Tuesday 15 December 2015

Learn from Uber and AirBnB

Both Uber and AirBnB were early adopters of reviews - they knew they were a major key to the credibility of their service; how else were they going to gain that crucial element of trust from their potential users?

here's Uber:

 If a review can instill trust in a £10 cab ride, think what it can do for any other transaction

And AirBnB:

With most successful businesses there is one key element that ensured that success. With Facebook it was the introduction of the 'relationship status' field (remember Bebo - Facebook's predecessor? No - not many people do!). Without reviews Uber and AirBnB might still be struggling startups.

So: if you are in a business where trust is a key element of your potential customers' decision making process (and we are struggling to think of a business where it is not) you need to think seriously about adopting a credible review management system. Otherwise, one day, you may find your business in the same hole that London cabbies and small hoteliers find themselves in today.

Postscript for our clients: Are you impressed by Paolo's responses? Then check your module to make sure that your responses are right up-to-date.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Estate Agents - Your worst nightmare

You might be thinking "It's Helphound, so it's got to be about reviews. Probably our business getting negative reviews, or even failing to get positive reviews."

Close. But not quite on the money. Here is your worst nightmare:

This is a verified client opinion - of the service provided by one of your competitors, on their own website:

This is a similar review that has been posted onto Google, having first been posted to another competitor's own website: 

This is a competitor's score on their own website (note that the reviews - all 179 of them -  are unarguably from real clients):

 This is what another competitor looks like on Google: 

And what do all these have in common? They are all HelpHound clients and the reviews have been initiated by and generated through Dialogue™.

And there's more; how about how our clients look on their portal microsites?:

So, just maybe, you shouldn't simply be thinking 'Wouldn't it be great if we could look good on our own site and on Google?' but also 'Isn't it vitally important that we look great by comparison with our competitors?'

Food for thought?

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Estate Agents - online v. high street - missing the point?

Yet again the industry news channels are full of headlines about the amount of money 'online' agencies are raising and how impressive (or plain bonkers - depending on your standpoint) their valuations are. And the comments on PIE and EAT are dominated by 'high street' agents defending their positions.

But this is not the real argument. And it's not the right argument. We're not saying all agents agree with these brave commenters, but there would appear to be a lot of support for their point-of-view.

SO what is the real argument?

Online or high street? Probably irrelevant with a war-chest that big
One thing is for certain is that between them, the so-called online agencies have a heap of cash to spend on selling their proposition to Joe Public, and anyone who ignores this does so at their peril.

So let's look at what Joe Public wants:

There are all kinds of estate agency our there, but they are all promising the same thing - to achieve the highest price for any given property. And that is sometimes just about all the client cares about (OK, we know: and speed as well).

An office in the high street? We meet agents every day who insist that their (sometimes very expensive) office is an essential marketing tool. We won't argue, except to say that it's certainly less important than it was twenty years ago (pre-web).

So what does matter to prospective clients?

The answer (apart from the money one) is probably 'different things matter to different people' with some or all of the following making it into the Top 5:
  • Contacts with potential purchasers
  • Accurate valuation
  • Experience in handling complex transactions
  • Professionalism - this includes, but is not limited to, recognised qualifications
  • Reputation - among friends, colleagues and online (Google etc.)
We would submit that any agent who includes 'commission rates' in their 'Top 5' is fundamentally undervaluing their role. We are not saying that you should not be open to negotiation on fees, but if you find yourself consistently falling back on price as a core USP, then your business model is flawed.

If you agree with us so far, you will be looking for the very best way to say to your potential clients:
  • 'We know lots of people looking for a property just like yours
  • 'We know the market really well and will value your property accurately
  • 'We have many years' of relevant experience
  • 'We are really good at what we do
  • 'Our clients say we do a great job
Look at that last point again. Doesn't that encapsulate all the others? 

Our message is: If you can crack the 'Reputation' conundrum you will win all ends up: you will find it easier to get enquiries, and then convert those enquiries into instructions - and all the while earning decent fees. It won't matter fundamentally whether your office has a shop window in the 'high street' or is on the third floor around the corner.

If you want more proof that this is the case just read our clients' reviews - see how many objections they enable them to address head on - fees, professionalism, dedication, contacts, local knowledge, and so on - and just how convincing (and reassuring) they would be if you if you put yourself in the position of a potential client looking to choose an agent. 

