Are Your Rich Snippets Breaking the Law?

closeThis post was first published 2 years 2 months 30 days ago. It might make references to techniques or tactics which no longer work or which I no longer endorse so please proceed with caution.

You’ve probably noticed by now that its become very easy to get star rating ‘rich snippets’ to show up in organic search results. It used to be a select few sites which would get approved for rich snippets but recently that seems to have gone out the window and you can now see star ratings showing up on all kinds of SERPS, not just stuff where you’d expect to see customer ratings.

As is always the way, what that has meant is a lot of SEO’s and affiliates seem to be getting on the bandwagon and placing the rich snippets microformats on their site to try and enhance their listings and increase their click through rates.

Its easy to see the appeal and, from what I’ve seen, it does in almost every case increase the amount of traffic you get from the same rankings in SERPS. After all wouldn’t you rather click on a result which was rated 5 stars by nearly 1000 people…

SERPS star rating spam

While in the world of search we seem to obsess about every detail which Google changes on their results pages, the normal human being really doesn’t think too hard or care much about it – they see a big juicy listing like this with stars and its near the top of a results page, they’re gonna click it.

So although there’s a temptation to dive in and get these sexy stars showing on your own listings (something which is possible with a few lines of HTML or a wordpress plugin) I think SEO companies need to be a bit careful doing this with their own sites or recommending it to their clients. If you’re trading in the UK there’s something called The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations which as I understand it (and bear in mind I’m no lawyer) basically makes all forms of fake reviews illegal. The practice is also likely to go against ASA regulations and CAP I’m guessing.

We probably all know that writing a fake review is wrong – it just feels wrong – but adding a couple of lines of markup to your page doesn’t feel so much like a fake review. Is it deliberately misleading, or is it just SEO?

On page 12 of the OFT’s guidance on unfair trading regulations there’s a handy flowchart which I’ll copy below.

Office fair trading (OFT) unfair trading practice flowchart

So to follow that through…

Might my practice affect consumers?

YES.

Is what I am doing prohibited outright (see list of 31 practices)?

Fake reviews don’t seem to be mentioned explicitly in this list so I’d say NO.

Am I giving false information to, or deceiving, my customers?

If the reviews and ratings you give yourself aren’t genuine then YES.

Does my practice cause, or is it likely to cause, the average consumer to take a different decision about any products or related decisions?

This is where it gets a little grey but I think it could be argued that artificially increasing your click through rate from search results you are affecting the customers decision.

Result: Practice is unfair

Now far be it from me to tell people how they can and should promote their websites, I’m just saying tread carefully with these star ratings. Search for any ‘SEO company’ related keywords and you’ll find loads of examples of SEO agencies who are either hiding the microformat markup on their pages entirely or who’s ratings are almost certainly faked.

Its pretty simple to add a genuine feedback system onto your site which will at least make your rich snippets defensible and possibly stand up to a manual review – a process which I’m sure will have to happen at some point if the use of star rating rich snippets continues to spiral. So use these star ratings by all means, but do it properly.

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