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Every year, the BrightLocal Local Consumer Review Survey shows us just how important reviews are for local businesses. Of all the data, one statistic stands out in particular: 85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as they do a personal recommendation. This figure is up 16% since the question was first asked back in 2010.
Reviews aren’t just important for consumers, either. They are growing in importance as a ranking signal, too, and as a result, more local businesses than ever before are acquiring reviews. Our recent Google Reviews Study makes it incredibly clear that local businesses are being much more proactive about gathering reviews.
Our research showed that on average, a local business will have around 39 reviews, with those ranked top three in the local pack edging ahead with an average of 47 reviews. All told, 74% of local businesses now have Google reviews.
Of course, there are a multitude of review platforms to consider as a business owner, and this, coupled with the fact that they are so intrinsically linked to local business success, means lots of companies have started to get creative about how they request reviews from customers.
Where an email might once have been the standard, today a variety of methods are used, including postcards, SMS messages, in-store and point of sale displays, giveaways and, yes, email.
However, what you can and can’t do to obtain reviews, and what those reviews can and can’t say, differs between platforms. Get it wrong and the punishment meted out to your business can be harsh.
To help you stay on the right side of the rules, we’ve compiled a cheat-sheet which covers each of the major review platforms—what is and isn’t allowed and what the likely consequences are if you’re guilty of breaching the regulations. We’ll update it every time a review platform introduces new guidelines.
Click below to jump between sections:
- Google Reviews Guidelines
- Yelp Reviews Guidelines
- Facebook Reviews and Recommendations Guidelines
- TripAdvisor Reviews Guidelines
- Better Business Bureau Reviews Guidelines
- Yellow Pages Reviews Guidelines
- Angie’s List Reviews Guidelines
Google Reviews Guidelines
Google offers a fairly detailed list of what it does and doesn’t accept from both businesses and reviewers—most fall under the ‘Prohibited and Restricted Content’ guidelines but it’s also introduced key elements to its ‘Format Specific Criteria’ rules to outlaw practices such as review gating.
No review gating
Review gating is a newer addition to Google’s Review guidelines and means that local businesses can’t use a third-party tool to filter out negative reviews. In the past, brands have been able to cherry-pick positive reviews by using software to funnel customers who say they have had a negative experience towards private feedback, and those indicating a positive experience to a public review platform like Google. This of course creates a false impression of the business and skews reviews, making them less useful to other customers.
As of summer 2018, this practice is no longer permitted, with Google guidelines stating:
“Don’t discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers.”
Don’t review your own business
Reviews are intended to be honest and unbiased accounts of genuine customer experiences, therefore reviewing your own business (or asking staff to review your business by posing as a customer) is against Google Review guidelines.
Don’t review competitors
Google considers “posting content about a competitor to manipulate their ratings” to be a conflict of interest. It’s also a means of black hat SEO and unethical—Google doesn’t say in its guidelines what the penalty is if you’re found to be guilty of this violation but, at the very least, the review in question will be removed.
At the more severe end of the scale, it’s possible that your website may be subjected to a Google penalty, which will undoubtedly have a detrimental impact on your online visibility and, by extension, your website traffic and overall sales figures.
Don’t offer or accept money in exchange for reviews
You can’t incentivize customers to leave a review for your business by offering to pay them to do so. This obviously creates an environment where the reviewer is more likely to leave a glowing review, undermining the entire concept of fair and honest feedback.
Again, Google doesn’t spell out what the penalty for violating this rule is, but penalties and even banishment from Google My Business aren’t out of the question, depending on the seriousness of the infringement.
Don’t solicit reviews from customers in bulk
While this is against Google guidelines, it’s also just bad practice, as a local business needs to have a steady stream of genuine reviews rather than a bulk influx every six months.
With this rule, you can’t send a mass email to your entire mailing list requesting a review. Again, Google’s focus here is on ensuring reviews are accurate and genuine. A mass mailout can’t guarantee accuracy given that some recipients may have purchased from you years ago.
While it might be tempting to try and bolster your review count in one swift move, being consistent about requesting reviews as a transaction is completed ensures they are more authentic, useful and accurate.
Yelp Reviews Guidelines
Yelp’s position is very similar to Google’s: it outlaws inappropriate content, promotional content, relevance, conflicts of interest and payment for or solicitation of reviews in its guidelines for business owners.
Don’t solicit reviews or offer to pay for them
Yelp says asking customers to leave a review on Yelp specifically, or encouraging customers to do so with an offer of payment, flies in the face of its policies. Its review guidelines advise,
“Please don’t ask your customers to review your business on Yelp. Over time, solicited reviews create bias on your business page — a bias that savvy consumers can smell from a mile away. You should also never offer compensation (discounts and freebies count too) in exchange for reviews.”
In brief, it says that payment can encourage a reviewer to leave a false or misleading review when such praise may not be genuinely deserved. It says that solicitation, while an integral part of the online reputation process, can lead some businesses to be aggressive about gaining reviews and can create a bias, with some local businesses asking for reviews and others not. According to Yelp, this skews perceptions for consumers.
What happens if you contravene this guideline?
