Category Archives: Reviews

Asking for Reviews (Post Google Apocalypse)

Since Google started clamping down on review solicitation, particularly in the dental and auto dealer worlds, many businesses have expressed fear, dismay and discouragement about reviews in general and Google’s review policies in particular.

Comments like “At this point I am ready to give up and ask my customers to avoid Google and go to Yelp. it is not worth all of the brain damage. does anyone at Google care enough to help? or should I just move on?” or “I’m completely moving away from encouraging customers to leave reviews on Google.” were all too common in my post on Google’s newest “guidance” in the arena.

My suggestion? Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Google may be frustrating and they may be opaque but they are still generating 60-90% of your leads. Endorsements on the front page of a search result are still very valuable. The issue is finding a way to continue to get reviews around the internet, including Google. You may need to test a few tactics until you find one that works but it is worth the effort.

But you say: How can I possibly ask a customer to leave a review there if Google is going to throw it away and waste their time. I say: Tell you customers what to expect, give them choices and let them decide.

The reality is that you don’t need 10 reviews a week at Google. In fact you don’t need 10 reviews a month or a quarter there to succeed. Most businesses need to accrue one review every month or two so that at the end of 3 years you will have 30. You need to ultimately get more than 10 so you get Zagat rated and you need to stop fretting about how many you have there and how many you have lost. You need to keep putting one foot in front of another, keep gaining endorsements across the internet.  In the end if you run a good business and have loyal customers you will get your share of reviews at Google and elsewhere.

If you have had massive review take downs at Google you need to review your processes and procedures and acknowledge that what you were doing was not working and will not work. If you are a car dealer you need to stop spiffing your salesmen to hustle a customer over to an on-sight review work station. If you are a high volume dentist you may need to simply hand out a piece of paper explaining the review process rather than actively soliciting reviews of 20 clients a day via email. And if you were buying reviews or using a review service to enter comment cards well DUH!, time to stop. If you were helping folks sign up for a Google account, that probably needs to end as well.

So what is left for a business to do that wants to gather reviews? The same as has always been the case. Put in place a review process that gives customers lots of choice, generates reviews at a wide range of sites in addition to Google and is easy for your staff to implement. Keep it ethical, keep it simple and you will find that you get the enough reviews at Google and lots of reviews elsewhere.

Here is a sample email/letter that I have crafted for a client. It was written for a legal client but the logic of it can be used for any business. Continue reading

Google on Reviews: Asking for them is OK, Soliciting them is BAD

Los-Angeles-Enacts-New-Prostitution-Solicitation-LawWhat is the difference between asking for reviews and soliciting them? It seems that a number of SMBS have discovered that one leads to jail time.

Google has been throwing out reviews left and right of late. This is not a bug but the outcome of a newly aggressive review spam filter. The forums were rife with complaints from businesses about lost reviews and from individuals whose reviews would not post. In a consolidated thread Google indicated that most of the reports were a function of the new algorithm and not a function of the problems that had caused lost reviews in the past. Here are Googler Jade’s comments over the course of the post that provide some (albeit confused) insights into Google’s thinking:

Aug 6: Hey guys — popping in to say that we’re investigating. Thanks for the reports.

Aug 15: Still looking into this, guys. Soliciting reviews is suspect behavior for our systems, so please please please make sure your reviews are legitimate and left by your customers of their own accord.

Aug 15: Well, first — mobile reviewing can only be done through: Google Maps or Google+ for Android, or, Google+ Local app on iOS. (Visiting the page on a browser on mobile does not work!)

The technical issues for reviews still exist — those are more common in my experience with pages that have had duplicate or merging issues in the past. The majority of the reviews cases that I have investigated from the forum and other channels are reviews being taken down for suspicious reviewing behavior.

Aug 16: “Soliciting reviews is suspect behavior for our systems.”

What I mean by this is — it’s fine if you reach out to customers to ask them to review, but I do not recommend that you do this in waves. If you want to reach out to legit customers and ask them to review, I recommend you contact them immediately after you have done business with them.

Aug 16: Well, think about it this way — in our ideas, the “ideal” review is by a customer who writes a review of a place completely by his or her own accord, on mobile during the experience or at home after. This would mimic the regular flow of the business.

On the other hand, some SEO companies that resort to spam reviews to deliver “results” would exhibit different behavior.

