Tuesday 23 April 2024

Which business would you trust...

With your health or wealth? 

Take two - to all intents and purposes identical - businesses. Let's assume a friend or colleague has recommended them to you. What is your next logical step? Call them? Look at their website? Well, to do anything like that you're almost bound to resort, at least initially, to searching online. And, here in the UK at least, that search means 'Google'.

And so here they are: 

Business 1

Business 2 

We said that these two businesses were 'virtually identical'. Let's take a closer look...
  • They are both estate agencies
  • Both locations are a single branch of a business with multiple branches (so no marked difference in transaction rates)
  • They both transact a mix of business - sales and lettings
  • They both have Google reviews dating back over many years, Business 1 since 2018, Business 2 since 2017
  • Both had a Google score in the mid-3s (3.2 and 3.4) in 2019

Now: where do they differ?

Up until 2020, not a lot. Business 1 had 11 reviews and business 2 had 19. But then they begin to diverge. Over the last 4 years...
  • Business 1 has averaged 13 reviews a year, 1 a month
  • Business 2 has averaged 106 reviews a year, 9 a month
  • Business 1's reviews scored them an average of 3.42
  • Business 2's reviews scored them an average of 4.96

So what made the difference?

In 2020 Business 2 joined HelpHound. Since then they have...
  • asked every stakeholder - vendor, purchaser, landlord and tenant, for a review
  • and allowed others, anyone at all, to write a review via their website
Now, the more cynical of our readers will be thinking: that way misery lies. Asking everyone and allowing anyone is tantamount to inviting negative reviews. Our answer would be 'yes', but for one crucial ingredient of the HelpHound mix: moderation (see more on that subject here and below). This is the core offering at HelpHound that gave the second business the confidence to do just that.

In the real world

There's an awful lot of noise on the web surrounding reviewer behaviour (and we're the first to admit we've contributed our fair share) but the results you see above are 'real world' and they are shared by the overwhelming majority of our clients. So let's forget the theoretical for a moment and relate what actually happens.

1.  If you incentivise your staff to gather reviews from your customers they will do so (Both: your staff will get reviews and your customers will willingly post them)

2.  An emailed invitation to post a review, when followed up with a 'Please post, it's important...' phone call, takes response rates from low single figures to above one in two - from 0.5 - 2% to over 50%

3.  Inbound enquiries increase in direct relation to improved score and volume. And its easy to measure, it will happen as soon as the business scores over 4.5 and accelerate when it scores 4.8 of more

4.  Once a business's score has climbed over 4.5 inbound enquiries through search and web rise by between 15 and 25%, measurably. We have at least one client where enquiries more than doubled (as measured by Google)

5. The quality of business transacted improves. Graet scoreas and great individual reviews drive high-value enquiries. Look at these outstanding results 

See that thumbs up at the bottom left? Five years ago a review would be lucky to get one in a year, now one a month is not unusual. Why are these important? Since Google dropped its 'views' statistics (we suspect they were undermining sales of Google advertising - why advertise when your reviews are doing a great job?) they are the only indication a business is going to get that its reviews are being read. We estimate that only about one in a hundred people reading a review can be bothered to click on the thumb, so five thumbs up might easily equate to 500 views of that single review (in this case, over the past twelve months).

Even if this business didn't lead in search, it's leading score of 4.9 from 446 Google reviews would ensure a great flow of enquiries. Having a score of 4.9 from 663 of its own reviews (the reviews it hosts on its own website - invited through and moderated by HelpHound, although many consumers assume they are awardrd by Google somehow) showing right under its listing reinforces the message: Click here! Use us! And just suppose the searcher had been recommended to use one of the other businesses in this search? We're betting they would be giving serious consideration to contacting our client as well.

6. The businesses value their 'stars in organic search' and the reviews on their websites very highly indeed. How do we know? There was a negative/positive just over a year ago when we were moving web servers. Although we had performed all the operations you would think essential for such a move (backups/mirroring) as well as making the move over a weekend, some business's schemas - the mechanism that enables Google to see the business's own reviews hosted on its own website and delivers those stars in search, didn't function for a short period. The howls from those clients were heard across the Atlantic (where our servers are). Clients know that stars in search are highly influential

So many good things flow from this part of the front page of the business's website. First the obvious: the visitor (invariably a potential or existing client, but other stakeholders as well) can see other's opinions of the business - all 663 reviews are a click away. The 'Write a review' button next to the number of reviews takes them straight to the business's review function, where, once the review is written it is read by a HelpHound moderator before being posted back to the business's website (with the reviewer being automatically invited to copy it to Google).

