Tuesday 30 September 2014

Product reviews - are they worthwhile?

Our answer? Not always (from the consumers' point-of-view). Why?

The reviewers may not be qualified 

They review their latest car/camera/washing machine but they have no experience of a comparable product. Their review is made up of a combination of the 'honeymoon effect' (the instinctive positive feeling for a new purchase) and self-regard (no-one wants to look foolish for buying a lemon).

Just look at the disparity between the experts' verdict and the purchasers' for this car:

We're pretty sure that had product reviews been around when Ladas were on the market, their loyal owners would have rated them pretty highly as well!

Products often need time to prove themselves

This means that the value of a review garnered immediately post-purchase has a much reduced value for the prospective customer. 

5 Stars for looks? 5 stars for delivery? Maybe it would be more helpful to ask for the review a year after purchase?

None of these reviews relate to long-term comfort and robustness; surely two key attributes in a (man's!) shoe?

Reviewers rate aspects of the purchase that are not related to the product

Helpful - in isolation - but not when the score is taken into account to rate the product

Often the website, the ordering process and especially the delivery service. Whilst all important aspects of the overall experience, they should not be (but are) confused with reviews of the product.

Of course, in the short term, a great rating benefits the business (we know great reviews drive business, after all), but in the long term customers will become wary of product reviews if they don't give them what they want, and we don't see how they can.

Service, on the other hand, is always either 'good, 'bad' or 'indifferent'. You don't need to be an expert in hotels to have an opinion on their level of service, you don't have to use multiple accountants or estate agents to have a pretty accurate take on their professionalism.

Monday 29 September 2014

It's all about the future - winning the 'Reviews Race'

Businesses rightly plan for the future, and expect us to do so for their review management. This, of course, involves constantly re-evaluating the educated guesses we make on your behalf - and publishing them here!

So here goes for 2015 and onwards... 

Reviews are here to stay - for all businesses

Not just for hotels and restaurants, but for everyone from accountants to zoologists. Just because some businesses don't currently have a lot of Google reviews doesn't mean they will be immune in future, and businesses that start planning now will win the 'reviews race'.

To state the obvious:
  • If you have no Google reviews now, you almost certainly will have at least one by this time next year
  • That review, thanks to human nature, is almost 20 (yes, twenty) times more likely to be negative
  • If a competitor has not yet engaged with Google My Business to get positive reviews there, how long will they wait?
  • If a competitor successfully gains traction with Google reviews, what impact will that have on your business?
  • If Google begin to rank businesses in local search, where do you want to rank?

Just a tiny sample of the buttons seen on US websites - come on UK, we can do it!

Google will dominate - more and more

Ignore the changes made to 'Google My Business' at your peril. They already own the point-of-entry for all your prospective customers, and Google My Business has made them far more dominant (read this for more specific information).

Here are two specimen searches:

Currently TripAdvisor has far more reviews (over 2000) of the Kensington Holiday Inn, but maybe 46 is enough to decide you one way or another? How long before all but a loyal hard core don't bother with TripAdvisor?


Would you rather be Martin & Co? White Walls? Or are you currently looking like Oliver James? Remember that just five reviews gets you a star rating

Yelp will gain in the short term but suffer long-term 

Yelp has one major thing going for it - size (and size=money, at least for the present). But will that be enough? Not unless they address the flaws in their business model that are currently alienating big business. 

Yelp needs to confront two major issues: its filtering system (which currently appears to many of their prospective customers to 'park' perfectly legitimate reviews) and its advertising model, which sells preferential treatment to those who pay (not exactly at the top of most consumers' criteria for a great review site).

The same for TripAdvisor and the other independent review sites 

TripAdvisor (and every other review site) is already suffering by coming second (at best) to Google reviews. That was fine when there were no (or few) reviews (and they were mostly of hotels, restaurants and bars), but not any more. Consumers read the first reviews that are shown to them: Google reviews are always served first.

