Monday 17 June 2024

Online reviews and legal compliance - an important insight



It may come as a surprise to some readers that this investigation remains open and ongoing

We were recently lucky enough to have a detailed conversation with a senior staffer at the Competitions and Markets Authority; we say 'lucky' because the CMA doesn't usually take inbound calls unless they emanate from HM Treasury or the Department for Business and Trade. 

What follows is an analysis of the current situation as regards the regulation of online reviews, and the enforcement of that regulation. First: points that emerged from that conversation:

  1. Once opened, a CMA investigation remains open until formally concluded.
  2. The fact that the CMA remains silent on an investigation for a period - months or even years - does not mean that the CMA's investigation is dormant.
  3. The CMA has no duty whatsoever to warn or alert those under investigation.
  4. All of the CMA's investigations - and the findings thereof - have the full force of the UK law.
So, combining those four points with the information and knowledge we have gathered over the years, what a) do we think businesses ought to be doing in relation to review gathering and display? and b) what action do we think the CMA will take at some future date?

Let us take that last point first: the CMA currently has an open investigation into the abuse of online reviews. This is a matter of public record and it focuses on two of the CMA's core rules...
  • the explicit ban on cherry-picking: choosing pre-identified 'happy' customers before inviting a review - anywhere (own website, review site or Google)
  • the explicit ban on gating - using any mechanism to pre-qualify a customer's opinion. Commonly used mechanisms include email questionnaires and in-app ratings

What should businesses be doing? 

Here's the advice we give - as standard - to every business we meet for the first time.

1.  Comply. To the letter. Don't cherry-pick*. Don't gate*.

Reasoning: when the CMA do act they will do so without warning. One day a business will look great, with hundreds or even thousands of great reviews on Google or Trustpilot and the great scores that accompany them; the next day their hard drives will be at 25 Cabot Square in Canary Wharf being pored over by forensic tech specialists.

If you doubt the CMA's willingness to take such action please read about the estate agents that were fined for price-fixing, a situation once endemic (we heard the squeals: 'Everyone does it') but which stopped overnight. The same will, one day, happen with online reviews - after all, any action which bends the rules to benefit the business and thefore misleads the consumer is manna from heaven for the CMA. The only thing we cannot predict is exactly when or where the CMA will strike. It could be tomorrow, or it could be in ten years' time. 

Now, before you - quite reasonably - say 'But we will open the floodgates to inaccurate, misleading and/or just plain unfair reviews, which will be of no help whatsoever to us as a business or our potential customers' read on...

*Cherry-picking: selecting proven 'happy' customers to invite to write a review. Gating: using a mechanism to pre-determine those customers most likely to write a positive review, commonly performed by sending out a questionnaire.

 

2.  Adopt a moderated system of review management.  

A score of 4.0 out of 5 is fine if a business is in online retail, but the professions and service businesses need to score as close to 4.9 as is humanly possible, because their potential clients/patients are so much more sensitive to negative reviews. They are also far more likely to actually read the business's negative reviews, rather than being simply guided by its headline score.

That doesn't only mean doing a great job for your clients/patients but adapting to address the constant drip of misconceptions and factual inaccuracies contained in a significant minority of reviews (we often meet businesses that say 'We're really good at what we do' and we believe them, but then we ask them 'Do you trust all your clients/patients to write an accurate and thruthful review?' The penny then drops.

Moderation is the process of checking reviews for factual accuracy. We have calculated that our moderators need to involve themselves in about 7 per cent of reviews for the average client (that excludes correcting spelling and grammar, which is done as a matter of course). Most important of all, successful moderation (and over 97 per cent of all interventions are successful) results in a higher overall score (an average of 4.8 as opposed to 4.5) as a direct result of far fewer inaccurate, misleading or unfair reviews being published.


And what will the CMA do (to those flouting the rules)?

They will descend on a business or a selection of businesses, possibly prompted by a whistleblower, without warning (think 'VAT inspection'). They will use their statutory powers to confiscate evidence in support of a case that will already have been built up over a period of time.

