Google’s New Review Policy: What It Means for Your Business

 In Local SEM, Local SEO, PPC and Remarketing, SEO, Social Media Marketing

On April 12, Google added the following line to their maps reviews policy:

“Don’t discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers.”

This is of concern to the many business owners who practice review “gating” – pre-screening clients to determine if they’re happy or unhappy and selectively sending an invitation to write a review to only the “happy” customers.

One possible reason why Google added this is to mitigate their own liability under ICPEN’s (International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network) international guidelines for review administrators, which states in part:

  • be equal and fair in the collection of reviews (NO GATING)
  • be alert and proactive in the moderation of reviews
  • be transparent in the publication of reviews (NO FILTERING of negative reviews).

Or maybe it’s an indicator that Google is finally planning to get more serious about review spam in general in the future.What does Google’s new review gating policy mean?

What does Google’s new review gating policy mean?

Like most things Google, this new policy is somewhat vague and leaves a lot of room for interpretation.  Google has long been a fan of writing vague policy statements – they act as a deterrent and leave Google plenty of room to change them in the future.

Phil Rozek (LocalVisibilitySystem) did a great analysis of the new review policy “rule” and presented several possible ways to look at it, ranging from the lenient:

  • It’s OK to ask your happy customers for reviews as long as you let them know they can leave a negative review if they want.”

Or:

  • We don’t care who you ask, but don’t try to control star ratings or review content.

To the strict:

  • Ask all or none of your clients for reviews. Don’t tell them what to say. Pretend rating stars don’t exist.

To the ambiguous:

  • You shouldn’t ‘selectively solicit’ or ‘discourage or prohibit’ reviews, but we’re leaving this open to your interpretation.

What’s the risk?

Google’s punishment for review manipulation is generally to remove all your reviews from the time of the first offense.  Gating was definitely not a violation of any of their policies prior to the April update, and thanks to the wording of the new “rule”, it’s not 100% clear exactly what is.

That said, historically Google Business has relied heavily on the community to police itself. They’ve been known to allow painfully obvious review spam, and they don’t automatically flag / investigate or ban business locations that are using a published UPS store address – a blatant violation of policy that should be fairly easy to catch.

What’s a business to do?

  • If you’re using software to build Google reviews, you may not have a choice. Many local review software companies, like Get 5 Stars and others, have removed or are will be removing the gating option – at least for Google reviews. Most will be unwilling to take chances with policy interpretation – it would be disastrous for them if Google were target and take action on their clients (anyone remember MyBlogGuest? Or Text Link Ads?)
  • Stop gating – the safest and purely “white hat” interpretation of this new guideline is to either solicit Google reviews from all of your clients or none of them.Although gating makes business owners feel more in control, local SEO expert Mike Blumenthal noted in a 4/23 discussion about the new policy on Street Fight that it’s more of a “security blanket” for the business owner, and that from what he’s seen, businesses that don’t gate reviews are actually more successful.
  • Putting on my “pragmatic purple” hat: Let’s say a business were to interpret these new guidelines as meaning it’s OK to solicit honest reviews from clients that seem happy and to try to work things out with the unhappy clients before asking for a review. If you’re discreet and don’t leave an obvious “footprint” (like a spammy looking string of 5-star ratings and cookie-cutter reviews) chances are you won’t raise any red flags.

Is gating worth the effort? Maybe, maybe not People with a complaint will find their way to your Google listing whether you provide them with the URL or not, and increasingly savvy online searchers seem to find review profiles with a smattering of mediocre or bad reviews to be more trustworthy.

You can still gate reviews on other sites

Stepping back for the big picture, remember that these rules only apply to Google reviews. Google is the big kahuna, but they’re not the only game in town.

If you feel more comfortable gating at least some of your reviews but don’t want to risk running afoul of Google, you can continue to gate and solicit reviews on important 3rd party sites, such as:

  • Sites that appear in the “Reviews from the web” section of your Google knowledge panel – this a way you can exert some control over reviews shown on your knowledge panel while still following Google’s letter of the law.

Don’t have any of these listed yet? Target the sites that are being displayed in knowledge panels of your local competitors.

  • Sites that rank highly for industry-related searches. This will vary by vertical and location. Claim and complete a business profile on these sites, solicit and monitor reviews on them. In the example below, Hackensack home builders might want to target Houzz, Thumbtack and Porch.com

Dealing with Negative Online Reviews – You Can’t Please Everyone

For any business, some negative reviews online are a fact of life. What’s the best way to handle them?

  1. Resign yourself to giving up the illusion of control. Unhappy people can easily find you somewhere online to leave a negative review – whether you prompt them to review you or not.
  1. Unhappy customers are MORE likely to leave an unsolicited negative review. Make sure your customer service is easy to access and that clients with a complaint have a clear means for voicing and resolving any issues before they are frustrated enough to seek you out and skewer you online.
  1. Monitor and respond to negative reviews – How you respond says as much or more about you than the review itself. Stick to the facts. Keep it cool, keep it professional, keep it classy.
  2. Respond to positive reviews too – Nothing says “repeat business” or “word of mouth referrals” like making your customers feel valued and appreciated!

Need help setting up a review strategy for your business? OpenMoves would be happy to get you on track. Give us a call!

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