Google reviews also have the added advantage of credibility: they are much less likely to be fakes (negatives written by disgruntled ex-staff, competitors or positives written by employees or agents of the business). 

Is this necessarily a bad thing? 

No. For one: it simplifies life for businesses. They only have to focus on Google (getting positives posted, diverting negatives). 

This - from a doctor in the USA - a little clunky, but better than doing nothing at all

It's great for consumers. They don't have to think 'I need reviews of accountants, now what was the name of that site?' they can just go to Google for all the reviews of whatever business they need.

It could be viewed as unfair. But only because it is uniformly unfair to all businesses: if you run a good business and engage with Google, you'll look good. If you don't engage, you won't. It's as simple as that. 

To summarise... 

  • Engage now and you'll look good
  • Engage now, with Dialogue, and you'll look great

George Clooney's wedding hotel - or 'Just how much damage can a single negative review do?'

Before the web, in those dark days when today's newspaper (review) was tomorrow's chip wrapper, there used to be a saying: "All publicity is good publicity". And here's another: "Always welcome customer criticism".

More often than you might expect, we meet business people who continue to hold these views. We hear comments like "A business that has nothing but positive reviews must be doing something dodgy" or "the odd negative comment never hurt anyone". 

When we do, we make a little bet with ourselves. It goes something like this: "We lay £5 at ten-to-one that they don't (yet) have any negative reviews." We win every time.

We also carry a selection of real negative reviews when we visit potential clients. This is because the kind of negative they are seeing in their mind's eye is not the kind they are going to get in real life. They imagine a 'helpful' negative - something that says their business is great "but could be even better, if only..."

In the real world almost every negative, without exception, has the potential to put someone (more correctly: lots of 'someones') off using your business.

Let's look at one (currently topical) example:

We don't usually name names in this blog but we're going to make an exception here, because this point is so important. Read all of this recent one star review by FizzyBlonde of the Cipriani in Venice (the hotel George Clooney recently stayed in for his wedding).

Then look again, below it:

In three days!

Did you notice that first time around? We have estimated in the past that only one reader in 20 votes for a TripAdvisor review. So how many potential guests were deflected by this single review? How many in the next month? Next year? 

One of our clients has conducted an in-depth study of the effect of a single negative showing on the front page of their TripAdvisor listing and they have positively identified significant lost revenue as a direct result.  

Our conclusion 

Negative reviews, all negative reviews, shown publicly, are unhelpful in the strict business sense*.  

For even the smallest hotel (and the best) that's going to be an impossibility, simply because of the volume of customers you have, but it should not put you off making your best efforts to manage them before they reach TripAdvisor or Google. Even if you don't have issues with occupancy, you know the negatives are affecting your ranking and that has a knock on effect on rates.

For all other businesses it will depend on the nature of your relationship with your customer; our estate agent and business-to-business clients, for instance (where the relationship is so much closer) should aim for a clean sheet: no negative reviews on Google at all. 

Our recommendation 

Adopt Dialogue: get great reviews to your own website and other sites that matter (Google, TripAdvisor etc.) but deal with negatives in private.

* Don't confuse reviews with feedback; all feedback is, of course, helpful. Dialogue will get you that, in private. An average of 8% of all reviews we process for clients contain some form of negative comment, but those views are being being voiced in private, between the business and their customer, not on Google, Yelp or TripAdvisor.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Yelp - it's legal to manipulate reviews!

Small business owners in the US recently took Yelp to court, alleging extortion - and lost. That, in itself, is not earth shattering news. What is (to our non-legal minds) is the fact that the court ruled that Yelp's practice of favouring advertisers over those who decline to advertise is entirely legal

Yelp welcomed the ruling, calling the claims 'without merit'. That's as may be, perhaps, as this article in the San Francisco Chronicle expects, the court of public opinion will find otherwise.

There's a useful news report in the Orlando Sentinel's coverage here.