They will then issue a fine - these can be substantial, six or seven figures, and further sanctions against individual directors if these are warranted (for an example see the link embedded in the paragraph under '1. Comply' above).

Admittedly, the chance of the first investigation landing at the door of any single business is small, but when it does happen there will be no shortage of disgruntled ex-employees and past customers queueing up to tell the CMA of their experience with similar businesses. And, as we have said so often in articles like these, why not comply when the benefits are so great anyway? Especially when viewed relative relative to the cost (see below).


Meanwhile - businesses should not relax




Two businesses: one fully compliant, one, from the CMA's legal point of view, guilty of breaching its core regulations. The non-compliant business can become fully compliant overnight.


Supposing a business is either gating and/or cherry-picking (and we see such businesses every day) what are the consequences? They are twofold...

  1. Every day a business continues to be in breach of one or more of the CMA's regulations regarding reviews is another day of evidence piling up in email in/outboxes and on hard drives (not to mention on Google). Our view is that a business that becomes compliant having been in historical breach is far less likely to attract the attention of the regulatory authorities than one that continues to be in breach.
  2. The fact that a business is in breach is seldom lost on members of staff or competitors (bearing in mind that current members of staff can become 'ex-members of staff' and take positions with competitors). We have seen multiple examples where the fact of a business being in breach has been used in a competitive pitch, along the lines of 'Yes, but they only look as good as they do because they are breaking the law.'


Conclusion

This article focuses on the CMA and sanctions for illegal manipulation of online reviews. However, there are so many positive benefits for a business that adopts professional review management. Whilst being able to sleep at night in the sure knowledge that the CMA will not come knocking at 9.05 am is an undoubted plus, the day-to-day knowledge that factually inaccurate and potentially misleading reviews are being managed pre-publication, on either the business's website and/or on Google and the consequent benefits of a higher score and fewer unfairly off-putting reviews.


Further reading

We see compliance as step one. Then we come to the positive aspects of membership...

  • Results - more clicks, more calls, resulting in more - and higher quality - business
  • Moderation - what every professional and service business needs to safely interact with online reviews
And the cost?





Tuesday 21 May 2024

HelpHound enables great businesses to look great

Even really great businesses have some not-so-great customers. And that's why HelpHound exists. We cannot make a bad business look good, but we can make sure a good business looks great. 

How and why? 

The only way (and believe us when we say we've seen a hatfull solutions fall by the wayside since Google introduced reviews in 2007) is by moderating every single review to the business's own website and then helping them get the resulting accurate reviews across to Google.

Moderation involves reading every single review, correcting any bad grammar or obvious spelling mistakes, referring back to the reviewer if there are any factual errors or potentially misleading statements in the review (those help no one - certinly not the business under review or the reader relying on the review to choose a business) and then seeing the resulting 'clean' review posted to the business's own website and onwards to Google.


A great presence on Google drives enquiries

A score of 4.8+ and 100+ Google reviews will ensure your business makes everyone's shortlist. If you have any doubts, we have one piece of advice: try HelpHound and see. Read this first, it will give you even more confidence to do so.


This was posted on Linkedin by a client of ours this week...




While we know the owners, management and staff well, one would have to be cynical in the extreme not to think that the following has nothing to do with their success...





And the business has well over 600 reviews of their own* on their own website.

When they joined HelpHound? 4 reviews on Google and none on their own website.

We rest our case.

*Of their own: we all know just how valuable data is these days. It's an asset on most business's balance sheets. And reviews contain hugely valuable data. Don't give it away lightly, especially not to review sites.



Wednesday 15 May 2024

From Zero to Hero - a guide to initial success with Google reviews

Is your business one of the overwhelming majority that still have zero, or very few Google reviews? If so, read on.

Why do most businesses have so few reviews?

It's simple really, and can be summed up in one word: 'fear'. The fear that someone will write an unfair or factually inaccurate negative review.

This makes businesses hesitate to ask all but their most 'definitely happy' customers to write a review. 

