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!




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. 



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.



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.


No comments:

Post a Comment

HelpHound is all about feedback, so please feel free to comment here...