Google Tweaks Guidelines on Soliciting Reviews … But Is It Enough?

Filed in Featured, Google, Local Search by Matt McGee on February 27, 2011 26 Comments

no-solicitationGoogle recently rewrote its guidelines on review solicitation and significantly narrowed what it considers to be inappropriate tactics for getting reviews. The change is very recent, and appears to be related to Google’s own promotion of HotPot in the Portland, Oregon market a couple months ago. But I can’t help wondering if another rewrite is in order.

Google’s New Guideline on Soliciting Reviews

The Google help page about reviews now offers this guidance on encouraging and incentivizing reviews:

Reviews are only valuable when they are honest and unbiased. Even if well-intentioned, a conflict of interest can undermine the trust in a review. For instance, do not offer or accept money or product to write positive reviews about a business, or to write negative reviews about a competitor. Please also do not post reviews on behalf of others or misrepresent your identity or affiliation with the place you are reviewing.

I’ve bolded the part that’s changed; Google is now being very specific about what’s not okay — you cannot offer or accept money/product in exchange for reviews. This guideline was previously much more vague with a reference to “other incentives.”

Reviews are only valuable when they are honest and unbiased. Even if well-intentioned, a conflict of interest can undermine the trust in a review. In addition, we do not accept reviews written for money or other incentives. Please also do not post reviews on behalf of others or misrepresent your identity or affiliation with the place you are reviewing.

It seems safe to assume that the change is in response to some pushback (largely from me on Search Engine Land) about how it was promoting HotPot in Portland a couple months ago.

Google Broke Its Own Rules on Reviews

Back in December, Google launched a major promotional effort in Portland for HotPot. In order to increase adoption and get locals to write reviews and rate as many Portland businesses as possible, Google offered incentives such as dinner parties and $100 debit cards. As I pointed out on Search Engine Land, Google was offering prizes worth almost $14,000 in exchange for reviews.

That seems to be a pretty obvious conflict with the old “we do not accept reviews written for money or other incentives” guideline. If reviews written for money/product are less trustworthy, it doesn’t really matter who’s the one paying or offering the prize. The idea is to get honest reviews in the system, not reviews from people only doing it to win a prize.

Is Another Rewrite Needed?

Frankly, I’m not sure that what Google was doing in Portland meets the standard of the new guideline, either. If Google was okay to encourage reviews and ratings via a contest, small business owners should be okay to do that, too.

In other words, even though the guideline now says you can’t offer/accept money or product, it seems that Joe’s Restaurant could follow Google’s lead by creating a contest like this:

  • invite customers to review the restaurant on Google HotPot or Maps
  • don’t tell reviewers they have to write positive reviews of the restaurant
  • give a free $100 gift certificate to one reviewer per month (or per week, even)

Is that okay? I don’t know. It seems like it’s an offer of money/product in exchange for reviews, but maybe it’s okay because it’s a contest and not a direct quid pro quo exchange. Not every reviewer will be rewarded.

More uncertainty: The new guideline very specifically mentions offering money or product, but that sentence now begins with “For instance” — whereas the old text said “In addition.” By using “For instance,” Google is essentially saying here’s one example of what’s not okay. And that means there might be other things that are also not okay.

So, there’s still some ambiguity here and I suspect this guideline will be rewritten again as small business owners try to figure out where the line is between encouraging and incentivizing reviews.

Your Turn: Is the new guideline on reviews clear enough? Will small business owners still manage to cross the line in their attempts to get reviews? Comments are open…

(stock photo via Shutterstock)

Comments (26)

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  1. Jill Whalen says:

    Matt, you said:

    you cannot offer or accept money/product in exchange for reviews.

    But the Google Guideline you quoted is different in that it specifically says you should not accept money/product for a positive review (or negative one towards a competitor.

    That’s not at all the same thing as them saying you can’t or shouldn’t accept a product or money in exchange for an unbiased review.

    If fact, it makes it much more clear than the old wording, imo.

  2. Why don’t they go all the way and say something about not soliciting positive reviews at all? I’d think they should just say you can only ask for reviews of your offerings, without being able to direct customers in the rating aspect at all. And they can go even further by saying you can’t incentivize the requests in any form whatever.

