Monday 28 June 2021

CMA to investigate Amazon and Google over fake reviews

Here is the full text of the CMA's announcement


The CMA has repeatedly stated its determination to address the manipulation of online reviews, ever since its first open letter on the subject back in 2016. 

They are, as is usual for government agencies, acting both top-down and bottom-up. This action is part of their top-down activity (bottom-up action currently primarily consists of reacting to whistleblowers implicating individual firms in breach of CMA regulations relating to cherry-picking and gating reviews).


We see more and more references such as this "online reviews were excellent" in the review content; just more confirmation of the value attributed by consumers of all kinds of goods and services.

The CMA's reason for taking action is straightforward: fake or otherwise unreliable reviews cause direct harm to the consumer, by misleading them into buying one product in preference to another, possibly of better quality or more suitable, or using one service over another less apparently well-regarded thanks to fake or manipulated reviews. 

Manipulation of reviews by businesses, whether by posting fake reviews, only inviting 'happy' customers to write reviews or by using other mechanisms - gating, for instance - to positively impact their review scores and/or to ensure an unrepresentative number of positive reviews are written is equally misleading.


Fraud - and therefore, by definition: breach of the CMA regulations - is widespread. Harm, in the context of product reviews, almost certainly impacts SMEs with limited marketing resources more than the consumer. The consumer may end up with a substandard product but the worst outcome will probably be 'throw it away and start again', highly irritating but survivable. 

But in the case of high-value services, the opposite is true: a patient that is misled by manipulated reviews into using a substandard medical professional or an investor misled into using a subpar investment adviser can be caused immense harm, physical, mental and financial, sometimes - often? - all three.

Reviews are trusted, currently

This is the crux of the matter facing the entire web, not simply Amazon and Google, and regulators worldwide: how much longer can the status quo persist without consumers being worn down by businesses abusing reviews, not to mention honest businesses being done down by their less-than-scrupulous competitors?

Take these two business's ratings and number of reviews on Google (let's call them A and B for the sake of anonymity):



Difficult to choose between them, right? On the face of it - absolutely, after all, what is 0.1 between friends?

But let's delve a little deeper; business A has this on their website:

It refers to the reviews the business hosts on its own site and includes a vital indication that the business is complying with the law, by inviting any customer and any visitor to their website to 'Write a review' whenever they feel like doing so.

Underneath the reviews is this link:

It leads directly to a full explanation of the review management system the business is using, which includes this important paragraph:

Business B?

It is difficult for consumers to accurately and definitely establish that any given business is contravening the regulations regarding reviews. But here are some pointers:
  • Does the business have anything on their own website that indicates that all of their customers may post a review at any time?
  • Are there any patterns in the business's reviews that give cause for concern? These may include...
    • no reviews for a period of months and then several in a short space of time; not necessarily non-compliant (if the business can prove they invited all their customers to post a review) but sometimes indicative of cherry-picking
    • patterns in the wording of reviews (the reviews consistently name-check members of staff, for instance)
    • locations of other reviews for the same reviewer indicate that it may be unlikely the individual reviewer has visited a certain geographic location (you may remember the case of the restaurant in Virginia that received hundreds of reviews from reviewers who had never used any other business in that state after they had denied entry to a prominent member of the Trump administration)
  • Does the business have significant numbers of reviews on a platform other than Google? This can be an indication of gating (the business invites everyone to write a review on the secondary platform - so compliant so far - and then goes on to invite only those who posted a 5* review there to post to Google)
  • Does the business make use of feedback mechanisms or customer surveys? Again, not conclusive evidence of gating, but a common enough way of establishing which customers are likely to post a positive review if subsequently asked

For the regulators

This is a very different story: the CMA has legal powers of investigation and confiscation and has used them in the recent past. Businesses that cherry-pick and gate leave a highly visible record of such behaviour on their computer hard drives that remains there for years to come. 

So: just because the CMA is not currently paying visits does not mean that businesses flouting their rules will not face action. We have consistently advised businesses that compliance is a priority and that the publicity flowing from a fine for non-compliance is simply not worth the risk. Especially given that they are able to take the route Business A has taken.

And finally...

Speak to us. Become compliant. Look great in search. Watch the calls and clicks mount up. Sleep at night.

Monday 21 June 2021

Can we help get a Google review removed?

It's a question we are asked every single day. And the answer, fortunately for the business involved, is 'yes'.

Or rather it is 'yes' if it fits a pretty stringent set of criteria.

But first, before we all expend a deal of time and effort and even hard-earned cash, let's look at the context.

Categories of review that harm businesses

We have all met the 'man down the pub' who is blase about reviews. He or she is unlikely to be in a position of responsibility in any business and they will come out with 'brave' comments such as...

'All reviews are written by idiots'

'I don't believe reviews anyway (because of the above)'

'Who on earth is stupid/ignorant/naive enough to believe reviews?'