The argument now ceases to be 'High street or online?' and becomes what it should have been all along: 'Is this a great agency in the opinion of its clients?' which is just where it should be.

 Every day we publish reviews like this one on behalf of our clients - how impressive do you think Winkworth Barnet's potential clients find comments like these? Here's another great review that specifically highlights the fees issue

...and then we help them get them posted to Google - to show up in local search (this is the first ever Google re-post for a new client)

Could anyone possibly deny the power of these reviews?

SO: for those of you with a physical presence on the high street - keep on paying the rent, but make completely sure you are harnessing the power of your client's opinions at the same time. That way everyone will know just how great you are at what you do - and you will be able to win the fees argument as well.

Friday 4 December 2015

Reviews and Champagne - what have they in common?

We all know how hard champagne producers fight to protect their appellation. Here we strike the first blow on behalf of 'reviews'. Why? because consumers need to know the difference between bona-fide reviews and what are commonly known as 'testimonials'. 


No confusion over the contents of that bottle!

It benefits no-one (except, questionably, the individual business) if someone is misled into buying a bottle of cava or spumante (or English sparkling) in the belief that they are buying champagne. In the same way, no-one benefits from being confused by the terms 'testimonial' and 'review'

So, to kick off the debate, here we will attempt to define (and therefore differentiate) between the two:


Testimonial marketing has been around as long as the written word. We're sure businesses were using testimonials in Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius, and for very good reason: for thousands of years testimonials have been the next best thing to personal recommendation. Let's look at what defines a testimonial, it:
  • is a written reference of (and for) the business in question
  • purports* to be written by a genuine customer of that business
  • is published by that business: by being physically shown, reproduced in the company's literature or advertising or posted on the company's website
  • may or may not be written in return for reward (financial or otherwise - discounted products and services)
  • is, by definition, the opinion of that individual customer about their own individual experience of the business in question

*'purports': really high-quality testimonials include both the name and contact details of the person (or corporation) who has given the testimonial. This enables consumers to have maximum confidence in the testimonial in question. Less high-value testimonials commonly fail to identify the author (Mrs P of Wimbledon).

But then: along came the world wide web. At last there emerged a better, more reliable alternative...

  • are posted on, or through, a body* independent of the business being reviewed
  • may be positive or negative in nature and content
  • should be posted by a verified customer of that business
  • may be invited by the business, but should allow uninvited (but verifiable) customers of that business to post as well
*if that body has any financial relationship with the business under review it should be made clear to consumers

In Summary:

When did you last see a negative testimonial? Absolutely! The killer benefit of reviews is credibility: the business cannot decide which customer opinions to show. And that's a massive benefit for the consumer - and it's also a massive benefit for great businesses, because it becomes a major differentiating factor. Businesses that are 'brave' enough to invite and publish reviews (as opposed to testimonials) are, by definition, sure enough of their levels of service to adopt the reviews route.

And, by-the-way, that doesn't mean those businesses are perfect. As we all know there is no such thing as a perfect business; it simply means that the business in question is high-grade enough to know that positive reviews will hugely outweigh negatives and their customer relations are such that they will respond to the occasional negative in such a way that any reasonable customer will be impressed. 

At HelpHound:

We were pioneers in the online reviews space. In nearly ten years in the business, we have come to really understand the world of reviews and reviewers. We have designed Dialogue to be (as one of our clients described it) the Gold Standard in review management. If you have Dialogue working for you, you can rest assured that you have the very best review management system available today. If you are moving up from testimonial marketing Dialogue is the way ahead for your business. 

And if you currently host testimonials on your website? Remember the champagne/cava analogy we began with: please don't call them reviews until they really are!

Monday 30 November 2015

Estate agents - reviews and the great fees debate

How can reviews help an agent when it comes to that point all of you dread, when the clients says "I reckon you've got the job, now let's discuss fees."

How about if you had a review like this that you could show them?

A genuine review posted for a client in the last month

Let's walk through the whole of this screenshot in exactly the same way you might walk your client through it:
  1. Everyone has scored us a full 5 out of 5, on every aspect of our service
  2. Bear in mind that every client is asked for a review - see the box next to HelpHound's logo
  3. HelpHound will not delete a negative review on our behalf
  4. You will be asked for a review when we've sold your home
 Now - on to the review itself:
  •  Please see what our client has to say about our fee

A final note: see how many people have voted that single review helpful in the week since it was posted.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Is there any logic to Google local search?

