4 Ways to Read Google’s No-Cherry-Picking Policy on Google Reviews

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Google recently added the following to their seldom-enforced list of preferences policies on Google Maps reviews:

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

The basic meaning seems clear enough: Google doesn’t want you to cherry-pick reviews.  Fine.  Got it.

But what’s Google’s definition of “discouraging or prohibiting” a negative review or “selectively soliciting” a positive review?  Have you done either of those things without realizing it?  Is Google only trying to scare the serious offenders and put everyone else (like you) on alert?

Joy Hawkins did a helpful post about Google’s “review-gating” policy.  Here is her take on what Google now tells us not to do:

“Review-gating is the process of filtering candidates before asking them to leave you a review.  Normally this is done by sending all customers an email template and first asking them if they had a positive or negative experience.  If they had a positive experience, they are asked to leave a review on Google but if they had a negative experience, they are prompted to leave private feedback and are never sent the option to leave a review publicly.”

Google doesn’t call it “review-gating,” or specifically mention customer-outreach tools, but I’d say Joy’s conclusion is solid, and good advice to heed.

The only trouble is other review-encouragement practices may or may not be in the crosshairs of Google’s new policy.  You can interpret “don’t discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers” in a few other ways.  You could hamstring your effort on reviews unnecessarily, or you could do something Google doesn’t want you to.

Here’s probably the loosest way to read Google’s new “rule”:

Interpretation 1: “We don’t care if you only approach happy-ish customers for Google reviews, and we don’t even care exactly how you ask, just as long as you constantly make it clear that customers can leave you a negative review if they feel the need.”

A more-specific reading:

Interpretation 2: “We don’t care whom you ask for Google reviews, but you’d better not fixate on their star ratings or what they say in the reviews.  So that means don’t be like the hotel that fined guests for leaving bad reviews, don’t tell customers things like, ‘If we haven’t earned your 5-star review yet, please contact us first’, and don’t use review funnels.”

Here’s the harshest interpretation of it:

Interpretation 3: “Ask all customers for reviews, or ask none at all. Don’t let your knowledge of a customer’s happiness influence whether you ask him or her for a review.  If you do ask for a review, pretend there’s no such thing as a ‘negative’ review, a ‘positive’ review, or star ratings.”

Here’s what I think Google means:

Interpretation 4: “We’re obligated to tell you that you shouldn’t ‘selectively solicit’ or ‘discourage or prohibit’ reviews.  We’re smart enough to define those terms more clearly for you, but we’d rather leave it open to interpretation.  That’ll deter some people, and it’ll spook software makers into enforcing our policies for us, and it lets us change our definitions however we want.”

Google long has left its review guidelines and other guidelines mushy (or obscure), apparently by design.  Google’s policies, enforcement SOPs, and internal politics change all the time.  Why wouldn’t they keep their options open?

For many years I’ve urged clients and others not to put words in customers’ mouths, not to fixate on 5 stars, and always to seek honest feedback.  It’s possible to try too hard to avoid bad reviews.  In doing so you miss out on many of the benefits of reviews in general.

But if you learn customers have gripes, it’s only reasonable to try to work out any problems first.  That’s what they hope and expect you’ll do.  They know full well that they can leave you a bad review at any time.  I suspect the Google Maps powers-that-be would agree, but on the off-chance they don’t, let’s see them try to do something about it.  As David Baxter said over at the Local Search Forum, “It’s about deterrence.”

How do you interpret Google’s latest mushy “policy” language?

Does it change your strategy in any way?

Any possible readings I missed?

Leave a comment!

Is There Anything You Can DO to Get Yelp Reviews These Days – without a Public Shaming?

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For years Yelp has told business owners not to ask for reviews on Yelp.  Not that you shouldn’t ask only for positive reviews or tell customers what to say.  Not that you shouldn’t ply them with discounts or gift cards or other wampum.  You’re not supposed to ask for Yelp reviews, period.

In practice, Yelp’s as bad at enforcing that dumb demand as it is at consistently enforcing other, more-commonsense standards – like that the reviewer is a real customer (or client or patient).

