Monday 24 September 2018

Which business is going to be first to be fined by the CMA?

This weekend it was Tripadvisor in the news - but the Times story was not news to us, so it shouldn't be news for the regulators. So why are the reviews sites - almost all reviews sites - still being allowed to mislead consumers?

We want a nice hotel - according to the TImes we are being misled into booking one that pays the most commission to the booking website. 

How is it that online travel agents are still allowed to run ads like this? Show us that the very same room on exactly the same date was priced at $109 on one site and $209 on another and we'll retract this comment.

The Trivago ad that runs on most TV channels is a serial offender, misleading viewers into thinking there is a huge price spread for any given hotel room, when any industry insider will tell you that all the booking/reviews sites ensure there's no spread at all by constantly mystery shopping hotels. Yes, the room prices change, depending on all kinds of factors, but one of those factors is not the booking engine (except for tiny exchange-rate differentials).

Goodness - some reviews sites even have written into their T&Cs that they will drop hotels that undercut their rate for customers who book direct. And just how many hotel guests are aware that the booking site is being paid a commission, and not just a small commission - 3% - 5% - 8%, but far more commission than the hotel is likely to make in profit from the booking - commonly between 15 and 30 per cent? And that's called 'adding value'? More like highway robbery - of both hotel and guest.

It's not just hospitality

Want a great estate agent? You stand a good chance of being channelled towards one that uses a flawed reviews mechanism to enhance its reputation. Perhaps because they are going to be using a Google partner. Google partners, for those still in the dark, are advertising agencies - reviews sites in the context of this article - that have partnered with Google to show star ratings in Google ads - the reviews site wins, because it can 'sell' the ability to show those stars, Google wins, because the business has to pay for an ad to get the stars to show. Nothing wrong with any of that, unless - as we said earlier - the reviews system itself is flawed, which it so often is these days.

Buying a product or service online? How about a reviews system that only allows customers chosen by the business to write a review when - and if - the business decides? Shoes collapse after six months and you want to write a review then? No chance. Estate agent has not arranged for your smoke alarm to be mended in spite of repeated requests? In your dreams.

You can see the superficial attractions of systems such as these for sloppy businesses: but do they really think that using such a system won't eventually be rumbled by consumers, maybe with a little help from a savvy competitor? And the regulator? The CMA fined three estate agents £375,000 for colluding over fees, what makes businesses that flout their regulations think they won't do the same over reviews?

If, reading this, you can sense anger behind the words you would be right. We are angry, corporately angry, because HelpHound gets tainted by association with these practices. 

More and more we are asked if we are 'just like all the others - just there to make the business look better, irrespective of whether or not they are actually any good at what they do'?

So we are appealing to the government regulator - the Competition and Markets Authority - to address these practices before the whole reviews industry loses the remnants of whatever reputation remains. We spoke to them today and have invited them to comment on the allegations made in the Times article, and any other comments relating to reviews and reviews sites in general. As soon as we have their reply we will publish it here.

Action for businesses - important

Check that whatever reviews gathering system you are currently using is compliant with the CMA regulations. There is an easy to follow guide here - or you can simply contact us and we will tell you. It is very important that you understand that the legal onus is on you - the business - to comply with the CMA regulations. You cannot blame the reviews solution you are using and, as is usual in cases like these, ignorance of the law is no defence.

And the $64,000 dollar question...

"How likely is our business to be fined?"

The honest answer to this question is that we don't precisely know - yet. But we can make assumptions...

  1. Flagrant breaches are more likely to attract sanction - the business that has cherry-picked 50+ reviews to Google rather than the one that has done the same for five is more likely to attract sanctions
  2. Regulators are most often prompted to initiate action by whistle-blowers - so a scenario where a business that has been cherry-picking customers to post positive reviews loses a member of staff to a competitor who then alerts that competitor to their previous employer's behaviour resulting in a complaint to the CMA is a highly likely scenario - anyone who doubts this, and the CMA's willingness to impose significant penalties, should read this
  3. If the business in question has been using a visibly non-compliant mechanism - displayed on their website or referred to in emails - see points 1 - 3 under 'Three of the CMA's core rules' below. This makes the regulator's job a whole lot easier.

