Experts Blog

Generating Local Citations with In-House Review Stations: Good or Bad?

By Casey Markee on Jan 13, 2012 - 02:20 AM

We recently had a question from a long-time Search Engine News subscriber concerning the use of in-house review stations to facilitate the generation of Google Places reviews by customers. Businesses looking to increase their local review numbers would provide customers with access to a public computer or an ipad/tablet station where they could leave direct reviews on the specific company's local review profile.

This isn't a new idea and as you can guess, it's a pretty controversial idea. First, this practice seems RIPE for exploitation by business owners: write a review and get a free donut, service, or a discount on your next visit. As the whole point (according to Google) is to generate unbiased, natural reviews on local businesses to build trust among local users, this would seem to defeat that purpose entirely.

In fact, according to Google, this very reason would qualify as a means to remove reviews completely:

"Reviews are only valuable when they are honest and unbiased. Even if well-intentioned, a biased review can undermine its credibility. For instance, don't offer or accept money or product to write reviews about a business, or to write negative reviews about a competitor."

Second, this practice would also seem to create a less than "free" environment for customers to leave an honest review. Prospective reviewers may feel less inclined to say NO to leaving a review when asked by a company representative, directly, while in the store. It could also certainly influence these same customers away from leaving a negative review when pressed. Or worse, the direct approach could backfire completely: leading to MORE negative reviews than the company would normally accrue.

Needless to say, the above reasons are why I and my associates here at Search Engine News have STRONGLY discouraged this practice with our own clients for years. This used to be a no-brainer since Google had seemed to make it clear this was frowned upon. However, recent events seem to indicate that this practice of providing review stations for your own customers is now OKAY.

Specifically, check out this reply from Google Community Relations employee Vanessa Scheider made last December in the Google support forum when asked about the use of review stations:

"We're supportive of businesses encouraging their customers to check out their Google Places listings and write a review; however, to avoid conflicts of interest, we don't advise business owners to offer or accept money or product to incent reviews, per our policy guidelines"

A lot of people have speculated as to why Google has made this shift. The main argument I've been hearing is that Google is trying to accumulate a HUGE volume of direct reviews so they can more effectively battle Yelp and TripAdvisor. But therein lies a problem: more reviews usually lead to lower quality reviews. And hasn't Google's main aim algorithmically been to provide a higher quality search experience in all areas?

Regardless, even though Google has apparently now given tacit approval to review stations, you should be wary of the practice!

Moreover, we strongly encourage local site owners to avoid putting all of their 2012 review eggs into one basket. Make sure you are concentrating on Yelp (still the undisputed local reviews king) and other local citation sources within your area. Google may not be pulling these citation sources into Google Places anymore "directly" but you can absolutely guarantee that they are using these as social signals into your Places listing.

Finally, DO NOT RELY SOLELY ON REVIEW STATIONS if you do go this route. That's just crazy. It's unnatural, can lead to the issues we've outlined above, and can hurt you as much as help. If you go this route, be careful. The reputation you save may be your own!(and users). Stay tuned!Planet Ocean article end