Google: Review Contests Violate Guidelines

RotoRooterREVIEWS1

There had long been some ambiguity & contradictions around whether the Google Review guidelines prevented a business from having a contest or raffle to encourage customers to leave reviews. No more. Google has finally stated that drawings that involve incentives are not allowed.

In response to a report in the forums of a contest that had a drawing for the chance of a refund for the value of work done in return for a review (either positive or negative), Googler Jade said: Just clarifying that it is against our reviews guidelines to trade money for reviews, so, yes, this sort of solicitation would be against the reviews guidelines. You can see the rules for the contest in question here & here.

Given that Google themselves have had these sorts of contests in the past it was often thought that as long as a given review was not incented AND there was no pressure for a positive review that a business could have a monthly drawing. Even after Google rewrote the guidelines in February of 2011 to include the phrasing: For instance, do not offer or accept money or product to write positive reviews about a business, or to write negative reviews about a competitor, it was unclear whether a drawing that did not have a quid pro quo for a positive review might pass muster. Matt McGee felt that there was additional clarification needed. And Nyagoslav, after reviewing newly minted Places guidelines on promotions in May of 2012, noted that while there was ambiguity, it was probably ok to have a drawing as long as you didn’t ask for positive reviews. I agreed with his interpretation.

Somewhere along the line the word positive was removed and they now say: Don’t offer money or product to others to write reviews for your business or write negative reviews about a competitor. A subtle change yes but it appears that Google finally has made clear that these sorts of contests and drawings are verboten. Whether the new written guideline is still clear enough is another matter. I would suggest that while the rules are getting clearer, like in February 2011 and May 2012, there is still room for clarification vis a vis these sorts of activities so that there is no mistake. This is particularly true given the long back story.

Here is a history or the guideline as it changed over time (relevant sentence in bold italics). 

Original Guideline: Reviews are only valuable when they are honest and unbiased. Even if well-intentioned, a conflict of interest can undermine the trust in a review. In addition, we do not accept reviews written for money or other incentives. Please also do not post reviews on behalf of others or misrepresent your identity or affiliation with the place you are reviewing.

February of 2011 change: Reviews are only valuable when they are honest and unbiased. Even if well-intentioned, a conflict of interest can undermine the trust in a review. For instance, do not offer or accept money or product to write positive reviews about a business, or to write negative reviews about a competitor. Please also do not post reviews on behalf of others or misrepresent your identity or affiliation with the place you are reviewing.

Current guideline (date of change unsure but possibly at the same time as the review station prohibition): Reviews are only valuable when they are honest and unbiased. For instance, as a business owner or employee you should not review your own business or current place of work. Don’t offer money or product to others to write reviews for your business or write negative reviews about a competitor. We also discourage specialized review stations or kiosks set up at your place of business for the sole purpose of soliciting reviews. As a reviewer, you should not accept money or product from a business to write a review about them. Additionally, don’t feel compelled to review a certain way just because an employee of that business asked you to do so. Finally, don’t post reviews on behalf of others or misrepresent your identity or affiliation with the place you are reviewing.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Google: Review Contests Violate Guidelines by

15 thoughts on “Google: Review Contests Violate Guidelines”

  1. The review situation is a huge cesspool, and as far as I can tell, getting worse. Yelp’s public shaming is the best thing I’ve seen in a while, but it takes a lot of manpower to execute.

  2. wow: the clarity and precision with which you can monitor and review these topics, is breathtaking.

    Its also helpful, if not necessary. Mike: I still believe google should pay you direct and do so in big bucks.

    As to these rules: Such clarity and precision might not be necessary if google wasn’t the pair of 500 pound gorillas in the room. When google sneezes it creates hurricane winds in SMB world.

    If Yelp makes significant changes it affects smb’s. but not to the extent that they are affected by google, and yelp’s impact is more focused on a few industries as opposed to across the board.

    Nobody else has that significance.

    Some verticals might have impactful vertical review boards…but even there the impact can be distributed between a couple of verticals.

    In any case, thanks for the update.

  3. The current review guidelines appear quite clear. Tough on those who honestly tried to solicit reviews… which shouldn’t be a bad thing Google.

  4. @Scott
    This is, along with the prohibition on review stations & the new review spam algo, an effort at cleaning up the cruft. What is bothersome and costly to SMBs is Google’s lurching from open to restrictive to open to restrictive. As they try to find balance in their approach it is very disorienting to businesses.

    @Earl
    Thats why YOU pay me the big bucks…

    You are right about the need for clarity given their power. I would also add that consistency would be even better. Often they provide guidelines (like the review stations) that are stupid and only need to be explicitly prevented later. Some forethought and increased clarity would prevent the waffling and many of the problems.

    More transparency wouldn’t hurt either.

  5. Hey everyone.

    I haven’t seen this come up from anyone across the web about review sites. What I mean is that if Google sees that reviews are coming from the same linking domain, is that going to end up being considered spam. To further explain, if a client gives a card with a QR code to a landing page that then refers people to different review sites, will Google penalize this with reviews to their site?

  6. HI Mike, In Seattle last year I was in local U when I asked Joel Headley during his presentation about indirect incentives. We have a system that provides an incentive to customers by offering to make a monetary donation to 1 of 5 local charities the company owner selected, if the customer would donate some of their time to leave a review–good or bad.

    We did this so that the customer had no direct gain from it and it fit within the Google “do no evil” mission statement. We wrote the program that managed and tracked this for our customers because we liked the idea that it could potentially generate thousands of dollars to worthwhile charities around the country. At local U Joel specifically said that Google would never have a problem with a program that donates to charity to ‘incentivize’ a customer to take the time to leave a review. I am curious if this is still true.

    Personally, I would love to see Google endorse this concept since we learned it does very well as an incentive for customers to take the time to leave a review without any direct reward to them… and it would generate a lot of money to many great local charities if others ran with our idea as well.

  7. First of all Mike, I really appreciate the speed and detail with which you report on these policy changes. We run monthly contests for several of our clients and I guess we will be going back to the drawing board again with Google’s new update.

    My experience shows me that if done correctly (rewarding both positive and negative feedback), providing incentives for reviews helps reduce bias, not the other way around. This is because most online reviews are the result of extreme customer experiences, either positive or negative. These are the only type of customers that feel like taking the extra time to post their experience. By offering a general incentive, you give normal everyday customers a reason to leave their feedback as well which helps balance the outliers.

    I understand why Google and other don’t want to take the time to police individual contests to determine if they are fair or not. Using a broad policy against the practice is easier to manage for sure, it just limits well intentioned companies like us. Oh well.

  8. You mention Google and Yelp, but what about Facebook? Are you allowed to provide incentives for Facebook Likes? I believe so. I have seen several iPhone games (apps) that give you extra levels (product) for Liking the app in Facebook. I have also seen website that provide additional functionality if you Like the site.

  9. So when is asking no longer asking. I work for a large company who is pushing the reviews so that they can get listed higher on the Google search engine. I mean wow, we are asking them when they come into the store, we are calling them and reminding them that we have not seen the review yet, we are going through our client lists and calling the ones we thing will give good reviews, now we are trying to get them to do the review on their phone before they leave the office. We even offer to use our phone if they did nor bring their and to help them sign up for a Gmail account if they do not have one. Are we going too far?

  10. Dear Mrs G
    If you have to ask the question, I think you know the answer.

    Remind me to never shop there. I would imagine at this point that your customers dread to see you coming.

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