Wednesday 22 April 2020

ABC of Reviews: 4. Where should your reviews be seen?

Simple answer? On your own website and on Google, unless you are in a niche business sector with an overwhelmingly dominant specialist reviews site (TripAdvisor for hospitality, for example, where you will need reviews on both Google and TripAdvisor).

Why Google?

This search - on mobile, where, by some estimates over 90% of all searches are made nowadays - shows just how important, and dominant, Google reviews have become. Oliver Field Associates scores 4.4 on a review site...

...but just how many potential customers see that, compared with their score of 2.7 on Google? The answer: very few. Consumers have come to rely on Google reviews; even more importantly they have come to use Google scores as a shorthand guide. For better or for worse this means that customers are choosing businesses with a Google score of 4.5 or better and those with a significant number of reviews (our benchmark is 'at least 50').

Google is the universal gatekeeper. If a potential customer is looking for you - or a business that sells the product(s) or service(s) you provide - they are going to see your Google score and your Google reviews - or the lack of them, every single time they search, even if they are not consciously looking for them (they may be simply looking for your address or phone number).

Why host reviews on our own website?

Because hosting reviews - independently verified reviews - on your own website is proven to increase click-throughs and other contacts, it's as simple as that. They also reinforce all your other marketing efforts - adding a vital element of credibility: not only do you, in common with all your competitors say 'choose us' but so do the very people who have chosen your business in the past and have first-hand experience of it. Powerful stuff.

The underlying question, of course, is 'just how do we show reviews on our site?' For if you simply display them they cease to be reviews (in the accepted legal sense - a business must not have control over the display of its reviews) and revert to being simple testimonials with all the 'Oh, you must have made them up/got them written by friends and family.' kind of baggage inherent in those. 

If you do host independently verified reviews on your own site Google may pull them through, along with their score and star rating, to show in natural search, like this...

They will also show them - and link to them - in 'Reviews from the web' in your Google knowledge panel, just above the rich snippets (the three edited extracts from your Google reviews that you see here)...

What about the other reviews sites?

The stockmarket reacted to Google's entry into the reviews market by downgrading shares in the quoted reviews sites. Here you see Yelp's share price falling from its peak of $97 in early 2014 to less than $20 today.

Sites like Yelp, Trustpilot and Feefo make their living from hosting reviews and then selling that function to businesses. It is no accident that all three were founded before Google moved into the business of reviews. Google has simply made them redundant. There is not a consumer on the planet who doesn't recognise a Google review - or score - these days. Focus on Google and your own website and you will have a reliable long-term solution to reviews.

Why do some businesses continue to use reviews sites?

When businesses pay for a reviews site they often expect that reviews site to 'side with them'; the CMA regulations and Google's terms of service expressly forbid that.

The answers to this question are many and varied, and we have extensive experience of client businesses that have used these sites in the past. The only valid answers are as follows:

  1. The site in question is still a major influencer in our industry - e.g. TripAdvisor in hospitality.
  2. The business sells a range of products and it needs to show a rating for each individual product, a function that Google does not currently provide unless you have a Google Merchant Center account.

Before considering a reviews site, we always suggest read that site's reviews on rival sites. Here are just three - of hosted on Trustpilot. We will leave you to come to your own conclusions as to the authors' motivation...

Invalid answers include:

  1. The reviews site allows us to control the timing of the email inviting the review and denies anyone not in receipt of that invitation the right to post a review (this is illegal, but the practice remains widespread).
  2. The reviews site allows us to select which reviews we display on our own website (again, illegal).
  3. The reviews site allows us to challenge negative reviews by insisting on proof of purchase from the reviewer. This may sound reasonable at first, but in the real world results in a huge barrier for the reviewer which is precisely why the regulators have outlawed this practice.
  4. We were promised [insert benefit] by the salesman for the reviews site.

So: as we said in the first line of this article, with very rare exceptions, your reviews should be seen...

  • on your own website 
  • on Google

Tuesday 21 April 2020

ABC of Reviews: 3. What if your business does nothing?

Behind this question invariably lurks that dreaded emotion: fear. A perfectly rational fear born out of the experience of reading reviews of other businesses, that by engaging with reviews your disgruntled customers (and we all have them!) will impact and even dominate your business's reputation. It is this fear that must be addressed before any steps are taken along the road to effective review management.

