FTC to Amerifreight – Failure to Disclose Review Incentives Against the Law

Update: it would appear that Amerifreight’s Google listing has been taken down. 

The FTC has, for the first time, successfully sued a company for incenting on line reviews and not declaring this material connection.

According to Google reviewer mb2970s:

mb1970s

mb1970s

 

7 months ago
I was moving from Nashville to Albuquerque. This is the third time that I have ever transported a vehicle (previously with two other companies).

Pros:
1. Vehicle arrived safely without any damage or items stolen (although that is more of a comment re: the carrier).
2. Vehicle was picked up within the 1-15 day window agreed to.
3. Vehicle was delivered in a timely fashion.

Cons:
1. Prior to choosing this company, I called twice, left a voicemail message, and emailed the customer service rep without a response. I was once told that the customer service rep was at lunch and would call me back in an hour. I called back over two hours later, and the rep did not know that I had called. Based on the reviews, I went ahead and used them anyway.
2. The quoted price was based on giving a “fair review” on two websites. If you don’t leave a review, they’ll add $50 to your quote, which would be $50 more than any other company quoted me (including several that had a carrier immediately available when I spoke to them … however, I kept with Amerifreight based on their online reviews).
3. The customer service rep gave me very little information up front, and after we got off the phone sent me an email with multiple items that I had to fill out before they would start looking for a carrier. I was not told about the need to fill out these forms before they would start looking, so I’m glad I read through the forms immediately.
4. One of the forms states that your chances of getting a carrier quickly is greatly increased if you say that they can charge you up to $200 more to book a carrier without calling you first. They state that they will try to keep from doing this.
5. When I was called with a carrier available, it was for $250 more than quoted (after the $50 discount for writing a review).
6. I’m having to write this review in order to get a discount that brings my costs to the same as other carriers offered. The other carriers were quoting me based on immediately available carriers (not estimates/quotes).
7. When I asked about the student discount, I was told not to bother because it basically just drops the amount that they’ll list your vehicle for (hence less likely to ship … and will likely have to raise the price anyway). I think this is deceptive advertising.
8. When I received an email reminding me about this review, there was a long paragraph about how I should leave a 5-star review if at all possible because it would effect how the customer service rep was compensated.

Summary:
While this company transported my car safely and in the window requested, I’ve had better experiences with other companies that cost less (even during high auto transport seasons). I will not use Amerifreight again.

Today The FTC announced an agreement with Amerifreight that they will cease the practice:

AmeriFreight, an automobile shipment broker based in Peachtree City, Georgia, has agreed to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commissionthat will halt the company’s allegedly deceptive practice of touting online customer reviews, while failing to disclose that the reviewers were compensated with discounts and incentives.

The FTC’s complaint marks the first time the agency has charged a company with misrepresenting online reviews by failing to disclose that it gave cash discounts to customers to post the reviews.

“Companies must make it clear when they have paid their customers to write online reviews,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If they fail to do that – as AmeriFreight did – then they’re deceiving consumers, plain and simple.”

AmeriFreight is an automobile shipment broker that arranges the shipment of consumers’ cars through third-party freight carriers. Its website touted that the company had “more highly ranked ratings and reviews than any other company in the automotive transportation business.” As part of its advertising, it encouraged consumers to “Google us ‘bbb top rated car shipping.’ You don’t have to believe us, our consumers say it all.”

Amerifreight currently
 has 540 reviews at Google and 21 at Yelp. 

The settlement is significant in being the first time that the FTC has inserted itself into the local review space. While there was no monetary settlement, Amerifreight did agree to cease and desist and agree to 20 years of oversight to prevent future abuses.

This action was a long time coming but makes it clear that incentives are inappropriate country wide.

It is though amazing to me what so many folks are willing to do for $50. Hardly reinforces my faith in humanity.

IMG_0757.PNG

Google & Reviews Snippets – If It Can Go Wrong It Will Go Very Wrong Category

Update 3/5: Dan notes the response he received from support: “We attempted to retain the review itself and could not do so as a “snippet”, though it still stands as a wonderful review for your business. We removed the confusing snippet from your account.”

Update 2:27 PM (PST) 2/27: Googler Jade Wang just posted this on Dan’s original post: We are working to correct or remove this snippet. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Last  year Google added review snippets that represent general sentiment to the Knowledge Panel. These snippets are determined by algo and are intended to represent the public’s attitude about a business . Like all Google algos sooner or later they screw up and in inimitable fashion Google is unwilling or unable to fix it.

Dan Petrovic of DejanSEO in Australia reported a case on G+ yesterday where a positive review of his business was mangled into a negative snippet.

review

I, in my best Boy Scout behavior, suggested that he might want to contact the group that dealt with business snippets and see if they would take it down.