That hasn’t stopped Yelp from piling on even more no-nos.  Recently they demanded that makers of review-encouragement software not present Yelp as an option to customers (which I know also because some of those software-makers have told me so).  Yelp also has threatened to issue “Consumer Alerts” or Yelp-rankings penalties to any business caught asking for Yelp reviews (no matter how ethically).

Worst of all, Yelp has left it vague as to whether you’re not supposed to encourage reviews on any site.  Let’s just assume they haven’t gone quite that far yet.  Let’s also assume that, like me, you’ll only bend so far to comply with absurd demands.

Anyway, the result is that these days you need to tiptoe around more – whether you ask for reviews by using any kind of outreach product, or a “Review Us” page, or an email, or any other nonverbal approach.  Whether you interpret “tiptoe” to mean either (1) “Sounds like I need to cover my tracks even more” or (2) “I’ll follow Yelp’s rulebook to the letter” is up to you.

Yelp’s hope is that your customers review you spontaneously there.  Sometimes it works out that way, often in cities where Yelp is popular.  Where that becomes a pipe dream is in places where few people give a hoot about Yelp or write reviews there, but where it’s hard to miss Yelp search results in Google’s local search results.  In that case you’ve got a glaring hole in your online reputation, but no way to fill it.

Even though Yelp often isn’t fair, and most of their policies are moronic, you might want at least to try to play by Yelp’s rules.  But you also want to get some reviews there (and elsewhere).  Can you do both?

Your options now are more limited than they’ve ever been, but there are a few ways you can try to rustle up reviews and not (1) violate Yelp’s silly rules outright, or (2) risk becoming the first business owner Yelp makes a public example of because you tried a sly workaround.

Here are the 4 most Yelp-policy-friendly approaches (that might actually work for you) to encourage customers to speak up:

1. The “Find Friends” strategy, with a twist (more on that in a second). “Find Friends” is a feature in Yelp that allows you to see who’s an active reviewer on Yelp.  You can enter a name or email address one a time, or bulk-check a list of email addresses.  (You can also do a “Find Friends” search by syncing with your Facebook page, but that’s not as reliable.)

Once you’ve determined which customers have written more than a few reviews (let’s say 5), just ask them for a review/feedback in whatever way has worked for you.  Because Yelp is probably their preferred review site, they’ll probably review you there without your needing to ask for a Yelp review specifically, or drop a link to your page, or do anything else that Yelp discourages.

2. Make your “please write a review” link a query string in Google that shows your Yelp page near the top of Google’s search results. The link should look something like this:

https://www.google.com/search?q=Local+Visibility+System

Again, customers can pick Yelp if that’s their preferred review site.  You’re not asking them to pick Yelp, explicitly or implicitly.

3. Splatter your best Yelp reviews all over your site. (Or your one good Yelp review, if you only have one at the moment.)

Try to pick reviews that are relevant to the content of the pages you stick the reviews on.  For instance, if you’re a dentist, maybe don’t put a review from a tooth-whitening patient on your “Full-Mouth Reconstruction” page.

If you do it right, you may condition new customers to think “Yelp reviews” when they think of your reviews in general.  When it comes time to ask them for a review anywhere, there’s a good chance they’ll think of Yelp again.

It’s also a nice passive way to encourage reviews in general, if for whatever reason you just aren’t comfortable with asking anyone for reviews (even if you don’t specify the site).  You probably won’t get a gusher of reviews as a result of this approach, but you’ll probably get a little trickle.

Yelp’s embed feature is convenient.  Here’s a great example of that in practice.

4.  Do a Yelp “check-in offer.” They’re only available to bricks-and-mortar businesses, and not to service-area businesses, so there’s a good chance this one just isn’t relevant to you.  But if you do see customers at your business address, then it may be an arrow in your quiver.

What’s worked for you – or hasn’t worked for you – on Yelp?

How “by-the-book” do you figure it is?

Any new strategies you’re considering?

Leave a comment!

Why Your Review-Encouragement Software Is a Meat Grinder

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It’s tempting to sign up for a “reputation-management” or “review-generation” product and let it pester all your customers for a review – so you don’t have to take the time (or forget) to do it personally.

