A few weeks ago, Google launched an aggressive filter of reviews that are displayed for businesses. The filter is designed to eliminate fake reviews using a variety of signals including how a business asks for reviews.
As with many Google updates, these changes have created a flood of problems for local businesses. Google’s Community Manager added a few thoughts to the string of complaints on the Google Forum on this topic. Mike Blumenthal does a great job of summarizing the string of guidance from Google on this topic. In short, Google noted that asking for reviews is OK but just don’t do it in waves.
There are many points of view on the topic of asking for reviews vs. waiting for reviews but I think it comes down to what you want out of a review system.
Review System Alternatives
Before looking at the impact of asking vs. waiting for reviews, its important to reflect on what you want to measure with reviews in the first place. There are at least 2 alternatives to what is measured in a review system:
- Opinions that are strongly held. In some ways, these reviews are more entertaining to read. People either love it (the thing being reviewed) or hate it. The nature of a review system that does not allow solicitation of reviews will skew toward reviews from those with strongly held opinions and, over time, a review system of this type will have a higher percentage of 5 star reviews and 1 star reviews than would be found in a random sample of a businesses’ customer base.
- Opinions that are representative of the total customer base. Reviews in this category result from a broad review solicitation. Broad solicitation, by its nature, is more likely to be representative of the total customer base (this is an argument I have made before). However, broad solicitation can be difficult. How can you include non-internet-savvy customers? How can you include opinions from those that do not want to join a new social network (e.g. Google+ or Yelp?) or are not committed to being regular publishers on those networks (if not, their content is likely to be filtered as spam)?
At a minimum, its a big mistake to read reviews that are of one type, assuming that they are of the other type.
Some Data From the 2 Alternatives
Some argue that if businesses are enabled/encouraged to ask for reviews, they will only ask for reviews from happy customers thereby skewing the results. Over the last few years of seeing the results on a daily basis of proactive review solicitation, I believe that the vast majority of businesses simply don’t know if an individual customer is happy or not. Its not easy to cherry-pick with the exception of the most vocal customers (who are the most likely to seek out a review forum without being asked).
We did a very interesting test of this topic recently albeit with a small sample size. We got data from a multi-national product manufacturer and started with a list of over one thousand locations. We randomly selected a group of locations. We then gathered all of the pre-existing online reviews we could find on these businesses (none of which were proactively solicited). The pre-existing review score distribution was much like Yelp’s total distribution (mostly positive but lots of 1 star reviews). We then took the customer list over the prior 3 months of the selected businesses and randomly called (we called because we wanted a very high response rate to not skew the results) customers for reviews.
The review ratings were meaningfully higher than the pre-existing reviews but were very similar to the review distribution we see for many other companies in the same industry for whom we host their reviews. Why? The “Silent Happy Majority”. Turns out most people are happy with the businesses they select. The Silent Happy Majority are less likely to write reviews of businesses unless they are proactively asked.
Broad solicitation is in everyone’s interest
Broad solicitation of reviews results in a more accurate representation of the sentiment of the total customer base. It does not skew toward the opinions of the tech-savvy. In industries that are not experiential (most industries other than restaurants and hotels), broad review solicitation is the only means of generating a regular review flow that is more reflective of the current efforts of the business being reviewed.
What do you think?