Thursday 9 May 2024

Online Reviews - a Guide for the Consumer


Review Sites

What could concievably go wrong with a site that specialises in hosting consumer experiences of businesses? The answer, unfortunately, is 'quite a considerable amount'.

To understand this it is probably best to look at some recent history: until Google allowed its users to post reviews in 2007, the review sites - Judy's List, Yelp, Trustpilot, Feefo and so on - had a free run. Little competition when it came to hosting consumer views on the web. Consumers had to find the individual sites in search and then visit them to see reviews of businesses. So businesses had to engage with these sites to look attractive to consumers. So far so good.

Then along came Google and destroyed the review sites' attractiveness to businesses at a stroke, with...

  • Far greater visibility - think about it, you search for a business and what do you see, first and always? Yes, Google reviews
  • Far greater credibility - we all know Google, and we all know Google knows who we are, and every search we make 
and, most important of all...
  • For free - for the business and the consumer
This forced the review sites to search around for other USPs, and, in most cases, the only one they could find to justify continuing to charge businesses was to allow businesses some way of ensuring that they would be given every possible opportunity to look as impressive as possible.

This, in turn, led to some questionable practices such as allowing the business to challenge negative reviews (Trustpilot*), control access to the review site and the timing of the invitation to write the review (Feefo) and, in the case of the big daddy of them all: buy their way to the top of the list (Yelp). Yelp, the biggest quoted review site on the planet, was even forced to give up marketing in the UK and EU as a result.

*The site allows businesses to challenge any review and insist the reviewer provides proof of purchase. In theory: a good thing, in practice it tilts the scales heavily in favour of the business as few negative reviewers go to the trouble of finding an invoice from days/weeks ago.

Reviews of review sites on competitor sites are instructive:

We make no comment on the individual reviews, but the overall impression created is one of hundreds of people trying to write critical reviews of businesses but in some way finding they cannot.

Our advice, to both consumers and to businesses, has been to avoid the review sites and focus on Google reviews to the exclusion of all others.

Google reviews

What do you see - every single time your search for a business? That's right - Google reviews. So it is vitally important that those reviews deliver on reliability and trustworthiness. And, by and large, they do...

  • Most are attached to a 'real' person - 'Jim Smith' rather than 'MickeyMouse123'
  • Google knows an awful lot about the reviewer - after all, it has their search history (and a great deal more besides)
  • The business can respond to each and every review without paying Google for the privilege, and this keeps most reviewers and their opinions honest
  • Businesses can appeal reviews (albeit under a pretty strict set of guidelines)
But there are drawbacks...
  • Fake reviews can be posted - they may be removed if challenged but many remain
  • Businesses can post reviews of competitors' businesses - it is endemic in some sectors (hospitality, for one)
  • Ratings are allowed - a simple 1* with no text, for instance - these, we submit, are helpful to no one

Sites that promote reviews (lead generation sites)

These include virtually any trade-specific site - from hairdressers to plumbers and dentists to gyms. They earn their living by effectively selling the potential customer to the business. Here's a review of one on Google...

This reviewer - on Google - has identified the fatal (and almost certainly illegal - in the UK, at least) flaw in this lead-generation site. Interestingly the site has the ability - as does every business on Google - to respond to this review, but has not done so.

If the website makes divulging their recommended businesses conditional on you giving your name and address, phone number (and email) it's a massive red flag. They are selling your details as a lead to one of their member businesses.

The rule of thumb here is: if you hear or see an advertisement that states 'See our members' reviews on our site' you are about to use a lead-generation site. 

Evidence of dissatisfied consumers being unable to leave a review on these sites is easy to come by

These sites provide the details of enquirers to businesses - often tradespeople (plumbers, electricians, builders etc.) or professionals (doctors and dentists) for a monthly fee and a hefty percentage of the charge made by the business (commonly +- 20%).

The question we would ask any consumer (or business, for that matter) is 'Why trust a site that is taking a chunk of your payment when you can look the business up on Google and deal direct?' If you ask any business we know exactly what they will say.

Other sector-specific sites (TripAdvisor etc.)

Who hasn't used TripAdvisor? Or Or any of the plethora of travel sites out there? Unfortunately, they also take a hefty chunk of your cash - commonly between 10 and 25 per cent - before it reaches the hospitality business. Ask any hotelier: 'Would you prefer us to book direct or through [one of these sites]?' 