This fear is fully justified: the impact of a negative review can be massive - harming enquiry flows, sometimes the extent of causing the flow through Google search to slow dramatically or even stop entirely (we see examples of both on a weekly basis).


What have businesses that have many reviews done differently?

Flouted the CMA regulations. It's that simple. The CMA states, clearly, that...

  • if a business invites any customers at all to write a review it must enable all customers to do so
  • businesses must not 'gate'. Gating is the act of using some mechanism to identify customers most likely to post a positive review. The most common strategy is to send out a questionnaire asking 'How did we do?' and then only invite those who respond positively to go on and write a Google review.
But so many businesses do just this. They see it as low-risk (the CMA has yet to impose a penalty, as the law allows it to, on a business flouting these regulations) and see no other option if they are to compete with other businesses doing the same.

What should your business do?

It has two legally compliant options: the first is to embed one of the freely available review widgets into your business's website - it will invite visitors to your website to post a review direct to Google and then display those reviews. Here is a screenshot from the website of just one of the hundreds available:



We have included this screenshot because of the last phrase: 'using your products'. When it comes to Google reviews there is a crucial difference in the way consumers react to scores and the individual reviews of products as opposed to services. A score of 4 out of 5 (that will invariably contain multiple 1* reviews) is all a consumer wants to see when buying an item of clothing or a tool for the garden. But when it comes to services and the professions - legal, financial, medical and so on - big-ticket relationship-based purchases, consumers require the business to be as near perfect as possible.

So: if your business considers itself immune from the occasional factually incorrect or potentially misleading review, go right ahead, embed that widget.

But: if you understand (as any business with few reviews must, by definition) just how vulnerable your business is to a well-written but wrong-headed review, you should be giving a fully-moderated review management system serious consideration.


Moderated review management

This involves inviting the initial review to your own website. This will have all the benefits of the aforementioned widget, displaying reviews for your potential customers to see...




But - and here is the critical difference - before any of these reviews are posted they are read by an independent moderator. That moderator checks for...
  • factual accuracy
  • potentially misleading statements
  • confusing use of English 
  • use of obscenities
  • allegations of illegal conduct
  • potentially malicious, fake or fraudulent comments
If any of the above are detected the moderator reverts to the reviewer, explains their findings and gives the reviewer the opportunity to modify their review. It is important to note that moderation is not designed to modify any of the genuinely-held views of the reviewer and that the reviewer always retains the right to have whatever review they wish published. In this context, it is also important to note that the business has the right to respond once the final review is published.

In reality, almost all occasions where a moderator becomes involved relate to the first three categories. And in those cases over 97 percent result in the review being modified to a greater or lesser extent. It is also interesting to note that reviewers are overwhelmingly grateful for the moderator's intervention - they don't want inaccurate, misleading or confusing reviews published under their name any more than the business does.

After the publication of the review of the business's website, the reviewer receives an automated request to copy their review to Google. Not all do, but if the business is engaged in the process (by reinforcing the need for the Google review to their customer) success rates can be remarkably high - we suggest our clients aim for one in two. Here is the Google search result for the business above...




...showing that over 440 of the 660+ clients who have written a review to their website have copied it to Google. I'm sure they won't mind us telling you that the day they joined, some years ago now, they had 4 reviews! 

If you would like to check the quality of their client's reviews - because that has a profound influence on potential customers too - you can, of course, read them by searching for the business (we could have given you a direct link, but it really brings the impact home when you conduct the specific - 'Winkworth Kingsbury' or local - 'estate agent Kingsbury' - search for yourself.


Conclusion

By now you will have realised that the moderator concerned in these examples is HelpHound. There are many more advantages to membership, but moderation is at the core; it enables our clients to sleep easy, as so many have told us, relaxing in the knowledge that 'unfair' or 'misleading' review are very unlikely indeed to ever see the light of day. Other advantages, such as stars in local search...




...and the SEO kicker obtained by hosting their own reviews (saving them £000s in advertising) are a welcome bonus, but without moderation, they would all be as nothing.


