Wednesday 24 July 2019

The CMA act against fraudulent use of reviews

Last month the CMA announced a 'programme of work':

Here at HelpHound we have been warning that this was in the pipeline since 2017. This article was, as you can see, published in April 2017:

And we seriously commend it to any readers who have yet to study its contents.

The first action by the CMA has already been taken: they have contacted Facebook and eBay regarding the sale of fake reviews.

Where next?

We cannot be sure, but if we apply basic logic then it will look something like this:
  1. address review providers (the reviews sites) that allow or encourage businesses to defy the regulations
  2. address high-profile businesses that manipulate reviews in order to give a false impression of their business

Both of these in more detail:

The reviews sites:

Reviews sites are under intense competition from Google reviews, and Google reviews are free, so what 'benefits' are review sites offering businesses? Here are just two:
  • 'Quarantine': in examples we have seen (and documented) the reviews site in question allows the business - the paying business 'member' - to challenge reviews. These reviews are then withdrawn from the site until the reviewer provides 'evidence' that the transaction under review actually took place. on the face of it, fair enough. In reality, this function is being exploited by businesses to a) make it harder for a consumer to get a negative review published, if at all and b) when that review is - eventually - published it appears well down the list of recent reviews of the business, and is therefore much less likely to be read
  • 'Closed reviews sites': sites that only allow reviewers to post a review if invited to do so by their paying business 'member'. This enables businesses to exclude customers from the process altogether.

Manipulation by businesses:

The law states - categorically - that if a business invites any of its customers to post a review it must allow all of them to do so. It also states that this function must be available at a time of the customer's own choosing (on the day of purchase, the next week, the next month or a year later).

There is much more on this here.

Another commonly used ruse: invite reviews of 'product or service A' and then use those reviews to promote 'product B' (an example: the business collects reviews of one product, in this instance a vacuum cleaner, it then runs a marketing campaign for a brand-new product - an electric bicycle - referencing the rating acquired for the cleaner). 

How about inviting the review right at the beginning of the relationship? Upon order or, in one prominent case, for an estate agent upon instruction?

Or invite those simply calling your premises to rate the quality of the call (rather than your full service)?

One simple question:

Ask yourself 'is everything we do with regard to reviews designed to ensure a full and unvarnished picture of our business in the eyes of our potential customers?'

If the answer is 'Yes, but...' then we humbly submit that you should be speaking to us.

Why should Google help businesses that cheat?

Not a day passes when we don't come across a business that is gaming reviews. Some are even doing it accidentally (or at least they claim to be). But this behaviour is manifestly unfair on both their competitors and on the consumers that are misled by it.

What are these businesses doing? There's quite a list, some obvious, some more devious, all designed to mislead potential customers, all illegal*:

  • They are breaking the 'Cornflakes rule'; remember the competitions on the back of the packet when you were a child? They specifically excluded 'employees of the Kellog Company and those of all its agents and associates' from entering whatever promotion was then current. One of the first things many businesses do, especially if they consider they have been the subject of an unfairly critical review, is to get their staff and 'friends' to write a positive review.  
  • They are cherry-picking. Cherry-picking is defined in the CMA's regulations as the act of selecting those customers most likely to write a positive review - and it is illegal
  • They are gating. Gating is defined as pre-qualifying customers in order to be sure of their attitude to the business before going on to formally invite them to post a review, not only is this behaviour illegal, it is against Google's own T&Cs.
    • One subset of gating: email customers for 'feedback' ('the 'How did we do?' email) and then only invite those that respond positively to write a review
    • Another: the 'customer feedback survey': send out the survey and then invite positive responders to write a review
    • The most 'sophisticated': invite reviews to an independent reviews site that does not rank highly for given important searches, then invite those that rank the business 5* on that site to copy their review to the one site that matters (and is visible) above all others: Google

*illegal: reviews and their use are governed by the UK government regulator. For an analysis of these regulations read this article.

Google's attitude towards such behaviour

Google lives and dies by the quality of its search content; this means that it is constantly reassessing every relationship it has with the third-parties that deliver that content. Those third-parties range from individual businesses' websites to the reviews sites that currently belong to the Google ad partner scheme. This scheme was originally devised by Google to allow advertisers to attach their review ratings to their advertisements, but this was before two significant developments:

  • Google aggressively entering the reviews market themselves
  • Google becoming aware of the flaws - both regulatory and in terms of the potential for gaming - inherent in the reviews sites' business models and the potential for abuse by their business users

We understand that this scheme is now under review. 

Google reviews

Google reviews are by no means perfect, but they have significant advantages, both for consumers and for Google itself (and the regulators):

  • they are 'open': anyone can write one at any time
  • they are attached to a 'known user': Google can track the reviewer's other activity on the web
And for businesses:
  • visibility - they appear in every search on the business
  • longevity - Google is not going anywhere any time soon
  • credibility - in the scheme of things, Google has far more than a paid-for reviews site

Our conclusion

Google will either drop entirely or severely restrict the use and visibility of external reviews scores in the near future.

Meanwhile, we would encourage businesses to report any examples of abuse that they encounter to the Competition and Markets Authority:

Wednesday 10 July 2019

If HelpHound has just one message for your business...

It's all about maximising new business. Nearly two years ago we posted the first 'auditable' results for a client. They - the figures straight from Google - proved that adopting HelpHound had an immediate impact on the volume of calls to the business and clicks through Google to the business's website. Here is that report:

Our message - if your business could manage this kind of uplift in enquiries: join HelpHound, save your latest Google My Business report (if you don't know where to find it, just ask us) and then see just what impact it has on the numbers in your subsequent Google My Business monthly reports.

