What’s the one thing that (most) consumers love and (many) business owners hate? Reviews.

82% of consumers read reviews for local businesses, so obviously reviews matter. That’s not even a question at this point. But what’s frustrating for many small businesses is how hard it is to get enough positive reviews to make a difference.

Most of us go through what we refer to as “The Stages of Review Hell,” and end up trying some costly things: like offering incentives for reviews. What are “The Stages of Review Hell” and how can the last stage get us into big trouble? Let’s take a look…

The Stages Of Review Hell

Denial. Maybe if I ignore them, they’ll go away. It seems like everyone starts in this stage, but you can’t afford to stay here. Remember, the majority of consumers are checking reviews before deciding who they want to do business with. Reviews matter, whether you want them to or not.

We think Mary Bowling, one of the industry’s best local search experts, said it best:

“Small business owners who aren’t actively marketing on the Internet are impacted by online reviews and ratings whether they want to be or not, because even enterprises without websites are being talked about online.”

If you’ve been hanging out in the denial stage, it’s time to move on to the next stage.

Begrudging Acceptance. This stage may not sound better, but it’s a natural part of the process. When you’re here, you’ve acknowledged that online reviews matter and are going to affect your business, whether you personally give them much validity or not. Once again, Mary Bowling forces us to face the facts:

“All businesses and those who market them must get used to the fact that reviews are not going away – not ever.”

Ok, so if they’re not going away, what do you do?

When you find yourself in this stage, maybe you start to occasionally ask satisfied customers to write reviews if they think of it and have the time. As time goes on, asking doesn’t seem so intimidating, and you start to do it with a little more ease and poise. You give it a good college try and make it part of your service process, but after awhile, you start to wonder why you’re not seeing much of a difference, and what you can do to get people to follow through.

You’re already stretched thin and now you’re feeling frustrated and victimized by Google, Yelp, and all the people “deciding” what rules your business has to play by. So, you decide to take matters into your own hands and step right into the next stage.

Desperation. You’ve tried to play by the rules, but you’re still way behind your competitors in reviews…what can you do? During the desperation stage, you try everything. You start out handing out review cards, sending post cards. And then one day it hits you: What about bribes? No one is taking the time to give you the reviews you so desperately need, but you could give them a little incentive! Or, even better, what if you just hired someone to leave fake reviews for your business or took matters into your own hands and left some reviews yourself? Is there really any harm in that?

Deceit AKA Danger Zone. If you’re guilty of (or even considering) hiring cheap labor to fake reviews, writing reviews yourself, or incentivizing reviews and giving rewards and gifts to those that take the time to leave you a review online, you’ve passed from the desperation stage to the deceit stage, AKA “the danger zone”.

Slow. Your. Roll.

Yes, you need reviews, but are you willing to pay $300,000 for them? $300,000? Yes, you read that right!

Businesses that produce fraudulent or incentivized reviews are being penalized with more than just a slap on the wrist. The powers that be are hitting companies with massive fines, stripping them of all their reviews, and even sabotaging their page rankings. Is it really worth it?

Back in 2015, AmeriFreight was fined $300,000 by the FTC for failing to disclose that they’d given cash discounts to customers in exchange for reviews.

The FTC stated the following:

“Companies must make it clear when they have paid their customers to write online reviews…If they fail to do that – as AmeriFreight did– then they’re deceiving consumers, plain and simple.”

See, we didn’t just pull that number out of thin air. Talk about a costly mistake!

In this same statement, the FTC decided to lay down the law for those taking the “money talks” route, in order to keep consumers in the loop. If you have incentivized reviews, you are required to label them according to the following guidelines:

  • A. In textual communications (e.g., printed publications or words displayed on the screen of a computer), the required disclosures are of a type, size, and location sufficiently noticeable for an ordinary consumer to read and comprehend them, in print that contrasts with the background on which they appear;
  • B. In communications disseminated orally or through audible means (e.g., radio or streaming divaudio), the required disclosures are delivered in a volume and cadence sufficient for an ordinary consumer to hear and comprehend them;
  • C. In communications disseminated through video means (e.g., television or streaming video), the required disclosures are in writing in a form consistent with subparagraph (A) of this definition and shall appear on the screen for a duration sufficient for an ordinary consumer to read and comprehend them;
  • D. In communications made through interactive media, such as the Internet, online services, and software, the required disclosures are unavoidable and presented in a form consistent with subparagraph (A) of this definition, in addition to any audio or video presentation of them; and
  • E. In all instances, the required disclosures are presented in an understandable language and syntax, and in the same language as the predominant age 4 of 7 language that is used in the communication, and with nothing contrary to, inconsistent with, or in mitigation of the disclosures used in any communication of them.

You know how bad your Yelp page looks to potential customers with zero reviews? Imagine how it will look with language like, “This reviewer was paid handsomely to provide this 5 star review.” Or, imagine what it would look like with this message that Yelp puts on pages it suspects of incentivizing reviews:

“We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business. We weren’t fooled, but wanted you to know because buying reviews not only hurts consumers, but also honest businesses who play by the rules. Check out the evidence here.”

Is that announcement going to make your company look good to potential customers? No, siree bob.

How Can You Get More Reviews, Without Breaking The Rules?

Maybe you’re thinking, “Not everyone is getting fined. Some people are getting away with it and all those fake and incentivized reviews are helping their businesses in search.”

You’re right. There’s Sunday Riley, and the boatloads of businesses racking up fake and incentivized reviews on Google and Amazon without punishment, but the point is: it’s not worth the risk.

What should we do instead? Here are some tips to help you rake in the positive reviews without being penalized:

  1. Ask at the right time. Did your customer just finish telling you how over the moon they are with your service? Now’s the time to ask for a review! Don’t wait until the thrill is gone or too much time has passed. Word of warning: Yelp is so serious(ly weird) about this that they don’t want you even asking for reviews. We won’t try to understand their logic – we’ll just say, leave Yelp out of the conversation when asking for reviews, and stick with Google, Facebook, or another platform.
  2. Make it easy. If your customer gets frustrated during the review process, they’re likely to bail. So make it easy. Whether that means including links to multiple review sites in your email signature, leaving behind a card with instructions on how to leave a review, or using some other method. Don’t corner them, just let them know that you’d appreciate a review on whatever platform they’re most familiar and comfortable with. It’s better to have reviews on multiple platforms anyway, and if it’s easy for the customer, they’re much more likely to follow through.
  3. Make your customer feel important. Everyone likes to feel important, so make your customers feel important during your “ask.” Let them know just how much you value their feedback and how important it is to you as a company. Not only that, but let them know that their feedback/review helps other people in their community decide who to do business with. The more you emphasize their role, the more inclined they’ll be to “make a difference” by leaving a review.
  4. Provide an amazing experience. In the struggle to get more reviews, many business owners forget what’s really important: your service! If you’re providing a customer experience that goes above and beyond, your customers will want to share, be it in social settings, on Facebook, or on a review platform like Yelp or Google. Anytime you can “wow” your customer, you should – more reviews will naturally come from excellent service.
  5. Get some help. There are great tools out there like GatherUp that make it easier to get reviews and keep the valuable feedback for your company coming. If you’re struggling to get reviews and want a little help, check it out.

If you do have a review method in place, be sure that you’re playing by the rules and keep at it! It may take some time, but play fair, stay focused on providing the best customer experience, and remember: Ask, and you shall receive.