  3. Kathy Long says:

    I’m with Jill on this. It appears to me you can’t incentivize a POSITIVE review, and you CAN incentivize any review. I believe this should be allowed because from what I’ve seen, people are more motivated to leave poor reviews than they are positive ones because of the emotion behind getting poor service or a bad product. I say motivate those happy clients.

    What Google really needs to do, though, is crack down on are those who are making a business of writing reviews for you. Check or Freelancer and you’ll see plenty of offers to write them. Knowing what I know, it’s getting to the point that the only reviews I believe are from people I know. And someone should take that idea and run with it.

  4. Lesley Cutts says:

    There is a difference between incentivising good reviews and prompting a review (ie giving honest objective feedback). By nature customers tend not to make the effort to write reviews (statistics show less than 5% will leave a review off their own bat)so in general we want to encourage customer comments without influencing whether it is good or bad – that is an honest review. These are essential for development/usability etc. Whereas a less commendable practice would be to solicit a positive review. Google, please don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  5. Angela says:

    It seems that national laws on the topic of reviews are far more lax than even Google’s. Most reviews coming in the form of testimonials are simply fabricated.

  6. Scott Clark says:

    I say that encouraging happy customers to leave reviews levels the playing field. @lesley has it right, except in my idea ( clients ask for reviews from happy customers (even showing them how to leave them,) and silently apologize to those who are unhappy. No incentive needed other than saying they appreciate the time.

    @kathy – yep, absolutely.

  7. The first thing a business does when it gets a negative review (or two) is to solicit positive reviews, whether real or not, to counter this negativity. Until someone comes up with a better plan, this practice won’t change.

  8. Gradiva says:

    Hi Matt,

    All fantastic points. It seems to me that businesses should look to the FTC guidelines on blog reviews, which require disclosure if there is any financial relationship (including money as well as free products) between the blogger and the business. It seems natural enough to extend these standards to consumer reviews.

    Considering that Google’s guidelines remain ambiguous, and could be changed at any moment, I feel a lot more comfortable advising my clients to go with FTC guidelines. (not to mention that the FTC is actually the law, while Google just seems that way).


  9. Gina says:

    I think the guidelines still seem unclear. I understand how you don’t want people writing fake reviews strictly for money especially if they’ve never even been to your establishment. However, I think a good way to promote writing reviews on your facility would be to give your existing and/or new customers an incentive such as a gift certificate or something if they write about their experience. If I interpret the new guidelines this would be illegal, right?

  10. Tony says:

    Matt, I’m NOT with Jill on this. Jill failed to acknowledge that an UNBIASED review can be either positive OR negative, so yeah, it no too clear.

  11. Jill Whalen says:

    @Tony, yes, that’s correct, an unbiased review can be either positive or negative. As long as it’s unbiased, from what Google has said, it’s fine.

  12. Greg Shuey says:

    Obviously they don’t care if you offer product to be tested, then reviewed, either positively or negatively…

    This re-write of their guidelines is just a scare tactic that they won’t be able to tie back to anyone unless a whistle blower reports them to the almighty Google.

  13. Adam says:

    I agree that encouraging the activity of commenting, as opposed to influencing the content of the comments, seems to be acceptable under the new rules. Small businesses do need the latitude to encourage people to comment, as comments do tend to only come from those who either love you or hate you, while the silent majority who really like you tend not to bother.

    @Gradiva “not to mention that the FTC is actually the law, while Google just seems that way” That may just be my quote of the week!

  14. Kathy Long says:

    Sadly, now that the word is out that Google is rewarding sites with good reviews, which I think is a good idea possibly going bad, scammers are cropping up right and left to take advantage of this.

    Need a positive review? Just go to and get one for $5. Too expensive for you? Go go to and order 100 for $20.

    There’s a company I heard of, and lucky for them I can’t remember the name, but they are setting up shop here in the U.S. to feed off this market. All you the shop owner have to do is collect your written testimonials, put them in a spreadsheet and send it to them. They outsource to every tom, dick, and harry in the Philippines who will translate your “legitimate” reviews into Hotpot, Yelp, etc. Of course, you have to sign a contract stating your testimonials are legit which gets them off the hook for all the phoney testimonial spreadsheets that will surely come their way.