If you do specifically request that your customers leave a review on Yelp, the platform may take action against you. It says,
“Yelp does not want businesses to ask their customers to write reviews and our recommendation software actively targets reviews that have been solicited.”
Yelp says its software can and does recognize where a review has been solicited, and as a result, will treat those reviews as less trustworthy. They will be removed to the ‘not recommended’ portion of your Yelp page and won’t be counted towards your Yelp star rating.
Conflicts of interest
It is against Yelp guidelines to write a review of your own business, ask an employee to review you or to leave a poor review for a competitor. It also says that you shouldn’t review a business belonging to a relative or a friend, as this doesn’t lend itself to fairness or objectivity.
Facebook Reviews and Recommendations Guidelines
Facebook is one of the fastest growing review platforms, second only to Google, despite its organic algorithm falling out of favor with local businesses thanks to stinted reach.
It has recently switched from reviews to ‘recommendations’ which are geared towards a simple yes/no answer rather than the traditional star and comment format. Consumers can leave rich endorsements with their recommendation, which include text and images as well as the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice.
Facebook has a specific Authenticity policy which sets out requirements for users to only create a Facebook account with their true identity. Your Facebook account must be “the name you go by in real life”. Likewise, this policy prohibits users creating multiple accounts, giving a false date of birth, creating an inauthentic profile or “engaging in inauthentic behavior”.
This policy, among other things, effectively prohibits you from creating multiple accounts under various aliases to give fake recommendations to your business. Likewise, you can’t ask other people to create a second account to give you an additional recommendation.
Under its Pages, Groups and Events policy, Facebook states “Pages, groups and events must not incentivize people to misuse Facebook features or functionality.” The example used to illustrate this is encouraging users to give a false review in return for free products.
TripAdvisor Reviews Guidelines
TripAdvisor has historically been very tough on how its business users acquire reviews, and therefore has an extensive series of guidelines which businesses must follow.
Unlike Yelp, TripAdvisor does not penalize businesses for asking customers to review their experience on its platform. In fact, it encourages businesses to ask for TripAdvisor reviews and says that recent reviews are more beneficial in its popularity ranking calculations.
The platform goes as far as to provide a number of free tools to help businesses reach out to guests for a TripAdvisor review. These tools include pre-designed custom reminder cards, flyers, a review collection tool called Review Express, a widget and a Facebook app.
However it has strict policies against incentivized reviews and a dedicated team of fraud investigators which tackles paid review fraud (a crime that can result in jail time) including the buying and selling of fake reviews.
Paid review fraud
“The buying or selling of fake reviews—known as paid review fraud—is not only dishonest, but also illegal in many countries. Fortunately, because of our highly evolved detection and deterrent techniques, the amount of fraud attempted on TripAdvisor is extremely small. We take any attempts at review fraud very seriously, and with over 15 years’ experience, we are the industry leaders at catching it.”
It can be tempting to buy a few fake reviews in order to bolster your TripAdvisor rating, especially as newer reviews count more towards your popularity score. A number of companies do offer paid reviews, but as TripAdvisor notes, this is an illegal practice in a number of countries and can result in the person being paid to review being handed a prison sentence.
If you do feel tempted to break this guideline and buy reviews for your hotel or hospitality business, TripAdvisor says that it can distinguish between a genuine submission and a purchased review, and can automatically trigger an investigation from this.
The platform works with third party sites and advertising services to track down companies selling reviews and will even go undercover, pretending to be a hotel owner, for example, to gather evidence. If the fraud team detects paid reviews on your listing or detects suspicious activity, it will approach you to gather more information.
The paid reviewer’s account will be blacklisted from TripAdvisor and your own account and business profile may be marked with a red badge. This is the most severe form of punishment and warns TripAdvisor uses that a pattern of suspicious review behavior has been detected; a warning which can seriously negatively impact your reputation and business.
Other punishments include a loss of rankings in TripAdvisor searches and disqualifications from TripAdvisor awards.
Offering a reward or preferential treatment to a guest in order to secure a TripAdvisor review will land you in hot water. This policy also prevents you from entering customers into a draw or any kind of raffle after they post a TripAdvisor review for your business, offering a reduced rate or discount on a future stay in return for a review, promising an upgrade or free use of any paid-for facilities as thanks for leaving a TripAdvisor review.
TripAdvisor monitors for incentivized reviews in a number of ways, including direct reports from the community, the investigations of its dedicated review fraud team and screening technology.
If you are found to be in breach of these guidelines, the reviews in question will be removed from your TripAdvisor profile and you will be disqualified from TripAdvisor awards. In some cases, depending on the severity of the breach, additional penalties including a red warning badge being displayed on your profile may also be meted out.
Biased reviews and blackmail
Paid and incentivized reviews also fall under TripAdvisor’s biased reviews policy. Any action on the part of a guest to blackmail a business with the threat of a bad review is also considered to be biased, as is any review posted by someone affiliated with the business (such as a family member, friend or employee). TripAdvisor calls this practice ‘review boosting’.
If the tracking system spots a biased review, that review will not be published and an investigation will be opened.