Monday 8 April 2024

Review gating - it's illegal, but why?

We are regularly asked this question (often alongside 'Why shouldn't we cherry-pick?', cherry-picking being the act of selecting which customers to invite to write a review), once the person asking understands exactly what gating is.

Gating - the definition

Gating is the act of using a mechanism (examples below) to pre-determine which customer is most likely to post a 5* review and then asking that sub-set, and only that sub-set, to write a publicly visible review, commonly to Google, but the applies equally to any review acquired in this manner. 

So: what is wrong with gating and why is it illegal in the UK and in contravention of Google's terms of service worldwide? 

Examples of gating mechanisms



How often do we all receive one of these? And many are innocent - the business just wants feedback on its products or services. The legal line is crossed when those who respond positively to the questionnaire - and only those - are then invited to post a review to Google...

...and those that score the business less than a perfect 5.0 receive this...





'How did we do?' A sub-set of the questionnaire really. People that respond with '10' (and sometimes even '9') will be invited to write a review.


Using a less visible review site



This is a 'cunning' solution. Take a business that fully understands that Google reviews are by far and away the most important. But it begins by inviting customers to post a review to a review site; only when they have done so are those that have written a 5* review there invited to post a review to Google. 

Oh! And there's one more: handing the customer an iPad at point-of-sale. This - a derivative of cherry-picking - risks a complete deletion of all the business's reviews on Google. There was a famous case of a hotel that climbed to the top of the rankings by doing exactly this. No longer: Google hates multiple reviews being written from the same IP address. 


Why do businesses feel the need to gate?

It's simple - and understandable - until one begins to look at the bigger picture. Businesses know that scoring well on Google - 4.8 and over - will drive more enquiries and sales through search (for unequivocal proof see 'Results' at the end of this article). And they will do just about anything to achieve that, and that includes cherry-picking (frequently) and gating (less often).

The bigger picture? 

Reviews exist to enable consumers to pick the most suitable product or business for their needs. That may be something as basic as a mobile phone or an item of clothing, or as vitally important as someone to conduct a legal case, a financial transaction or a medical operation.

Our more regular readers will already be aware of where we are going with this line of argument: so what if you buy the wrong phone or dress? You may be mildly inconvenienced or irritated, you might even lose a small amount of money replacing the item in question - but an oncologist or a family lawyer, an investment manager or an executive search consultant? Get that choice wrong and your whole life could be turned upside down, or worse: put at risk entirely.

So consumers, especially consumers of high-value services and the professions, need to be able to rely on reviews as completely as possible. Gating and cherry-picking are not victimless crimes. That is exactly why the CMA regulates reviews in the UK with the force of law.

And it is also why HelpHound exists: to ensure that our clients' reviews are, as far as they can be, factually accurate and a fair reflection of the interaction between business and consumer. Our clients don't need to cherry-pick or gate. They know they will be protected - by our moderators (see 'Further Reading' below) from the kind of reviews that make other businesses contravene the CMA regulations. 

There's one more thing we hear occasionally: 'How likely is it that the regulators/CMA will sanction our business?' And we cannot answer that; all we do know is that the CMA is on the case - they really don't like consumers being misled into using the wrong business - and the last time they sanctioned a business for something similar they fined it £375,000 and barred its directors from running a limited company for 10 years. 

Gating and cherry-picking are so easy to identify:

  • the emails and reviews sites used in gating leave an indelible paper-trail (the ones illustrated above fell into our inbox less than an hour after the article was begun), not just visible to regulators but to other interested parties (competitors are delighted when they can tell prospective cleints or patients that another firm under consideration is effectively breaking the law to enhance its reputation) 

  • cherry picking - ditto: a business has 36 reviews over a three year period, but its books show it has transacted business with over 400 people, it is almost certainly cherry-picking

But far more likely is that a competitor business will work out just what the cherry-picking/gating business is up to and use that in competitive pitches: "Did you know that ABC Plc only looks so good because they're breaking the law?" 

Why go to all that trouble - and risk your business's long-term security - when there is an effective alternative?

Further reading 

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