Resist the temptation. At least until you’ve worked out more manually a review-encouragement strategy that works OK.  Otherwise all you’ll do is automate failure.

My advice might be different if review-encouragement software was a surefire way to get you 80% of the great reviews you could get with a more-hands-on method, but with only 20% of the time and effort.  But in my experience it doesn’t do that, at least right out of the box.  (If you’ve worked out a method that works well without the software, maybe you can get to that 80/20 payoff zone.)

A mediocre-to-OK review strategy is simple to execute: just “do a good job” and ask customers to review you if they’re happy, and contact you first if they’re not. Where it gets trickier is if you want more than just a trickle of reviews, and on sites that really matter.

Most automated review-encouragement programs clear only the lower bar.  They require only you to upload people’s email addresses, customize the email that goes out automatically, maybe tweak some settings, and keep a credit card on-file.  A great review strategy – one that gets the greatest number of happy customers to write the best reviews they can – takes a little more than that.

I don’t want to name specific products, if I can avoid it.  But maybe it’s better that way, because there are a million tools that claim to be your one-stop reviews solution.  It’s likely you’ve used or considered at least one such tool, or you probably wouldn’t be reading this.

Some are near-useless, in that most of the “reviews” are in fact testimonials that just molder on the software company’s site (e.g. Demandforce.com), rather than reviews on Google Maps or Yelp or Facebook or Angie’s List or other sites people notice and maybe care about.  I’m not even talking about that kind of service here.  Rather, I want to give cautionary advice about programs that actually try to encourage reviews on third-party review sites.  Seldom are they as effective as you and I would like.

“But Phil, the Big Ugly Corporation I just bought a new refrigerator from just sent me an auto-email to ask for a review, and they have hundreds of reviews from customers.  It seems to work fine for them!”

Maybe, but Big Ugly Corporation also has tens of thousands of customers more than you have – and many more opportunities to waste in asking for reviews ineffectively.  200 reviews?  That’s still an awful batting average.  If you want to do a little better than 1 for 20, you can’t simply rely on a program.

Why?  Here are the biggest problems with review-encouragement software:

  1. If your email or overall strategy isn’t battle-tested, you may burn through all your customers and have little to show for it. What if your review-management software sounds out all the emails – just as it should – and you don’t get any reviews? Maybe everyone ignores the email, or it goes out at a bad hour, or the links are broken, or there are customer-service issues to sort out first.  You can ask everyone another time, but after that you become a nuisance.  Don’t entrust software with the goodwill you’ve taken years to earn.  Put it through a few bird-strike tests first.

  1. You can’t personalize an automated request to a reviewer’s unique situation. Long-time customer? Super happy customer?  Did he have privacy concerns?  Is she an “Elite” Yelper?  A one-size-fits-all email won’t acknowledge specifics, and probably won’t accomplish all it could.
  1. The auto-email will seem cold if it’s the first or only time you ask for a review. The recipient will wonder, “Gee, I was just in your office – why didn’t you ask me then?” Ask in-person first, if possible.  At least plant the seed of the idea, get a sense of who’s happy (and who’s not), and maybe get a tacit “yes.”  That way, even an auto-email won’t seem to come out of the blue, and any follow-up is more likely to work.
  1. It’s harder to sniff out who’s unhappy. The auto-email will go to everyone, or to large groups of people at a time.
  1. Weak writing may undo you. Think of how you’d ask a customer, client, or patient face-to-face for a review. Is that how you’d write your automated email?  Probably not.  In-person you’d care about the timing, and be polite, but also get to the point.  In an email you’re more likely sound stuffy or generic, or to beat around the bush.  Most people are better writers when they speak than when they write.  Too many business owners use automated outreach tools precisely because they don’t want to ask for reviews in-person.  Often I find that’s because they haven’t figured out exactly what or how to ask.  First figure out how you’d articulate an in-person request, write the email like that, see how it performs, and then automate it if you must.  Not the other way around.

