I’ve long believed that Unbiased and Vouchedfor listings, along with an effective website, should be central to an adviser’s marketing strategy.
I still believe that to be the case, although a change on Unbiased, which will affect both advisers and consumers, troubles me.
A few months ago Unbiased changed their charging structure. Existing users had the option to continue with the existing subscription, with enquiries carrying no additional cost. Whilst new users now have the choice of ‘Lite’ (£29 per month + VAT) or ‘Plus’ (£59 per month + VAT) subscriptions and will pay £30 + VAT per lead; although the first lead each month is free on the ‘Plus’ version.
This change didn’t particularly concern me; £36 for an enquiry isn’t expensive and advisers can decline to accept an enquiry.
However, I ran a few searches on Unbiased at the weekend (I know, I should get out more!) and the results showed something I believe is worrying for both advisers and consumers.
Pay for prominence
Most of us are familiar with a Google search results page; paid for listings known as Adwords at the top, followed by the natural search results based on Google’s own algorithm.
Unbiased has introduced something similar, known as ‘Location Plus’, in July last year, although the change seems to have passed most people by.
The ‘natural’ search results for Unbiased are initially based on geographical proximity to the postcode entered by the user. However, when I searched NG1, B1 and SW1, an advert appears at the top of the listings for an adviser based many miles away from the given postcode.
In fact, exactly the same advert appears at the top and bottom of every page of the search results. Furthermore, in respect of the NG1 search, had the adviser in question been ranked as usual by geographical proximity, it would have only been featured on the fourth page of the results.
Unbiased has confirmed to me: “The ad beta you saw is a service we launched in July 2015 where we allow advisers to increase their presence based on a postcode region. This service was set up primarily for telephone based advisers as they did not have a fixed location. However, during the trials we were inundated with requests from other advisers who felt the service was perfect for their business needs. As it allowed them to trial different locations in relation to business development.”
Unbiased’s website gives further details of the new service, explaining that it allows advisers to reserve a whole postcode district (e.g. SW19) instead of just a single postcode (e.g. SW19 1AA). Furthermore, advisers will show up in search results every time a consumer searches for advisers within that district and the listing will appear at the top of all search results, and also at the foot of the search page for double the visibility.
Quoting Unbiased again: “It’s all yours for just £100+VAT/month for each district you reserve.”
Why am I concerned?
Many people may dismiss this change with the view that people “don’t click adverts”. Wrong, they do, Google has made a billion-dollar business on the back of advertising.
So, what are my concerns?
Firstly, unlike Google, where your website will rank in the natural search results, if their algorithm believes it to have sufficient relevance and authority in relation to the search term, Unbiased are already taking a monthly fee from advisers, and in the case of new subscribers, an additional fee per lead.
An extra payment for prominence in the search results feels excessive.
Secondly, consumers searching on Unbiased are using a directory, which through its very name holds itself out to be impartial, independent and indeed, unbiased. This changes if advisory firms can pay to get to the top of the results page, especially when their advert remains in place despite the user refining the search to deliberately include areas on which they don’t advise.
Thirdly, the beauty of Unbiased is that for advisers who subscribe it is a level playing field. Time and effort spent building and refining a profile is rewarded through additional enquiries. If firms with a larger marketing budget can jump straight to the top of the results this removes the level playing field, skews the results and is potentially less helpful to consumers.
The competitor position
Adam Price, Managing Director of Vouchedfor, the main competitor to Unbiased, said: “Users can sort results by ‘Best Match’, distance or review volume. The default is ‘Best Match’, which is based simply on a combination of distance and review volume. So someone with 20 reviews might show up higher than someone with two reviews, despite being further away.”
Mr Price also confirmed that Vouchedfor has no plans to introduce an Adwords style pay for prominence system.
A plea to Unbiased
I’m a huge fan of Unbiased and will continue to recommend advisers take a listing. However, ‘Location Plus’ feels like a step too far; I may be wrong, but I can’t see how it benefits the majority of advisers or consumers.
I hope Unbiased think carefully about this change, which in my view risks alienating the adviser community and potentially misleading consumers that the result of a particular search is, indeed, unbiased.