It’s a system that we are constantly trying to improve, but for now, this is what I can say to try and help. I really don’t want legit businesses with legit reviews to get caught, so this is our effort. I can’t provide specific numbers (and in fact don’t know them).

If the above seems less than clear, that is because it is. Google, in their inimitable fashion, seems content to roll out a new, much more aggressive change in their review spam algo that seems to nuke reviews bad and good and then communicate little, late and in a less than helpful way. Mitigating review spam is good but Google does so while hiding behind an impenetrable cloak that purports to hide the inner workings of their algo. That is a formula for disaster. Google has, over the past few years, been schizophrenic about reviews. It was only last December when Google publicly stated at one of their Get Your Business Online training sessions that that it was OK to use review stations. Now it appears that review stations and many other practices seem to trigger review take downs.

I think strictly enforced and clearly articulated standards are great in the review arena. The constantly shifting sands of Google’s secret policies are not.

Is Google Thinking About Abandoning the Zagat Rating System?

Matt Gregory, a local SEO in Minneapolis, recently sent me these screen shots of an obvious test that Google is conducting to assess the relative merit of stars vs. the Zagat display for reviews in the main SERPS. He has been seeing these results on Safari for the Mac consistently from Monday evening through today on a broad range of searches. I have not been able reproduce the results but the fact that they were visible to him over such a long period time indicates that the results were not a fluke and are likely part of a larger test.

These results lend themselves to speculation. The recent change of review presentation to the Zagat rating system from the 5 star system was jarring to say the least. Minimally the local results with reviews became less visible in the search results and some folks like Matt McGee think that they are difficult to understand by the consumer/SMB and are a big risk for Google.

Marissa Mayer was the person that was most involved in the Zagat purchase and she noted at the time:

“Did you know there’s a place in Menlo Park near the Safeway that has a 27 food rating?” one of my friends asked me that about two years ago, and I was struck because I immediately knew what it meant. Food rating… 30 point scale… Zagat. And the place… had to be good. With no other context, I instantly recognized and trusted Zagat’s review and recommendation.

A well known foodie, Mayer was obviously taken with the Zagat system. She was in charge of Google local when the Zagat review system was implemented and one can surmise that it was her “baby”. With Mayer leaving the company it is entirely possible that there is no longer a strong internal advocate for the Zagat system.

Obviously not everyone at Google thought the the Zagat display was the best choice as Adwords retained the stars. And it appears that someone in Google local search must agree with them.

In addition to the change back to stars, note that the large map is included in the main body of the serps and not off to the side and third party reviews are once again given front page visibility. Apparently the rollover to the full listing content appearing to the right is MIA as well. This layout also obviously frees up advertising space in the right column.

What do you think? Will Google abandon the Zagat display after only 2 months of use?
Continue reading

What Should You Tell A Client When Google Loses Their Reviews – A 4 Part Plan

With the recent surge of complaints about “lost” reviews in the forums, Google acknowledging that there were a number of reasons that a review might be tagged as spam and that the car industry in particular was being scrutinized, I thought it might make sense to rerun this May article about coping with lost reviews. If you feel that you have suffered unfairly at the hands of Google’s review spam filter, please report your issue to Google in this post in the “help” forum.

Google continues having technical issues with losing reviews (here is my first report from August 2008 of them being lost – the issue goes back quite a ways.) particularly when the CID of a listing changes due to a merge. Also they seem to be tightening down what appears to be a relatively unsophisticated spam algo (first confirmed in November 2010)  that is catching a number of good reviews with the bad.

Don Campbell, amongst many others over the past few days, asked me what to tell rightfully upset clients that lose reviews from their Google Places page.

Here is what I do when I have a client that has lost reviews:

1) Educate the client: I refer people to this Google authored article, Having technical issues with the reviews on your listing?  In it Google outlines most of the issues as to why reviews go missing. The issues range from spam abatement to Google simply losing them in certain situations. Google notes that in most situations there is often little to be done even by The Google themselves until the issues are fixed and appropriate tools are developed on their end. (In fact it really make the most sense to educate your client BEFORE they lose reviews so that they know what to expect and when it does happen you are not the one that they take their frustration out on.)