Ignorance is no defence...

Above you will see an example of a non-compliant business. How do we know this business is non-compliant? We simply take the available facts (as the CMA would do): 

  • the business had no Google reviews three years ago (Google reviews have been around for eight years now)
  • Suddenly the business gained over twenty reviews in a very short space of time
  • Since then reviews have been written regularly (people don't commonly write reviews of estate agents unprompted), so we know the business is proactively inviting customers to write reviews - and that's fine if they can demonstrate that they are inviting all their customers to write a review
  • a client of the business has told us that they were not invited to write a review - indicating non-compliant behaviour by the business
  • a member of staff has told us!

If we had a pound for every time we met a business and they said 'We didn't know...' (most often referring to cherry-picking) we would be very well off indeed. 

Non-compliance often leaves a paper-trail that is highly visible (emails asking selected customers to write a review, for example). In these - frequent - cases our advice is to stop whatever non-compliant activity is current immediately and adopt a compliant review management policy as soon as possible. Regulators take a dim view of non-compliance, but an even dimmer view of knowing non-compliance.
Three of the CMA's core rules..

1.  If the system you are using gives you any advantage whatsoever over the reviewer - challenging negative reviews is an obvious one - then the system you are using is non-compliant.

2.  If the system you are using - in-house or contracted out to a reviews site - allows you to select which customers you invite to write a review it is non-compliant. This includes selecting customers to write a Google review.

3.  If the system you are using locks consumers out - so they cannot write a review at a time of their own choosing - then the system you are using is non-compliant.

Further reading...

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Back to basics - is your Google score hurting your business?

The reason for this article is that there is an 'urban myth' doing the rounds of some businesses that runs something like this...

'A score of 4 out of 5 on Google is OK'

...and another that goes...

'Having no Google reviews is OK'

...not to mention the one that says...

'Looking awful on Google is OK'

...and they are all damaging businesses.

How - and, just as importantly - why?

The 'how' is simple. Let's use some examples:

If looking really, really good on Google, like this...

...and this... a 'good' thing (and we meet few marketeers these days that don't agree that it is), then all logic tells us that looking like this (we have used real-life US examples to protect innocent UK businesses)...

...and this...

...must be a 'bad' thing (or at least 'not such a good thing').

And like this?

...or even this?

...and this...

Must transmit the wrong message entirely.

Let's look at those last two in more detail...

No reviews

Having no Google reviews has the potential to harm your business in any - or all - of the following ways...

  • it looks insignificant
  • it looks as if you are behind the times
  • it looks poor by comparison with competitors
  • it fails the Google Filter (as does any business that scores less than 4.5)

Scoring between 4.0 and 4.5

If it were an A level everyone would be happy, but this is the harsh world of business. A business with just thirty Google reviews that scores 4.0 will have up to seven one and two star reviews. And these will be read by potential customers.

Bear in mind that all one and two star reviews say the same thing, no matter how they are worded, and that is: 'Don't use this business'. 

And they are read and they are believed and they are trusted. So they will deflect business.

And the business will be failing the Google reviews filter.

Scoring less than 4.0

We will be blunt here: no-one who sees that a business is scoring under 4.0 - be that 3.9 or 1.6 - is going to contact that business (if you doubt this, ask yourself a simple question: "I need a plumber, would I call one where over twenty per cent of their customers said "Don't use them"'? If you have any lingering doubts replace 'plumber' with 'heart surgeon' in that question). 

If you have sufficient business coming in through avenues other than the web, OK. Otherwise serious remedial action is needed.

