David: Great seeing you in Austin as always, Mike. Not to toot our own horn, but I thought Local U Advanced was one of our best ones ever. Great to see so many passionate local marketers in one place at one time!
Mike: Always nice to see you in person and not just via our biweekly chats. Austin Local U SMB and Advanced were both a lot of fun for me, and it seems like the audiences were happy as well.
Big news this past week with Google setting new review guidelines. What say we discuss the ins, outs, and sideways of that?
Google added a sentence to its guidelines: “Don’t discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers.”
David: For sure. For those who haven’t heard the term before, we typically refer to this practice as “review gating.” It essentially means that businesses shouldn’t drive customers into two separate funnels: a private one for unhappy customers and a public one for happy customers.
Important news for SMBs, agencies, and software vendors to know about.
Mike: As always, Google’s guideline is somewhat vague, but it seems to be more enforceable against review software platforms than the local small business that is selectively asking its customers for reviews. That being said, I am supportive of the ideal of making reviews available to all customers.
David: Yep. Anytime there’s a pattern or fingerprint, that’s going to be much easier for Google to identify.
While I too support the new guideline, I found it ironic that Google felt compelled to issue it without enforcing its existing review spam guidelines first. You and Joy Hawkins have both highlighted countless examples of easily identified fake reviews (let alone harder-to-spot but improperly solicited reviews) over the past year that seem to have gone either unnoticed or at least un-prioritized.
Mike: I am hoping that, with fake reviews hitting the mainstream press this past week with articles on CNBC and Krebs Security highlighting the issue, Google will finally put in place adequate safeguards. It always helps to shine a brighter light on these things.
David: Perhaps the increased scrutiny this new guideline seems to indicate also suggests a parallel ramp-up in spam-fighting resources? It would certainly make my December prediction that Google was going to take fake reviews more seriously look a little better.
Mike: I sure hope so. Google, in being more proactive about setting guidance around review solicitation, is making an effort to create clear ground rules for every business. Clarity is always a good thing. But from where I sit the gating restriction will have less impact than if Google did focus more resources on purchased reviews.
For me anyways, I always thought of gating not so much as a way to “cheat” the system but as a way to make small businesses comfortable with engaging with reviews. We have always offered the ability to not gate and find that businesses that took the non-gating path were in fact more successful. But they had to become comfortable with the more open approach first.
David: Yelp has said for years that something like 85% of reviews are 3 stars or better. Which makes it even more appalling that the company’s algorithm filters so many positive reviews as “fake” and accepts so many negative ones. But I digress.
Back to Google’s new guideline. My point is that small businesses shouldn’t fear asking every customer for a review given that so many are naturally going to be positive.
And if you are afraid of asking, it probably indicates a larger problem in your business that you should fix before worrying about your local SEO.
Mike: My thought is also to make giving direct feedback to the business extremely easy. Most unhappy consumers just want to express their dissatisfaction and given a choice will do so directly with the business rather than on a review site.
Most businesses make it SO DARN HARD to provide feedback that consumers feel compelled to use review sites as a release. Every website in the world makes buying easy, but it is amazing how many make it nearly impossible to provide simple feedback. Just that capability alone would reduce the volume of negative reviews at sites like Google’s.
Reviews cannot and should not be viewed separately from the full customer satisfaction process.
Square has the right idea with its digital receipts. As a customer you get a 😊 or a ☹ icon at the bottom of every one of them. Any business running Square automatically gets at least a general idea of its Net Promoter Score and gives consumers an easy outlet to express frustration if they’re not happy.
As usual we keep steering ourselves off course! Back to Google and its (possible) enforcement of this policy. As you noted, it’s likely going to be easier for Google to spot patterns coming from software vendors (as was the case with Birdeye reviews last summer) than among individual SMBs.
We’ll probably see a few highly-visible penalties initially, but will Google continue to enforce once the shine has worn off its new policy?
Mike: As both an individual and as a principal in a reputation platform, I can only hope that Google’s enforcement is clear, fair and ongoing in a way that can create stability—not just fear—in the marketplace. We have responded quickly to Google’s guidance and made sure that all of our modes that were gated no longer are. Clear guidance from Google would be helpful in this arena for sure.
David: Clear guidance and consistent enforcement of a rational policy around review solicitation—as opposed to Yelp’s—is a win for businesses, consumers, and fair competition.
So far, Google has the rational policy portion of that sentence in place. Like you, I hope that the enforcement is fair and ongoing and Google continues to clarify its guidance.
After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now runs Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletter, Minutive. In 2012, he sold his former company GetListed.org to Moz, helping over 3 million businesses get better visibility in Google and other search engines. Along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.