So here are some answers:

Note: we have used the medical profession to illustrate this article for two main reasons: firstly, consumers place a very high value upon reviews of medical services and secondly because some business people think 'my relationship with my customers/clients/patients/guests is so personal they won't want to write a review' and you don't get a relationship any more personal than that between a medical practitioner and their patient.

1.  Exactly that - nothing - may be the result. It will, initially at least, result in your business looking like this in search...

 But do be aware that Google will helpfully display these five suggestions immediately underneath where the business's reviews, if it had any, would normally be (you might be surprised to learn just how many searchers believe these have been hand-picked by Google on a subjective basis):

2. Some of your really happy customers - rarely many (just think for a minute, how many Google reviews have you personally written unprompted?) - will go ahead and write reviews anyway, so you will look like this...

3. Your worst fears will be realised anyway. Remember that anyone can write a Google review at any time, they don't need your permission...

4. Your business will begin to lag even further behind your competitors in local search...

...and note that searchers are able to select a minimum score to narrow their choice down to highly-rated businesses, in this case, those scoring 4.5 or higher (see 'rating' right under the Google logo). We soon expect them to refine this further to include both rating and a minimum number of reviews).

5. Most important of all, your business will miss out on looking like this...

This recent client of ours specialises in treating women for issues arising from the unpleasant side-effects of the menopause. It is hard to think of a more personal issue upon which to write a review yet these women have realised what a huge benefit they provide for their fellow sufferers by doing so. If you take the time to read the reviews themselves - google the Harper Clinic, we promise what you see there will prove to be a real eye-opener - you will see just how powerful even a small number of well-written and relevant reviews can be.

So: doing nothing is almost certain to expose your business to negative reviews as well as depriving your business of a really powerful marketing opportunity. All businesses should engage, the only question - which will be comprehensively answered in this series of articles - is 'how?'.

Some statistics:

The following chart is taken from an in-depth study made by three professors at Columbia University in 2019:

What it shows, for Yelp - an open reviews platform very much like Google - is that, while most customers (67%) write positive reviews a significant number (19%) will write less complimentary - and potentially harmful - reviews. Without a resilient review management strategy in place, a business risks 'conforming to the norm' with a review profile such as this. 

Monday 20 April 2020

ABC of Reviews: 2. The Law

It should be so simple. The law states - unequivocally - that any business that invites any customer reviews, to any platform (and that includes Google and the business's own website as well as sites like TripAdvisor, Trustpilot and Feefo) must comply with these two basic rules:
  • all customers of the business must be able to write a review at a time of their own choosing
  • the business must not selectively invite customers to write reviews
But what do we see, on a daily basis?

1.  businesses selectively contacting 'happy' customers asking for a review - leaving a paper trail for the regulators (and plenty of evidence for their competitors).

This is the single most important breach that businesses will attempt to justify. We hear variations on the following:

  • surely they don't expect us to invite [insert name of customer the business knows will write a negative review]?
  • but if we invite everyone won't only our unhappy customers will write reviews?
  • but we know [insert name of competitor] is being selective, so why shouldn't we?

None of these are defences against breaching one of the CMA's core rules.

This is just one paragraph from the open letter the CEO of the CMA has published. For the complete text and an explanation of the rules, see this article.

2. businesses controlling the timing of the invitation, commonly immediately after the transaction has taken place - paper trail ditto.

The objective of the CMA regulations is to ensure that reviews are a) helpful for consumers and b) not manipulated by the business. Again we hear:

  • our customers are happiest just after we have delivered our goods/services
  • we want to ensure we get reviews from bona fide customers

Both are fair comments. Let's examine them in a little more detail: in the case of a) nowhere in the CMA regulations is there an allowance for businesses 'maximising' their chances of either getting a review or getting a positive review. The consumer comes first and last as far as the CMA is concerned. With b) the CMA's rules are designed so that all stakeholders are treated equally, not just the 'registered customer' on the business's books, and that means anyone who comes into contact with any business in any way. This, therefore, includes those who contact the business and decide, for one reason or another, not to proceed with a purchase or go as far as using the business's service. 

There is a subset of the above that has achieved some popularity, and it's known as gating. Gating is the practice of using a mechanism - this can range from a simple email to a more complex 'customer survey', or even an app or a reviews site - to identify the aforementioned happy customers and only then invite them to post a review. This is not only illegal in the UK but also expressly contravenes Google's terms of service (when Google finds evidence of this it simply deletes all of the business's reviews - and there is no appeal).

