Review Gating (Why Google Is Wrong & What To Do about It)

Review gating is against Google’s and Yelp’s policies. That’s bad for everyone—even Google and Yelp. Find out how to comply without ruining your business.

What is review gating? “Review gating” is the practice of asking happy customers for reviews, but not asking unhappy customers for reviews, in order to get a better star rating.

This article will give you a clear direction on how to move forward with your review marketing efforts to maximum effect, but without violating policies against review gating… unless it truly makes business sense to take that risk.

Specifically, here’s what we’ll cover:

 

Why Google Is Wrong about Review Gating

Google is wrong to think that prohibiting review gating will lead to less fraud and more accurate reviews and star ratings… for 2 simple reasons:

  1. Cheaters will get rewarded while those who comply get punished
  2. Consumers will get less accurate information when making buying decisions

Cheaters Win, Compliant Businesses Lose

Whether or not you choose to comply with review gating for your business, you will have competitors who don’t comply. And those competitors will win customers that you would have won otherwise.

The prisoner’s dilemma is one of the best known games in game theory.

Imagine two criminals charged with a crime. Neither can talk to each other. If both don’t confess, there will be no evidence to convict, and both will go free. But if just one confesses, then both will go to jail. But the one who confesses will get less time in jail.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, each prisoner is faced with a key question: Will my co-conspirator cheat?

And that leads to the next question: Should I cheat before my co-conspirator has a chance to, so that I get the lesser sentence before he does? Or should I not cheat, risking that my co-conspirator will cheat and I’ll end up with the maximum sentence?

When a prisoner’s dilemma game includes many prisoners, not just two, the odds of one of them cheating goes up drastically. And therefore all of the prisoners are more likely to want to be the first cheater to avoid the maximum sentence.

So even though the optimal solution is for all the prisoners to stay silent, that rarely ever happens.

Someone always cheats.

Google (and other review sites like Yelp) have created a prisoner’s dilemma game by prohibiting review gating.

Business owners will definitely violate the policy.

And those who violate the policy will win business while those who comply will lose business.

How is review gating prohibition a prisoner’s dilemma?

Simple….

The optimal solution is for all local businesses to cooperate, never using review gating, to ensure that all reviews are as accurate as possible. This instills maximum trust in the reviews, giving customers maximum confidence in their buying decision.

It’s the optimal solution for everyone to cooperate.

But…

If just one local business violates the review gating policy, they’ll benefit by boosting their star rating and winning business from the businesses that comply.

So the real optimum solution is for all the businesses to race to become the first to violate the policy so they don’t lose business to the first violator.

There’s only way Google (or other review sites that prohibit review gating) can possibly prevent this outcome: By finding and punishing the policy violators quickly and severely enough to make it not worth the risk… while not also accidentally punishing those who comply.

Just one problem: It’s exceedingly difficult to detect review gating, even for a company as smart as Google.

All of the big tech companies (Google, Facebook, Yelp, Amazon, and others) are all plagued with obviously fraudulent reviews.

If review sites can’t detect obviously fake reviews written by non-native-speakers working for review mills in the third world, then how are the review sites going to detect review-gated reviews from legitimate and verifiable customers who write perfectly authentic reviews? (Short answer: They aren’t.)

So, in lieu of magic AI algorithms of the future, policies that prohibit review gating will only reward businesses who use review gating even more than if there were no such prohibition, and punish the businesses who comply with the review gating policies.

Consumers Lose

When review sites like Google and Yelp prohibit review gating, consumers get less accurate information about businesses.

But wait! Isn’t the opposite supposed to be true? Shouldn’t reviews become more accurate if review gating is eliminated?

Yes, in a utopian world in which the prisoner’s dilemma doesn’t exist and competitors all agree to just get along and cooperate, consumers would benefit from a policy that prohibits review gating.

But given that violating the policy is rewarded, and complying with the policy is punished, the opposite becomes true.

The best businesses with the happiest customers won’t violate the review gating policy, because the reward is not worth the risk for them. Their customers are already so happy that they stand to gain very little from violating review gating policies to boost their star ratings.

But the worst businesses with the most unhappy customers will have the strongest incentive to violate review gating policies.

So policies forbidding review gating only serve to increase the star ratings of bad businesses who violate the policy while preventing good businesses from competing with those bad businesses on a level playing field.

In other words, the policy prohibiting review gating actually causes inaccuracy in star ratings by creating a natural bias in favor of bad companies over good companies.

