Years ago, homeowners needing a contractor looked to friends for recommendations and referrals. Today? Reviews. “In a recent Houzz survey, 83% of homeowners said that reviews and recommendations are the most important criteria when evaluating home improvement contractors," notes a blogger for Contractor Dynamics.
Homeowners looking for a new roof or new windows might breeze right past your booth at the home show or click past your online advertising, but if they’re truly serious, they’ll steer straight for the online review sites, principally Google, Yelp, and Facebook.
“If you think online reviews get lost in all the Internet noise, think again,” writes Craig Bloem, for Inc. “Research shows that 91% of people regularly or occasionally read online reviews, and 84% trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. And they make that decision quickly: 68% form an opinion after reading between one and six online reviews.”
Make It Easy
Not only do your reviews clinch it for homeowners in search of a contractor but, given enough of them, they’re a key component of boosting your company’s SEO. For both reasons, home improvement companies adept at online marketing have a process that steers homeowners to the review sites, sometimes providing sample reviews as well.
“To get more of these reviews, you need to make it easy,” writes a blogger for Improveit360, a CRM provider to home improvement contractors. “If your business is listed on Angie’s List, Yelp, Google+ for Business, or CitySearch ... then it has a direct link." Add that link to any follow-up email you send to a customer.
But it takes a lot of good reviews to negate the effects of a bad one. An entire subset of online marketing—reputation management—exists, at least in part, to counter that bad review. Reputation management companies offer various strategies for encouraging homeowners to write reviews, with the aim of creating, on behalf of a company, good vibrations online.
When it comes to that occasional bad review, some kind of response is advised, whether that's an apology, clarification, or an attempt to remove the review altogether. But if you don’t want to be bothered by any of that, there’s always review gating.
Review gating is better described as selectively soliciting, or cherry-picking, reviews. For example, your company finishes a roofing job for Mr. Jones, and you follow-up, asking him to rate his level of satisfaction with the job on a one-to-five scale. Jones gives your company a two. Now that you know what he thinks, you ask him to share his dissatisfaction on a comments page that no one except you sees.
You've got another customer, Mr. Smith, who rates your company a five. Your system automatically sends him an email with links to Google, Yelp, and Facebook, encouraging him to write a review. That’s review gating.
Review gating is typically done through a feedback or survey form, sent via email, text, or social media. “Based on their form responses, customers are then asked to either post a review on Google if they had a positive experience," says ReviewTrackers, "or share details of their feedback privately if they had a negative experience.” This has the two-fold effect of keeping negative opinions out of public view, and keeping your overall rating on review sites high.
So what’s the objection? “The company is deliberately hiding negative reviews and padding their positive online reviews," says online presence management company Chatmeter, "giving the public a skewed set of online reviews to make purchasing decisions from.”
A Warning From Google
Review gating has become widespread enough that, in April, Google updated its review guidelines for Google My Business, specifically targeting the practice. “This applies to the user-generated content that shows as star ratings and customer reviews on Google platforms such as search results and map results,” writes Reputation Loop co-founder Zach Anderson. A bullet point in the updated guidelines leaves no ambiguity: "Don’t discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers."
So what are companies to do? “Many businesses are choosing the ‘wait and see’ approach as there haven’t been any reports of companies being penalized for continuing business as usual," writes Listen360's Mariya Babaskina. "Others are taking a more proactive stance and asking all their customers for reviews, regardless of sentiment.”
Reputation Loop notes that “historically, the penalty for violating Google’s review guidelines is the removal of reviews collected while violating the policy." If Google caught a company paying for reviews, for instance, the search engine giant would removed all reviews submitted on or after the date on which they suspected the company began offering paid incentives for positive reviews. You could theoretically go from 100 Google reviews to 50, or 10, or even none at all.
“If you are using a review-soliciting platform that does this, you need to turn the gating function off ASAP,” advises SEO expert Joy Hawkins. “If you decide to review gate regardless of this guideline, you risk Google taking action and removing all your reviews ... Not just from date of report or Google’s guideline clarification in April this year. All of them.”