And just one more point - how long will it take (to get from zero to hero)?

Obviously, this will vary from business to business and sector to sector, but a great rule of thumb it to take the number of individual customer contacts - completed sales/patient visits/client meetings - and divide them in two: that should give you a rough idea of how many reviews to your own website to expect in any given period, then divide that second number by two again to give a target for Google reviews.

Lets say 50 client contacts = 25 reviews (to your own site) = 12 Google reviews. So 500 client/patient/customer contacts should result in + 100 Google reviews (100 Google reviews is the point at which even the most sceptical potential customer begins to believe the impression a business is creating). On this basis a 'customer contact' a day will achieve that 100 Google reviews within six months - safely and compliantly. At which point you should be well on the way to seeing these kinds of results.

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 Booking.com? 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). 

So:

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.

Tuesday 23 April 2024

Which business would you trust...

With your health or wealth? 

Take two - to all intents and purposes identical - businesses. Let's assume a friend or colleague has recommended them to you. What is your next logical step? Call them? Look at their website? Well, to do anything like that you're almost bound to resort, at least initially, to searching online. And, here in the UK at least, that search means 'Google'.

And so here they are: 

Business 1


Business 2 


We said that these two businesses were 'virtually identical'. Let's take a closer look...
  • They are both estate agencies
  • Both locations are a single branch of a business with multiple branches (so no marked difference in transaction rates)
  • They both transact a mix of business - sales and lettings
  • They both have Google reviews dating back over many years, Business 1 since 2018, Business 2 since 2017
  • Both had a Google score in the mid-3s (3.2 and 3.4) in 2019

Now: where do they differ?

Up until 2020, not a lot. Business 1 had 11 reviews and business 2 had 19. But then they begin to diverge. Over the last 4 years...
  • Business 1 has averaged 13 reviews a year, 1 a month
  • Business 2 has averaged 106 reviews a year, 9 a month
  • Business 1's reviews scored them an average of 3.42
  • Business 2's reviews scored them an average of 4.96

So what made the difference?

In 2020 Business 2 joined HelpHound. Since then they have...
  • asked every stakeholder - vendor, purchaser, landlord and tenant, for a review
  • and allowed others, anyone at all, to write a review via their website
Now, the more cynical of our readers will be thinking: that way misery lies. Asking everyone and allowing anyone is tantamount to inviting negative reviews. Our answer would be 'yes', but for one crucial ingredient of the HelpHound mix: moderation (see more on that subject here and below). This is the core offering at HelpHound that gave the second business the confidence to do just that.


In the real world

There's an awful lot of noise on the web surrounding reviewer behaviour (and we're the first to admit we've contributed our fair share) but the results you see above are 'real world' and they are shared by the overwhelming majority of our clients. So let's forget the theoretical for a moment and relate what actually happens.

1.  If you incentivise your staff to gather reviews from your customers they will do so (Both: your staff will get reviews and your customers will willingly post them)

2.  An emailed invitation to post a review, when followed up with a 'Please post, it's important...' phone call, takes response rates from low single figures to above one in two - from 0.5 - 2% to over 50%

3.  Inbound enquiries increase in direct relation to improved score and volume. And its easy to measure, it will happen as soon as the business scores over 4.5 and accelerate when it scores 4.8 of more

4.  Once a business's score has climbed over 4.5 inbound enquiries through search and web rise by between 15 and 25%, measurably. We have at least one client where enquiries more than doubled (as measured by Google)

5. The quality of business transacted improves. Graet scoreas and great individual reviews drive high-value enquiries. Look at these outstanding results 




See that thumbs up at the bottom left? Five years ago a review would be lucky to get one in a year, now one a month is not unusual. Why are these important? Since Google dropped its 'views' statistics (we suspect they were undermining sales of Google advertising - why advertise when your reviews are doing a great job?) they are the only indication a business is going to get that its reviews are being read. We estimate that only about one in a hundred people reading a review can be bothered to click on the thumb, so five thumbs up might easily equate to 500 views of that single review (in this case, over the past twelve months).