...and so on. Ringing bells? Yes, we thought so. Unfortunately (or fortunately - read on), he or she is so wrong as to be dangerous. Dangerous to anyone who pays heed to their wild and almost wholly unsubstantiated assertions and dangerous to their own and their loved one's health, wealth, and general wellbeing.

Unfortunately, the fact that the overwhelming majority of the billions of reviews of businesses - we're not really concerned with product reviews here - that have been written in the last two decades are the subjective but genuine opinions of those who have experienced the business or service under review at first-hand does not make headlines in the media. On the other hand, businesses that play fast and loose with reviews in order to look good do. It is this coverage that has played to our friend's cynicism.

But there is, nevertheless, an important grain of truth in what they are saying: and that is based on the obvious fact that many people are not all that well qualified to judge whether or not their doctor/lawyer/financial adviser/estate agent has performed well or not.

  • do they know for certain that their recovery/continued health issue is the fault of their doctor?
  • can they be sure that their lawyer achieved the very best outcome possible?
  • have they made as good a return as they could reasonably expect from their pension arrangements?
  • did they sell/let their property for the maximum given the current market conditions?

All they can do is write that they, personally, were - or were not - satisfied. 

So does this help? If you put yourself in the position of someone who needs...

  • an oncologist
  • a family lawyer
  • an investment adviser
  • an estate agent
Where there are reasons why someone might be reluctant to seek personal recommendations (privacy, in the main). And the answer may well be 'yes'. But from the point-of-view of the business, the answer is more definite: it's an unequivocal 'yes'. How so? Because reviews have been around for near on two decades now, and, during that time they have been proven beyond all reasonable doubt to drive business in the direction of businesses that have gained critical mass in the reviews sphere.

A business that looks like this...

...will, all other things being equal, achieve many - many - more clicks and calls than a business that looks like this...

Same location, the same line of business. But chalk and cheese when it comes to creating the right impression in search, especially when those that have been impressed by the Google score and reviews click through to the business's website and see this:

But now we move closer to answering the question posed at the top of this article; given that reviews scores are crucial for the business that wants to continue to attract custom what can business No 2 do? Well, the first - and most obvious - thing would be to do what the first business does: invite its customers to post reviews to Google.

The second would be to analyse the negative reviews the business has had to see if any contravene Google's terms of service, and, in so doing, render themselves appealable and thus liable to removal from Google altogether.

Let's take a look at the actual reviews posted about this business in the context of Google's terms of service.

Here are the criteria under which Google will judge a flagged review:

When you read down this list (link above) it is important to be as dispassionate as possible. Let's take this example:

In the UK any 'derogatory comment' published about a business is considered in law as prima facie libel. That, though, does not mean that Google will automatically remove reviews critical of a business; far from it. 

In our extensive experience the business that recieves such a review will need to prove at least one of the following (not just provide Google with one-sided assumptions or suspicions):

  • the reviewer has no personal experience of the business they have reviewed - incredibly difficult to prove
  • the reviewer has written the review with malicious intent - can be corroborated by providing evidence in the form of emails/texts
  • the reviewer has written statements that they know to be factually incorrect - easier to prove providing the business can supply copies of contracts/invoices etc.
  • the reviewer has malicious intent - they work for a competitor, for example
Google will not entertain an appeal against a review on the basis that...
  • the business has no record of dealings with the reviewer (reviewers are allowed to use 'usernames' to protect their anonymity)
  • the review is a case of 'the business's word against the reviewer' (Google will not intervene in business disputes)

Now, let's look at the negative reviews one by one and see what the likelihood of a successful appeal to Google, resulting in the offending review being removed based on Google's Prohibited and Restricted Content:

Basis of appeal: (false) accusation of illegal action by the business/ fake content/off-topic.

Chances of success: high

Recommended action: appeal 

Basis of appeal: again: (potentially false) accusation of illegal action.

Chances of success: medium

Recommended action: appeal

Basis of appeal: (false) accusation of illegal action/off-topic.

Chances of success: high

Recommended action: appeal

Basis of appeal: false accusation of action outside contract terms (contract explicitly states 'commercial cleaners will be employed by the landlord)

Chances of success: low

Recommended action: respond to the review so readers are aware of the circumstances and the business's side of the case

Basis of appeal: false accusation of 'double charging'

Chances of success: Low (commercial dispute)

Recommended action: respond to the review so future readers are aware of the circumstances

Basis of appeal: none - unless the business knows the reviewers to have malicious intent and can prove as such; that they are employees of a competitor, for instance

Chances of success: low/nil 

Recommended action: respond to the rating so future readers are aware of the circumstances. In this case we might recommend an appeal on the basis of the collective good: we have long been of the opinion that ratings - as opposed to written reviews - add little value to Google reviews and a volume of businesses appealing ratings on that basis may eventually lead Google to do away with them

By now you will be getting an idea of the kind of review that is appealable and the circumstances in which you should consider appealing. We would add one rider: in our extensive experience there are no completely hard and fast rules; some reviews we consider fulfil the criteria for removal are not taken down, some that are borderline are removed. A good rule of thumb is if the review in question is causing you sleepless nights or, as can happen, has stopped the phones ringing, appeal. That way at least you will have the comfort of knowing you have done everything possible to address the situation.

