Monday 29 April 2019

What do so many schools fail to grasp the massive opportunity Google reviews present?

This article was prompted by a piece in yesterday's Sunday Times about the head of Ebbsfleet Academy...

Whilst any rational human being could only have sympathy with the situation Ms Colwell has found herself unable to cope with any longer, there is maybe more to this story than meets the eye. Let's do what any prospective parent (or pupil or teacher) considering this school might reasonably be expected to do - let's look at its Google reviews.

Here's the Academy's headline score...

And here are just three of their seventeen one star reviews...

We're betting your first reaction, like ours, was 'why not address the school directly?' but we now live in an age of social media, like it or not. Our 'second' reaction?

Why has the school not engaged - and responded to these reviews? 'Why should they?' we hear some of you ask. Here's our response...

Whatever you may think of the truth or otherwise of these reviews, the motives of the people that wrote them and the rights or wrongs of the contentions contained in them, the school has done a disservice to all its stakeholders by not responding to them. By addressing - responding to - the reviews in an entirely positive manner the school would achieve the following...
  1. The reviews state many negative things about the school, its teachers, its attitude to discipline and its academic record. All of which can be addressed - for the benefit of the reviewer and, importantly, all those reading the review.
  2. By responding the school will show that it cares about what is being said about it and what impression is being created by one of the most powerful opinion-formers in the world today: Google reviews.

How about this - in response to Charlotte King?

"Dear Ms King,

I am saddened to see this review. Since my appointment as headteacher both I and my staff have addressed the very points you have detailed and, whilst I accept that we still have challenges ahead, we know that significant progress has already been made. Academic results are the best for seven years and incidents of violence and abuse, by both pupils and parents, are at a record low. Both our uniform and detention policies, which I accept are not universally popular (it is in the nature of teenagers to 'kick against' such discipline sometimes, I am sure you will agree) have been proven to work over the years since they were implemented at Ebbsfleet, as they have been at other similar schools. You also mention the difficulty you have in contacting reception; in this instance I am sure you will understand, with over a thousand parents, there will be times when reception is engaged. You have both the school email address and the mobile number of your son's heads of year and I would encourage you, and any other parent reading this to use those methods of communication where possible.

I also would urge you to come in and discuss the issues facing your son after such a short time at Ebbsfleet, I have asked [head of year] to make an appointment as soon as we can find a time that suits you. In the meantime please do not hesitate to email me directly on 

Now, to a school at the other end of the spectrum: private...

This school has made a significant investment in promoting itself to future parents. This is an Instagram advertisement:

This advertisement is costing the school around £1 per click - and what would most prospective parents, seeing this in their Instagram feed, do? A quick Google search? Highly likely, we would say, for what better guide to a school than the opinions of past and present parents and pupils (the school even references that in the strap-line of their ad)? So let us see just how much of a 'hit' the school is...

If this were an exam in maximising social media impact to support one's advertising we are not so sure the examining board would be awarding an A*. In an end-of-term report one might even expect the oft-used phrases 'could do better' or 'could try harder' to feature (although they have made an effort on Facebook, but no reviews there since 2016, and now Facebook have suspended their reviews function).

Everyone involved - parents, teachers and pupils but most important of all future parents and pupils, need schools to engage with modern methods or referencing, foremost among which are Google reviews.

So what should schools be doing? Here is a strategy that will achieve the ends that both school, parents and pupils both want and need:
  1. Invite all stakeholders to review the school by posting their comments to the school's own website
  2. Moderate those reviews to ensure factual accuracy* 
  3. Publish those reviews
  4. Invite everyone who has posted a review to the school's website to copy it to Google

Like this...

How helpful are these?

*Moderation: is essential to ensure that reviews are factually accurate for the benefit of all: the school, its pupils, its parents, its staff, prospective parents and pupils and the reviewer themselves. It is the answer to the question we pose in the headline of this article: schools are rightly afraid of an unmoderated reviews environment (which, ironically, is what they get if they do not engage with Google reviews) - there's more on this important topic here.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Reviews websites reviewed - some worrying results

Here we are going to take as dispassionate look at reviews websites as we can. This article forms the third part of our recent series of pieces aimed at driving reform of the reviews market in the UK - links to the other two articles can be found at the end of this piece.

Trustpilot: On Google...

Consists of….