The answer to this question (of vital importance to all businesses) is 'some'. At the moment the 'three pack' highlights three relevant businesses, of these some will be closest to the theoretical geographical centre of the search, some will exhibit little obvious logic.

Let's look at 'Estate agent Hertford':

Shepherds is close to the centre of Hertford, but William H Brown are far from being the next most central (King & Co and Churchills are closer) and as for Big Black Hen: according to Google they are nearly 1/2 mile from anything that could be considered to be the centre of town.

But is all of this about to become redundant?

As we've said before: Google's long-term success continues to depend on delivering the very best search results for its core audience: consumers. It has to be asking itself the question "Is there a better way?" And the answer is, of course, a resounding "Yes!" 

"Yes" how?

Unless you need A&E you are invariably not searching for the 'nearest' - pub/financial adviser/dentist. And you're certainly not searching for the business with the best SEO. What you really want is the BEST pub/financial adviser/dentist; that would really add value to your search experience. So how are Google going to deliver that value?

By ranking businesses in order of popularity: the BEST pub/financial adviser/dentist. How are they going to assess popularity? By looking at reviews. Whose reviews? Their own. Google's. 

It's not rocket science, is it? The vehicle is already there - the 'three pack' you see above, introduced earlier this year, so its not going to take a quantum leap for Google to serve...

"The best three businesses in [Hertford] in the opinion of our Google reviewers"

Beat the mad rush - look like this NOW...

 This client had NO Google reviews at the beginning of last year

... and keep on looking better and better every day until you are the top billed business of your kind in your area (and we're sure you won't stop even then). It's sure not to hurt you before Google introduce ranking, it sure will make sure you succeed when they do.


Google accused of favouring its own Reviews

  The whole article is here for those of you who can negotiates the Times's paywall

TripAdvisor and Yelp are accusing Google of favouring its own reviews in search. The European Commission is carrying out its own investigation. Even Google said yesterday that TripAdvisor and Yelp had been affected by a quirk caused by an update to its ... algorithms.

But we would like to make a broader point...

Google is where your customers start every search - even when they know what they are looking for (and most certainly when they are not sure). And every time someone searches for your business Google are showing them reviews. Google reviews.

Part of professional review management is about not putting all your eggs in one basket. You may think that TripAdvisor will continue to be the be-all-and-end-all of search for your hotel or that Yelp is fundamental for your dental practice or that AllAgents will recover their pre-eminent position in search for estate agents, but we will make sure you have all the bases covered. You need to look great everywhere that matters to your potential customers - and that means looking great in whatever arena is delivered when someone searches for your business - and today that is on Google. 

This raises one simple question for any business paying an independent review site: why would you do that when your customers are looking on Google and at Google reviews?

We are not betting large sums on Google giving up its clout in this area any time soon, but if they do (or are forced to) we, and our clients, will be ready.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Dialogue™ - the review management solution for web designers

We work hand-in-glove with web designers. We are fully aware that Dialogue has an impact on their work, from both a visual and a technical point-of-view. Here we describe the relationship that evolves between us.

Understanding HelpHound's role

To appreciate what Dialogue is designed to achieve for your clients it is important to understand exactly what HelpHound itself sets out to do. It is one of the ironies of the modern web that, just as fast as Google seeks to dominate the reviews space, others attempt to compete. It is this conundrum that HelpHound addresses.

Many review sites - one search engine hosting reviews

HelpHound started life as a review site - so we understand the challenges facing independent review sites. It is also the reason that we moved away from that business model.

It became clear to us, way back around 2010, that Google were going to invest heavily in promoting reviews (remember Google Places?). 

At that point we stepped back and had a long look at our future strategy; we decided not to compete with Google, but to design a mechanism that was complimentary with whatever offering they made, whilst at the same time being as flexible and future-proof as possible (what would happen if TripAdvisor, or another big independent site, won the battle with Google, for instance?).