Important note: if your business is scoring 4.5 or better but is achieving that by selectively inviting customers to write a review (or denying customers the opportunity to write a review unless expressly invited) you are currently in breach of one or more of the CMA's core regulations. Speak to someone here at HelpHound and we will advise you on your business's options.

Are all businesses that score below 4.0 rubbish at their jobs?

No, they are not. How do we know? Because we work for lots of businesses that scored well below 4.0 when they first joined HelpHound. What they did all have in common is that they had let the very small minority of their dissatisfied customers control the image they were presenting in search.

How will we know that scoring 4.5 and over will result in more business?

There's only one way - achieve a good - great - score and then see the results for yourselves...
  • your click-throughs will increase
  • your inbound enquiries will increase
  • your customer facing staff will tell you
  • Google will tell you - like this...

This is a HelpHound client's Google My Business report. Your business gets one every month, just wait until your Google score gets north of 4.5 - as it has in this case (see Google's 'congrats' above the stars) - and then look at the numbers in green.

And finally - why use HelpHound?

Three main reasons...

1.  We will take the fear out of inviting reviews. Most businesses initially shy away from inviting reviews because they are, quite sensibly, concerned that some of their customers will write inaccurate or misleading reviews. HelpHound's moderation process reduces the chances of that happening buy well over ninety per cent.

2.  We will enable you to display independently verified reviews on your own website. Not only will these increase inbounds through your site, they will be picked up by Google to show in all searches and in 'Reviews from the web' in the Google knowledge panel. Here is how the client at the top of this article looks... search, in local search...

...and in the knowledge panel...

3.  You will be compliant with the law. The legal authority in the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority, forbids any practice that puts consumers at a disadvantage. The core of its regulations say that any business inviting reviews must enable their customer to write a review at any time of their choosing and that all their customers must be given the opportunity to write a review. This rules out practices such as selecting customers to write reviews (known as 'cherry-picking', probably the most common contravention of the CMA regulations - for more see here).

So: if you have persevered and read this far, you only have one more step to take, call us and we will conduct a thorough review of your business's current exposure to reviews and then make recommendations to bring your business as close to the holy grail of 5.0 as you deserve.*

*please note: there are no 'smoke and mirrors' involved - no 'filtering' of negative reviews. If your business has existing CRM issues these will need to be addressed before you adopt a review management strategy. HelpHound cannot 'make' a business with inadequate customer care practices look good. What we can do is make a business that truly cares look great.

Friday 14 September 2018

Reviews - two out of three UK businesses are breaking the law

This article is important - every business should familiarise itself with all of its contents. You may well find - and you will be in the company of many others - that your current reviews policy is in breach of the CMA regulations in some way (there is a link to our analysis of these at the bottom of this page). If in any doubt whatsoever, contact us.

First - an Italian goes to jail...

This is Ebay UK. Advertisements such as this appear all the time. Why? The last line of this advertiser's 'puff' says it all...

Last week the director of a business selling fake reviews was jailed for nine months by an Italian court. But the important thing for businesses to realise is that this behaviour (we wonder what the Italian authorities will be doing about the customers who bought the fake reviews) was just the tip of a very large iceberg. 

Your business may well be breaking the law

We estimate that more than two thirds of businesses that we meet or see are breaking the law as it relates to reviews in the UK - mostly unwittingly.

The point is that, as any businessperson knows, ignorance of the law - unwitting breaches of the CMA regulations in this context - is no defence.

So let us look at the two distinct types of breach - first the intentional...