They do promise the consumer benefits in exchange: cancellation and loyalty rewards to mention two common offers, but why not just read the business's Google reviews and book direct, agreeing extra benefits - room upgrades are a good idea - with the hotel direct? There are also ugly rumours circulating that hospitality businesses use these sites to sell their least desirable rooms!

Illegal behaviour

The UK, and to an extent the EU, have legal restrictions in place to keep review sites in line. Unfortunately, these are seldom enforced - to date anyway.

In the UK the Competition and Markets Authority, a government body, enshrined these rules in law nearly ten years ago now. Full details are here, but the core regulations state that...

  • No business is allowed to 'cherry-pick' happy customers to write reviews
  • No business is allowed to 'gate' - pre-qualify customers to establish those most likely to write a 5* review
...not that you would know from reading reviews of review sites on both Google and competitor review sites (see above).

So, having summarised the different kinds of site, what is our considered advice?

In short? Use Google. 

If the business isn't listed on Google - and many tradespeople are not - don't use it unless you are prepared to see all of your hard-earned money disappear (the web is awash with stories of businesses not listed on Google that have disappeared without a trace with customers' cash). 


1.  Begin with a Google search, be it either 'plumber' or 'oncologist' or 'hotel'.

Here's an example of a business that has engaged with reviews - it has over 650 on its own website and is heading for 500 on Google. Given that it allows anyone at all to post a review to its website and then automatically invites those that do so to copy that review over to Google, potential clients tend to be reassured that they can rely on the impressive scores shown here.

If your search returns one or more businesses that score 4.8 or better from a decent number of reviews - we usually suggest 50 as a starting point - then take a closer look at those businesses. Skip to point 3.

2.  If you don't find a suitable candidate then search '[business type] reviews'

This will often throw up results from review sites. Mine down into those - as far as you can (for reasons best known to the review sites, some don't allow users to search for businesses by sector or geographical location)

When you find a likely candidate for your custom, revert to Google and see if the business's Google reviews agree with those on the review site (they often contradict each other - mainly because the businesses that employ review sites tend to focus all their efforts there to the detriment of their presence on Google; unhappy consumers tend, also, to post a Google review in preference to any other).

3.  Read the reviews themselves

A common enough beginning to a negative review

It is easy to be lulled into simply choosing a business with a high score - and businesses know that a score of 4.8+ will convince a significant proportion of consumers to use them - but spend some time reading their reviews, positive and negative (How many times do we read a review that begins with 'I wish I had read the business's reviews before contacting them'? Often).

4. Read the business's responses to its reviews

There can be no cast-iron guarantees, but responses to Google reviews such as this are often an indicator of a professional attitude to other aspects of the business in question

Bear in mind that a review written to Google will almost always remain on the platform, providing it doesn't accuse the business of an illegal act or contain profanities. So it is conceivable that some of the reviews will have been written by members of staff (usually positive!) or competitors (invariably negative). There is little one can do about this - for Google, being a US company, freedom of speech is sacrosanct, to the extent of allowing some pretty sketchy reviews to remain on its site.

5. Contact the businesses you have shortlisted. 

This is a screenshot of part of the home page of the website of the business referenced at 1. above. If you see that you - or anyone else - can write a review just by clicking on a link, then there's added reassurance that the reviews, and the business's score, are/is genuine.

But don't suspend your critical faculties. Ask the business how it collects its reviews. If it says anything like 'We ask our happy customers to post them' you are looking at another red flag. Businesses in the UK that invite reviews - anywhere - must, by law, allow all of their customers to write a review. Mention that and see what reaction you get. 

In summary

1. Use Google reviews to the exclusion of all others

2.  Only resort to a review site if the business in question has no Google reviews, and even then approach such a business with a high degree of caution

This kind of - unquestionably genuine - review of one of our client businesses helps everybody: potential patients and the clinic

3.  Use common sense when reading reviews - sceptics who say 'Don't believe any' or 'Only fools write them' are categorically wrong (we have client businesses where at least half of all their customers/clients/patients have written genuine and often heartfelt reviews) - but a few minutes spent reading them will soon give you a feel for the kind of customers the business has and whether or not the reviews are genuine.

4.  When you are confident that the business you have chosen provides service of a high quality consider helping others - and the business - by writing a Google review of your own*.

* A myth persists in some quarters that a person has to be in some way a 'member' of one of Google's services in order to write a Google review. Our experience is that just about anyone can do so.

5.  If, on the other hand, the business falls short in some way, always first attempt to resolve whatever issue has arisen directly with the business, but alert them to the fact that should you remain dissatisfied you are perfectly capable of writing a critical Google review to alert others in a similar position.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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