2) Provide a dose of humor and reality: Since there is not much a client or SEO can do, I also provide them with the 6,6,6 rule for lost reviews to guide them as to what to expect in terms of recovery of the reviews. It might offer some small comfort.

What is the 6,6,6 review rule? (any client imagined thoughts about the devil suggested by my guideline are actively encouraged)

If reviews don’t come back to the Google Places page in 6 days, they might return in 6 weeks

If they don’t return in 6 weeks they might return in 6 months

If they don’t return in 6 months they have descended to Dante’s 6th Ring of Hell

3) Encourage them to stick with the plan: Regardless of what Google is doing (or more likely not doing) in regards to reviews this week, the best tactic is to keep on truckin’… continue to get more reviews ethically at both Google AND 3rd party sites. I know it is hard and discouraging when difficult to obtain reviews are lost but neither the client (nor we) can control what Google does. The client can, in the end, only control what they do. It is better to have some reviews rather than none. A steady stream of reviews at the review sites will guarantee that the business has a solid review base no matter what and no matter whether Google has lost ‘em again.

4) Advise the business to take control of their own destiny: (Contributed by Jacob Puhl) With the realization that some percentage of reviews will likely continue to disappear, the client should take it upon themselves to make copies of the reviews they do recieve at Google. If the reviews do disappear, repurpose those that disappeared as testimonials on the client web site. In the same vein, implement hReview/Schema.org formatted testimonials on your site to highlight these “lost” reviews so that there is the chance of getting the additional review stars in search. Be sure that the testimonial page has enough prominence that there is a chance that it will be used by Google as a review page.

Reviews are hard to come by and painful to lose but just because Google doesn’t have their act together doesn’t mean that your client shouldn’t either. The value of reviews in terms of increased credibility & conversions is too high for the SMB to just give up on the process when confronted with adversity.

Google+ Local And Review Issues

Since the rollout of Google+ Local the complaints about missing reviews have risen dramatically in the forums. The issues that Google have had right along with losing reviews remain much the same and reviews can go missing for many of the same reasons:
- Marked as spam
- They are misplaced by Google briefly or for longer periods
- Users mark their review as private in the transition to PLus
- A listing has dupes and the review gets associated with the other listing
- A rating will show in the review count but not in the review corpus

But apparently something has changed. In conversations in the private forum Google noted the following high level points regarding spam that we could share and that may make life easier for some of you:

- car dealership reviews are usually, but not always, spammy
- Google will only allow one review per person per business
- Copy pasting the same review for multiple locations is also not allowed (Google will delete both instances of the review)
- Putting URLs in reviews will result in the review being marked as spam

Google + Local: Q’s and some A’s

I was on the road yesterday after the Google + Local roll out so I was unable to answer questions that showed up in the comments on my two posts. Vanessa has been answering a number of questions in the forum so it also makes sense to follow her post there.

Rather than answer them in line, I have created a FAQ and done my best to answer the questions in one spot for all to see. Google is providing TC training shortly and will be answering additional questions so if you have them post them here and I wll try to get them answered.

Reviews

If a user just has a gmail account will they be able to write a review or must they also sign up for Google+?

They will need to sign up for Google +

So our customers are not able to leave reviews unless they are on Google+?

Yep, you need a Google+ account to write a review. See the help page.

Can reviewers leave anonymous reviews?

No. At this point it is real names only.

Is there any way to choose a nickname like we had in Places reviews?

No

Why am I not seeing the “Leave a Review” button?

These had been removed from the Places page in anticipation of this move and put on the new Google+Local page. If you are still not seeing the review button it is because you have landed on the old Place page which is still accesible.

Why would Google make my re-publish old reviews while I’m trying to publish a NEW review for a different business? 

Why it happens at that point in the process was an intentional design decision. It is a one time process needed since Google is moving from anonymous and nicknamed reviews to full, real identity reviews . This necessitated some sort of user approval process to explicitly allow your user name to be seen or to choose to make the review private.

Oh Google, you are driving me CRAZY! Can you please tell me how a dentist can have a Zagat review rating on their places page?

In this case it will be a single number indicating quality on the 0-30 scale.

Listings

I have my Google+ Business Page and my Google+ Local page claimed into different accounts. What do I do?

Keep managing them separately. From Vanessa: “We know it’s not ideal right now, but we’re working to consolidate these pages into a single page where you guys can manage your presence across Google. We’ll keep everyone posted on news in that regard.”