5*        5
4*        2
3*        -
2*        -
1*        44

Further analysis…

The 5* reviews:

One of another business altogether...

One extremely tongue-in-cheek – we are assuming!

Now Trustpilot are immigration consultants!

 Next: ratings – not reviews – we would question their worth.

The first of these 4* reviews is from someone that wants a job with Trustpilot (only four stars?).

The second would appear to be for some kind of ‘technical service’, possibly another review of a Trustpilot client posted in error.

The remainder are all one star reviews, mostly conveying the same sentiments...

On their own site, where you might expect to make more sense...

Seriously? If nearly a quarter of your reviews rated your business 'poor' or 'bad' – on your own platform - would you begin to worry?

You don’t have to look far for reviews like this…

Now: on (a rival platform):

A Google search on ‘reviews of Trustpilot’ returns this…

 So we click through, to find this…

Then we close the pop-up warning, to see this…

Followed by a breakdown…

That shows that less than ten per cent of reviews rate Trustpilot at five stars.

So we read some of the five star reviews that have apparently – according to – been ‘written by Trustpilot employees’. Here are the most recent examples of five star reviews of Trustpilot on…

Forgive us, but they don’t look like Trustpilot employees’ reviews. They look like genuine reviews of other businesses that have been mistakenly left on Trustpilot’s listing.

So – becoming increasingly mystified – we check for reviews of on Trustpilot (a very much larger site) and what do we find?

Not so many reviews, but a similarly awful rating.  To be fair, we conducted the same Google search as we did for Trustpilot. don’t appear to have a Google knowledge panel but their ‘alter ego’ does, and here are all five reviews contained within it…

And here is what the search for ‘reviews of’ throws up…

Now some of you were thinking ‘they’ve forgotten Feefo. So here they are. In a Google search:

No reviews on Google, when even the smallest plumber in the UK has a handful? Maybe Feefo is small too? Let’s see what they have on their own site…

622 reviews, mostly 5*, and not one of their happy customers found their way to Google? Feefo on Trustpilot?

And on

In summary

You are probably as confused as we are by now. If you think you understand what is happening here please don’t hesitate to contact us – there’s a box below.

But much more important - what about consumers (and, in this instance consumers means businesses and their customers, because the business is the consumer when it buys the services of one of these reviews sites).

Our conclusion

The first question we ask ourselves – and anyone else we meet in our professional lives – is ‘Why not Google?’ Google reviews are by-far-and-away the most visible and most credible reviews on the web. They are just about the only reviews a business really needs. So why are businesses [still] using reviews sites?

We can only think of two reasons…

1.     Legacy: Google reviews only came to prominence after most reviews sites were established, so some businesses have stayed with the reviews solution they signed up to back in the day. They should be urgently reassessing that decision in the light of the above.
2.     They were sold: the reviews sites have sales-forces, Google (in the reviews context) don’t. No-one is going to phone your business and sell you Google reviews.


The only body with the power to resolve the confusion detailed above is the Competitions & Markets Authority - the UK government body directly responsible for reviews.

Some of you will have read our recent open letter to them, if you have not, it is here.

Further reading...

The future of reviews - could it be bleak?

Without such intervention we would suggest - and have suggested in this article - that reviews as a whole are in danger of losing all credibility, which would be a huge loss for consumers, as genuine credible reviews are a massive force for good.

The future for reviews - could it be bleak?

Writing in yesterday's Times - referring to the Sri Lankan's government's blocking of social media (Facebook and WhatsApp) after the horrific Easter bombings - Lucy Fisher, the Times defence correspondent said...

'The radical move would once have been condemned by the international community as the heavy handed tactics of a dictatorship determined to shut down free speech. In the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings last month, however, resignation is growing that the American companies that own and run these content and messaging platforms cannot sufficiently police themselves and enforce their own rules on content.'

So what has this to do with reviews? Let us try and explain (and please do feel free to comment). Here are five statements that might well have seemed contentious even eighteen months ago, certainly we would not have blogged them back then, but here we are, doing exactly that...
  1. The general public cannot trust reviews sites
  2. The general public cannot trust Google reviews
  3. Reviews can be bought or faked
  4. Neither the reviews sites nor Google have mechanisms in place to ensure that the reviews they publish are genuine 
  5. The regulators have done very little to address the situation
Let us examine each of these in more detail...