Even if this business didn't lead in search, it's leading score of 4.9 from 446 Google reviews would ensure a great flow of enquiries. Having a score of 4.9 from 663 of its own reviews (the reviews it hosts on its own website - invited through and moderated by HelpHound, although many consumers assume they are awardrd by Google somehow) showing right under its listing reinforces the message: Click here! Use us! And just suppose the searcher had been recommended to use one of the other businesses in this search? We're betting they would be giving serious consideration to contacting our client as well.


6. The businesses value their 'stars in organic search' and the reviews on their websites very highly indeed. How do we know? There was a negative/positive just over a year ago when we were moving web servers. Although we had performed all the operations you would think essential for such a move (backups/mirroring) as well as making the move over a weekend, some business's schemas - the mechanism that enables Google to see the business's own reviews hosted on its own website and delivers those stars in search, didn't function for a short period. The howls from those clients were heard across the Atlantic (where our servers are). Clients know that stars in search are highly influential





So many good things flow from this part of the front page of the business's website. First the obvious: the visitor (invariably a potential or existing client, but other stakeholders as well) can see other's opinions of the business - all 663 reviews are a click away. The 'Write a review' button next to the number of reviews takes them straight to the business's review function, where, once the review is written it is read by a HelpHound moderator before being posted back to the business's website (with the reviewer being automatically invited to copy it to Google).


7.  By adopting moderated review management the business is given the confidence to open itself up to reviews, both from stakeholders and from others. We have noticed a distinct fall-off in negative reviews to Google as soon as businesses begin inviting reviews, right across the service business spectrum; we can only assume because consumers have more respect for the kind of business that acts in this way, so are more likely to approach the business with the issue that is concerning them, either by picking up the phone, emailing or going to the business's website and clicking on 'Write a review', in preference to heading straight to Google to write what might be a misconceived, factually inaccurate or just plain unfair, but potentially extremely harmful review there


In conclusion




You will see from a glance at this word cloud that the common denominator of all our clients is the fact that they provide advice; that does not mean that HelpHound won't take on a product-based business, it is a simple fact of life that service-based businesses and their customers/clients/patients rely far more heavily on accurate Google reviews


No well-managed customer-service-focused business needs to be wary of Google reviews. The advantages of proactively engaging through a moderated system, both positive - increased enquiries and lead-flow followed by supported conversion - and defensive: against inaccurate, misleading or plain unfair Google reviews, are proven and achievable over a very short time scale (we took one client from scoring under 3 to 4.6 in less than two months; they now score 4.8).


Our guarantee

We provide new clients with a cast-iron guarantee of success with Google reviews. This does not mean that, unlike some other review solutions, we will promise make any business look great: it means that all our clients are great businesses that strive to provide an exceptional level of service to every single one of their clients or patients and we enable them to look as good as they deserve.

Monday 15 April 2024

Yelp CEO inadvertently makes the case for Google reviews

 





Our take?

As you would expect, we adopt the consumer's point-of-view; not for reasons of altruism, but simply because what works best for consumers works best for HelpHound and our clients. 

Jeremy Stoppleman, CEO of Yelp, understandably thinks that Yelp results (links to reviews) should feature higher in Google searches. Google appears to be perfectly happy with the status quo. 

The relevant (for us) part US case focussed heavily on the way Google monetises its offering to businesses: with Google Ads being its principal revenue generator. We all know what this looks like, but for complete clarity here is an example...





Yes. All these are 'Sponsored' PPC advertisements. Generating lots of lovely cash for Google.

And on Yelp?




Effectively the same. Any sympathy we might have had for Yelp begins to ebb. What other factors do consumers take into account when they are looking for independent validation of a business? Let's see. How about...