Dialogue™ was born 

 It is not just hotel guests who actively search out and rely on reviews - we all increasingly give credence to reviews in every sphere
After talking to a variety of businesses and their web designers their criteria became clear. Whatever solution we were to offer should:
  • enable them to host reviews on their own websites (and not involve potential customers being asked to click away to a separate site)
  • give them an opportunity to resolve misunderstandings and errors of fact pre-publication (factually incorrect reviews help no-one)
  • incorporate a pre-publication dispute resolution mechanism
  • allow reviews to be displayed in multiple locations on their websites
  • provide a highly visible feed of recent reviews
  • easily interact with social media (Facebook and Twitter)
  • incorporate a mechanism to encourage their reviews to be copied to any 'open' review site of their choice - Google being the obvious first choice for most, but applying equally to specialist sites like TripAdvisor or Allagents, should they be a priority for clients
From the web designers' point to view:

Dialogue should be as flexible as possible, design-wise. The basic concept should be adaptable from both design and delivery perspectives. Web designers should be able to 'own' the design of Dialogue on their clients' behalf. The design of every clients' Dialogue module should be able to evolve along with the design of the clients' website.

Dialogue™ today

Over the last four years all the above aims and objectives have been achieved. Perhaps most important of all, Dialogue has proved to be flexible and adaptable enough to cope with the numerous changes at Google (and the independent review sites). It really has become every web designer's reliable long-term answer to reviews.


Dialogue drives business (whatever your clients' business may be). Here are results for hotels, here is an example of a great success story for an estate agent - all without any downside for you or your client. Dialogue also aids customer retention (by providing a great feedback channel). The only downside of Dialogue is it does not work effectively for businesses with poor customer relations.

So: if you have a (great) client who you think should have an unrivalled solution to reviews, you can do no better than consider Dialogue™. And they will thank you for doing so every time their customers express their gratitude for everyone to see.

Monday 16 November 2015

Google says: they are looking for you on their phones!

As if you needed any more reasons to incorporate a review management strategy into your marketing:

So, unless your Google search (on mobile) looks like this:

And your website has been optimised (on mobile) to look like this:

...you need to speak to Fiona Christie on 0207 100-2233 or send her an email at fiona.christie@helphound.com

If you would like to read the full text of this week's 'Think with Google' it's here - of course, if you are a client we're reading it for you!

Monday 9 November 2015

Come on businesses - help everyone out!

A staffer came into the office last week exclaiming - "Why won't these guys help me to help them?!!"

Is it conceivable that businesses will continue to ignore the power of consumer opinions like this for much longer?

What did she (our staffer) mean? She explained that she had been driving home from a meeting in the midlands and needed to shop for that evening's meal. Passing through Stratford-upon-Avon she thought to herself "I'm in the heart of England and a rural area renowned for the quality of its produce, I'll park up and spend 5 minutes on Google and find a great butcher and a great grocer."

Let's see what happened:

Search: [butcher] in [Stratford-upon-Avon]:

Six butchers, only two with reviews (and they only have two each). So four reviews in total between six businesses. Now Stratford is a pretty well-off part of the country, but she (and we) cannot believe that none of these butchers couldn't do with just a few more customers (after all there is plenty of competition in the shape of thriving supermarkets with meat counters).

On to the veg.

Search: [grocer] in [Stratford-upon-Avon]:

It's the same story, but this time the supermarkets (and a wholesaler) are showing. There are, according to Google, no independent grocers in Stratford. Actually, there is at least one (found on foot)! Independent grocers complain about being put out of business by the likes of Lidl, but they don't appear to be addressing their online presence (mind you, nor do Lidl).

So lets try some more traditionally entrepreneurial businesses: farm shops...

Search: [farm shop] in [Stratford-upon-Avon]:

Discounting The Hiller Garden & Plant Centre (eating potted plants might smack of desperation) there are five farm shops being shown in this mobile search - and just two reviews. The single review for Hillers Farm Shop did not help a lot (despite giving them five stars) as it praised their 'fantastic bird hut'. The one for Yew Tree is simply a rating - there is no review.

The point of all of this is that in no case were there enough reviews to even vaguely tempt our shopper to explore further (even visit their websites?), let alone visit any of these shops. She ended up doing it the old-fashioned way: stopping in Stratford town center and asking a likely passer-by for a recommendation.

Restaurateurs - don't be too quick to pat yourselves on the back - how many covers have you served since it became possible to leave a review on Google (and more importantly - since Google became the first reviews your potential customers see)?

So much for the web revolutionising the way we shop! Google (and reviews) have been around for long enough now that one might think that businesses had got the hang of it. We're not looking for thousands of reviews here, just enough for consumers to be able to form enough of an impression to at least visit the business's website. And don't think that Stratford is not typical, a cursory search of your home-town is likely to come up with similar results (and no different for other trades and professions).