Here is Dan’s reply from Sylvia B. :

Thanks for contacting Google Places for Business support regarding the descriptive terms associated with your business on the local Google+ page for your business. At this time, we do not remove terms for reasons such as being unclear or negative. These terms are a piece of our search results and we try to avoid editing or creating bias in what we show.”

If Google’s head were any further up their arse than this they could still pull it out 12″ and have another 12″ to go.

Google Testing Hangout Chats in Local

TechCrunch and SEL are reporting Google testing of  a live chat button appearing on business’s local Knowledge Panel.

This program is apparently part of a test with a limited number of businesses. It has been around at least since mid November when an invitee asked me about problems he was having with the test.

google-places-chat

Here is the copy of the email that he had received from Google around mid November inviting him to participate in the test:

Use Hangouts with your Google+ page

Google Hangouts can make it easier for your customers to reach out to your business with a Hangouts chat message. When customers are looking for you on Google Maps or Search, they’ll find a button to chat with you.

This feature is currently limited to a small number of business that have been invited to test it. Opting-in to this feature will allow customers to chat with you by changing the “customize invites” setting for your business. If you don’t want to participate in the trial anymore, you can opt out in settings for your business in Hangouts.

Google My Business Upgrades Business Photos

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 1.46.14 PMGoogle has just announced a major update to Google My Business that finally rationalizes photos and their use across all of the places where your listing is shown.

From the post: Starting today, you can tell us which image you’d like to appear when customers search for your business on Google. Just log in to Google My Business on the web or in the Android or iOS apps, and visit the Photos section. While you’re there, you can also give your business a fresh look online by updating your profile, logo and cover photos.

Historically it was difficult from an interface point of view to add a cover photo and control which photos Google showed as it was split across three interfaces. With this upgrade all photos can be added from a simplified single user interface.

Best practices from the Google Help Files:

Your photos will look best on Google if they meet the following standards:

  • Format: JPG, PNG, TIFF, BMP
  • Size: Between 10KB and 5MB
  • Minimum resolution: 250px on the longest side for profile & logo photos; 720px on the longest side for other business photos
  • Aspect ratio: The longer dimension of the photo should be no more than four times the shorter dimension. Landscape photos look better than portrait photos on Google products. Panoramic photos may use different aspect ratios.
  • Quality: The photo should be in focus, well-lit, have no photoshop alterations, and no excessive use of filters. The image should represent reality.

Here are screen shots of the upgrade:

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.24.26 PM
This is the primary interface where all photo related interactions take place. While Google segments photo types (interior, exterior, product etc) these categories are not used in the user facing UI
Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.14.44 PM
The interface is the standard drag and drop interface offered by Plus
Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 1.27.31 PM
For the first time, Google allows you top specify whether a logo, profile or cover photo will be seen first in Maps and search. Hopefully businesses will now be able to control this function.

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.07.28 PM
When uploading a logo it needs to be at least 250 pixels on the shortest side with the longest side no more than 4x that. This is an example of the error message when an inappropriate size is uploaded’
Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.24.35 PM
Previous photos are stored in the Additional Photos area and can be dragged and dropped into an appropriate sub section
Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.21.39 PM
When see examples is clicked Google provides contextual help (although neglects to mention image size requirements on this screen). You need to head to the help files to see that.
Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.23.15 PM
The image editor from Plus is available to each photo allowing for cropping, rotating and enhancing of the photos.
Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.24.12 PM
Photos for everything other than the Logo need to be a minimum of 750 px on one side.
Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 4.43.21 PM
To access the new Business Photo manager click on the “Manage Photos” link within each listing.



Why Reviews are Hard – A look at the numbers

Reviews are hard. Particularly at Yelp.

Most Americans have no desire to leave a review. When you combine that fact with fragmented market share and review site policies it becomes even more difficult.

Here are some numbers to put the difficulties with Yelp in perspective. Let’s start with emailing 100 of your customers to calculate how many folks are left to possibly leave reviews in the end:

 %

# of People left that might have a review published at Yelp

Customers 

100

Typical Email Open Rate

40%

40

% of US American Adults Unlikely to leave a review1

78%

8.8

% of those that like you enough to leave a review2

88%

7.75

% of Adults that prefer Yelp3

17.5%

1.3

% that Yelp will nuke4

25%

0.9755

1 Based on my research 58.2% of all Americans have never left a review and another 19.6% almost never leave reviews. Only 6.6% of American adults report leaving 5 or more reviews a year. Convincing them to leave a review is unlikely.

2 Having looked at over a quarter of a million emails at GetFiveStars.com*, 88% of all consumer feedback rated businesses a 9 or 10 on the Net Promoter Score scale of 0-10 and are considered promoters of those businesses.

