Mike Blumenthal comes away with an interesting find on his blog, getting confirmation from Google that they are a-OK with SMBs using onsite review stations  to generate Google Places reviews. Mike had first heard of the policy after Scott Falcone shared a link to an email he received from Google OKing the practice . Unsure that everyone at Google would give their blessing, Mike sought confirmation in the Google Forums and, to the surprise of some, he actually got it .
From Google employee Vanessa Schneider  (vanessagene):
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 here:
Like Mike, I was surprised to see Google encouraging business owners to host in-store review stations as a way of generating reviews, even if it’s done subtly. It’s one thing not to vocally frown upon review solicitation, but it’s quite another to encourage SMBs to open up review stations in their place of business–especially when Google Places already has a reputation for focusing on quantity, not quality, in their reviews. Opening up the door to in-store review stations would, arguably, work to make the issue worse, not better. Perhaps Google is trying to simply build up a solid number of reviews to help them throw down against Yelp or TripAdvisor, but I have to think this has the potential to backfire on all sides. That’s because even if Google is more focused on quantity right now than quality, at some point, that will change. And when it does, how will that affect SMBs?
In his post, Mike notes that there are many possible concerns that go along with in-store review stations. To name a few:
- All of your reviews are coming from the same IP, making it easier for Google to filter later if they wanted.
- You’re focusing all your energy on Google Places, even if your customers prefer to use other sites.
- You run the risk of, intentionally or not, making customers feel strong-armed into leaving a positive review.
So while it may be smart for Google to OK review stations to build up their review numbers, is the practice smart for SMBs?
To be completely honest, I’d be careful. As Mike notes, there are plenty of ways this could come back to haunt you down the road.
If you are going to use install a permanent review station, my advice would to be use good judgment:
- Don’t rely solely on the review station: If you think a review station makes sense for your business, go ahead and install one. I actually know one SMB owner who does have a review station in his office, and it’s worked well for him. However, don’t rely on that. Make sure you’re soliciting reviews via several different channels such as email campaigns, order follow-ups, direct mailings, etc. This will ensure your in-store reviews don’t dominate what’s out there about you, which could be filtered down the road.
- Don’t rely solely on Google Places: Yes, with all the weight that Google is placing on Google Places, you should definitely be asking for reviews on that site. But don’t forget about sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc. Google may not be pulling these sites into your Place page, but it is still using them as positive social signals. And just as important, your customers still use them to find information about your business and learn about the experiences previous customers have had with you. You don’t want to ignore customers just because Google is giving your business the green light where others have not.
While it’s somewhat refreshing that Google isn’t naysaying the importance of review solicitation (the way Yelp has in the past), you still want to be careful about putting all your eggs in one basket. If you are going to install a review station in your business, make sure you’re encouraging consumers to leave reviews on the review site of their choice, not just Google, and that you’re still using other avenues to generate review.
What do you think of Google’s admission that review stations are in bounds? Would you feel comfortable setting one up in your shop?