Monday 8 July 2019

Persimmon Homes closes Facebook group - the unintended consequence

The Times reports that "Persimmon housebuilders acquired the admin rights to the 'Persimmon Homes Unhappy Customers' group, which had almost 14,000 members. It subsequently shut down the group, deleting years’ of customer posts sharing problems with their homes."

From the business's point-of-view, this may look like a good idea, but is it?

The unintended consequence of closing off any avenue of customer grievance

In 2019 customers have many avenues they can choose from in order to air dissatisfaction:

  • Facebook (their own page)
  • Facebook - a dedicated group
  • Twitter (their own feed)
  • Twitter (the business's feed)
  • Reviews sites - Trustpilot/Yelp etc.
and then the big daddy of them all...
  • Google
Close off any of these and customers won't just stop complaining, they will use another mechanism (or a combination).

Our prediction - for the 14,000 people whose comments on the Persimmon Facebook page have now vanished into thin air? A combination of all the above, but mostly...

Facebook again - anyone can set up a new group - here's one:


And by far the most visible in any given search - and therefore harmful to the business...our old friend Google.

If word gets around that critical Facebook groups can be 'acquired' by the business they have been set up to criticise (Persimmon deny that they bought the group from its administrator - which would be against Facebook T&Cs) then the obvious avenue for customers to adopt is Google reviews - if only because the business cannot 'silence' them.

We will be keeping close tabs on all the avenues listed above and will report back, meanwhile, let us look at what a business such as this should be doing:

Be proactive

The first step is to acknowledge that customers will vent - and these days that venting will take place online. Here's the kind of example we are all used to:

Relatively harmless on its own, but in combination with a Google panel like this:

Indicates that the business is either a) not very good at what it does or b) has simply adopted the wrong customer feedback/online reviews solution.

The wrong feedback/reviews solution?

So many businesses have been led down the wrong road to independent reviews sites like Feefo and Trustpilot. These solutions are fine for online retail, but they are simply too 'one size fits all' for complex transactional businesses. They also suffer from a marked lack of visibility in search; when you search for a business online, what do you - and more importantly for business people reading this - your potential customers see? They see Google reviews, and your business needs to look like this if you want to receive calls and see clicks through to your website:

If a business employs the right feedback solution all but its most fervent detractors will use it (the proof is in the image of a Google search for a similar business above). In the case of Purplebricks they employ Feefo. Feefo is a 'closed' solution; in other words, it only allows customers nominated by the business to write a review and it also allows the business to control the timing of the invitation to write a review. 

This kind of reviews solution, besides being in contravention of the UK CMA regulations, drives dissatisfied customers to write reviews on Google, as you can see above.

And Winkworth? What did/do they do differently?

When Winkworth decided to take reviews seriously, back in 2016, they invited every serious player to pitch. HelpHound won - and HelpHound has delivered. How?

We won because we placed the focus fairly and squarely on Google reviews (as opposed to the others who were pushing their own sites). Google reviews were not nearly as ubiquitous back in 2016 as they are now, nor did they show nearly as prominently in search, but that's not the only aspect of our pitch that won the day - we have always combined the simple process of 'getting reviews' with advanced CRM; we recognise that customers can get confused and that some people even post malicious reviews, so we devised a mechanism that reassured Winkworth that they would not have to worry about misleading or just plain wrong reviews. It's called Resolution™ and the wider world knows it as moderation.

Moderation is essential for complex transactional businesses

147 reviews - every one moderated, and every one of the reviewers invited to copy their review to Google

Moderation is simple but somewhat labour-intensive. It involves every review being read by a real-live moderator (computers cannot tell the difference between a compliment and an insult - just think of the word 'hot' applied to a hotel room) before it is posted anywhere - to the business's website or to Google. It benefits everyone involved:
  • few consumers want inaccurate reviews published for all to see
  • no business wants an inaccurate review of its services - anywhere
Everyone benefits.

Tuesday 2 July 2019

'Agency saved from closure' runs the headline - did we need to read their Google reviews?

We are not for a single second saying that looking great on Google will save a business on its own - there are so many factors in play - but why is it that when we see a headline like this do we all sigh and say 'let's see what they look like in search?' So what does Wright Marshall look like in search?

We don't want to rub salt, but the lessons are far too important to ignore:

  1. None of their seven offices passes the Google filter
  2. Six of their seven offices score less than 4.0 - meaning that over twenty percent of their reviews are negative
  3. One of their offices has no reviews at all
  4. Six out of seven of their offices have less than ten Google reviews

This is not the end of the story - a low Google score means negative reviews, reviews like these:

Now, we've seen worse, far worse, but we also know that low Google scores and negative reviews deflect potential customers, especially when there are competitors that look good (and pass the Google filter):

And have reviews like these:

The sad thing is that looking good on Google a) is relatively easy (for a business that cares about its customers) and b) can cost anywhere from nothing to £100 a location a month.

Nothing: by simply enabling all the business's customers to write a review to Google*

Up to £100 a month: for a fully moderated review management service that will have your business looking like this in local search:

Our client (Winkworth) is not looking great (with a Google score of 4.9 and 104 Google reviews) in the Google 3-pack and leading organic search (with a score of 4.9 from 149 moderated reviews on its own website) by accident; they engaged HelpHound when they had less than a handful of reviews on Google (and none at all on their website). All their own reviews go through our moderation, so they and those reading the reviews can be sure they are an accurate representation of the business - and now they have the SEO kicker you see above and a reputation that drives clicks and calls in volume (see this case history).

*If you invite any of your customers to write reviews to Google you must, to comply with the UK CMA regulations, enable all of your customers to write a review, otherwise your business is guilty of cherry-picking. In addition, you must allow a review to be written at any time, so don't use an 'invitation only' system that is otherwise closed to potential reviewers. There's a full explanation of the regulations here.