The quest for 5-star reviews has given rise to controversial practices such as review gating. But what is it ? What are the risks ? And how do you prevent it?
October 4, 2023
Customer reviews have considerable influence online and often determine a brand's reputation and success.
However, the quest for 5-star reviews has given rise to controversial practices such as review gating.
This article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of what review gating is, why it has attracted criticism and, above all, what sanctions brands could incur, particularly from search engines such as Google.
Review gating is the practice of pre-screening customer feedback to decide which reviews are directed toward online public platforms and which are handled privately.
When a customer completes a purchase, they're generally sent an initial survey or questionnaire to gauge their satisfaction level.
Depending on their responses, they are then channeled into different feedback routes.
If a customer is pleased with their experience, they are encouraged to post a positive review on public platforms such as Google Reviews, Yelp, Tripadvisor or the company’s own website.
On the flip side, if a customer is dissatisfied, the gating process routes them to a private feedback form. This provides the company an opportunity to address concerns without immediately affecting their public ratings.
The aim of Review Gating is to increase the number of positive reviews and reduce negative reviews.
The concept has its roots in reputation management.
Businesses aim to amass positive reviews to bolster their online standing, especially crucial in the e-commerce landscape where reviews can make or break a product.
However, it's imperative to note that this method raises ethical questions and is even against the policies of some review platforms.
Review solicitation is a straightforward practice that involves asking all customers to share their experiences by leaving public reviews, regardless of whether their experiences are positive or negative.
In this approach, there's a genuine openness to receiving all kinds of feedback, as it provides valuable insights for both the company and potential customers.
It operates on a transparent, all-inclusive model that encourages the free flow of information.
Conversely, review gating adds an additional layer to this process by first assessing the nature of the customer's experience.
Before the customer's feedback reaches the public domain, it is screened to determine whether it's generally positive or negative.
The positive reviews are encouraged to be posted on public platforms, while the negative ones are channeled into private feedback systems.
Although both practices aim to collect customer opinions, the methodologies and implications for transparency and ethicality vary considerably between the two.
Google took a clear stance against Review Gating in 2018, asking companies not to "discourage or prohibit negative reviews or selectively solicit positive reviews from customers."
Since then, Google has further tightened its guidelines and made this very clear in its User Contributed Content Policy :
“Contributions to Google should reflect a genuine experience at a place or business. Fake engagement is not allowed and will be removed.”
The tech giant places a premium on transparency and the unbiased sharing of consumer experiences.
It advocates for an equal opportunity platform where both positive and negative reviews can be visible on any Google Business Profile without any form of screening or filtration in advance.
The rationale behind Google's strict stance is to promote a level playing field.
Google aims to provide an online ecosystem in which consumers can make informed decisions based on a wide range of authentic customer feedback.
When a company breaches Google's guidelines by engaging in Review Gating practices, the repercussions can be quite serious.
Consequences range from demotion in search engine rankings to eventual removal from the Google Business Profile.
For e-commerce companies, for whom online visibility and consumer trust are ultra-important, these sanctions can have a significant impact on SEO, reputation and sales.
As for the other review-gathering platforms (Trustpilot, Podium, Tripadvisor, Yelp...), each has its own rules.
However, they all agree that review gating is not acceptable. Here too, companies run the risk of having their company listing deleted or made invisible.
In France, this practice is monitored by the DGCCRF ( French General Directorate for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control) and governed by the Consumer Code and the Intellectual Property Code.
A company found guilty of breaching transparency rules and intentionally concealing notices may face legal sanctions, usually fines.
In the United States, review gating practices are monitored by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission).
In January 2022, the FTC sent a letter to companies likely to engage in review gating practices that says :
“One of our concerns is when companies take improper steps to avoid collecting or publishing negative reviews. [...] The provision or use of this functionality would violate the FTC Act if it results in a misleading impression about what consumers think about a product or service.”
The FTC takes review gating issues very seriously, and will impose fines on companies that fail to comply with its rules.
While legal authorities and Google’s penalties are a significant concern, the dangers of review gating can permeate many aspects of a business.
If a business receives only positive feedback as a result of Review Gating, it risks developing a biased perception of its products or services.
This lack of critical feedback can prevent improvement, essentially blinding the company to areas that may need urgent attention.
Even if customers don't immediately realize a company is gating reviews, the eventual discovery can lead to a significant erosion of trust.
In today's digital age, where news spreads quickly, this could have a snowball effect, leading to a wider reputation crisis from which it can be difficult to recover.
Transparency has become a much sought-after value for many consumers.
Brands that appear to manipulate customer perceptions run the risk of alienating a significant proportion of potential customers who value open, honest communication.
First up is the old-fashioned, straightforward approach: simply request reviews from all your customers. No filters, no gimmicks.
This open-door policy not only adheres to Google’s guidelines but also adds a layer of authenticity to your reviews.
Customers often appreciate genuine feedback from a wide range of experiences, and who knows, you might glean some valuable insights from less-than-stellar reviews that can help you improve.
And did you know that 5-star reviews are perceived as "too good to be true"?
The likelihood of purchase generally peaks with ratings between 4.0 and 4.7.
It starts to decrease as you approach 5/5.
We talked about this in our top 10 best practices for an e-commerce site in 2023.
Then, how about incorporating a feedback loop within your organization?
Use surveys or direct outreach to collect initial reactions, then adjust your business practices accordingly.
The aim is to pre-emptively address issues before they necessitate a negative review.
Think of it as getting a sneak peek of what could go wrong and having the chance to set it right.
Lastly, engage with the reviews you already have.
This activity often encourages more reviews, as customers see that their opinions are indeed valued and considered.