Thursday 28 January 2021

Reviews - a guide for consumers

Some businesspeople reading this may wonder what an article directed at their customers is doing here. The answer is pretty straightforward: to understand how review management works in any depth it is vitally important to understand how consumers view and interact with reviews. It is also sometimes useful to have a ready response to the question 'Why should I do as you ask [and post a review to your website/Google]?'. 

To begin with, let us take a brief look at the evolution of online reviews. In the days before the web consumers had three main resources when it came to identifying the right service or product for their needs:

  • prior experience of the business or product in question
  • word of mouth: friends, neighbours, or colleagues who had previous experience of the business or product in question
  • 'professional' reviews published in the media
And one smaller one:
  • the 'Which?' organisation - with, currently, half-a-million subscribers
This all changed with the advent of what generally became known as Web 2.0. Web 2.0 was the nickname given to the interactive web, led by forums and evolving into social media - where the web moved from enabling businesses to simply offer their wares and services to consumers interacting with those businesses through their websites and other sites independent of the businesses.

Early examples

One obvious example, known to us all, is TripAdvisor. Founded as an online travel agency pure-and-simple, TripAdvisor stumbled upon the power of reviews almost by accident: here's TripAdvisor's founder, Steve Kaufer, in a BBC interview back in 2014...

"We started as a site where we were focused more on those official words from guidebooks or newspapers or magazines. We also had a button in the very beginning that said, 'Visitors add your own review', and boy, did that just take off."

Even more review-focussed from day one was Angie's List. Founded pre-web as a simple list of local building contractors, its evolution into a sort of Which? for US consumers - with about the same market penetration - has been driven by reviews attached to each listing.

Then came the first of the all-encompassing - in theory at least - sites: Yelp! Yelp aimed to be a one-stop site for consumers requiring peer reviews of businesses. 

All three had their drawbacks:
  • TripAdvisor was, by its very nature, restricted to hospitality businesses and to this very day is dogged by accusations that it is far too easily gamed by interested parties: the businesses bigging up their own listings and their competitors doing their very best to knock them down.
  • Angie's List began as a subscription-only service - like Which? - at a time when one of the key buzzwords on the web was 'make content free'. As a result it tends to gain subscribers when they are in 'spending mode', specifically around home moves, and lose them when that need declines.
  • Yelp! has never managed to square its business model with its conflicting stakeholders' (and shareholders') needs. It sells uplifted listings and CPI advertising which is distinctly unpopular with major brands and some of its core target audience - SMEs and their customers. The SMEs resent paying to appear in search and consumers resent what they see as paid-for shills heading their results.

Product reviews

While all this US activity had centred mainly around service businesses, from hotels to pizza parlours, in 2007 a Danish entrepreneur noticed a gap in the market: product reviews. Along came...
  • Trustpilot: predicated on the idea that consumers are far more likely to buy a product, whether that be a shirt or a washing machine, that is highly-rated by their peers. A free alternative to Which? if you will (but hosting consumer, rather than expert, opinions).

So what now?

You can see there is now - at least there was back in 2015 - a website catering for every consumer need for reviews. And that, in itself, was, besides being a solution, a part of the emerging problem: consumers - and businesses - were beginning to be confused by the variety of review solutions out there. Which to use when? Look at travel and hospitality alone:
  • Tripadvisor
  • Trivago
  • Expedia
  • Orbitz
  • Travelocity
  • Kayak
  • Hotels combined
Just examining the pros and cons of one of these would take up a whole article - and often has (see 'Further reading' below)!

But then, thankfully for all concerned, along came a business with the reach and the resources to cover virtually the whole spectrum, and for free. And the name of that 'Johnnie come lately'? Google.

Google enters the reviews sphere

Google, as is its habit, tiptoed into the world of reviews, first via the now-defunct Google Places and then Google Maps. When they were confident they had their offering right they brought it right forward into the prominent place in all Google searches it maintains to this day.

What did Google get so right?

1.  By its very nature: coverage. There isn't a business in the free world that isn't listed on Google. Google hosts reviews of all businesses. Near you. Or anywhere on earth.

2.  Visibility: Google is the gatekeeper. Everyone has to go through Google, so everyone sees Google reviews. Back in 2017 Rightmove conducted a survey on behalf of estate agents and asked respondents about reviews, here is the result...

'Where reviews were read, most (42%) were on Google, followed by agents’ own website (36%), Trustpilot (11%), allAgents (6%) and Feefo (2%).' 

..and we're betting the Google figure would be far higher if they conducted the same survey again today.  

3.  Credibility: one of the main stumbling blocks of other reviews sites is the ability - for businesses and consumers alike - to be confident that their reviews are being written by genuine customers of the business concerned. Google has a huge advantage here, and one it is yet to make real capital of, it knows where the reviewer has been, what they have searched for and, almost always, who they work for, as well as a plethora of other information. 
Google reviews, for that reason alone, invariably win for credibility. They can be trusted - and they are. That doesn't mean that there are not some very 'wrong' Google reviews out there (see 'Moderation' under 'Further reading' at the bottom of this article), but it does mean that Google knows who wrote them.

