Search engines are increasingly moving towards a business model that lets their customers – internet users – make recommendations. After all, search engines are in the industry of providing relevant and important results for whatever search query their customers make, so letting people rate their experience with a place or a business could be helpful to others by boosting sites that are important for the given search.
Of course, just like with all other attempts at building a system that finds relevant and important websites for a given search, tapping into the past experience of the public by letting them submit reviews opens up a wealth of opportunities for businesses to cheat the system. Detecting and penalizing those that do abuse the rules can be overwhelmingly difficult.
However, one law firm still managed to get caught gaming the review system, soliciting positive reviews in such numbers that Google noticed and took action to enforce its policies that outlaw the practice.
Law Firm Solicits Positive Online Reviews
The law firm Winton & Hiestand Law Group, based in Louisville, Kentucky, was one of the best-rated law firms on the entire internet. They had around 100 reviews on Google, and around 1,000 on Facebook, with nearly every one giving the firm five stars.
Apparently, Louisville is the place to set up shop, with residents all having a reasonable expectation of what their lawyer can do, and where problem clients just don’t exist.
Or, the law firm was soliciting reviews, en masse, from anybody willing to give one. They were even providing tickets to the zoo for those who gave the firm five stars.
Google’s Policies on Buying Reviews
Google’s policies on internet marketing practices are sometimes vague and often unknown to webmasters and businesses. However, they do exist, and one of them says that “business owners shouldn’t offer incentives in exchange for reviews.”
Firm Gets Reported in Online Forums, Prompting Action from Google
Winton & Hiestand’s ploy got reported in the forums for Google My Business by an account that seemed to be made specifically to report the problem. Whether it a concerned member of the public or a competitor who took issue with a rival firm drumming up reviews meant to take business away (they did exhibit an adequate understanding of how to file an ethics complaint with the state bar association), they came with receipts: A Facebook post offering tickets to the zoo for a Google review.
The law firm’s response was of the scorched earth type. The firm’s two named partners tag-teamed their rebuttal, which claimed the report was from an internet troll out to get them, that they’d “never advertised or ran a post to give away or pay anything for a FAKE review” (nearly all of the firm’s uses of the word “fake” were capitalized), and that the report was “plain libel.”
The result of the subsequent Google investigation found that the firm had violated its policies and had provided an incentive for people to leave a review. It proceeded to delete all but one of the firm’s Google reviews.
Over the course of this fiasco, Google put another wrinkle into the situation by adding a new policy for generating online business reviews. This new policy includes a prohibition against offering money in exchange for reviews, and against soliciting reviews from customers in bulk.
On their website’s home page, Winton & Hiestand still boasts its ability to generate five star reviews.
Our Response: No Surprise, Here
If you’ve read our online legal marketing blog, you could guess that we wouldn’t be surprised that the law firm was hammered by Google for soliciting reviews, or that a law firm would try pulling it off. Good reviews attract customers, so why wouldn’t a business give it a shot if they thought they could get away with it? From Google’s perspective, though, soliciting and enticing reviews hurts its business model and misleads its customers on which sites are relevant and important. This was just another battle in the arm’s race of online marketing.
In the end, we think this scenario typifies the search engine trend towards looking more at user intent than at traditional ranking signals, and the obstacles that Google will have to overcome as it pushes things in that direction, highlighting the need for businesses to focus on providing value as a part of their advertising campaigns, something that legal blogging is perfect for doing.
For us, the only question we still have is whether the Kentucky Bar Association will take action for the firm’s advertising strategy, which seems to make “false, deceptive or misleading communication” about the firm, in violation of Supreme Court Rule 3.130(7.10), and seems to clearly violate Rule 3.130(7.20), which prohibits giving “anything of value to a non-lawyer for recommending the lawyer’s services.”