    So, what’s Google going to do about that? I would hope they would begin by filtering out reviews coming from IP addresses out of area. That’s a start, but just a start. To be honest, I think it may get to the point where no one believes reviews unless they come from your friends or friends of friends. Enter Facebook. And I’ll leave it at that.

  15. Kathy Long says:

    There’s a great summary of an SMX West 2011 session on this topic at Outspoken Media. I’m trying to leave a link here, but my post doesn’t go through. So maybe this blog filters comments with urls. If you’re interested (and if this post actually makes the airwaves) go to Outspoken’s website and search on Ratings, Reviews and Reputation.

  16. Unfortunately, the burden is still placed on the consumer to investigate and assess Google Places reviews. For me that involves clicking into the reviewer’s profile and looking for suspicious reviewing patterns. For example, searching for “goodson honda houston tx” on Google, and then choosing Honda of Spring, you see a positive Google review by someone called, “massive.” When you click into massive’s profile you find that he (or perhaps she) had service from two different Goodson Honda locations in Houston and bought tires in Missouri, had service at a Toyota dealership in Huntington Beach, CA, and stayed at a Best Western Hotel in Quebec in the same day. Busy, busy, busy!

    Wish there was an easy way to report these suspicious reviews to the FTC. I also wish that Google would implement algorithm changes to spot “funny” review patterns like these.

  17. Kathy Long says:

    @Paul I love your example! So funny. Busy, busy, busy all from their desk in the Philippines.

    Maybe what the review sites need to require is a local checkin before you can review on a local business in order to prove that you are at least in the vicinity and might actually have had an experience with that business. Or maybe they should just require you check in to the actual business to do it, and/or perhaps push those local check-in reviews to the top because they are probably more credible. Foursquare, here’s your opportunity. Are you listening?

  18. Chris says:

    I don’t see a problem with this from the small business side. If you did business with us, tell us how we did! And in exchange for your time, we’ll enter you in a drawing for $100. How is this any different from a fast food restaurant asking for your feedback on the back of the receipt in exchange to be entered for a drawing for a $1000 gift certificate? It’s not.

    I think if you simply ask for reviews in exchange for a entry in a drawing, it should be okay. But specifically asking for positive reviews may be suspect and pushing negative reviews on competitors is plain criminal.

    It’s the old adage that customers that have positive experiences will tell no one while customers that have bad experiences will tell at least 3 people. If a business can’t incentivize people to leave a review (not everyone, but in a drawing type of setting), it leaves too much up to the consumer that is most likely not going to do it unless there’s a potential benefit in doing so.

  19. Mark says:

    We work with dentists for marketing. One of the concepts that we came up with is for the dentist or staff to note when a patient is particularly happy about their visit. Then the staff asks them if they would be willing to write an online review. If the patient agrees, an iPad is brought in for the patient to log into their Google account. If they don’t have one, staff help instruct the patient how to do it. There is no reward offered. However, every review comes from the same IP address which I’ve heard might be a problem. Please comment on this technique. I welcome your opinion. It seems to be working very well. We’ve increased positive comments on Google from one every 2-3 months to one every 2-3 days.

  20. @Mark, I’d heard the same thing — that lots of reviews coming from one IP address would trigger some negative action from Google. How long have you been doing this?

  21. Mark says:

    A couple of months. I don’t know if Google actually does anything about reviews that originate from the same IP address. I have searched the web and can’t find a real life example of Google having done this. There seems to be a lot of fear mongering and cautionary talk, but nothing concrete.

    • Matt McGee says:

      I don’t recall any specific examples of that kind of “abuse” leading to problems, either, but I do recall Google reps saying at conferences that they don’t recommend it. My guess is that it may not be something they look too deeply at algorithmically, but it wouldn’t pass a human smell test.

  22. Chad says:

    It looks like Google has since updated this policy by removing the word “positive” from the following sentence: “For instance, don’t offer or accept money or product to write (positive) reviews about a business, or to write negative reviews about a competitor.” I guess they wanted to take away this loophole for those who have noticed it. It now appears that giving any type of incentive is considered off limits.

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