Google 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)