Google Markets HotPot In Portland & Breaks Its Own Rules On Local Reviews

google hotpot logoGoogle is launching a new campaign in Portland, Oregon, today that’s designed to promote HotPot, the company’s recently announced service that invites users to review local businesses and then feeds those reviews into Google Places. The marketing is clever and the benefits for local businesses seem obvious, but there’s a problem: Google is breaking its own rules about business reviews in the process.

Google has explained several components of the HotPot marketing blitz: Google staffers will be visiting local businesses to “educate them about Google Places” and give them a marketing kit with a variety of Places-themed tchotchkes. They’re also doing a special event this weekend at Portland’s famous Voodoo Doughnut shop.

Where’s The Problem?

Tonight at the NBA basketball game in Portland between the hometown Trail Blazers and the Orlando Magic, Google is launching a Hotpot Jackpot competition. The idea, Google says, is “to encourage Portlanders to start rating the places they know and share them with friends and family.” Here’s how Google explains it:

Everyone over the age of 18 who lives within a 50-mile radius of Portland can participate, and the top five raters at the end of the competition will win dinner for 10 at any restaurant in Portland, courtesy of Google.

In other words, Google is offering incentives for reviews. In addition to the dinners-for-10 above (the Grand Prize), there are 25 dinners for up to four people being awarded (First Prize) and 100 debit cards valued at $100 each (Second Prize).

In all, the prizes have a combined value of up to $13,750.

The irony is that Google recently changed its reviews policy, specifically telling small business owners they can’t offer incentives to get more reviews:

Reviews are only valuable when they are honest and unbiased. Even if well-intentioned, a conflict of interest can undermine the trust in a review. In addition, we do not accept reviews written for money or other incentives. Please also do not post reviews on behalf of others or misrepresent your identity or affiliation with the place you are reviewing.

(emphasis is mine)

So, if Google doesn’t accept reviews that are written for incentives … what will it do with all the reviews that are written about Portland businesses in an attempt to win a free, 10-person dinner at any restaurant in the city? Or a dinner for four? Or a $100 debit card?

Postscript: After reading our story, a Google spokesperson contacted us via email and shared this statement in response:

“Our Hotpot initiative in Portland is an effort to excite consumers about getting improved search results by rating and reviewing places they’ve been, and to help local business owners connect with more customers who haven’t yet discovered them.

The review guidelines are designed to prevent conflicts of interest in which someone is incented with money or product to write positive reviews about a business, or to write negative reviews about a competitor. The contest and campaign are completely consistent with that objective, and do not raise concerns about conflicting interests that the guidelines aim to prevent.”

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Google: Maps & Local | Google: Marketing | Top News


About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • Chris Barnwell

    They meant to say “In addition, we do not accept reviews written for money or other incentives (unless we’re holding a contest then it’s quite alright.)” ;p

  • chiropractic

    It’s a slippery slope and it also highlights the reality of departments that don’t communicate with each other. How is this fair for businesses in Portland but not anywhere else? The reality of getting everyone on the same page is unlikely.

  • Aaron Berlin

    I think there’s clearly a difference between the business being reviewed paying for the privilege, and the host of a data base of reviews encouraging people to favor their service over someone else’s. That’s not a conflict of interest, it’s just entirely in Google’s interest. It may be a literal violation of their policy as written, but it’s silly to claim this is somehow unethical.

  • Matt McGee

    Aaron, I don’t think I’ve made any judgments on the ethics of the situation, it’s more about the irony. I’ve pointed out that Google is doing exactly what they tell small business owners not to do — offer cash and prizes in exchange for reviews. If Google has that guideline because incentives can “undermine the trust” of a review, why is it okay in this case for consumers to leave reviews in exchange for a shot at winning cash and prizes? Either you believe that incentives can lead to less trustworthy reviews or you don’t.

  • http://mauricewalshe mauricewalshe

    “The contest and campaign are completely consistent with that objective, and do not raise concerns about conflicting interests that the guidelines aim to prevent.””

    um how exactly? also its whether it’s percived” to be against the guidelines which is as important.


  • Andrew Goodman

    There is a distinction, albeit slim.

    Anyone in the consumer reviews business knows there is a difference between (a) a service provider saying “write me a positive review for this incentive/discount,” and (b) the operator of a review site trying to increase the number of consumers who are interested in reading and writing reviews, through generalized incentives.

    Under this set of guidelines,

    OK: Yelp throws a party to get consumers excited about the local scene and to teach them how to meet like-minded friends online and to support businesses in general by writing reviews on the good ones. At this party, there is some free alcohol and food, and a door prize.

    OK: HomeStars holds a seminar for home improvement companies to help contractors understand how to manage their online reputations on Twitter, how to tweet positive reviews, and the like. At the event someone mentions that it is perfectly OK for companies to ask their happy customers to write reviews. Some prizes are given out at the event, to whip up a little excitement. They are paid for by a sponsor.

    Not OK: The hair salon gives you 50% off in exchange for a top review on a review site. A plant store hires people and pays them to write bogus good reviews about them as well as bad ones about competitors.

    The distinction is supposed to make contributing content more interesting to consumers, but to uphold the integrity and quality of individual reviewers’ contributions.

  • Winooski

    Andrew, thanks for the (as always) cogent explanation. I think Google passes the “letter of the law” test but fails the “spirit of the law” test. Luckily for Google, I don’t think that’ll be sufficient to raise the interest of the “Operation Payback” posse.

  • brightlocal

    I have some personal insight this ‘type’ of initative –

    I used to work for a UK based local business directory.

    We tried to stimulate the creation of unique reviews from existing users and new users. We ran a big promotion with some sizeable cash prizes for the top contributors who wrote the most reviews in a month – there were also some word count, quality & non-duplicate submission criteria too.

    The promotion generated over 10,000 reviews in a month which increased the site’s total review count by 50%.

    However a handful of people (approx 15) wrote nearly 50% of the reviews and many of them were duplicate and spammy and it was a tedious process to check them.

    After the competition we saw review levels drop back to pre-competition levels meaning that we didn’t increase loyalty or attract many new high value users.

    Our conclusions from this activity were –

    - Competitions will always attract competition-hounds who are purely there for the prize
    - Quality & genuine sentiment suffer when cash is on the table
    - Motivation behind the review is totally wrong and this can harm rather than benefit local businesses
    - Not everyone wants to leave reviews or is comfortable having their name publicly associated with a review. Over the coming years more & more consumers will become comfortable with it as local reviews become more prevalent. But trying to force the issue before people are naturally ready can breed a negative association with reviews (i.e. “they’re all paid for!”) and actually discourage users from leaving genuine reviews.

  • B. Martin

    Being local to Portland I was able to see first hand how Google made it’s marketing push for Hotpot, if you’re interested I wrote up a review here:

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