  • writing your own reviews. You might - or might not - be surprised at just how many businesses do this. It commonly occurs when a business that has had no reviews receives a negative review. There is a panic - sometimes because the phone has stopped ringing - and someone says 'quick, get on Google and write a five star review'. We have a file full of such behaviour. How do we know? Because people don't think - they use an account that is easily linked back to them and then matched to a Facebook, Google Plus or Linkedin account. 
  • connected person reviews. Remember the wording on the back of the Cornflakes packet (in relation to competitions)? Goes something like 'no connected person, employee of the company or employees of its suppliers and agents may enter'. We know of at least one business where all the branch managers agreed to get their staff to post a review of the next-door branch. We have seen multiple instances where a quick look at a reviewer's Linkedin account will reveal their connection to the business under review.
  • cherry-picking. We sometimes come across people who genuinely - still in 2018 - do not understand that any behaviour that leads to any bias in the impression created by reviews and a business's reviews strategy is illegal. Hand-picking customers - those who the business knows are more than likely to write a 5 star review - whilst quietly ignoring those that are known by the business to be not quite so happy is just such a breach. How many times do we see a business with twenty or thirty positive reviews on Google - often considerably more - all gained by this kind of non-compliant selection? The answer? - multiple times a day.
  • review farming. This is a refinement of cherry-picking - and illegal. It involves inviting customers to write a review to one location - it might be the business's own website or a reviews site, sometimes it involves using the business's internal feedback mechanism - and then inviting only those that write a complimentary review there to copy it to Google. It leaves a paper trail a mile long for the CMA to follow.
  • the 'app trap'. Seen most commonly with apps (apparently apps live or die by their rating): the consumer is asked to rate the app/product/service and then - here's the 'clever' part - if they rate it five stars the 'review' is published, anything less and the 'reviewer' is diverted to a customer service questionnaire to establish why they didn't rate the business fave stars - and no review ever appears.
  • incentivising. We have seen both cash and Amazon vouchers offered to customers, sometimes for 'a review' and sometimes for 'a 5 star review'. Both are against Google and most reviews sites' terms and conditions. The latter is a breach of the CMA regulations.

...and now the unintentional...
  • using a reviews solution that breaks the law (1). Businesses might reasonably expect that most of the reviews solutions that are being actively marketed in the UK today are legal and above board. Take 'closed' reviews sites - those that allow the business to choose who is invited to write a review, but where a customer cannot write a review direct to the site. Sounds reasonable at first glance, doesn't it? But it's non-compliant with the core CMA regulations - that state that if a business invites any of its customers to write a review it must allow all of them to do so. We meet businesses using such solutions that think they are compliant because they do invite all their customers to write a review. The problem is that they don't see hat they are in contravention of the second fundamental CMA regulation that states that the consumer must be able to write their review at a time of their own choosing - and it's not enough to say that they can hunt out the email from months ago to do so.
  • using a reviews solution that breaks the law (2). There are reviews sites that incorporate mechanisms that place the onus on the reviewer to prove that they have a) used the business in question and that b) their review is true. Surprising as it may at first seem, these also contravene the CMA regulations - not because the CMA wants to see reviews published by people who have not used the product or service under review, but because they realise that such mechanisms have the potential to be manipulated by businesses to deflect or delay uncomplimentary reviews.
  • Reacting to negative reviews (or 'blitzing'). Commonly done by businesses that have had little or no prior engagement with reviews. The business in question gets one or more negative reviews and its reaction - quite understandably - is to do 'whatever it takes' to 'rectify the situation'. This will often involve a mixture of 'intentional' breaches - often justified by saying 'it was so unfair, the impression the negative review(s) created, we just had to do something, and quickly'. The business in question is invariably shocked when told that this behaviour is illegal.

Strategies - in addition to those above - that some businesses think are compliant include...
  • including an invitation to post a review in their email signature block
  • combining a review invitation with their CRM software to 'ensure all customers are invited to write a review'
  • mentioning/showing reviews from a reviews site on their websites, but with no live feed
  • showing selected reviews - from Google or a reviews site - on their websites


HelpHound will provide you with half-an-hour's advice free of charge (you can visit us or we will speak to you - phone or Skype). During that half hour we will look at your current review management policy and comment on...
  • its effectiveness - in driving business and/or enquiries
  • its compliance with the CMA regulations
  • potential improvements
...after which you can decide whether you would like to understand more about what HelpHound does for its clients. 

