We now live in a world where everything gets a review. What used to be the domain of movies, restaurants, music, and art, and flowed from the pens of critics, is now firmly in the grip of the smartphone-wielding consumer.
And today’s consumers love to review everything, from hotels and gyms to doctors and lawyers. So much so that there’s a review site for pretty much every industry out there! With the prevalence of consumer reviews and review sites today, it’s little wonder then that they can have such a profound effect on local businesses.
Studies show, for example, that more than half of consumers will only use a business if it has an average star rating of ⅘ or more. Combine that with increasing competition in the online review space, and you’ve got a situation in which every business is clamoring for more and better reviews.
This rush for more reviews puts the owners of these review sites in a tricky position. More reviews means more trustworthy results, right? Well, wrong.
“I’d Do Anything for Reviews, But I Won’t Do That”
As any SEO will tell you, where there’s a desperate need for results, there’s someone willing to risk the ire of search engines by using black-hat tactics. The same now goes for review sites, with fake reviews littering places like Yelp and Google Reviews and devaluing the trust they’ve built up over the last few years.
But fake reviews aren’t the only dodgy way a business can artificially bolster its star rating or harm a competitor’s. There are plenty of risky review schemes out there, but they have one thing in common. Eventually, they’ll all come back to bite you, hard.
That’s because in response to the surge in review spam, the larger review sites that bear the brunt of the problem (like Google, Yelp, Facebook, and TripAdvisor) have published and enforce strict review site guidelines declaring what tactics businesses are restricted from using on their sites.
One of these tactics is a seemingly harmless thing called ‘review gating’. Sadly, few know this rule inside-out and therefore risk the serious penalties that can come from it. Don’t fancy having all your reviews wiped from Google? Then read on…
What Is Review Gating?
Review gating is when a business only encourages happy customers to leave a Google review. By first soliciting feedback privately, a business might decide whether to ask individuals to leave feedback publicly or not. This is strictly against Google My Business’ review guidelines and comes with heavy penalties.
It’s as simple as that. If you want to get reviews on Google, you have to ask everyone for a review, rather than cherry-picking the customers you think might give you the best reviews.
Although this sounds hard to enforce, you’d be surprised at how effective Google has been in finding and punishing this kind of suspicious activity on Google My Business accounts. It would be great if as much attention went on combating fake reviews, but that’s another story.
The tricky thing with review gating is education. Review gating is just one of a myriad rules Google users of all stripes need to abide by, and it’s easily missed. After all, asking your happiest customers for a review in the following way doesn’t sound problematic, does it?
HOTEL RECEPTIONIST: “Have you enjoyed your stay with us this weekend?”
CUSTOMER: “Yes, I have, it’s been lovely.”
HOTEL RECEPTIONIST: “Then we’d really appreciate it if you could leave us a review on Google.”
[GOOGLE RUNS INTO THE HOTEL LOBBY AND TRASHES THE PLACE]
The simple use of ‘then’ here is what gets the business into trouble, as it sounds like the request for a review is predicated on the customer’s previous answer.
Now, we’ve used an in-person example above and, to be fair, unless Google really was hiding around the lobby corner waiting to pounce, there’s no way they’d learn about this interaction.
But it’s a great example that shows how easy it is to get it wrong. While many businesses will predominantly be focusing on email-driven review generation campaigns, we’ve used this IRL example because it clearly illustrates the core issue with review gating in a way that highlights the margin of error.
The online aspect of review generation is particularly relevant here as Google’s review gating guidelines were put in place partly in response to the growing stable of reputation management platforms coming to market, which in turn came in response to the growing demand for reviews from local businesses.
What Are the Risks of Review Gating?
In the same way that a slew of bad reviews can tank a restaurant or ruin a movie franchise, customers leaving negative comments about your business on the multitude of review sites available can seriously harm your reputation.
This is why, for many, the inherent benefit of not having to worrying about risking a bad review outweighs the potential penalties that come with being found out. But it’s really not worth it.
Before we get into the risks, though, here’s the opportunity: if you only ask for reviews from happy customers, how can you showcase your exceptional customer service by responding to negative reviews online?
Think about this: only 11% of consumers don’t read responses left by the business when checking out a business online. That’s a heck of a lot of opportunities to show the world what you’re really like on your Google My Business profile, which, lets face it, can otherwise be fairly generic and brand-agnostic. This is just one of the potential positives of negative reviews.
And now, the risks: here’s what Google can to do your business (or any business you’re managing) if it discovers you’re review gating.
It can remove all reviews left on your Google My Business profile.
No, not just the ones left since you were discovered actively review gating or using a platform that allowed it…
It can remove all of your Google reviews, going back to the beginning of time.
Review gating to get only positive reviews doesn’t seem so appealing now, does it?!
Needless to say, if you’re an agency marketer managing multiple Google My Business profiles for a range of clients via the Agency Dashboard, and one of these profiles gets hit by a review-gating bomb from Google, the fallout may well impact the other profiles you manage.
All in all, it’s just not worth it.
So, What’s the Right Way for Local Businesses to Request a Review on Google?
It’s really quite simple: ask every customer for their feedback, then ask every customer who provides it for a review.
If you do this, be it in person, via email, or even using business cards and in-store signage with BrightLocal’s Link Mode for Reputation Manager, you can be sure you’re not violating Google’s terms and conditions for Google My Business.
If you’re struggling with what to say when putting together your review request emails, we’ve compiled a few review request email templates for you here.
As you’ll see, to avoid review gating, none of these templates mention reviews. Instead they ask for feedback instead, which is the best way to get an honest response. As long as you or your reputation management platform follow this first email up to request a review from everyone (yes, including those people with negative feedback, no matter how mean they sound), your business should be swimming in legitimate and justly-earned stars in no time.
We hope that answers the question ‘what is review gating?’ for you and goes some way to encouraging you to get started with your own review generation campaigns, free from worry.
And if you’re an agency dealing with a client terrified of one-star reviews or a local business greedy for unearned five-star reviews, make sure you show them this article and remind them what’s at stake!