“To be very clear here, we will be combining any Google+ page you may have created with any matching upgraded Google Places listing (what we’re calling local Google+ pages). ”

If I have several hundred listings how to I enter them in Google+Local?

Bulk Upload was recently upgraded and is the method of choice for getting data into Google+Local. Given its very recent upgrade that is likely to remain the case.

Do you think we’ll be able to create one Google + page for a franchise type business and link it to all of the listings? Otherwise, I fear that my clients will either a) be forced to create (and manage!) 400+ Google + pages or b) Take a huge rankings hit!

We do not yet know how Google will this parent child relationship. Google has given a great deal of thought to the needs of large companies in Google + and were slow to implement the needed features to get them right.

They have added multiuser management to Google+ and it appears that it will likely be a feature when the merger of the Business and Local pages occurs.

Based on this evidence I am optimistic that Google will put in place some a way for a large, multi location chain to easily mange both +  and +Local page.

The fact that the bulk upload was recently updated implies to me that these issues were considered and likely already “baked in”.

Do you know if the Google + page is automatically linked when you set it up and find it via phone number?

The claiming process has not changed.

How can I upload Videos?

You can no longer upload videos or use the Post to Place page feature in the Dashboard. So for now there is no way but obviously video is a critical part of Google + and it will be integrated sooner rather than later.

Why does the See your listing on Google Maps”  link in the dashboard not take me to the new Google+Local page?

From Vanessa: “We’re working to update that link so that it redirects to the new local Google+ page. Stay tuned.”

Is the Google Google+Local page still considered a search result?

Interesting question that I will put to Google. As it stands today the answer is yes AND no.

The Google + Local pages are indexed pages and are now showing up in the search results as a stand alone result in addition to a pinned result. So in that sense they are a web page and not a search result.

This will create some opportunity to use the page for reputation management and perhaps long tale strategies. They may become more important over time.

But the pages will still be updated automatically at Google’s whim if they suspect bad data and currently include competitors nearby so in that sense they are a Google controlled search result. They do not yet have ads on your page but that seems inevitable.

Can you please explain the difference of a Google+ Page compared to a Google+ Local Page? It seems like a lot of duplicate content? I don’t want to spend time and money creating both for all of our clients if they will eventually merge into one in the future?

From Vanessa: “A Google+ page has all the social features available to Google+ users — Hangouts, sharing to circles, video uploads, etc. A local Google+ page is just a new look to the Google Places listing, minus the social features. Those social features are coming soon, as I mention in my original post above. And as I also said, we know it’s not ideal needing to manage two separate pages.”

How will Google know to merge my Google+Local Page and my Google+Business Page?

From Vanessa: “Be sure to choose the Local category so that we can bring your multiple pages together to create one listing later on.”

How will I know when Google is planning on merging the two pages?

From Vanessa: “Go to this form — http://goo.gl/8apbo — give us you’re email address, and we’ll let you know when we can combine your pages in to a single page — like the ones we feature on the Google and Your Business blog post (http://goo.gl/lhF6S). ”

Where do you find a link for a Google+Local listing if you wanted to report a duplicate VIA the Troubleshooter? 

Use the URL you see at the top of the local Google+ page.

Do the Place’s Dashboard Analytics track impressions and actions on the Google+Local Page?

From Vanessa: “activity from your Place page as well as new click and impression metrics on the local Google+ page that originated from Google.com and Google Maps. Metrics originating from within Google+ Local or from searches within Google+ Local won’t be displayed in the dashboard.”

Comment: It is not at all clear to me that blended results are currently being counted in the current view of the analytics so this might not be completely accurate.

Will this upgrade solve the duplicate listing problem?

The backend system that creates listings is largely unchanged. So some problems will persist. Certainly with a new level of trust and verification provided by Google +, additional ways to triangulate who listings belong to may mitigate the problem but this remains to be seen. A possible result is that dupes will be pushed so far out of sight they don’t have the same affect as they do currently.

The rapid fire changes are difficult to keep up with. One has to wonder – why is Google deliberately creating such a chaotic situation? 

Google has yet to learn that change is an anathema to most businesses. The updates occur on their development timeline and that is apparently chaotic.