3 Yelp is in a virtual tie for second place as a preferred spot to leave reviews. The research indicates 17.5% of consumers prefer Yelp although there is a margin of error of 3% so it could be as low as 14.% or has high as 20%. But remember that is an average and in many places it is less.

4 By Yelp’s own admission the number removed is 25%. In cases I have looked at it is actually much higher. And if you are in a market where Yelp is less popular it is more likely higher.

Remember that this .975 is the person NOT the review, you still need them to want to write a review and take the time to write one.

* I am a partner in GetFiveStars.com

Getting Yelp Reviews When All Else Fails

It’s hard getting any review but it’s particularly hard getting Yelp reviews. They filter many, many more than make it through. I have seen filtering rates as hight as 85% of first time reviewers. Unless the reviewer has either lots of Yelp friends or lots of Yelp reviews, their reviews will be nuked.

Yelp, of course doesn’t want you asking for reviews. That is, to some extent, craziness on the part of Yelp and you are going to ask anyway. (As a note it’s not against their TOS, it’s just a “recommendation” that you not ask for reviews.)

So what do you do if you absolutely, unequivocally have to get a few reviews at Yelp? Laser sharp targeting of who you ask.

There is no sense asking 100 people if there isn’t a snow ball’s chance in hell of any of their reviews showing. Time waster for you and your client. And wasting client time is something you should not be doing.

Only ask your customers that you know have at least 10 or more reviews already on Yelp and/or lots of friends.

Yelp makes finding which of your “friends” have enough reviews or social strength easier than you think. If you have been using your personal Facebook account for interacting with your buisness clients or you have most of you clients in a major online mail service (Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook) here are the steps:

1- Login into you Yelp personal accounts.
2- Click on the Find Friends link on Yelp
3- Start with your Facebook friends and identify any that meet the minimum requirements for total reviews or friends. Reach out to them and ask for a Yelp review. I am sure that David Mihm and Bill Slawski would do me the kindness.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 4.53.51 PM

4. Once you have exhausted your Facebook friends, upload your Gmail (or other) mail contacts and do the same:
Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 4.57.11 PM

5. Assemble the list of those likely to get reviews approved and reach out to them via email or Facebook. And I can’t see any reason to friend them.

6. You probably SHOULDN’T do the following but the irony of using Yelp’s very own friending mechanism to ask for a review was too rich  not to mention. If you can’t reach them via email or Facebook then the following is a good backup:
Continue reading Getting Yelp Reviews When All Else Fails

Uber: Will Surge Pricing be the end of Uber or will Uber end It?

zp50ciza7v1luawwqivtI have been thinking about this question a lot since receiving the above tweet. Users do have a choice to either use or not use Uber. Why then is there such outrage?

And while I am not sure I have an answer, I have a lot of questions and in the end, I question Uber’s use of surge pricing and think it likely to come back and haunt them to the point that they will curtail it.

We all move through life modeling reality. Uber and its creators are no different in that regard. They are apparently using the current economic model (neoclassical) to implement their surge pricing forumulas.

Price theory [under current economic theory] asserts that in a free market economy the market price reflects interaction between supply and demand: the price is set so as to equate the quantity being supplied and that being demanded. In turn these quantities are determined by the marginal utility of the asset to different buyers and to different sellers“.

Uber’s logic of surge pricing is imepecable. They have studied supply and demand and have found that by increasing pricing they in fact bring out more drivers, drive demand down and in effect achieve a supply/demand equilibrium. So good so far.

The problem? Neoclassical economics has several assumptions at its core: Continue reading Uber: Will Surge Pricing be the end of Uber or will Uber end It?

Google Replacing City Experts with Local Guides Program

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 1.29.44 PMGoogle announced today that as of February 16, the City Experts program that encouraged G+ users to become active reviewers will be upgraded and now called Local Guides.

The new Local Guides program implements a multi level approach with benefits accruing based on the total number of reviews written. There is even a code of conduct and a more formalized benefits structure.

The new benefits structure attempts to reward users that are outside the cities where City Experts has been active and to create some level of incentives around writing more reviews. In that regard it is similar to how Google handles contributors in the forum and the progression from entry level to top contributor.

Here is the email announcing the updated program and my standing in the new program:

Welcome to Local Guides

Today we’re happy to introduce an exciting update for our community of reviewers. City Experts is now Local Guides, available to people everywhere.

Local Guides is a community of explorers who write reviews of places on Google. When you write local reviews, you help others feel at home in the world, anywhere they go.

Be sure to read the Local Guides Program Rules that go into effect on February 16, 2015. If you decide they are not for you, you can opt-out at any time.