The Opportunity

There is a yawning gap here, just waiting to be filled by any enterprising business that wants to grow trade. Businesses have been generally slow to see the opportunity Google reviews present: and the first to take it will look great by comparison, especially when Google begins to rank trades in their area (for more details read this).

The Solution

Get Dialogue working for you, it will drive lots of reviews to your website and a steady stream of those onwards to Google. Soon you will look great in both places.

Speak to Fiona Christie on 020 7100-2233 or email her at fiona.christie@helphound.com - she will answer all your questions. 

Thursday 5 November 2015

HelpHound member wins Gold!

Congratulations to Brock Taylor of Horsham on winning Best Small Agency (nationwide) in the recent Negotiator Awards. Brock Taylor joined HelpHound in October and we look forward to seeing their clients' opinions lighting up their website.

How could the business NOT benefit?

This is just a single example among thousands, but we think it bears posting, if only as a reminder:

On the business's own website:

 And on Google:

What impact do you think this has? If you are struggling to answer that question, just put yourself in the position of someone competing with this business. Clearer now? 


Tuesday 3 November 2015

What all businesses can learn from Uber and AirBnB

In our last article we referenced Bill Tancer's book 'Everyone's a Critic'. Here's another great article by Bill.

Its core message is that businesses such as Uber and AirBnB could not exist (and certainly would not have grown as they have) without reviews. 

So here's our question for those of you who are not yet clients: how on earth does any other business think it is going to succeed without them?

Reviews - our vision of the Future

What is the web for in the context of B2C? It's not a question we (as businesses) often ask ourselves, but maybe we should. See if you agree with our answer:

Taken from the cover of 'Everyone's a Critic' by Bill Tancer, published by Penguin

For consumers

It's there so they can find the right business, the best business; and the right, best business nearest (sometimes). The right, best business that can fulfill whatever current need they have.

For businesses

It's (nearly always) the way our potential customers first engage with us. It's our opportunity to create a great first impression. And it's the first step to turning that first impression into business.

What do consumers mean by 'right' and 'best'?

Right is pretty straightforward: if you want a plumber it's no use if the search returns gas-fitters. Or plumbers in New York instead of York.

Best is an altogether more complex matter: 'best' in whose eyes? We reckon the following are the three most meaningful criteria:
  1. A business the consumer has used before - and was satisfied
  2. A business a friend has used before - and was satisfied
  3. A business whose customers have recent experience of their products and/or services and are prepared to share that experience
 After that come:
  • An impressive website
  • Great advertising, marketing and PR

Let's look at 1, 2 and 3 in greater detail:

1. Prior use: this is always a winner (as long as the previous experience of the business was great). But to ignore the fact that this needs to be reinforced in many instances would be to miss a trick. In the case of a butcher or supermarket (a business that is used frequently) then prior use can stand alone. In the case of 'occasional use' businesses - services such as lawyers, financial advisers or estate agents, for instance - then help from 2 and 3 is most welcome.

2. Trusted friend: Unless we all choose our friends on the criteria of the reliability of their judgment when they come to choosing businesses (don't we all have some friends who drive the sort of car we wouldn't ever consider...?) then some corroborating evidence is always welcome.

3. Reviews: (independently verified reviews, as opposed to testimonials) are now universally welcomed by consumers as an aid to purchasing everything from a holiday to a dishwasher. Reviews of high-value services (finance, medical, house purchase) are especially valued.

So: we are all agreed that reviews help corroborate consumer decisions as to which service or product to buy.

So why do so few businesses - particularly in the area of services - help their potential customers by providing reliable reviews (on their own websites and on Google)? The answer is simple: fear.
  • Good businesses: no business is perfect - so they are afraid of inviting negatives (they know that a negative experience is a big motivation to write a review)
  • Bad businesses: the business in question knows it is no good and will only be inviting negative reviews

So what do all the players (the web - in the person of Google  - businesses and consumers) have to do to make this work in the future?

The Future - for Google

Make no mistake, Google is now the only external source of reviews that matters, in both the short and the long term (Google reviews are always the first reviews your potential clients see - anyone with doubts should look at what has happened to the shares of the world's biggest independent review sites. Independent sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp will limp on for the short term, but Google steals a bigger march on them every day. 