Ironically, if review gating were expressly permitted by Google and Yelp (and other review sites) then both the bad businesses and the good businesses would use review gating equally, the bias would be removed, and consumers would have more accurate information when making buying decisions.

Open Letter to Google: Please Improve Your Review Gating Policy

Dear Google, if you’re listening, we love you. But you’ve made a mistake with your review gating policy. It can only backfire on you and produce the exact opposite of the results you (and we) would like to see.

Instead of forbidding review gating, take a lesson from the adversarial system of justice, which gets the best legal judgments by relying on competition between two completely biased parties providing information, rather than relying on neutral, unbiased parties (since all people have biases, so there is no such thing as a neutral, unbiased party).

Stop expecting businesses to act against their own interest by becoming unbiased arbiters of truth about their own businesses.

Instead, assume every business will act in its own interest to represent itself in the best possible light.

Realize that, just like the adversarial system of justice, when every business advocates for itself by representing itself in the best possible light, the consumer who judges the business against its competitors will have the best possible information to make a final buying decision.

But if you instead expect every business to be impartial in how it represents itself, contrary to the adversarial system of justice, you open the door for corruption and deprive consumers of the best possible information to make a buying decision.

So with that in mind, your best policy would be to encourage all businesses to compete for good reviews, using whatever tools are at their disposal (including review gating) to represent themselves… as long as the reviews they earn are truly authentic, honest reviews from legitimate customers who were not compensated for the reviews.

So, dear Google, while we’re happy to help our member businesses comply with your policies, we sincerely wish you would stop hurting your own interests, the interests of many good businesses, and the interests of millions of consumers with your well-intentioned, but misguided policy on review gating.

Consequences for Violating Review Gating Policies

Google, Yelp, and other review sites typically give their users a way to report abuses… including review gating abuses.

If you get caught gating your reviews, the review site can take any action allowed by their sites’ terms of service.

Normally the review site will remove the reviews they think you obtained during the period when review gating was used.

So as you decide whether or not to comply with review gating policies, be sure to weigh a sudden loss of existing positive reviews as the primary risk factor.

4 Ways to Do Review Marketing (And Handle Review Gating Policies)

We recommend that our member businesses consider the following 4 approaches to review marketing when they consider review gating:

  • No Feedback
  • Universal Feedback
  • Targeted Feedback
  • Review Gating

No Feedback

This approach to review marketing means that you ask every customer for a review without asking for feedback first.

The “no feedback” approach is completely compliant with review gating policies.

This is also a great way to get more reviews. By immediately asking customers for a review without asking for private feedback first, conversion rates are high, leading to a higher percentage of customers actually writing a review.

The downside of the “no feedback” approach is that you don’t discover that an unhappy customer still needs help until after the customer has left a public review online. So you don’t get the chance to turn that unhappy customer into a happy customer before they write a review.

Also, you don’t get ideas for how to improve your business and earn more 5-star reviews, since you don’t ask customers for feedback.

Universal Feedback

This approach means that you ask every customer for feedback first, then for a review—regardless of whether the customer is happy or not.

Just like the “no feedback” and “targeted feedback” approaches, this one is compliant with review gating policies.

But unlike the “no feedback” approach, the “universal feedback” approach makes sure you get plenty of ideas for how to improve your business, since you ask your customers (especially those who were not happy) for those ideas.

The downside of “universal feedback” is that you get fewer reviews, since conversion rates are lower when you ask for feedback before asking for a review.

Targeted Feedback

This approach means that you ask happy customers for a review immediately, but ask unhappy customers for feedback first, so you can try to turn them into happy customers before then asking them for a review—regardless of whether you turned them into happy customers or not.

Just like “no feedback” and “universal feedback” approaches, this approach is mostly compliant with review gating policies as they stand today, since you are asking every customer you approach for a review, even if you know they’re not happy.

“Targeted feedback” also has the advantage of getting more reviews from higher conversion rates, since happy customers are asked for a review immediately and not asked for feedback first.

Like the “universal feedback” approach, this approach also helps you boost your star rating, since you get feedback from unhappy customers and have a chance to turn them into happy customers before they write a review.

Also like the “universal feedback” approach, this one gives you valuable ideas for how to improve your business and earn more 5-star reviews in the future.

The downside of “targeted feedback” is that it’s entirely possible that, at some point in the future, review sites like Google and Yelp may decide that “targeted feedback” is not compliant with their policies.

That’s because, even though you ask every customer for a review, you add an extra step in the process for unhappy customers, which means your conversion rates for unhappy customers will be lower than those for happy customers. This creates a natural bias in favor of happy customers, which review sites may frown upon and one day disallow in their formal policies.