 4.  Product reviews? Google have those covered too: for free (sorry, Trustpilot)

Now some 'tricks of the trade'

With reviews now being so critical for businesses (the Harvard Business Review has conducted extensive research directly correlating business flows with review scores), you will not be surprised to hear that some businesses will go to extreme lengths to ensure they look good. Here we will outline some of the most common wheezes - when we say 'wheezes' we are being polite, what we actually mean is 'deception' and 'illegality' - and show you how to spot them.

  • Cherry-picking: the business only asks customers who it knows will rate them five stars to post reviews. It is illegal but very common. How to spot? The only sure-fire way is to either become a customer and see if you get asked to post a review or ask someone else who has used the business if they were asked. Ex-employees often give the game away and the CMA, in the UK, have the power to sequester emails to see if all customers have been invited. Just ask to write a review; if the business says anything along the lines of 'You have to wait until...' or 'You cannot unless...' alarm bells should ring.
Another cherry-picking giveaway is the pattern of the business's reviews. Does it reflect the volume you would expect? Or is it 'lumpy' - many reviews one month and none the next.
  • Gating: a sophisticated version of cherry-picking, against the law in the UK and Google's own terms of service. It involves inviting customers, sometimes every customer, to either write a review to a little-known site or complete a 'customer survey'. The business then only invites those who have indicated complete satisfaction to go on to write a Google review. If Google sees it happening they will delete all of the business in question's reviews, unilaterally, without giving the business recourse to appeal - despite this we see it happening often. How to tell? A major disparity in the business's score on the reviews site of their choice and Google (review site low, Google high) and significantly higher volume of reviews to the reviews site than to Google.
  • Controlling the timing: where the business sends out the invitation to write the review at the most favourable time for getting a positive response, commonly done by online retailers within a week of purchase; that action is not, of itself, illegal unless the customer is then unable to return to write a further review at a later date (or modify their original review, which is the case with Google). One high-profile UK review site operates in this way. With Google the reviewer can edit their review at any time and as often as they like. How to spot? Simply ask the business where you can write a review - now. If the answer is 'I'm afraid you will have to wait until we invite you' head for the hills.

So: our advice to consumers

Maybe worth spending a few minutes reading the actual reviews of the businesses - estate agent (£2,780), conveyancing solicitor (£1,046), removals firm (£1,181), mortgage broker (£450) - you're considering using?

Use Google. When you are considering using any business whatsoever, but especially high-value service businesses where a wrong choice could cost you thousands - financial and legal services, medical and health services, estate agency and the like. 

Read the actual reviews themselves. So many consumers see a headline score - after all 4 out of 5 is OK, isn't it? NO! 4 out of 5 means that twenty percent of that business's customers rate the business 1 out of 5, and, given that you cannot rate a business less than one..!

Question the business about its negative reviews. Read its responses to those reviews.

If the business has few - or even no - Google reviews, ask them why.

Be especially sceptical of any business that uses any other review mechanism. Ask them why they use [Trustpilot/Yelp/Feefo...]. And ask them why they do not use Google - it's free, after all, and they will be paying the others.

Isn't this all a bit long-winded?

Yes - if you're buying a pizza. But not if you're choosing an oncologist or an estate agent. where the former may be a case of life and death and where you will be paying tens of thousands in fees to the latter.

Where does HelpHound fit into this scheme of things?

A typical HelpHound client's homepage: the 'Write a review' button at top right enables anyone - anyone at all - to write a review whenever they choose to do so, the button to its left enables anyone wishing to read all of the business's reviews to do so, instantly. This gives the business's reviews credibility which, when combined with the ensuing automatic invitation to copy the review to Google, is as absolute as can possibly be. We can confidently - and proudly - say there is no superior solution to reviews in the third decade of the 21st century than this.

HelpHound began life as a review site, but we soon realised that we could add far more value, for both businesses and consumers, if we became an intermediary; providing advice and moderation to businesses and the ensuing really high-quality reviews for consumers.

This meant that we were ideally placed when Google entered the marketplace: we could recommend Google reviews wholeheartedly to our business customers while they learned very quickly to value our service as moderators. All our business clients' invite the reviews you see displayed on their website using our software - and this enables our moderators to check every review for factual inaccuracies and potentially misleading comments pre-publication. 

This service is vital if reviews are to add value for both business and consumer. And we are happy to say it has proved itself and continues to prove itself day-by-day. As a consumer, you can be sure that a HelpHound's client's reviews - whether on their own website or on Google - are a true reflection of the business you are considering.

Further reading...

  1. Moderation - the vital ingredient in professional review management
  2. Trustpilot - taking the 'trust' out of reviews? and criticism from the Times analysed
  3. Independent review sites - the unintended consequences for a business's Google rating
  4. Compliance: the CMA regulations and the law
  5. Yelp! - the largest review site on the planet departs the UK and the EU
  6. Gating - the Google ban and the consequences of flouting it
  7. Cherry-picking - some examples and more advice

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