  1. Your auto-email won’t acknowledge people who already reviewed you. That will irk them, and you’ll miss the opportunity to ask, “We’re so crazy about the great review you left us on Review Site A that I’ve just got to ask: could you also review us on Review Site B?”
  1. Timing may be trickier. You have a sense of what are good times and bad times to ask customers/clients/patients for a review. Outreach software only gives you so much control over when the requests go out.
  1. Follow-up may be trickier. What if you want to send a follow-up email to some customers after a week, and to other customers after three weeks? Or if they contact you with customer-service issues to sort out, will your program still email them a second time – before you’ve worked out the issue?  Maybe you end up choosing not to use the program’s follow-up feature, but if you do use it, it’ll probably complicate your job.
  1. It’s harder to approach touchy situations. People with privacy concerns you might want to direct to anonymous review sites. Others may be willing to write you a great review, but would want to keep it vague.  Some people may not make ideal reviewers after all.  And so on.  You’re nimbler than the program is.
  1. You’ll probably treat it as a one-stop solution. The makers of the software market it as such. They’ll tell you that all you need to do is flick it on and watch the reviews whoosh in.  You hope that’s how it works out, so you give it a try and don’t bother to do the other things you need to do (e.g. ask customers in-person first).
  1. You’ll probably treat it as a “set it and forget it” solution. You chose the outreach tool because it’s easy. How likely are you to go in often and update the infernal thing?
  1. It’s a missed opportunity to learn more about your would-be reviewers. You have to think about, customize, write, and send 100 emails in a month? Yeah, that’s work.  But what a great way to interact with and get to know your customers.  What a missed opportunity if you don’t bother.
  1. You miss out on the satisfaction of asking for reviews and getting great ones – or of dodging bullets to your reputation

So review-encouragement software isn’t a surefire way to rack up 5-star reviews.  What do I suggest you do instead?

Do MANUAL email outreach, at least for a while.  One email at a time.  One person at a time.

Try a simple process that works for you, even if takes more time or effort than you’d like.  Tweak it as needed until it works pretty well.  Then try to make it easier if you want.

At that point, automated review-encouragement software might actually help.  You might try Whitespark’s Reputation Builder, or GetFiveStars, or Grade.us, for example.  Whatever you use, hold it to high standards.  Make sure it brings in almost as many good reviews as you can do with your finest hands-on outreach effort.  Continue to ask in-person first (if possible), and send some requests personally every now and then, and always try new things that you might work into the program you use.

What’s worked for you?  What hasn’t worked?  Leave a comment!

12 Facts to Know about Google My Business Appointment URLs

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Google wants people to make an appointment.  Businesses now can add (in the Google My Business dashboard) a link to a “book an appointment” page or similar page.  The link will show up wherever your Google My Business page shows up in the local search results.

The “appointment URL” feature has promise.  Here are a few things you may want to know before you dig in and use it for your business (as I suggest you do):

1. An “appointment” URL probably won’t show up automatically for you, unless you use online scheduling software. Even then, you may not automatically get the link, in which case you’ll probably need to add it manually (if you want it).

2. Appointment URLs are not just for restaurants and medical practices. You can also add one if you’ve got a service business, a law practice, or other type of business.

3. Pretty much every business can add an appointment URL right now. This doesn’t appear to be one of Google’s molasses-speed rollouts of a new feature.  Of the dozens of Google My Business dashboards I’ve looked at, the only ones that can’t yet add an “appointment” URL are for a couple of private schools, an auction house, and a painting company.  I’m sure I’ll see the option available to those guys soon enough.)

4. “Practitioners” can add appointment URLs, too.

5. Some businesses can add a “menu” URL, too. Whether you can add only an appointment URL or an appointment URL and a “menu” URL depends on what kind of business yours is.  But even then, it doesn’t have to be a restaurant.  (I see the “menu URL” option for a chiropractor client of mine.)  Other businesses can get a “Products and Services” URL, but I can’t yet tell how.

6. Appointment URLs don’t seem to be available to businesses outside of the US yet, although restaurants outside the US do get the other URLs.

7. Your URL will go live instantly, or within about 5 minutes.

8. Google will accept invalid URLs. You won’t get an error in your Google My Business dashboard.  You’ll just confuse and annoy customers.  So be sure to click on your link to make sure it works.