Hopefully Google has taken the time to resolve some of the under the hood problems that have been so painful (merges, dupes, lost reviews) so what we lose in learning about the changes we can make up in efficiencies down the road. Here’s hoping!

What a mess it’s going to be when you’re trying to manage the new Plus+Places, but your login for each is different….

It would appear to me that the when the new local environment is fully fleshed out there will be multi user management so it MIGHT be workable.

I have a hard enough time trying to get small businesses to adopt Facebook and Twitter. I am concerned that the small businesses I work with will get frustrated with the lack of engagement they see with folks on G+.

It seems to me that the Google+Local page can be approached with passively or proactively. Your clients will be able to manage it passively much like they do today. IF the Google+ starts gaining traction AND Google starts showing local results in the main SERPS based on that activity then it will clearly be in the client’s interest to engage with Google + (or have you engage in  Google+ on their behalf).

While it complicates things somewhere in the future, it holds out the promise of greater direct affect on business results than either Facebook or Twitter.

If the algo is going to continue to include social signals what do you think this means for the all mighty local citation?

At this point the algo has not changed and remains intact. So it plays whatever role it currently plays and will for some time.

Historically in both organic and local, elements of the ranking ago persist even when new signals are added.  But like all of Google’s algos if Google upgrades it,  it will need to handle a range of situations where some business categories have social signals and some do not. In this case, it will be a long time before there are signals in many categories of local business.

I added Google + account, and now I lost my first page indexing.

The two are likely not related. Penalties that we have come to know and love as well as glitches like dupes that cause ranking issues are likely to persist. It is more likely that you are experiencing one of Google’s traditional brain farts rather than a new one

Looks like Google+Local page is showing only the first two categories that are listed in Places. 

That is odd but accurate. It is not clear why Google is only showing two and if that has any significance in terms of ranking.

The “owner verified” designation is also apparently gone. It appears that the listings all have a “Is this your business?” and “Manage your page”.

According to Vanessa Google is working on fixing that.

Google+ Local Reviews

Google + Local help files are now online.

One of the big changes that has occurred with the rollout of Google+ Local has been the change to the Google review environment. Google is moving to the 30 point system developed by Zagat. If there is granular detail Google will show it.

If there is not enough data on different aspects of the business Google will display a summary only.

The scale for rating is from 0-3 but the results are multiplied by 10 and averaged to get final score. In theory it allows for greater distinctions. You can see the rating system in action at this Google+Local business page for The Meatball Shop.

Google will be integrating OpenTable reservations into the Google+ Local Page for restaurants.

The review process will no longer allow for anonymous reviews. Here is what the review button notes:

With Google+ Local, all your reviews and associated photos are visible to everyone on the web, under the name Barbara Oliver (your Plus name). Your reviews and associated photos are displayed to:

  • Anyone who views your profile on Google+
  • Anyone who searches for places, if they’ve added you to their Google+ circles
  • Anyone who views places you’ve reviewed

Google notes that you will need to provide explicit permission and actively migrate your old reviews if you want your previous anonymous reviews to show. Google will ask you if you want to do this the first time you write a review in Google+Local. Thus old reviews apparently will NOT migrate to the new Google+Local Business page and the business owner must either ask previous reviewers to migrate or start afresh. (I need to confirm this.) Reviews will migrate, the review just won’t be attributed to the user’s Google+ name unless the user explicitly OKs it.

If you previously wrote reviews or uploaded photos in Google Places, all of your old Google Places reviews and photos are currently public but attributed to, “A Google user.” If you want to attribute these reviews and photos to your Google+ name, all you need to do is migrate your old Google Places reviews and photos to Google+ Local. At that time, you can choose which content to make public and attributed to your Google+ name, and which content to make private. Private reviews and photos will not appear publicly across Google, but you can view or delete your content by clicking on My Places in Google Maps, and selecting Rated from the More menu.

Google+Local will be creating a class of reviewer known as a Top Reviewer and your reviews will be highlight more broadly across the network.

Oddly, the search function has returned to a two field search where you need to enter the what in the first field and a where in the second field. How retro is that?

The exploring feature has integrated a Hotpot like recommendation function. Google+Local will recommend places they “think you’ll like based on your reviews, check-ins, and suggestions from top reviewers”.

The review policy seems to remain unchanged and the review spam algo will still be in affect.

