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...

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