9. You can add a URL to your “Contact Us” page, or to whatever page you like. (Mine points to my contact page.)

10. The full URL won’t show up. Google won’t show the subpage (e.g. “yoursite.com/appointment”) or subdomain (e.g. “appointments.yoursite.com”) in the URL.  They’ll just show “yoursite.com.”  It’s a display URL.

11. It’s not publicly editable from Google’s knowledge panel (yet?).  So at least your competitors can’t stick you with a bogus URL (yet?).

12. The rules are ambiguous, at least for now. Experiment in the meantime.  Consider creating a “contact” page on your site that’s only accessible through the “appointment” link; see how much traffic it gets.  Track visitors’ clicking behavior on that page by hooking it up to CrazyEgg or HotJar; see where they go next.  Maybe link to a site where you’ve got a fistful of great reviews (hey, Google didn’t say anything about linking to your site).

I’m guessing Google has big plans for these new links.  Like Yelp and the other local-search players that matter, Google wants to be involved in the transaction as early as possible – as we’ve seen with Google Home Services ads (AKA the “paid Maps” results).  Speaking of which, I wonder when those links will appear in Google Home Services ads.

With Google everything’s an experiment, but the “appointment” URL is one lab chimp probably won’t let die any time soon.

Update: If you can’t add an appointment URL, try this workaround.

Can you specify other types of URLs (like “Products and Services”)?

Where do you think Google is headed with this – and why now?

Have you tried it and noticed any clear benefits?

Leave a comment!

Online Scheduling: on the Rise in Google and a Local Search Ranking Factor?

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I want to emphasize that I have not tested this – even to the extent you can “test” anything in local search.

Rather, I’ve just observed a couple things:

1.  Google seems to integrate online “Make an appointment” software into local businesses’ knowledge graphs more often than it used to.

2.  Businesses with the “Make an appointment” feature in their knowledge graphs often seem to outrank businesses without it.

A few visuals, just to show what I’m talking about:

The scheduling services I’ve seen pop up again and again – and more and more as of late – are:

DemandForce / Intuit (since August)

MyTime

Genbook

Zocdoc

Booker.com

I’ve also seen FullSlate and PatientConnect365.com pop up on a few occasions. Also, Jesse Palmer of LoveandScience has shown me an example of a HealthGrades scheduler appearing in the knowledge graph.

Use one of those services and you’ll probably get the “Make an appointment” feature showing up in Google when people search for you by name.

It’s not only for doctors.  I’ve seen it for accountants, massage therapists, and even cryotherapy saunas.  It’s for anyone who wants to give clients / patients / customers the ability to book an appointment online using a third-party scheduler.

That’s nice, but why might it be a local ranking factor?  We local SEOs can be a superstitious bunch, and sometimes throw around that 6-letter F-word with abandon.

Some reasons it’s not totally crazy to think Google might use online booking as a minor local ranking factor:

1.  Google cares at least enough to have a whole “support” page on “Local business orders and appointments.” And they’ve even got standards, and make it clear that not every business gets the “Make an appointment” bling:

Links to booking options will appear automatically for eligible businesses. There’s not currently a way to request this service for your business.

2.  The knowledge graph has replaced the local Google page as the place to find info on local businesses in Google. seems to care about what’s in it and it’s shoved in your face, whereas your Google Places Plus My Business page is very hard to get to.

3.  As Big Brother, Google must know whether and how searchers use with the online scheduling interface. One thing I’ve noticed is that a business using online scheduling only tends to outrank other businesses if it’s got reviews (Google reviews and others).  As with Google Maps driving-direction lookups, a combination of online bookings and an influx of reviews might suggest to Google that customers do business with you and live to tell about it.

4.  Like Google Business View, it implies a few things about your business:

  • Unlike most spammers – you’re serious enough to fork over.
  • People can actually meet you, probably at your place of business.
  • Clients / patients / customers think your business looks good enough to book an appointment, and possibly to write a review post-appointment. (Some booking sites encourage reviews after the appointment.)

By the way, on the off-chance you own an online-scheduling site, you can apply to be included.

Have you noticed more instances of “Make an appointment” lately?

Did I miss any appointment-scheduling services that cause that to pop up?

What do you think about the theory that online scheduling might be a minor ranking factor?

Leave a comment!