 Google need to weed out the 'Jake Walsh' reviewers - he (we suspect 'he' is a bot) has rated over 11,000 businesses

Google already give reviews massive prominence but they do need to refine and improve their offering - all G+ users must be properly authenticated so Google users can be as near 100% confident that the reviews they are reading are genuine. Google also need to make it possible for a registered G+ user to write a review on every platform (there are currently over fifteen million G+ users in the UK alone - so numbers are not an issue).

The future - for Consumers

Everyone needs to understand just how helpful a well-written review can be. Just as so many of us contribute to Children in Need and the Royal British Legion, we need to get into the habit of contributing reviews: so others can reward great businesses just as we do. If we understand that by changing our behaviour in this way we need never have a disappointing experience with a business again then our efforts will be rewarded many times over.

The future - for Businesses

Great reviews drive business - there's no longer any argument about that. And every business owes it to itself, its management and staff and, most important of all, its customers, to overcome 'the fear' and do everything they can to:
  • invite and display those reviews on their own website
  • get them across to Google
Reviews must no longer be seen as some sort of added luxury; something that is done if there is time to spare at the end of the month; getting reviews (to your own website and to Google) should become one of your business's top priorities. Here are our 'golden rules':
  1. Ask every customer for a review (we know you might not start off by doing so, but building your own confidence in Dialogue to the stage where you feel comfortable doing so will be one of our first objectives). Remember that Resolution works wonders with disgruntled customers, and most important of all, a negative review managed in Resolution is a customer retained, a negative review on Google is multiple potential customers lost.
  2. Don't invite reviews direct to Google: It will inevitably mean cherry-picking 'delighted' customers, and Google will see through that eventually. More importantly, it deprives your own website of one of the most powerful motivators for visitors there to use your business: verified customer opinions. It also negates one of the most positive aspects of inviting consumer reviews: the opportunity to right wrongs, in private.
  3. Build 'reviews' into your sales process: actively point your potential customers towards your reviews - on your website and in person.
  4. Use reviews in your marketing: potential clients respond well to them, especially when it's explained that they are not hand-picked.
  5. Thank your reviewers: it firms business/customer bond and is, after all, only good manners.

Google will introduce local ranking soon - and businesses that don't rank in the top three in search will suffer (for more about this see here).

The business on the left has adopted active review management, the business on the right has not (a client of ours and another similar business in the same locality). These screenshots admirably illustrate the crucial importance of proactively engaging with reviews. They also show how effectively review management enables consumers to differentiate between businesses at a glance.

And finally - look at reviews as a medium to long-term project. Never mind that your biggest competitor suddenly has dozens on Google; building firm foundations always pays dividends. Adopt independent professional review management. Set realistic targets and ensure staff achieve them. If you take short-cuts now they will surely come back to haunt you later.* 

*Some examples:
  • Getting staff to write reviews (more common than you might expect)
  • Getting relatives and friends of staff to write reviews (less common, but we have seen several examples)
  • Setting up bogus G+ accounts 
  • Setting up bogus accounts on other review sites
  • Buying reviews
  • Contravening Google's T&Cs (mostly offering incentives in return for reviews)
Last week you heard that the government would love to know your search history - those that think they can cheat Google will do well to bear in mind that Google has access to their search history whenever it wants!

Monday 19 October 2015

Dialogue™ - let's look at some numbers (for Hotels)

Our recent article about estate agents proved popular, so here we look at some numbers for a hotel.

Some salient facts about the business in question:
  • They accept that rates and rankings are related 
  • They are keen to maximise guest retention
  • They understand that Google has increasing influence over guest behaviour
  • They value direct (non-OTA) bookings
  • They understand that excellent review performance is helpful in contract negotiations 
  • They understand that many potential guests resort to OTAs primarily because they are denied any alternative source of reviews
    That's it - there is nothing else that differentiates them from any other hotel apart from a consistently positive attitude towards reviews from both management and staff.

    So - on to the results...