1. The general public cannot trust reviews sites

Pressure like this forces staff to get reviews from anywhere and everywhere they can (unless you believe this agent was completing in excess of ten sales a month!)

Reviews sites are paid for by businesses. This does not make them intrinsically unreliable, but it is interesting to talk to businesses that have used them. Invariably they make statements such as 'they allowed us to select who to invite and when to invite them' or 'they had a brilliant system that drove negative reviews straight to page two'. In addition to these very 'broad brush' complaints we have a detailed file on each of the major reviews sites going back over the years detailing patterns of review writing and suspect individual reviews.

2. The general public cannot trust Google reviews

Anyone with access to a computer can write a Google review. While the majority of Google reviews are undoubtedly genuine, we see evidence of businesses manipulating Google reviews every day (by cherry-picking, gating or simply asking 'friends, colleagues and family' to write reviews). This is not directly Google's fault, except that Google could, if it decided to do so, instigate procedures to identify and punish such reviews and practices. In Google's favour, they will, if presented with evidence, take action against firms that are gating (pre-qualifying reviewers).

3. Reviews can be bought and/or faked

You don't see advertisements like this on eBay (and many other sites) for no reason. These businesses have customers, and those customers are paying to have their Google (and other) scores inflated. Theses are just a selection from eBay today...

4. Neither the reviews sites nor Google have mechanisms in place to ensure that the reviews they publish are genuine 

Apart from Yelp's infamous 'filter' (that would appear to filter as many genuine reviews as it does fakes or malicious reviews) and Feefo's 'invitation only' system that relies on the business sending Feefo genuine customer email addresses, we see little effort by most reviews platforms to ensure the authenticity of their reviews or their reviewers, and few sanctions on businesses caught manipulating their systems. How many hotels have been 'red flagged'; by Tripadvisor? Ten? - in ten years? We could identify ten hotels in a single London postcode that regularly write negative reviews of their competitors.

5. The regulators have done little to address the situation

The CMA  - the UK government regulator directly responsible for consumer protection in the area of reviews has sanctioned one business since 2015. One. And here is the sanction...

And here is the full post on the CMA's website. Here are the CMA's regulations relating to reviews and our analysis of them. Here is our open letter to the CMA.

Why is this so important?

Because, increasingly, consumers base significant spending and investing decisions on reviews. Not just 'knitwear', but who to invest their life savings with, who to appoint to sell their house or who to entrust their healthcare with. Important, potentially life-changing, decisions.

It would easy for the government to simply say 'reviews cannot be trusted, they're banned'. But this would be to miss a wonderful opportunity to serve consumers' best interests.

Consumers' best interests

These are patently best served by having reviews that are genuine and therefore credible. There is an example for others to follow, and it's called HelpHound. At HelpHound we do everything short of forcing the system grind to a halt to ensure that our clients' potential customers are served genuine and credible reviews.
  • every single review is read by one of our moderators. They are trained to know what to look for and, while a very clever person would undoubtedly sneak a five star review past them on the odd occasion, they would never get a negative through without challenge; the chances of such 'fake positives' making a meaningful difference to an established HelpHound client's score, on Google or on their own site, are so small as to be negligible
  • reviews that contain assertions of fact or potentially misleading statements are always referred to both the reviewer and the business under review for clarification. This does not mean that negative comments are suppressed - far from it - just that those comments must be supported by the facts
  • We have a 'two strikes rule' that all our business customers sign up to when they join. This means that they are allowed one 'mistake' - one review that our moderators decide was written by a connected person (it is invariably a 'keen', often young and inexperienced, junior member of staff). After that they are on a warning, with the ultimate sanction being termination of their contract. How often in the last five years have we had to issue such a warning? Never. Simply because our clients get just how crucial the credibility of their review is
  • Overriding all the above is the core premise that, at the end of the day, the customer's right is to have their review, whatever it states, published on our client's site, and the automated invitation to copy that review to Google will follow as night follows day
So - if HelpHound can do it, why cannot others? That is a bit like asking 'why does Facebook allow live-streaming of mass murder?' - we don't know, we are not Facebook, but we do know what we would do if we were.

So come on government, come on the CMA, but most of all: come on UK Plc. Let's start giving consumers what they want. 

Genuine, reliable reviews of your businesses