Starting now, because you’ve written between 50 and 199 reviews, you’ll begin as a Level 3 Local Guide. You can access all the benefits available at Levels 1-2, including applying to become a Trusted Tester of Google products and features before public release. Plus, you’ve unlocked additional benefits available to Level 3 Local Guides:

  • Get highlighted in the Google Maps app with a Local Guides badge
  • Join our private Google+ community
  • In select cities, get invites to exclusive events
  • Apply to moderate Local Guides Google+ Communities

Write reviews to become a Level 4 Local Guide and unlock even more benefits.

Thanks for being a part of our community.

The One Click Economy

I had several “retail” interactions over the past few weeks that rubbed me the wrong way.

I went to rent a car from Enterprise, the only car rental in Olean, for about the 10th time this year. Other than knowing my name, they treated me like a new customer, signing all the forms, holding a huge deposit against my debit card (aye) or I needed to bring in my utility bill (?) and providing a slow front counter experience, despite very competent staff.

one-clickShortly after I wanted to put a small, several thousand dollar over draft protection on a business account at the local credit union. These folks know the color of my underwear, have had many. many dealings with me and the account carried a very high monthly average. But for year end purposes I just wanted to be able to draw the account down for tax purposes. I had to go down to their office, bring my 2013 tax return, sign numerous pieces of paperwork and wait for 3 days to get an answer and then sign more paperwork.

In both cases there was personal attention and competent staff but I felt frustration. I realized after some reflection that what I missed in those transactions was the ease of a one click solution to get me through the most onerous parts of the transaction.

I also realized that the sharing economy companies, while not redefining economies or capitalism, do in fact redefine the customer experience expectations. They are not some new economic model but they are very efficient, albeit new, middlemen in a range of transactions that have leveraged technology to reduce staff and decrease buying friction.

One click shopping started with Amazon, moved on to Apple who demonstrated that you can value add a one click shopping experience with people and a store front.

But the sharing companies have introduced one click transactions to a broader range of activities, car rental (Zip), taxi and limo service (Uber, Lyft), accommodations (AirBnB) and I assume many consumers, like me, have come to expect a similarly easy transaction in all dealings whether local or online.

My expectation created a situation where I was no longer satisfied with the tedium of these recent transactions. In fact I actually resented the seeming redundancy of the interaction.

Obviously companies like Zip, AirBnB, Amazon etc have worked long and hard to provide a simple experience around those points of the transaction that have traditionally been the most painful whether it is a reservation or a product return.

While I don’t think that every business needs an app  I do think that every business, small and large, needs to examine every client facing transaction and explore making theses processes that are not core to their identify, faster, easier and less painful.

And its not to say that you need to remove people from the interaction. I think they can add value. But they need to be given the infrastructure and tools so as to be able to spend their time adding value to the interaction not making me sign paperwork.

I know that most small businesses confront a range of competitive pressures and difficulties in staying competitive. Adding one more “to do” to their list might seem almost impossible. Yet the ability to honor the time and trust that customers give them by respecting their expectations as to process efficiencies is one though that is critical to their long term survival.

 

 

Local U + Moz + Great Speakers = LocalUp!

LocalUp_display_ad_(300x300)Both Local U and Moz are dedicated to providing great information for professionals. LocalUp Advanced, our first joint effort, is bringing together some of the most knowledgable folks in local for what promises to be the best local conference of the year.

We have all of the Local U folks (Aaron Weiche, David Mihm, Mike Ramsey, Will Scott, Mary Bowling, Ed Reese and myself), a ton of Moz foks (Pete Meyers, Rand), Google PLUS other great local practitioners like Darren Shaw, Dana DiTomasio and Cindy Crum all in one room for the whole day.

Well actually several rooms as we are doing afternoon breakouts as well. It promises to be an incredible event.

Take a look at our recently released agenda  to see what the day has to offer. When you are done, go here and order some tickets (discounted $200 for Local U & Moz Forum members)!

Here are a few samples of the topics:

Pigeons, Packs, & Paid: Google Local 2015 with Dr. Pete Meyers
In the past year, Google shook the local SEO world with the Pigeon update, rolled out an entirely new local pack, and has aggressively dabbled in local advertising. Dr. Pete covers the year in review, how it’s impacted the local landscape, and what to expect in 2015.

Local Content + Scale + Creativity = Awesome with Mike Ramsey
If you are wondering who is crushing it with local content and how you can scale such efforts, then tune in as Mike Ramsey walks through ideas, examples, and lessons he has learned along the way.

The cast of characters that will be speaking:
Continue reading Local U + Moz + Great Speakers = LocalUp!

Developing Knowledge about Local Search