    • Reviews to their own website averaged over a three per day (108 per month)
    • Reviews to TripAdvisor have averaged over two per day (77 per month)
    • Re-posts from Dialogue to TripAdvisor have averaged over 5 (5.7) per month
    • Positive (4* and 5*) reviews to TripAdvisor rose by 27% by comparison with the six months previous to adopting Dialogue
    • Negative (3*, 2* and 1* reviews) managed through Dialogue have averaged over ten per month (all but three of these have been resolved to both parties' satisfaction, in private). Negative posts to TripAdvisor have fallen by 78% by comparison with the six months previous to adopting Dialogue
    • All the above has directly resulted in a rise of 16% in their TripAdvisor ranking over the period

    Dear reader: we would like you to ask yourself two simple questions:
    1. How would you feel if this hotel was a direct competitor?
    2. How would your hotel benefit from results just like these?
    Providing you and your staff are good at what you do, there is no reason you should not look just as good; because these numbers reflect a business that is professional (but not perfect), and has simply taken the view that potential clients take notice of what their existing clients have to say.

    Amazon fake reviews - just the tip of the iceberg?

    The Sunday Times returns to one of its (and our) favourite campaigns this week: against fake reviews (here is - for those of you who can negotiate their pay-wall - the full article and their famous 'fake hotel' expose of TripAdvisor) . And while we commend Amazon's stance against publishers and writers puffing their own work, we are not sure this is any better or worse than what happens in the mainstream (getting friendly authors to write reviews and/or flyleaf quotes); perhaps there needs to be a website 'outing' authors who are friends?

    The Times back in 2011 - not a lot has changed

    But there is a very serious side to this, and it goes right to the heart of the world of reviews. And there's much more to it than just 'fake reviews'.

    Let's start at the beginning: why would anyone run a review website (or incorporate reviews into their website)?

    To make money (surprise)! Amazon knows full-well that reviews drive business, and not just book reviews, reviews across the board. That's fine as long as the consumer does not suffer. But look at some of the strategies and business models in place today and ask yourself if the consumer really benefits:
    • Selling advertising: this would be alright if good old-fashioned ads simply appeared as they do in print journalism; but what about when a company can pay to come top of search results for a particular service? Google make this pretty clear, but is every Yelp user aware that the first result in almost every search is paid for?
    • Selling leads: How many consumers realise that the fact that they need a 'plumber' is being sold (as a lead) to the plumber(s) in question?
    • Commission: Again: how many guests realise that they are generating commission and fees for websites like TripAdvisor and Booking.com every time they book through them? It wouldn't be allowed if they were providing financial advice, but hotels are paying these sites anything up to 30% commission - straight out of the money consumers are paying for their rooms. 
    Now: why would anyone want to write a fake review of their business?

    Because great reviews drive business, it's as simple as that. Let's mine down a little further:
    • Because it's a lot easier than getting a genuine review. Great genuine reviews are predicated on building great customer relationships, otherwise all the review will do is expose the business's weaknesses. Only businesses which provide consistently great service and have top-notch CRM find it easy to get great reviews
    • It's also a lot lower-risk: the fake review is guaranteed to be complimentary (and rate the business 5*). In addition, the fake review can be tailor-made to highlight aspects of the business that the business wants to promote. Sophisticated fake review management becomes part-and-parcel of the business's marketing and PR
    • But is it (lower risk)? Yes, until Google and their peers decide (like Amazon) to crack down on fake reviews (and the companies who are the subject of those fake reviews). Anyone who doubts Google's ability to discover fake reviews (given the will) should bear in mind that Google knows every user's search history, keystroke by keystroke!
    • Because their competitor has stolen a march: we see this all the time: a business loses out to a competitor and then notices that the competitor has great reviews; they panic and decide to tale a 'short cut'
    What should we do if we suspect there are fake reviews about our business?

    This question may be more relevant than you might at first expect. In almost half of new businesses we visit we see reviews that Google would categorise as 'fake', they have been written:
    • By over-eager members of staff ('I was only trying to help/please my boss')
    • By staff 'testing the system' ('I just wanted to see what a review looked like')
    • By colleagues, friends and relations of staff ('trying to be helpful')
    You might be surprised to hear the justification that we hear: "But we are a great business, I only wrote the review because none of my customers had."; "Why shouldn't I review my own business? I truly mean every word of what I wrote." and the list goes on. 

    The dreaded TripAdvisor 'Red Flag'. How long before Google introduce something similar?

    None of these fall under the category of 'malicious fakes'; malicious fake reviews are posted as part of a concerted and intentional effort to deceive. Unsurprisingly, when you think about it, we don't often have face-to-face meetings with the businesses who are actively gaming the system (we once did meet with one who introduced us to an intern: 'This is [name], she writes our reviews on [X website]'. They instinctively know to steer clear of us. But we know who they are (and if we do, you can be sure Google do too).

