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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.”

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