How to Comply With Google’s New Rule Prohibiting Selective Review Requesting

A critical new rule was added to Google’s Prohibited Content Guidelines in April 2018:

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

This new rule is very broadly and generally stated, making it difficult to determine exactly what Google intends by it. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that Google now requires that if you are engaging in review requesting on Google that, at a minimum, you: (1) Request reviews from ALL of your customers as part of your review requesting process; and (2) Do not engage in practices that are intended to filter out customers that may leave negative reviews.

Does this new prohibition against selective review solicitation apply to all review sites?

The quick answer is: No. This new rule is a Google rule and applies to Google Reviews.

The better answer, however, is that Google’s new rule is consistent with what Reputation.com has long advocated as best practice. Although Reputation.com’s platform was designed to be a neutral tool that gives its users a great deal of flexibility as to how to build their own customer reputation management feedback processes, our experience and expertise have led us to conclude that requesting reviews from all of your customers is the best way to get a complete, unbiased picture of customer experience — and based on Google’s new policy, we will be making product changes to reflect those best practices.

See below for more information on Reputation.com’s best practice advice and product plans to address Google’s new policy.

What are authorities other than Google saying on the subject?

We are starting to see regulatory agencies weigh in on reviews — and in particular, how only requesting reviews from satisfied customers could be anti-competitive.

The best example is the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (the “CMA”), which is analogous to the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S. The CMA has issued formal guidance that advised against collecting reviews “only from customers you know are satisfied” or setting up other process designed to filter out negative reviewers. The CMA’s position is that such practices could be found to be “anti-competitive” and/or “deceptive” practices under existing UK competition laws.

Other countries are taking a similar approach. In June of 2016, the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), which represents consumer protection authorities from over 60 countries, published its guidelines for Online Reviews & Endorsements, where they said that any organization or individual that processes consumer reviews should, “when soliciting reviews… take care to avoid encouraging some types of reviews over others… [and] treat all potential reviewers equally, whether they are considered likely to give a positive or negative review.” They also agree that anyone managing reviews should not “prevent or delay negative reviews being uploaded” or “selectively edit, reject or delete reviews of a business to influence the overall rating of the business.”

In the United States, we have not seen specific guidance from the Federal Trade Commission on the issue of selective review requesting, but they have published guidance here and here on reviews and endorsements in the last several years. In light of this, we recommend that clients be prepared for the possibility that the FTC will issue guidance on this area in the next couple of years.

Is Google actively policing this new rule?

Yes. We are aware that Google is actively looking into review requesting practices of its business users.  Consequently, we are urging our customers to review their own practices and uses of our platform swiftly to make sure that the do not run afoul of Google’s new rules.

If we decide to request reviews selectively anyway, what will Google do?

We are not certain what punitive or remedial actions Google will take if it determines that a party is engaged in “selective” review requesting. Google has not been specific about this topic. We do know that Google has taken actions against persons that have violated its rules in similar contexts which involved Google wiping out their reviews in bulk.

Our guidance here is meant to ensure that this does not happen to any of our clients.

Don’t we have to request reviews selectively in order to improve our reputation online?

No. Quite the contrary.

It is not best practice to request reviews selectively — meaning, sending review requests only to customers that have been pre-qualified as satisfied (in person, through a survey or by other means).

This view may seem counterintuitive where building a strong online reputation is concerned.  But our vast experience demonstrates that consumers are justifiably suspicious when presented with a string of nothing but four and five star reviews. No business is perfect. Credibility is enhanced by the occasional miss. In fact those negative reviews give you a chance to demonstrate publicly your ability to respond quickly and do right by the customer.

And in fact, our data shows that requesting reviews of all customers actually generates an improved online reputation score. That’s because starting with a survey to qualify customers’ positive or negative orientation before requesting a review induces “survey fatigue” that leads to lower click-through to leave reviews, and lower review volumes overall. Since higher review volumes improve reputation, the data shows that the attrition of positive would-be reviewers hurts overall reputation score.

In addition, asking for reviews from all customers is the only way to get a complete, unbiased picture of customer experience — and obtain the kind of complete customer feedback information about your locations that is required to improve operations and better serve consumers.  Using this information to improve your business is the best way to build customer loyalty and improve your brand.

Do you plan to prohibit selective review requesting in the Reputation.com platform?

Historically we’ve taken an agnostic position in our platform technology, which is designed to be a neutral tool that gives users a great deal of flexibility in how they build their own customer feedback and reputation program. So until this month, the technology has allowed clients to request reviews of dissatisfied customers or not, based on their own policies.

Following mid-April’s addition to Google’s guidelines against selectively soliciting positive reviews from customers, we determined we’d no longer be neutral and began building functionality to actively prohibit selective review requesting.

We are actively informing our customers about Google’s change in policy, and expect to have migrated customers away from the practice and to have hard coded the prohibition into the platform by June 1, 2018.

Best Practices:  What is Reputation.com’s position on selectively requesting reviews?

Those who follow Google and the review management world know that Reputation.com has long advocated best practices for requesting reviews that support a full, clear and accurate picture of true customer experience on the web.

Requesting reviews from all of your customers, satisfied and not, is the best way to get a complete, unbiased picture of customer experience — and obtain the kind of complete customer feedback information about your locations that is required improve operations and better serve consumers.

For example, in our 2016 eBook, 10 Do’s and Don’ts for Developing a Solid Review Requesting System, we advised healthcare organizations to ask all of their patients to leave online reviews that accurately reflect their experience.

We offered similar guidance to the automotive industry in a 2017 blog, 10 Tips for Requesting and Responding to Online Reviews of Your Dealership, specifically:

“Request reviews after every customer interaction. Have a consistent, repeatable process in place for requesting reviews from all customers so you have a representative sample that’s fresh and relevant.  And, of course, don’t delete negative reviews or pay for reviews.”

In an early 2018 webinar video focused on review requesting — which featured a customer case study with a national retailer — we suggested, “Just ask: All of your customers, not just the happy ones.” [3:03]

And on March 5th of this year, in “The Right Way to Request Reviews,” we emphasized how important it is to request reviews of all customers. We cut right to the critical corner case: When an enterprise client deploys customer satisfaction surveys (by e-mail or SMS) to identify trouble spots before requesting a review.

Here was our guidance to clients (emphasis added):

Direct unhappy customers to a short survey that enables a deeper diagnosis of trouble spots. Once this information is gathered, a business immediately points the disgruntled consumer to Google and other review sites to share their experience, positive or not. This form of pathing is the only way for a business to receive granular, systematic insights that help improve customer experience, and provide a representative picture to the marketplace. It leaves it entirely in the hands of the customer to decide if they will leave a review, what that review will say, and what star rating they’ll give the business.

We think the interests of our clients and of consumers are best-served when the review ecosystem reflects a full and fair picture of customer experience — and businesses have the opportunity to address issues, improve service experience, and attract and retain more customers. Selectively soliciting reviews from customers can lead to abuses that will encourage review sites to forbid or severely limit review solicitation.

What’s next?

Over the next 90 days we will be tracking Google’s guidance closely, to ensure we support our clients’ interests and help them manage effectively as the landscape changes.

In the meantime, if you have perspective you’d like to share with us, or any further questions, please consult your Customer Success Manager.