The Google appeal

First, watch this video and listen to Google's advice:

You now have three options:

  1. Do it yourself, by following Google's guidelines to the letter
  2. Employ a specialist new media lawyer to conduct the appeal on your behalf
  3. Employ HelpHound to draft and manage your appeal

Route 1

Click this link and follow Google's instructions to the letter - any deviation will reduce your chance of success.

Route 2

Consult your own legal adviser or a specialist new media legal adviser, provide them with all the factual background that you can and ask them to draft your appeal.

Route 3

Consult HelpHound. The advantage of doing this?

    1. We will give you a very good idea of the likelihood of succeeding with your appeal, based on our extensive and wide-ranging experience
    2. We will advise you on other strategies to minimise the impact of the review in question pending the outcome of your appeal - by carefully drafting a rsponse that will not only be seen by potential customers but also by Google's moderators when they come to assess your appeal
    3. We will advise you on key aspects of the drafting of your appeal, should you decide to take Route 1 
    4. We will draft the appeal on your behalf, if you consider that would be helpful
    5. We will advise on the correct way to a) identify competent legal advice and b) introduce you to such an adviser, if necessary


Here are a couple of real-life examples of Google's response to appeals to two of the many successful appeals we have drafted for clients; just put yourself in the position of the business that had these reviews heading their Google reviews listings...

These are both the kind of review that seriously deflects custom away from businesses - we call them 'killer reviews' (see more about them here); fair enough if their contents are correct and justified, but capable of unfairly impacting business flows if - as Google adjudicated here - they are not. 

The next steps

Our first advice to any business that contacts us is to implement a proper review management strategy (so many don't have one until they are hurt by a negative review). We will then advise on the specific review in question. The initial consultation will be free of charge. After that, we will provide a firm quotation for our services. Unless the review raises exceptionally complex issues and requires lengthy research (which is rare) our fee will not exceed three figures.


Monday 7 June 2021

Moderation - it protects and aids the consumer just as much as the business under review

Read this article - it will give anyone seeking professional medical help massive pause for thought

It's one of the key issues facing both businesses and consumers in the C21. We have all the options a click away, but how do we distinguish between them? Back in the day we would have two: accept a personal recommendation or take an educated guess.

Now, we are are not saying that reviews are the whole answer today, but if adopted and addressed in the right way they have the ability to truly add value, both for the consumer and great businesses. What we can say, for definite, is that consumers now rely very heavily indeed on online reviews. But first let's look at the issues highlighted here by the Washington Post.

Problems with reviews in the 2020s

When the Washington Post contacted Google, Yelp and Truspilot about the reviews of the business in question the sites removed 73, 40 and 93 respectively. Reviews that, until then, the public had been relying on to make informed decisions about serious medical procedures.

Businesses - some businesses anyway - nowadays will do almost anything to ensure they look great. What can an unscrupulous business do?

  • they can get staff to write reviews
  • they can get staff family and friends to write reviews
  • they can buy reviews
  • they can cherry-pick happy customers to write reviews
  • they can do their utmost to control the timing of their reviews
  • they can 'gate' their reviews - meaning inviting 'customer feedback' or using a less visible review site and then only inviting those who rate their service 5* their to post to the most visible site (usually, but not invariably) Google

All of the above serve to mislead consumers. And a misled consumer is much more likeley to seek out ways to 'get their own back' by writing a negative review.

Why do businesses adopt these kinds of strategy? It's simple: a great rating and great reviews lead directly to increased business flows. But there is a less-understood reason as well: fear. Fear that reviewers will post inaccurate and/or misleading reviews. Neither are a valid excuse, and both are a) illegal under UK law and b) against Google's terms of service.

Why is this so much more important for the professions and other service businesses than for e-Commerce?

e-Commerce has adopted reviews with a will, but what value - for the consumer - is added by them? Little, we would suggest: one camera or washing machine or shirt does much the same job as the next, but e-commerce understands the power of reviews and mobilises them very effectively. When did you last see an advertisment for a vacuum cleaner or an e-bike that didn't incorporate a bold reference to the business's review score?

But just put yourself in the position of a consumer needing medical, financial or legal advice: how much more important do reviews of those services become when they have the potential to save lives, livelihoods and money?

So what should a business do?

