Monday 11 May 2020

ABC of Reviews: 6. How are your competitors gaming the system?

We will begin this section with a challenge: find us a business outside the hospitality sector with more than a hundred reviews on Google that is not gaming the system (very, very few people will write a review of a service business without first being asked - we still come across reasonably large firms of financial advisers and medical practices that have no Google reviews).

Let us explain: 

Given that it is illegal to selectively invite customers to write a review or to control the timing of that review one would look for evidence that both of those requirements were being complied with. Here's the kind of thing...

This 'write a review' button you see just to the right of the star rating opens a box where anyone can write a review, whenever thy like. That does not stop the business asking, but it does mean that there is far less incentive for anyone with an axe to grind to go direct to Google to vent their spleen.  

Without a visible mechanism like this, there will always be the suspicion that the business is controlling the 'who' and the 'when'. We meet businesses who say...

  • 'but we email all our customers inviting them to post a review'
  • 'we have a link embedded in our email signature block that goes to a similar box'
But those two beg the questions...
  • define 'customer'? Is someone who came to a meeting but has not yet signed on the dotted line a 'customer'? No? But they are perfectly capable of writing a review. Is your customer's husband/wife/business colleague not just as much a customer, in spite of not appearing on your email database? Is someone who did business with you last year a 'customer'?
  • do all your customers, in the widest sense of the word, receive such emails? 
Reasoning like this comes under the heading of 'accidental gaming' where the business is doing their best, innocently breaching regulations or simply deflecting some stakeholders, for better or for worse, who want to write reviews. Deflecting them straight to Google (for a complete article on the acute dangers of such deflection read this).

Now we come on to those that are cynically and purposely exploiting reviews. Knowingly breaching one or more of the CMA regulations and/or Google's terms of service.

The 'selectors'

Businesses that intentionally cherry-pick (the CMA uses that term) happy customers and then only invite those to post a review. A refinement of this process is to choose a time when customers are at their most happy - when they have just bought a product (how do readers know that the shoes will wear a decent length of time?) or service (how can a client possibly be expected to judge their chosen financial adviser's abilities immediately post-investment?).

How can you spot them?

Cherry-picking is difficult to spot as an outside observer but very easy to identify for the regulators and Google; controlled timing is easier: multiple mentions of words such as 'I have just bought...', 'we have just instructed...' or 'our first experience of...' give the game away.

The 'filterers'

Also known as 'gating' - more here, filtering can be done in a variety of ways:
  • ask customers to complete a survey and incorporate a question asking them to rate the business/service/product from one to five stars. Then only invite those respondents that rate the business five stars to post a review [almost always to Google].
  • ask customers to post a review to one of the independent sites and then only ask those that have written a five-star review there to copy it to Google.
  • via an app.  You will have seen this one when you install some apps: you are asked to rate [the app] and if you score it less than five stars you will be directed to send a message as to why you did so to the business (you won't be asked to rate it publicly). Only those that give a five star rating will be asked to post a publicly visible review.

How can you spot them?

You cannot. Not unless you are part of the process - you have used the business in question and had your review filtered - or you know someone who is or has been (ex-members of staff are often a good source). Fortunately, this kind of activity invariably leaves an obvious and impossible to disguise paper-trail for the regulators to find.

The 'blitzers'

It's surprising just how many businesses do this, often in combination with one or both of the two actions described above. They accumulate email addresses over a period and then they make a single concerted effort. And that's fine unless that effort includes selection and/or filtering, which it invariably does.

How can you spot them? 

So easy: no - or few - reviews for a period then a slew, for no apparent reason.

Can an honest business hope to compete?

All of the above makes life extremely frustrating for honest businesses. But please don't succumb to 'if we can't beat them...' because you can, legally and legitimately and you won't have to wait until the regulators get round to sanctioning them. In these two ways...
  • the first thing to do is institute a planned review management strategy for your business - detailed advice on this will be covered in Chapter 10
  • next, take any competitor business where you have suspicions of malpractice and keep a very close eye on them. Speak to past members of their staff if and when you have the opportunity (it is astonishing how some businesses so easily forget staff mobility when encouraging law-breaking). Once you are sure they are in breach you can then at least explain to your customers why 'so and so' look so good when they ask.
Your medium to long term strategy should be to look as good as, if not better, than your competitors irrespective of whatever they may do. Like this:

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