7.  By adopting moderated review management the business is given the confidence to open itself up to reviews, both from stakeholders and from others. We have noticed a distinct fall-off in negative reviews to Google as soon as businesses begin inviting reviews, right across the service business spectrum; we can only assume because consumers have more respect for the kind of business that acts in this way, so are more likely to approach the business with the issue that is concerning them, either by picking up the phone, emailing or going to the business's website and clicking on 'Write a review', in preference to heading straight to Google to write what might be a misconceived, factually inaccurate or just plain unfair, but potentially extremely harmful review there

In conclusion

You will see from a glance at this word cloud that the common denominator of all our clients is the fact that they provide advice; that does not mean that HelpHound won't take on a product-based business, it is a simple fact of life that service-based businesses and their customers/clients/patients rely far more heavily on accurate Google reviews

No well-managed customer-service-focused business needs to be wary of Google reviews. The advantages of proactively engaging through a moderated system, both positive - increased enquiries and lead-flow followed by supported conversion - and defensive: against inaccurate, misleading or plain unfair Google reviews, are proven and achievable over a very short time scale (we took one client from scoring under 3 to 4.6 in less than two months; they now score 4.8).

Our guarantee

We provide new clients with a cast-iron guarantee of success with Google reviews. This does not mean that, unlike some other review solutions, we will promise make any business look great: it means that all our clients are great businesses that strive to provide an exceptional level of service to every single one of their clients or patients and we enable them to look as good as they deserve.

Monday 15 April 2024

Yelp CEO inadvertently makes the case for Google reviews


Our take?

As you would expect, we adopt the consumer's point-of-view; not for reasons of altruism, but simply because what works best for consumers works best for HelpHound and our clients. 

Jeremy Stoppleman, CEO of Yelp, understandably thinks that Yelp results (links to reviews) should feature higher in Google searches. Google appears to be perfectly happy with the status quo. 

The relevant (for us) part US case focussed heavily on the way Google monetises its offering to businesses: with Google Ads being its principal revenue generator. We all know what this looks like, but for complete clarity here is an example...

Yes. All these are 'Sponsored' PPC advertisements. Generating lots of lovely cash for Google.

And on Yelp?

Effectively the same. Any sympathy we might have had for Yelp begins to ebb. What other factors do consumers take into account when they are looking for independent validation of a business? Let's see. How about...

  • Quality reviews - written by people who have a) used the business and b) have some life experience to back up their opinions
  • Credible reviews - as above, plus the backing of a credible platform
  • A broad community of qualified reviewers
  • Scores they can trust to lead them in the right direction
Other factors
  • Sales - is there a link between Google and Yelp sales and reviews?
  • Is the reviews function monetised?
And here we have issues with both platforms, but more so with Yelp:
  • Quality: the more you can be sure a review is written by a real person, unconnected with the business under review and qualified to comment on the product and/or service provided by the business the better. Yelp relies heavily on its 'Elite' users to provide a steady flow of content. This cohort is rewarded with social and tangible benefits (meet-ups and hosted events in the main). Our research shows, contrary to the image presented in the shot of three mid-lifers in the article linked to above (with the attendant life experience) that most Yelp Elites are college-age. This explains the heavy review weightings towards the likes of fast food outlets and away from professional services, leading to some interesting search results (the 'top' 'restaurant' in 'Mayfair' in London is a fish and chip shop, for instance). Google reviews have no such proactive reviewer recruitment unless you count Local Guides who tend to be much less concentrated towards one single demographic or age range. There is also the added comfort with Google that it knows exactly who the reviewer is - as a result of their search history and membership of one or more of Google's services, even if their username is MickeyMouse 123. So: in terms of quality and credibility we would suggest that Google wins hands down. So should they be returning Yelp (and other review sites - there are literally hundreds) results as prominently as their own reviews? Well, our simple answer is 'No'. After all, if consumers actively want reviews from other sources through Google they can always search for them. 
  • Scores? It is relatively easy for any business to gather a dozen or so 5* reviews without being overly proactive. It is certainly the case that, in the UK at least (before Yelp withdrew their business sales operations from the UK and EU), Yelp Elite would 'blitz' venues and a restaurant or bar (Yelp Elites didn't appear so keen to be reviewing law firms or accountancy practices) would suddenly go from a handful of reviews to over a hundred. To get over a hundred Google reviews a business has to be proactive in inviting its customers to write those reviews. This has led, in the UK at least, to endemic cherry-picking and gating, both of which are against the law (the latter against Google's ToS as well - Google will delete all reviews if it finds evidence of gating). Whilst there are solutions to this the fact that many businesses would appear to be happy to flout the law to achieve respectable scores (4.8+ is the benchmark in 2024) and critical mass in terms of number of reviews (100+, soon to be 1000+) just shows the power of Google reviews to drive business (if the score is good) and deflect business (if the score is substandard - less than 4.2 these days and in most service sectors the business will find itself in the bottom quartile of Google scores).

Above: a common enough search. You can see the paid advertisement (for GetAgent) under 'Sponsored' at the top, but you also see individual businesses and their Google scores - and links to their Google reviews prominently displayed. At the bottom of the screenshot, you see the top result in organic search with the star rating and score from its own reviews - all 660 of them, hosted on its own website, which we think is pretty fair of Google

  • Sales/monetisation: There is no charge for businesses to use Google reviews, and anyone can write one (OK, strictly speaking, you have to have used one of Google's products to do so, but just about anyone not living under a rock has. But we still run into businesses that think someone needs a Gmail account to post a review). Yelp earns its core fees by offering to promote a business up its listing for a monthly fee (you can see Sweet James Accident Attorneys paying to come top in the example above, some might say somewhat misleadingly, given they are listed just under the heading 'Top 10 best lawyers in San Francisco...' and 'Recommended' - they score a woeful 2.8). Google does roughly the same, but at least it allows businesses to shine in natural search through effective SEO and proper schema use. 