  • Quality reviews - written by people who have a) used the business and b) have some life experience to back up their opinions
  • Credible reviews - as above, plus the backing of a credible platform
  • A broad community of qualified reviewers
  • Scores they can trust to lead them in the right direction
Other factors
  • Sales - is there a link between Google and Yelp sales and reviews?
  • Is the reviews function monetised?
And here we have issues with both platforms, but more so with Yelp:
  • Quality: the more you can be sure a review is written by a real person, unconnected with the business under review and qualified to comment on the product and/or service provided by the business the better. Yelp relies heavily on its 'Elite' users to provide a steady flow of content. This cohort is rewarded with social and tangible benefits (meet-ups and hosted events in the main). Our research shows, contrary to the image presented in the shot of three mid-lifers in the article linked to above (with the attendant life experience) that most Yelp Elites are college-age. This explains the heavy review weightings towards the likes of fast food outlets and away from professional services, leading to some interesting search results (the 'top' 'restaurant' in 'Mayfair' in London is a fish and chip shop, for instance). Google reviews have no such proactive reviewer recruitment unless you count Local Guides who tend to be much less concentrated towards one single demographic or age range. There is also the added comfort with Google that it knows exactly who the reviewer is - as a result of their search history and membership of one or more of Google's services, even if their username is MickeyMouse 123. So: in terms of quality and credibility we would suggest that Google wins hands down. So should they be returning Yelp (and other review sites - there are literally hundreds) results as prominently as their own reviews? Well, our simple answer is 'No'. After all, if consumers actively want reviews from other sources through Google they can always search for them. 
  • Scores? It is relatively easy for any business to gather a dozen or so 5* reviews without being overly proactive. It is certainly the case that, in the UK at least (before Yelp withdrew their business sales operations from the UK and EU), Yelp Elite would 'blitz' venues and a restaurant or bar (Yelp Elites didn't appear so keen to be reviewing law firms or accountancy practices) would suddenly go from a handful of reviews to over a hundred. To get over a hundred Google reviews a business has to be proactive in inviting its customers to write those reviews. This has led, in the UK at least, to endemic cherry-picking and gating, both of which are against the law (the latter against Google's ToS as well - Google will delete all reviews if it finds evidence of gating). Whilst there are solutions to this the fact that many businesses would appear to be happy to flout the law to achieve respectable scores (4.8+ is the benchmark in 2024) and critical mass in terms of number of reviews (100+, soon to be 1000+) just shows the power of Google reviews to drive business (if the score is good) and deflect business (if the score is substandard - less than 4.2 these days and in most service sectors the business will find itself in the bottom quartile of Google scores).



Above: a common enough search. You can see the paid advertisement (for GetAgent) under 'Sponsored' at the top, but you also see individual businesses and their Google scores - and links to their Google reviews prominently displayed. At the bottom of the screenshot, you see the top result in organic search with the star rating and score from its own reviews - all 660 of them, hosted on its own website, which we think is pretty fair of Google

  • Sales/monetisation: There is no charge for businesses to use Google reviews, and anyone can write one (OK, strictly speaking, you have to have used one of Google's products to do so, but just about anyone not living under a rock has. But we still run into businesses that think someone needs a Gmail account to post a review). Yelp earns its core fees by offering to promote a business up its listing for a monthly fee (you can see Sweet James Accident Attorneys paying to come top in the example above, some might say somewhat misleadingly, given they are listed just under the heading 'Top 10 best lawyers in San Francisco...' and 'Recommended' - they score a woeful 2.8). Google does roughly the same, but at least it allows businesses to shine in natural search through effective SEO and proper schema use. 

Conclusion

We will continue to advise almost every business we meet that moderated Google reviews are by far the best long-term solution for their businesses. Not review sites (although these increasingly appear to be used by some businesses to bury their reviews). 

The moderation (see below) will enable them to confidently and effectively invite reviews to their own websites and to Google without the fear of unfair, inaccurate or plain misleading reviews that currently drive some - many? - businesses to cherry-pick and gate. 


Further reading
  • Moderation - the professional solution to review management
  • Results - more enquiries and better quality business, a proven win/win 
  • Compliance - boring but essential. Non-compliance hands a valuable weapon to the competition