Further reading...

Monday 10 September 2018

Who is right - Google or Trustpilot?

In yesterday's Sunday Times there was an article about a business called Payday Refunds. Now, we make no comment on this business, but it does serve to highlight the minefield that is the current state of the reviews marketplace.

And we use the word 'marketplace' advisedly, because, aside from Google, reviews services - including our own - are commercial businesses (yes, we know Google is a business, but in this context they provide their reviews vehicle FOC).

So lets look at Payday Refunds on Google...

...and now on Trustpilot (where they are paying - you can tell by the word 'Collecting' next to their - 'Great' - star rating)...

...and where they are using Trustpilot's 'quarantine' system...

Note: review written on 29 August, remains in 'quarantine' as of today's date (10 September).

What we will say is that there are unusual similarities - and a marked anomaly - in the business's five star reviews (all of which we show here)....

...did you spot them?

  • very similar in tone and content (of itself, no proof of anything untoward)
  • People called Leslie, Paul and Jackie have each written two reviews, ditto above
  • with the exception of one written on 29 August, all written on two days last month - and none since

That last point is odd. It may be due to a failure in the business's review gathering systems or some other cause (staff holidays?). We will continue to monitor and report if we see anything of interest.

The important issue

For online reviews to be of any help for consumers at all, they must be reliable, not 'slightly reliable' or 'nearly reliable', just plain and simple reliable. And they must not be able to be manipulated by businesses. At HelpHound we have well-documented issues with Trustpilot's quarantine process - expressly because we think it has the potential to be manipulated by businesses (see here - and for those who want much more detail there's the whole Purplebricks saga with reviews here).

Simply put, we question any business that uses any reviews mechanism other than Google. Why not use Google? It's free, it has credibility in spades, and - way beyond and other mechanism - it has visibility.

This last question - why would any business use any reviews mechanism but Google? - deserves an answer, and it's very straightforward: they are afraid. Afraid that they will fall victim to unfair, misleading and/or inaccurate reviews. And they are right. That is one of the main reasons HelpHound exists - to provide pre-publication moderation. Without this most businesses find themselves in contravention of the CMA regulations by selectively inviting customers to write reviews to Google, for fear that if they comply - and invite all their customers to write a review - they will be unfairly represented.

At HelpHound, we hope that the CMA will take action soon (they have the teeth, it's simply a question of when and how they choose to use them) to ensure that business are not manipulating their chosen review mechanism. Meanwhile we will continue to spread the word: that there is a way. A way for businesses to engage with reviews, on their own websites and on Google, safely and compliantly.

Saturday 8 September 2018

Estate agents - if you're paying Rightmove the best part of £1000 a month to list your properties....

...then surely it's worth investing just another hundred* to impress your potential fee-payers?

Let us explain. Your potential fee earners,vendors and landlords, all look at your website and almost all** search for you on Google. 

So why wouldn't you want to look like this...

...and this...

...and this...

...on your website?

And this...

...and this...

...and this...

...and this...

...and this...

on Google?

And there's more...

  • you will be compliant with CMA regulations (that state that if you invite anyone at all to write a review you must allow all of your customers to write a review at a time of their own choosing).
  • you will benefit from HelpHound's moderation - that will ensure, as far as is compliantly possible, that no inaccurate misleading or - dare we say it, fake - reviews appear anywhere
  • you will have full-time support - to ensure you make the very best of the opportunity that proper professional review management brings

If you are still harbouring any doubts at all, first read this (it's all about how you will be able to tell exactly how many more calls and clicks-throughs you can expect) and then speak to one of our clients (if you don't know one, we will be happy to introduce you).

Oh! and HelpHound are review managers not a reviews site - this article explains the fundamental difference. 

*Less actually - from £95 downwards (discounts for multiple locations)

**potential clients coming from the portals often by-pass Google search

Monday 3 September 2018

Why would a business use Bark instead of Google?

We received this email today...