    How do we identify fake reviews?

    It's part science, part art. In last night's Antiques Roadshow a woman presented Rupert Mass with a painting she reckoned was a genuine Turner. He tried, as tactfully as he could, to disabuse her, first by explaining that he had been looking at the real thing for over forty years and he 'knew' it was not a Turner, then, when she persisted, he referred her to the framer's date stamp (1872); Turner died in 1851 and stopped painting Venice over fifteen years earlier.

    For us it's the same. Our moderators read hundreds of reviews every day, so, just like Rupert Maas, they get a 'nose' for fakes. They also know just how to do their detective work. Let us show you just one example: 

    An estate agent has great Google reviews. Our moderators are asked to have a look at them. Out of the first ten they are able to positively identify that six were written by connections of the business. How? By cross-referencing the business's own website (estate agencies invariably include staff biographies on their websites) with G+, Linkedin and Facebook (and not always the 'suspect's' own Facebook or Linkedin page). In one case a review had been written by a colleague who had used the same photograph for his G+ account as his Linkedin entry, in another Linkedin identified that the reviewer was a recent ex-employee of the company under review. The other four were similar, the balance failed the 'nose' test ('fake' reviews often follow a distinctive pattern, avoiding the use of the first person 'I, we' for instance).

    Advice for businesses
    • First and foremost: remember that your reputation is your most valuable business asset: it is highly unlikely that you built that reputation overnight in the real world, so be patient in the online world. Get a review a week to your own website and a review a month to Google and in two years you will look great on both.
    • Resist the temptation to cut corners and game the system: we have an ever growing list of businesses where we have concrete evidence that they are 'up to no good' and Google cannot be far behind us! What do we mean by 'up to no good'? Examples include: employees of different branches of the same business writing reviews of their sister branch; management openly encouraging staff to write bogus reviews from their home computers; staff being asked to encourage friends and family to write bogus reviews, and the list goes on. One day Google will catch these businesses, and when they do the consequences will be dire (just ask any hotel that has been 'red flagged' on TripAdvisor - mind you, you will be hard-pressed to find one: they've mostly had to close).
    • If you know you have fake reviews - anywhere: have them removed by the people who posted them and warn them not to repeat their action

     Advice for Google
    • Do everything possible to redress the positive/negative imbalance: by this, we mean the disconnect between theory and reality: in an ideal (?) world everyone would write reviews, positive or negative, whenever they used a business; in practice a negative experience provides hugely more motivation for the average consumer to write a review. This skews results against (especially SME) businesses. We often meet businesses with thousands of customers whose only reviews on Google are a solitary 1*. TripAdvisor has gone a long way towards resolving this issue by actively encouraging hotels to invite their guests to post reviews; Google should do the same.
    • Insist on proper authentication: make it as near as impossible as you can for anyone to write a review using anything but their true identity. We have examples of malicious reviewers setting up multiple G+ accounts to harm businesses. You have the power, just use it.
    • Weed out anonymous reviews: up until recently people could post as 'A Google User'. It was a hangover from the old Google Places. Delete them all (maybe give the reviewer the option to add their identity before you do!).
    • Understand the difference between businesses that incentivise reviewers to write reviews and businesses that incentivise reviewers to write positive reviews: you should view the former as laudable and helpful to Google users, the latter should quite rightly continue to contravene your T&C's. Unless you do this SMEs (which lack the volume of customers) will always struggle against the big corporates. And it's the SMEs your users need to know most about (after all, who needs to read yet another review of McDonald's or Sainsbury's?

    Gaming HelpHound 

    We see this occasionally, never - yet - from a client of ours, but about once a month a competitor (we assume) tries to sneak a negative review through Resolution, without success. We make it clear to all our clients that we have a 'two strikes' rule - first strike: warning, second strike: out. We couldn't be more aware that the one thing that sets our reviews apart from mere testimonials and most other kinds of review is the fact that they can be relied upon by your potential customers; not just ' a bit', not just 'most of the time' but all the time, one hundred per cent


    There's no shortcut. If you want great reviews on your own website and anywhere else that influences your potential customers (Google for most, still TripAdvisor for many in hospitality) you have to get a system like Dialogue™ on board (you can't verify your own reviews!) and then work hard at getting your clients to write reviews. It's not impossible - see this success story.