As kids, most of us loved doing a ‘connect the dots’ puzzle drawing. Being able to see what is finally revealed at the end (well, usually about midway through), was always quite fun.
Rather than throwing our bold accusations, let’s all do a connect the dots puzzle and see what is revealed in the end.
This article is a timeline that draws curious questions upon the tactics used to display reviews and solicit advertising on one of the nation’s largest review websites. We’ve connected the dots already, and have revealed our final conclusion. Now it’s your turn!
…"we’ve changed our algorithm.” That’s what we keep being told.
But let’s back up a bit. We’ve been a local family-operated dentist office in Chico, CA for over 22 years. We do our absolute best to serve our guests with compassion and kindness, and provide superior service within our local area. Let’s be honest though, ‘going to the dentist’ doesn’t have a wonderful ring to it in a lot of people’s minds.
Despite all of the positive feedback that we receive from our amazing guests, like any small business we still struggle with negative online reviews as well. Online reviews carry a lot of power along with their little red, orange or yellow stars (and half stars). BrightLocal's 2017 Local Consumer Review Survey (https://www.brightlocal.com/learn/local-consumer-review-survey/) found that 93% of consumers read local reviews to make a shopping decision. So, we are definitely not going to get away from the consumer-driven economy, which is fine.
Everyone has a voice, and people should use their voice online.
This is not a blog post about guests using their voice online… This is meant to be a thought-provoking timeline into the practices of review sites themselves; and how they go about displaying the reviews for local businesses.
In an effort to inform and be fully transparent with our existing guests, and potential new guests, here’s the full story of our reviews on one of the nation's largest review sites…
We all know that people are much more likely to leave a negative online review rather than a positive review. When you have a positive experience at a local business, you simply go back and become a repeat customer. However, when you have a negative experience, you want the whole world to know about it (again, this is not an article about people using their voice).
Well, because of this simple fact, local businesses like us work really hard for those positive online reviews. And, at our local business we feel like our guests have really come forward to give us great reviews.
Here are the numbers as they were displayed in November of 2020.
The national review website we’re discussing listed our business profile with 3.5 stars and was displaying only 15 5-star reviews. Here is what our reviews being displayed looked like:
HOWEVER... we had 71 reviews not being shown (or factored into our business profile), of which 67 of them are 5-star reviews. Why would this review site CHOOSE to not display 67 5-star reviews, that our guest has taken the time to write for us. Further, not only do they not display these 5-star reviews, they don’t even count them towards our rating. This is where we keep being told, "we’ve changed our algorithm.”
We believe that because we have refused to advertise with them the review website deems the other 71 reviews as ‘not recommended’.
Think about it… 67 more 5-star reviews would increase our rating immensely! Here is what our total reviews on review website really would have looked like last September:
Keep in mind that we have edited a screenshot directly from the review site and added the ‘not recommended’ reviews in green. The image shows very clearly that our current business profile reputation of 3.5 stars is not warranted in any way. Our local dentist office actually would have a 4.5 star rating if all reviews were counted.
You can view all of our amazing reviews by scrolling past all of the reviews that the site does display, and clicking on the link that reads "71 other reviews that are not currently recommended”. This provides the truer story of our local dental office.
THE PAINFUL EFFECTS TO SMALL BUSINESSES
A Harvard business school study (https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=41233) found that even a one-star rating increase on this particular review site translates to a sales increase of 5 to 9 percent. This same study showed that the site's willingness to remove 5-star reviews from small business profiles, is costing millions of dollars to small businesses across the country.
Most small business owners believe that their 5-star ratings are being removed from their profile as a direct result of refusing to advertise on the review platform… basically making their whole business model an act of extortion. There have been 2,526 total complaints in just the last 3 years with the Better Business Bureau on bbb.org. Further, there have been several complaints and class-action lawsuits filed with the Federal Trade Commission. Unfortunately, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that the company had the right to manipulate reviews, and its advertising tactics were a form of “hard bargaining” — not extortion.
There is even a documentary about this company and its harmfulness to small businesses titled Billion Dollar Bully. The description for this documentary reads, "Today consumers [company name] everything from restaurants to dentists; plumbers to surgeons. The small business community sees [company name]'s sales tactic as extortion. Does [company name] genuinely have an interest in helping people support the best local businesses, or are they a pay-to-play advertising platform?"
THEY ARE WATCHING AT ALL TIMES
We all know that we’re being monitored across nearly every platform in which we have online accounts… this should no longer be a surprise to anyone. If you search for a lawnmower online, you’re going to end up seeing ads on blogs and social media for lawnmowers.
The national review website we’re discussing today takes it one step further… we logged into our account on the 17th of November, and then got a call from a sales representative on the 19th of November.
Coincidence? We think not. We had not received a call regarding advertising on this review platform for years, and ‘all of the sudden’ after logging in for the first time in a long time, they called us to solicit their advertising options.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but rather a good sales strategy. If we could all solicit our services directly after a customer shows interest, wouldn’t we?
Well, after that call on November 19th we got to thinking… let’s run a little test!
We actually signed up for an ad campaign to see if this would in fact have an effect on our public account. On January 20th we started a monthly advertising plan that was billed at $630 per month, but the sales representative discounted the fee to $480 per month.
Wait for it...
6 days after agreeing to advertise with the company, we got our first ‘recommended’ 5-star review in over 2 years.
Think about it. Our small business had received many 5-star reviews during the 2 years prior to this advertising test, but all of those reviews were hidden from the public and deemed ‘not recommended’. However, just 6 days after PAYING the company, they decided to include some of our 5-star reviews.
How does that make any sense at all? How can they claim it’s a change to the algorithm? Randomly, 6 days after paying the company for advertising, the algorithm decides, these old 5-star reviews are good now… we don’t think it’s random.
We ended up cancelling the ads on May 11th. Remember, we were really just looking to run a test and dive into their extortion tactics. And wouldn’t you know...
Since cancelling our advertising (no longer paying them money), they have removed the 5-star reviews that they'd previously approved/allowed when we were advertising with them.
Again, it begs the question how is this a ‘change to the algorithm’? When soon after cancelling our advertising with them, the algorithm decides that certain 5-star reviews should no longer be shown to the public.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
We know what we think. But, what are your thoughts?
Is it fair that a tech company with deep pockets can hide behind their technology to seemingly extort customers?
...this is not a claim, it’s just a timeline of events.