Review Gating

This approach means that you ask happy customers for reviews, and ask unhappy customers only for private feedback.

The advantage of this approach is that you can improve your star rating by only encouraging reviews from happy customers.

Also, you get plenty of ideas for how to improve your business by collecting feedback from unhappy customers.

The downside of “review gating” is that it is non-compliant with the policies of Google, Yelp, and some other review sites. And if those sites discover that review gating has been used, they may take action and remove many past reviews they think resulted from review gating.

Another downside of this approach is that you’re likely to get fewer reviews overall, since not all customers are asked for a review. So if the quantity of your reviews is your top priority, this may not be the best approach for you.

The Best Approach for Your Business

Every business is different, so you must choose one of the 4 approaches above based on your own business’ unique priorities.

To help you decide, here is some general guidance:

  • Use “no feedback” if your top priority is getting more reviews, regardless of star rating.
  • Use “universal feedback” if your top priority is getting improvement ideas, or if you like the “targeted feedback” approach, but want to make absolutely sure you remain compliant with review gating policies both now and in the future.
  • Use “targeted feedback” if your top priority is getting a better star rating and you’re willing to take the risk of being in somewhat of a “gray area” for review gating compliance.
  • Use “review gating” only if you need a better star rating desperately enough to outweigh the risk that review sites might suddenly remove a bunch of your past reviews if they discover that you’re out of compliance with their policies.

And here’s a visual summary of the advantages of each approach:

No Feedback Universal Feedback Targeted Feedback Review Gating
Compliant with today’s review gating policies
Future-proof compliance with review gating policies
More reviews from higher conversion rates
Better star ratings from happy customers
Improvement ideas from customers

How to Automate Review Marketing (And Your Approach to Review Gating Compliance)

At Rising Star Reviews, we help you get more 5-star reviews from your happy customers without spending a lot of time. If you’re not a member already, check out our free trial.

There are 2 main settings you can use in the Rising Star Reviews app to automate all 4 major approaches to review marketing and review gating.

First is the minimum number of stars that a customer must click in order for the system to automatically send the customer to a review page instead of the page that asks the customer for private feedback.

The second setting determines whether a customer who fills out a private feedback form gets sent to the review page next or not.

Here’s how you can set up the Rising Star Reviews app to support each of the 4 major approaches to review marketing and review gating….

No Feedback

  1. Go to Dashboard > Manage review pages
  2. Click [Edit] to edit each of your review pages
  3. For each review page, set the “Min Stars for Review” setting to 0 and click [Save]

Now every time a customer clicks any star (even a 1-star rating) they’ll be sent directly to the review page and never to the feedback page.

Universal Feedback

  1. Go to Dashboard > Manage review pages
  2. Click [Edit] to edit each of your review pages
  3. For each review page, set the “Min Stars for Review” to 1 greater than the value in the “Total Stars Possible” field and click [Save] (For example if “Total Stars Possible” is 5, then enter 6 for “Min Stars for Review”)
  4. Go to Dashboard > Customize feedback
  5. Select the “Review Request” radio button and click [Save]

Now every time a customer clicks any star (even the maximum star rating) they’ll be sent to the feedback page.

And after filling out the feedback form, the customer will get asked for a review, no matter what star rating they gave.

Targeted Feedback

  1. Go to Dashboard > Manage review pages
  2. Click [Edit] to edit each of your review pages
  3. For each review page, set the “Min Stars for Review” to either 4 or 5 and click [Save]
  4. Go to Dashboard > Customize feedback
  5. Select the “Review Request” radio button and click [Save]

Now when a customer clicks a high rating (like 4 or 5) they’ll be sent directly to the review page.

But when a customer clicks a lower rating, they’ll be sent to the feedback page first. Then, after they fill out the feedback form, the customer will get sent to the review page to write a review, even though they clicked on a lower star rating originally.

Review Gating

  1. Go to Dashboard > Manage review pages
  2. Click [Edit] to edit each of your review pages
  3. For each review page, set the “Min Stars for Review” to either 4 or 5 and click [Save]
  4. Go to Dashboard > Customize feedback
  5. Select the “No Review Request” radio button and click [Save]

Now every customer who clicks a high rating (like 4 or 5) will get sent directly to the review page.

But customers who click a lower rating will get sent to the feedback page. And after filling out the feedback form, the customer will be thanked for their feedback, but not sent to the review page.