • Moderation: the act of having an independent agency - in this case HelpHound - moderating (think of it as 'arbitrating') between the reviewer and the reviewed business to ensure that published reviews contain the absolute minimum of factual inaccuracies and/or misleading statements. 

This - moderation - should not be confused with some 'business friendly' offerings from some of the review sites; anything that enables the business to deflect the honestly held opinions - insisting on proof of purchase, for instance - is not only illegal in the UK but it simply sends disgruntled customer straight to Google to post their review there. 

If it weren't for moderation then many businesses would be best advised to simply use Google reviews and import them into their websites, but speak to any business that has experienced an unmoderated killer review, as almost all service businesses will at some stage ('killer review' is a definition we came up with many years ago: it's the kind of review that stops the phones ringing) and you will soon understand the value of moderation.

Friday, 1 October 2021

How does professional review management help stop women being harassed by tradesmen?

 This article appeared in the Times...




..and the author mentions reviews on no less than five separate occasions.

So what advice can we add?

Let's first identify the issues...

  1. Now, in an age of online reviews and smartphone convenience culture, asking a neighbour to recommend a handyman seems quaint.
  2. ...there’s a beguiling illusion of security online, with star ratings, client testimonials, third-party platforms such as AirTasker or TaskRabbit and review sites like CheckATrade.
  3. But alone with a handyman, everyday sexism can quickly escalate into something darker. Even so, it was only when I shared my experience with female friends that I had any notion of how widespread it was.
  4. The stories I heard ran the gamut from mansplaining and aggressive overcharging, to threats of assault and ongoing harassment. Almost all the women chose not to report it, for fear of reprisal if the man found out. After all, there are few mechanisms to report an incident anonymously – plus, he knows where you live.
  5. Marie*, 30, was the only one who did leave a negative review of a tradesman. But the roofer — who she had “checked extensively” online before the job — found it. He came and sat outside the house she shared with her sister in southwest London until they took it down. Since then, she’s had another roofer “completely disappear” after receiving half the payment. “We’re both too scared to leave a review now,” she says. “Every single woman I know has a story of being threatened or harassed by a tradesman. Talk to your female friends, talk to their parents.”
  6. But the online sphere isn’t always to blame. Bella*, 39, based in Hertfordshire, describes a father-and-son team that simply turned up at their door, pointing out that they could clear the growth in the driveway and install stone decking. Her husband was at work, and she assumed she could pay via bank transfer or debit card. Instead, the father demanded payment in cash. “I think some part of him decided it was better to pressure me. It rang all sorts of alarm bells.”
  7. Hannah*, 29, locked herself out of her flat — unfortunately, not the first time, but she knew roughly what it should cost. When the locksmith arrived, he demanded almost three times as much as customary. “When I queried the cost, he began shouting at me and told me he knew where I lived. As a woman living on my own, already stressed from being locked out, I felt really intimidated and paid the money. But in hindsight I wish I’d stood my ground and called the police.”
  8. TaskRabbit explained that all complaints are thoroughly investigated, and that a tradesperson’s account may be “paused” depending on the severity until the investigation is over. “TaskRabbit has a number of policies in place and a process to support clients, including a process to ensure anonymity — this includes disclosing no details of the client who has complained to the alleged perpetrator. As standard, client addresses are no longer visible once a task has been completed, and Taskers cannot see client’s full names or their contact details.”

And these are just eight of the most salient points brought out in the article. Now: our advice. And it's not just limited to women - men are just as likely to be victims of most of the tactics outlined here, albeit they are far less likely to become victims of sexual harassment. But reports of overcharging and threats when disputes arise, especially amongst the elderly, are legion. And attempts to resolve issues once such behaviour has already taken place are invariably futile.

How should women - and consumers in general - choose tradespeople?
  1. Never, ever use a trade - be it plumber, roofer, electrician, builder, painter - that does not have a registered business address and, crucially, a listing on Google (see the example below). Far too many unscrupulous tradespeople work solely from mobile phones these days and guess what, when things go awry? The number is discontinued.
  2. Always, always read the previous Google reviews of that business/trade. They will rarely all be positive, but you should read the responses the business has posted, and quiz the business on them before agreeing to appoint them.
  3. Never use websites that promise 'vetted' tradespeople unless the recommended tradesperson also has Google reviews. These websites may look extraordinarily helpful for the consumer but, at the end of the day, they are lead generation mechanisms for tradespeople, paid for by those tradespeople that cannot find enough work by personal recommendation or their other marketing efforts. As more than one tradesperson we have spoken to over the years has said to us 'if we were so bad at the job that we needed to pay an intermediary a hefty slice of our fee just to attract business then we would shut up shop and find another way to make a living.'
  4. Never, ever, however persuasive - or, God forbid, threatening - the individual  employ a 'knocker': someone who simply turns up unsolicited on your doorstep offering to do work for you.
  5. A trustworthy tradesperson will welcome Google reviews. A good indicator is a tradesperson that actively promotes their Google reviews and mentions that they ask all their customers to post one once the job is completed.
Here's an example of a business that's got it right:




They have a website and a landline, they welcome reviews from their customers, to their own website and to Google, and they respond to each and every one. And given that the first Google review they received was over six years ago, they'll probably be around to finish any job a future customer has for them.

Oh! And by the way, please don't fall for the old 'I'm/we're too small for a website/landline/permanent address' excuse. The thriving business above was only a man with a van when it first became a client of ours (now five men and five vans, plus founder Adrian's wife Stacey looking after customers back at base in Storrington, West Sussex).