Monday 1 September 2014

Google My Business: No-one's looking for reviews any more

Because they don't have to!

Google is now showing reviews to your potential customers every time they search; whether that search is specific [your business name] or generic [business type]+[location]. 

It doesn't matter that they may not be consciously looking for reviews, they will be shown them anyway.

Let's look at the background...

A big part of our role is to keep you abreast of changes elsewhere that impact your review management. At first glance Google My Business may not look like a big change, but it ties together a whole load of evolutionary changes that have been ongoing at Google. As Search Engine Land says "It's a big, huge change."

At the end of the last decade we were telling anyone who would listen that one of the most popular searches was [business name]+[reviews]. Of course Google knew this, so what did they do?

They introduced Google Places, and then went on to introduce Google for Businesses. It then tied those two into Google +. 

Google wasn't about to deny its users what they were searching for, and it wasn't about to let any other search engine (yes, they do still exist) steal a march. It was going to do what any responsive business does: give its customers what they wanted.

So where are we today?

Google now delivers reviews (or highlights the lack of them) for every business on the planet; these are prominently displayed in natural search. It's being called the 'Three-pack' and it looks like this (the search is for [starbucks] + [chicago] but it works the same worldwide:

You will see that the second of the three sections is devoted to business details: URL, address, phone and reviews. Once the business has attracted five reviews it is given a star rating and a score (out of five), every subsequent review will impact on that overall score.

It's repeated in the business's 'InfoBox' (the box of expanded information that appears to the right of the natural search results:

The two most eye-catching elements of the InfoBox are your reviews and the links to your competitors, does this make great reviews more important?

See just how eye-catching reviews are in mobile now (used by consumers for an average of just over 2 hours per day): everything else but the business address and its review rating requires a click
Yes - generic and UK too!

The impact of these changes?

The most fundamental has to be to drive a complete strategy re-think where reviews are concerned. We're not suggesting any knee-jerk changes, but the days of the independent review site would appear to be numbered, and our clients should be planning for that.

Why? Because consumers (web users) will always go for the immediate solution; if Google reviews (which will always be served first) satisfy their need, they won't mine down further.

The future for review sites

Is bleak. Unless they can add significant value (in terms of trust or financial incentive) then Google will replace them. Maybe not tomorrow, but ultimately. This applies to massive sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp as well as the smaller niche sites. 

TripAdvisor's credibility issues are likely to haunt them here, but they will continue to be the first port-of-call for many travellers as long as they are perceived to be the 'go to' site for travel. This may not last as long as they hope (web users are notoriously fickle). Yelp will need to address the issue of 'filtering' and convince consumers that the reviews posted by its army of Yelpers are more trustworthy than those posted to Google (it will also need to branch out from fast food).

Google has ultimately two major factors in its favour:
  1. Google is the gate-keeper: everyone has to go there to find anything on the web
  2. Consumers (web users) are impatient, if they are served sufficient reviews by Google they won't 'shop' elsewhere for them (if you are looking for chicken and you are standing in the middle of Sainsbury's, are you going to leave to find an independent butcher, even if you have doubts about quality)?
So our advice to you:

We are going to be definite about this: Google reviews must be taken seriously, even if that requires some effort on the business's and its staff's part.*

Populate your Google reviews. Do whatever it takes, even if that means diverting some (maybe not all) reviews away from conventional review sites (we're thinking Tripadvisor here). Once you have reached critical mass (we are guestimating this at 30-50 reviews, perhaps more for hospitality), then reassess (we will help you).

In summary:
  • Get reviews to your own website
  • Then get as many of those reviews as you can to Google
  • Don't rely on review sites
  • Make all of this part of your core marketing strategy
If you are a client reading this, you already have a strategy in place. If you are yet to become a client, speak to us now.

*Dialogue will automate almost all of this for you.

For anyone looking for a great in-depth explanation of the most recent changes in Google search you could do worse than read this on Moz.com's blog.