Here's an example of a single business that appears to have all the bases covered (!) ...

Twenty-two reviews on Google with a score of 3.6, forty-four on Trustpilot and a (trust)score there of 3.5 and then twenty-seven on Feefo (an invitation-only site - see CMA regulations above) with a score of 4.9. Guess which they are using in their current TV marketing campaign?

The solution?

We will cover this in detail in this series of articles. Regular readers and clients already know the answer, but, in a nutshell, if we discount 'doing nothing' as a potential solution the only way a business can be compliant with the CMA regulations is to either have a Google reviews widget on its website or to adopt proper full-time review management. As we say: more later.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

ABC of Reviews: 1. Do reviews matter?

There are two straightforward answers to this question:

1. From a consumer perspective...

Consumers have come to rely more and more on reviews, especially for critical purchasing decisions. Critical purchases? You guessed right, we are not talking shoes or pizzas here (although consumers do read reviews of those) but the likes of financial, medical and legal services. In this context four things matter...

  • The location of the reviews: they must be as easy as possible to find - on the business's own website and then Google (more on this vital topic later).
  • The business's score: if this is under 4.5 out of five and there are alternatives for the consumer to choose from that are scoring 4.7 or 4.8 almost all potential customers will instinctively opt for the latter.
  • The number of reviews: studies confirm that fifty is the optimum number as the first step towards credibility (and the more over and above that number the better). Significant numbers of well-written reviews negate the cynical consumer reaction: 'they're just written by friends and family'.
  • The content of the reviews: great content convinces consumers to take the next crucial step - making contact. 
So: consumers want reviews. And consumers are influenced to use - or, at the very least, make contact with - businesses that host reviews on their own websites and look great on Google.

Reviews matter to consumers.

2. From a business perspective

Businesses now accept that great reviews - and the resulting reviews score  - drive business, but why did it take so long for the penny to drop for so many of them?

The answer is simple and can be summed up in one word: fear. Fear that inviting consumer reviews would damage their brand. A man walks into a bar and criticises a business and maybe two people are influenced; man writes a review like this on Google and just about every potential customer is influenced. Scary, no?

This is what we call a 'killer' review. It has not been written by a 'keyboard warrior' - it's her first-ever review - but by a customer who, on the face of the evidence provided, has every reason to be dissatisfied combined with every reason to want to warn fellow consumers. It helps provide the answer to the question of whether or not to engage with reviews: the business in question has not engaged, but that did not prevent this - highly motivated - customer posting her review where it would be seen and read by thousands of their potential customers.

Many (most?) businesses looked at reviews and saw two possible ways ahead, either ignore them completely or engage but ignore the consumer regulations - the law - and the reviews sites' own T&Cs.

Ignoring reviews leaves a business open to having its online reputation (for that read simply 'reputation') dominated by its unhappy customers - rightly or wrongly. Breaking the law, most often by hand picking satisfied customers to write reviews, not only leaves a business open to sanction by the regulators but is also obvious to its competitors,. Take this estate agency, for example...

...if they had a small handful of reviews it would be possible to conclude that they had all been written by genuine customers unprompted by the business. With 27 over the last four years and then four in a month one is forced to come to the conclusion that they have proactively invited only selected customers to post a review - which is in direct contravention of the CMA regulations (more later) and leaves them open to - perhaps justifiable - criticism by their competitors along the lines of 'of course they look great, they only invite a highly selective sample of their customers to write a review.'

  • not engaging, besides missing a great opportunity to drive business through search and your website, leaves the way clear for a tiny minority of your unhappy customers to dominate the impression created
  • engaging is a must, but just how to engage and stay the right side of the law? That is the $64,000 question
And one to be answered in a future article, now we have established the answer to the question posed in the title of this piece.

Reviews matter to businesses.


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Wednesday 8 April 2020

The ABC of Reviews

Consumers - they'll be back. And when they return those businesses that look great in search...

...will benefit.

But it is clear from what we see crossing our desks and screens every day that the level of knowledge amongst many managers when it comes to reviews is still fairly basic. Businesses are commonly flouting the law or committing other acts of self-harm, so we are taking the opportunity presented by this lockdown to run a series of 'how-to' articles. If you follow these now, when activity picks up again you will see tangible financial benefits, we promise.