Here are screen shots from the review & migration process: Continue reading

Google’s New Mobile Search Inadvertently Removes Review Button From Places Page

Google rolled out a very slick update to their iPhone App several days ago. Its fast and essentially makes Place page content almost instantly available. Google apparently upgraded the iPhone Safari app at the same and provided a similarly fast access to the Places data.

new iPhone Google Search App

Unfortunately as you can see in the Google screen shot above, in the app, in Safari search and on some Androids, the button to review a business is missing in action. Google has indicated that they are aware of the bug and are working on a fix.

In the meantime if you are using an iPad or mobile devices to access your Places page so that client can leave reviews you are in a bit of a sticky wicket. There are two work arounds until Google fixes the issue.

To get to a page that will give users the review button you can create a url like this that will work on an iPhone or iPad:

https://maps.google.com/maps/place?hl=en&georestrict=input_srcid:b041566bdd3e5aca

To generate the URL with the srcid code go into the dashboard and click on View and it will generate the URL.

Another tactic is to take the regular cid link and add the “open review box” code (&dtab=2&action=openratings) to the end of the standard Place page link:

https://maps.google.com/maps/place?cid=3291747407840809159&dtab=2&action=openratings

This URL will take the iPhone or iPad directly to the mobile review form rather than stopping at the Places page which might be a better solution anyways.

Appeals Court Upholds $150K in Punitive Damages for 3 Fake Reviews

Eric Goldman of te Technology & Marketing Law reports out a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling that upheld a jury award of $150,00 against an ex-partner that wrote 3 fake reviews on Yahoo & Google about his former business. The ruling should cause competitors leaving fake reviews to take note as it substantially eases the burden on the defamed business to not have to demonstrate direct losses (which is impossible on the interent).

Hosto and Mitchell formed two companies together. Eventually, the relationship soured, and they acrimoniously split their empire. Still grousy, Hosto (pretending to be former customers) posted three fake derogatory Google and Yahoo reviews of the company operated by Mitchell. After a John Doe lawsuit, Yahoo disclosed enough information to identify Hosto as the author, and Hosto confessed to the vendetta. Thus, we have the unusual situation where a pseudonymous review author isn’t contesting authorship. After a trial, the jury ruled in favor of Fireworks Restoration’s (the plaintiff’s) defamation claim.

So far, everything makes sense. But then we get to the remedies, and things get puzzling. The jury awarded $1 in compensatory damages and $150k in punitive damages. On appeal, the court rejects Hosto’s attempts to undermine the jury award: that Mitchell’s company didn’t suffer any reputational harm; that Missouri law doesn’t allow nominal damages; and that the punitive damages were unconstitutionally large in light of the compensatory damages award. As a result, the jury verdict stands.

What to make of this jury verdict? One way to interpret it is that the jury felt that the company suffered no real harm, but Hosto’s behavior was so outrageous it needed to be punished anyway. While the jury’s first conclusion might seem initially counterintuitive, it’s entirely possible that the company suffered no actual harm from the negative fake reviews. Research indicates that a few negative reviews mixed into an otherwise all-positive review set lifts sales conversion because the negative reviews increase the credibility of the positive reviews and help prospective consumers visualize and assess the possible bad outcomes from their wrong choices. Without more detail, for all we know, Hosto could have done his target a favor.

Yet, the judge refuses to put the burden on the plaintiff to find actual lost customers:

We reject Defendant’s contention that Plaintiff needed to produce testimony from potential customers who opted to turn elsewhere due to the web reviews. With the internet, consumers are able to compare businesses and their wares with unprecedented speed. Interpersonal contact is characteristically absent, so if a consumer declines to engage a business it encounters on the internet, that consumer continues his or her search and the business has no knowledge it has been passed by. As such, it would be unreasonably burdensome to impose upon a business plaintiff the requirement that it locate potential customers that it never knew in order to successfully demonstrate actual damage to its reputation. The deleterious impact of such a constraint far outweighs any benefits it would have in proving reputational harm.

In the end, the lesson from this case is obvious and hardly novel: fake competitive reviews are a bad idea. The jury verdict here shows that the jury will punish anyone caught red-handed. At the same time, the jury was quite savvy about the compensatory damages from fake negative reviews. I hope future judges will be equally savvy.