First: none of the above! Most businesses, to be fair, are not buying reviews, but you might be surprised to know that well over 50 percent of businesses that are proactive with reviews are adopting at least one, often two or more, of the strategies listed above.

How do they get away with it? That's simple: the CMA - the government regulator - currently has other priorities, and we are sure COVID has slowed things up considerably. But that does not mean that these abuses are not well and truly on their radar. Anyone who doubts this would do well to read this open letter from the CEO of the CMA.

But there are other implications of gaming reviews: the main one being that competitors will notice (or be told by whistleblowers) and won't hold back when asked by a potential customer how the business in question manages to have so many overwhelmingly positive reviews.

So: how to comply with the law and still look great?

  1. Be great at what you do. We know it sounds like we are stating the obvious, but businesses that provide value for money and great levels of customer service invariably have a head start when it comes to reviews. Test your CRM to destruction.
  2. Invest in moderation: moderation is the process of having each review checked - independently - for accuracy and the potential to mislead readers. No business would hesitate to invest in other areas of marketing, PR and advertising, so make allowance for a moderated review management system in your marketing budget.
  3. Invest in compliance: as you would do for any other aspect of your business.

That's it. Not rocket science is it? 

Wednesday 2 June 2021

Review solutions - a checklist

Professional advice combined with years of experience will ensure you safely negotiate this maze!

There are over two million words in the 750 plus articles on this blog - and every single one of them relates to reviews and review management - so here is a simple checklist for your business (for more detail you can always interrogate the blog by entering whatever specifically interests you into the search box - above left, and you can also always call and speak to one of us!). 

After each of these 10 points we have added a link to the most relevant article - again: feel free to read as much as you like or just pick up the phone and speak to us.

1.  Don't be sold a solution: there are several review companies out there with large PE/VC-backed salesforces that will promise you the earth.  Research the market thoroughly before you decide on the right solution for your business.

2.  Own your own reviews: apart from the fact that data is so valuable these days, and you don't want to be giving that to someone else unless there's no alternative, you want to be able to vary your review solution as the years pass without losing those reviews you have already accumulated.

3.  Distinguish between product and service review solutions at outset: product reviews are rarely read, they simply provide the fuel for the all-important review score that you see next to virtually every product on an e-commerce website these days. The content is therefore pretty well immaterial, as long as the overall score is over 4 out of 5. Service reviews, however, are read, and in some detail, almost always 'worst' first. If you are a service business the following point - 4. - is vital.

4.  If you are in a service business or one of the professions your review solution must incorporate moderation: a single factually incorrect or misleading (or even plain 'unfair') review can, if published on Google, literally stop the phones ringing. Over the years we have seen this happen so often we have lost count. For the same reason solutions that incorporate a feed direct from Google are extremely high risk. Only a moderated review solution can ensure against reputational damage in the long term.

5.  You need to display your own reviews on your website: apart from the blindingly obvious reason that customers like to see and read reviews there, Google gives you credit for doing so in SEO; you may be wondering why some of your competitors rank higher in search - if they host their own reviews (not those from review sites or Google) that will almost certainly be a contributing factor.

6.  Respond to reviews, wherever they may be: if you don't consumers will make all sorts of assumptions: that the negative reviewer is correct and their assertions are unanswerable is just one; that you simply don't care is another. If a customer has taken the trouble to compliment your business online a simple response thanking them is all that is needed.

7.  Dont expect Rome to be built in a day: once you have a solution on board you should adopt realistic targets for reviews on your own website and reviews on whatever external platform you have chosen (after careful consideration and comparison with the alternatives). Remember: four reviews a month equates to fifty reviews a year; three years at that rate equates to 150 reviews. Mind you, we have seen clients accumulate those numbers in much shorter timescales; where there is a will there is a way.

8.  Don't sacrifice quality in the quest for volume: it is tempting to adopt all kinds of mechanisms to generate the maximum flow of reviews. In our extensive experience the only one that produces quality reviews in terms of content is email backed by personal contact; expecting email alone - or worse still, text or other kinds of media - to do the job is unrealistic and will only lead to disappointment and/or low quality one-liner reviews full of typographical and grammatical errors.

9.  Don't break the law:  every business we meet usually is, intentionally or unwittingly. UK law categorically states that businesses that invite reviews must allow all their customers to write a review at whatever time they choose. Let us be clear on this important point: hand picking happy customers to write reviews is illegal; only inviting customers to write a review at a time chosen by the business is illegal. Having a moderated review solution - see point 4 above - protects your business from inaccurate and misleading reviews and ensures compliance with UK law, so no excuses there.

10.  Google won't attempt to sell you their reviews solution: but it is invariably the best one - alongside an independent hosting and moderation solution for your own website.

That's it. Follow these ten points and you won't go far wrong; ignore any one of them and your business will almost certainly suffer, now and in the future.

Further reading...