Here are the provisional subject headings and some may, at first, appear to be basic but we make no apologies for that; great review management is built on sound basics. 

  1. Do reviews matter? The key question all businesses must answer before they embark on any course of review management: will a proactive review management strategy win more business?
  2. Reviews: the Law - most businesses, wittingly or unwittingly, currently break the law regarding reviews. Some don't even realise that reviews are governed by the law.
  3. What will happen if we do nothing? A sensible question that all businesses should answer before taking the plunge (or not, as the case may be).
  4. Where should our reviews be seen? There are numerous sites that host reviews, as well as Google, so which one(s) to adopt?
  5. How will customers react when invited to write a review? This is a major concern, especially for businesses where technically, financially or medically complex services are at issue.
  6. How are other businesses gaming the system? You will have seen businesses boasting of their wonderful reviews and great scores. How did so many achieve them?
  7. Can we do it for nothing? You may be surprised by the answer to this question!
  8. Rewards and incentives. Now here's a minefield: can you reward customers for writing a review? Most sites that host reviews, including Google, have strict T&Cs when it comes to rewarding those who write reviews.
  9. Targets. What should a business aim for, in terms of flow, absolute numbers of reviews and scores? Here are some rules of thumb.
  10. Responding to reviews. The how, when and where of this thorny subject.

And Finally: Our pitch to you!


If there are any topics that are not covered in this list please don't hesitate to suggest them. There's a reward for any suggestion that we publish.

As these ten 'chapters' are written we will include a link to the title above, so you can bookmark this page and check back. Alternatively, you may subscribe to this blog and be sent the articles as they are published by entering your email address in the box to the right.

A word for those new to HelpHound

These articles are designed to inform so we're sure you will want to know something about the people doing the informing. HelpHound has been around for well over ten years now, so we have accumulated a wealth of experience about reviews: their impact, for good or for bad, on both businesses and consumers, the many pitfalls awaiting the unwary, the regulations, the law and Google's terms of service. We call this 'review management' to differentiate ourselves from the plethora of review sites.

  • HelpHound is a review manager, not a review site

We know reviews from every angle, we were once a reviews site and we have client businesses that have proven the concept of proactive review management over and over again. 

  • HelpHound prides itself on knowing more about the world of reviews than any other entity, worldwide.

Our only interest is in helping great businesses achieve more, we are not remunerated in any way by Gooogle or anyone else but our happy customers. Unlike the review sites - Trustpilot, Yelp, Feefo and the like - you own the reviews, not HelpHound. They are your customers, after all. We exist to enable you to display those reviews with complete credibility so your future customers will trust them and, by extension, your business and go on to take that vital step: making contact with you.

  • HelpHound only succeeds if you succeed (unlike review sites, which commonly budget for churn rates that can be as high as 25%, our pricing is based on 98% customer satisfaction, so we have a huge incentive to keep producing the goods for our clients, year-in year-out).

If you are asking one or more of the following questions:

  • will review management bring measurable financial benefits?
  • what are the potential risks and pitfalls, and how can these be mitigated?
  • what about the review sites' benefits and drawbacks?
  • should we be asking our customers to post reviews direct to Google?
  • If so, how do we protect ourselves against malicious or unfair reviews?
  • is our business currently complying with the law, and if not, how can we best comply?
  • is it legal to selectively invite our customers to write reviews?
  • is it legal to prevent certain people from writing a review?
  • is our business currently in compliance with Google's terms of service?
  • why is Google allowing searchers to filter us out of search (if we score less than 4.5)?
  • we have a score of [x] and [y] reviews on Google, is that sufficient?
  • What may/will happen if we continue to be non-compliant?
  • we have an unfair/inaccurate/malicious/misleading review on Google - what action should/can we take?
  • we have been sold a review solution that is not working - can we change now?

We will have the answer to these - and more, not a theoretical answer but the correct answer born out of hard real-life experience. Just a click or a call away - and you may even find some in the ensuing articles.

A note on charges:

Before we even think about charging a client a fee we conduct a thorough audit of all the business's exposure to reviews. This audit will include a summary of the status quo as well as our concrete recommendations to achieve the business's objectives.

We charge in two ways: a small monthly fee for our software and hourly fees for advice, in much the same way as your other professional advisers. We will tell you at outset, in writing, whichever way - often both, at least until your review management regime is properly embedded - will be the most appropriate for your business.