We will continue to advise almost every business we meet that moderated Google reviews are by far the best long-term solution for their businesses. Not review sites (although these increasingly appear to be used by some businesses to bury their reviews). 

The moderation (see below) will enable them to confidently and effectively invite reviews to their own websites and to Google without the fear of unfair, inaccurate or plain misleading reviews that currently drive some - many? - businesses to cherry-pick and gate. 

Further reading
  • Moderation - the professional solution to review management
  • Results - more enquiries and better quality business, a proven win/win 
  • Compliance - boring but essential. Non-compliance hands a valuable weapon to the competition

Monday 8 April 2024

Review gating - it's illegal, but why?

We are regularly asked this question (often alongside 'Why shouldn't we cherry-pick?', cherry-picking being the act of selecting which customers to invite to write a review), once the person asking understands exactly what gating is.

Gating - the definition

Gating is the act of using a mechanism (examples below) to pre-determine which customer is most likely to post a 5* review and then asking that sub-set, and only that sub-set, to write a publicly visible review, commonly to Google, but the applies equally to any review acquired in this manner. 

So: what is wrong with gating and why is it illegal in the UK and in contravention of Google's terms of service worldwide? 

Examples of gating mechanisms



How often do we all receive one of these? And many are innocent - the business just wants feedback on its products or services. The legal line is crossed when those who respond positively to the questionnaire - and only those - are then invited to post a review to Google...

...and those that score the business less than a perfect 5.0 receive this...





'How did we do?' A sub-set of the questionnaire really. People that respond with '10' (and sometimes even '9') will be invited to write a review.


Using a less visible review site



This is a 'cunning' solution. Take a business that fully understands that Google reviews are by far and away the most important. But it begins by inviting customers to post a review to a review site; only when they have done so are those that have written a 5* review there invited to post a review to Google. 

Oh! And there's one more: handing the customer an iPad at point-of-sale. This - a derivative of cherry-picking - risks a complete deletion of all the business's reviews on Google. There was a famous case of a hotel that climbed to the top of the rankings by doing exactly this. No longer: Google hates multiple reviews being written from the same IP address. 


Why do businesses feel the need to gate?

It's simple - and understandable - until one begins to look at the bigger picture. Businesses know that scoring well on Google - 4.8 and over - will drive more enquiries and sales through search (for unequivocal proof see 'Results' at the end of this article). And they will do just about anything to achieve that, and that includes cherry-picking (frequently) and gating (less often).

The bigger picture? 

Reviews exist to enable consumers to pick the most suitable product or business for their needs. That may be something as basic as a mobile phone or an item of clothing, or as vitally important as someone to conduct a legal case, a financial transaction or a medical operation.

Our more regular readers will already be aware of where we are going with this line of argument: so what if you buy the wrong phone or dress? You may be mildly inconvenienced or irritated, you might even lose a small amount of money replacing the item in question - but an oncologist or a family lawyer, an investment manager or an executive search consultant? Get that choice wrong and your whole life could be turned upside down, or worse: put at risk entirely.

So consumers, especially consumers of high-value services and the professions, need to be able to rely on reviews as completely as possible. Gating and cherry-picking are not victimless crimes. That is exactly why the CMA regulates reviews in the UK with the force of law.

And it is also why HelpHound exists: to ensure that our clients' reviews are, as far as they can be, factually accurate and a fair reflection of the interaction between business and consumer. Our clients don't need to cherry-pick or gate. They know they will be protected - by our moderators (see 'Further Reading' below) from the kind of reviews that make other businesses contravene the CMA regulations. 

There's one more thing we hear occasionally: 'How likely is it that the regulators/CMA will sanction our business?' And we cannot answer that; all we do know is that the CMA is on the case - they really don't like consumers being misled into using the wrong business - and the last time they sanctioned a business for something similar they fined it £375,000 and barred its directors from running a limited company for 10 years. 

Gating and cherry-picking are so easy to identify:

  • the emails and reviews sites used in gating leave an indelible paper-trail (the ones illustrated above fell into our inbox less than an hour after the article was begun), not just visible to regulators but to other interested parties (competitors are delighted when they can tell prospective cleints or patients that another firm under consideration is effectively breaking the law to enhance its reputation) 

  • cherry picking - ditto: a business has 36 reviews over a three year period, but its books show it has transacted business with over 400 people, it is almost certainly cherry-picking

But far more likely is that a competitor business will work out just what the cherry-picking/gating business is up to and use that in competitive pitches: "Did you know that ABC Plc only looks so good because they're breaking the law?" 

Why go to all that trouble - and risk your business's long-term security - when there is an effective alternative?

Further reading