...from a company called Bark. It got us thinking - just why would a consumer, or a business for that matter, use such a business?

Their pitch

As far as we can establish, Bark's pitch is as follows...

  • for consumers: tell us what kind of service you require - architect, personal trainer, bookkeeper and so on - and we'll have them contact you to quote
  • for businesses: we'll get you leads
But doesn't this business model ring a bell? Is that bell by any chance called Google?

And isn't there a big difference? There sure is - while customers who contact you via Google cost you nothing (unless they come via PPC) any leads you decide to accept via Bark (and other similar lead generation businesses - Checkatrade, Local Heros and so on) will cost your business money. We have no issue with that - similar business models have existed sine the dawn of time - but we were interested to see that Bark's charging was pretty opaque...

There's more on this here

...and that they use Trustpilot, where many of their customers (both consumers and businesses) are far from happy, scoring Bark a lowly 7.7/10...

Our advice to businesses

Look great on Google - that's where consumers are looking.

Our advice to consumers

Look for a highly-rated business or service on Google - and implement the Google filter before you search - then you will only see the very best businesses (those that score 4.5 or more).

Sunday 2 September 2018

Come on schools - give parents a helping hand

This article was prompted by an advertisement in Saturday's Times...

You are choosing a school for your child, so you read this advertisement. And you are going to use every other resource available: friends, colleagues, the school websites and reviews.


Do parents really use reviews to help them choose a school? Well the answer, currently, is that they try to. How do we know this? Because Google helpfully tell us. Let's take just one example, heading up the advertisements in the supplement above, UCS Hampstead. First let's see how we know that prospective parents are searching for reviews...

...there we are. The fourth most popular search is 'UCS Hampstead reviews'. Interestingly way ahead of 'A level results' - and we know how seriously schools (and prospective parents) take those. 

And what is the first thing a lot of interested parents will have done after reading the advertisement? That's right - they will have searched online. So what are schools doing to ensure their prospective parents get a great - even fair - impression when they search online? The answer, currently, is 'not a lot'. UCS is in exactly the same boat as almost every other school advertising in the Times yesterday...

...Helpful? No, we thought not too.

So what should UCS Hampstead and other schools be doing? Here's a simple five-point guide...

  1. Invite stakeholders to review them 
  2. Have those reviews moderated by an independent body (HelpHound?) to ensure, as far as possible, that they are genuine
  3. Publish those reviews on the school website
  4. Invite their reviewers to copy their reviews to Google
  5. Respond to all their reviews

Addressing schools' concerns

These break down into three simple headings...

1.  That they will attract malicious reviews, principally from pupils (of the school or other schools), ex-pupils or others.

2.  That stakeholders will resent being asked to write a review

3.  That the process will be difficult to manage

Our answers...

Three months ago a private school agreed to be a 'guinea pig' for HelpHound. They were reassured... 
  • that HelpHound had a wealth of experience in managing reviews for complex high-value businesses
  • that HelpHound provides much more than just software and moderation - we support our clients every step of the way
...and that HelpHound would address the three issues above as follows...

1.  Malicious reviews would be addressed by our moderation system pre-publication.

2.  That, far from resenting the invitation to review, our experience suggested that stakeholders would actively appreciate - welcome even - being asked to voice their opinions.

3.  That the process would be very straightforward and compliment their existing communications with stakeholders.

The results

We are pleased to report that the exercise has been a great success. The reviews - which we have hosted 'off-site' (i.e. not on the school's own website) until now are about to be transferred to the school's own website, and if you read just one you will understand why...

...and the same applies to the School on Google where they has one single-word review - albeit that word was 'Fab!' - and a single rating (a rating is where someone has allocated stars but no words, not very helpful) before joining HelpHound...

So, schools, before you embark on your next round of advertising, adopt HelpHound and harness the power of reviews. Your prospective parents will thank you for it straight away, and their children will thank you for it when they have the kind of experience we see reviewed above.