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A Close Look At Fishy Reviews


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#1 SEOigloo

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 08:01 PM

Hey Guys & Gals,

One of the nice things about having a blog on a specific topic is that readers are sometimes generous enough to share newsworthy ideas with you. One of my readers recently drew my attention to a Place Page of a car dealership in Google Maps with a large number of reviews that looked odd to him. The example he showed me was really outstanding for its ability to educate consumers (including me and you) as to how to make up your mind whether a review is authentic or not.

This is the piece I wrote, if you're interested in reading it, but I want to do more than just link to it. I'd like to discuss this topic here. Maybe you can read the post and come back to discuss it.

In my piece, I haven't accused anyone of wrongdoing. I have framed the piece as a sample with questions for the readers. But, for the sake of discussion, let's say that what is going on with this business is that they have hired marketers who access their customer database, phone all of their customers and write down what the customers say. They then take what they've written down, create a Google profile and leave that content as reviews. In essence, the marketer is pretending to be a customer, but is actually using real testimonials that real customers have left. At the same time, of course, he is editing out anything less than a 5 star review.

As I've mentioned in my article, the FTCs new guidelines would seem to specifically prohibit the lack of disclosure involved, and Google's guidelines definitely prohibit this activity, but what I'd like to know from you Cre8 folks is whether you find this activity to be wrong, deceptive, spammy?

Would you feel you had been fooled by this? Does it matter to you whether the actual customer logs into their Google account and leaves the review, or is it okay if it's done by proxy? Do you care at all?

I'd value your honest input!

#2 EGOL

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 09:39 PM

It's probably good to touch this subject, just to be sure that it is on Google's radar... but, I think that they know enough about how people try to manipulate their systems that it has been on their radar and "to do list" for quite a while.

I don't think that a person should spend too much time worrying about this. Blood doping is common in cycling, steroid use is common in baseball, paid links are common in organic SEO and phony reviews are used in a variety of venues. If you decide to use these practices they have their side-effects and their risks.

I think that the best route is to simply do the best you can at your business and on your website and let your performance motivate links, likes and testaments.

#3 DonnaFontenot

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 09:46 PM

Interesting stuff. On the one hand, could we equate this with being similar to listing testimonials on a site? After all, how many of us have taken the very best testimonials that we have received (and often asked for) on our sites to help persuade potential customers? Come on, raise your hand! Have any of us put anything up as a testimonial that was a bad review of ourselves? Come on, have you? Did those clients place those testimonials on your site - or did you? Sure they wrote them - but you placed them on your site for them. No different than the marketer who took the words right out of the customers' mouths and placed them on the site for them.

The difference, however, is that we put hand-picked, asked-for, positive testimonials on OUR OWN sites. That to me is slightly different than going off to other people's sites - sites that at least purport to be neutral 3rd parties - and place them on THEIR sites. That, I think is the line that is crossed.

Visitors to THEIR sites expect the reviews they find to be written by the people who actually experienced the product or service. On the other hand, those same visitors to the site that is marketing the product expect the marketers to be controlling the information on the site. So the expectations of who is controlling what is different depending upon which site the visitor is at.

Or at least that's my impromptu thought on the matter. :(

#4 DCrx

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Posted 06 August 2010 - 05:42 AM

The poster child is Amazon's five star milk.

On the Internet, Everyone’s a Critic But They’re Not Very Critical is basically the result of poorly designed feedback. The assumption governing construction of such widgets is everyone is pure as the driven snow, logical to the point of being non-human, and without any agenda but a love of absolute objective truth.

Other than that, there's no problem with the way sites are developed.

All five star reviews are transparent. And customers are quick to see this as a form of astroturfing. Creating the illusion of grass roots, crowd opinion, but false.

The real issue is Amazon did some research into which products produced the most sales. It wasn't all five-stars, it was a U-shaped distribution with lots of 1s and 5s. In other words products that foster strong feelings.

Unfortunately, most products and services are all 3s, with the attractiveness of cold oatmeal.

Edited by DCrx, 06 August 2010 - 05:44 AM.


#5 earlpearl

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Posted 06 August 2010 - 06:19 AM

Miriam:

Excellent inciteful piece on your blog and strong piece here. Terrific detective work vis a vis the review history of these commentators.

We operate businesses. They show in Local Google (Google Places) The 7 pacs that appear in Google.com that are. We are the recipients of reviews both good and bad.

In one industry, where historically there were never reviews, in one submarket; where of course 7 pacs show and one of the links in the 7pac information snippet lists the total number of reviews; an enormous volume of reviews started to show for one of the businesses.

Shortly thereafter the other competitors started to show a large number of reviews.

Check for that industry in other cities with 7 pacs and none of the businesses were receiving reviews or maybe one or 2 versus a volume that quickly reached 100's of reviews in the market where the phenomena occurred.

I know one of the owners in the city where review volume exploded. We were speaking on some issues subsequent to the explosion of reviews and specificlly asked this owner about it.

To paraphrase he said something like: "My customers can't write" Then he laughed.


Of course reviews are being fabricated. There are also real reviews. Its a mixed bag.

Miriam: You and I have participated in David Mihm's survey on what we believe impacts rankings in Google Maps/Google Places. Its based on observations. In some cases, some of the participants might have measured impacts. We both participated in Mike Blumenthal's research on measuring impacts from about 2 years ago.

I state that simply because I suspect about 2 years ago total volume of reviews might have impacted the rankings in the 7 pac/G Maps. I don't believe volume of reviews has a significant impact any more. Of course that is just opinion.

All of which is background to your article.

Several other notes of interest.

1. There is still very little traffic for many businesses to their Google Places page. That is where the reviews sit. It could vary for business to business but most businesses that track reviews find little traffic from the Places Page. The Google Dashboard confirms that. Most businesses that have commented find most of the traffic tracked in the dashboard goes to either the business web site and/or for directions to the business.

In sum its possible that the reviews google carries aren't seen very much.

2. Regardless, if one looks at the commentary in the Google maps forums for business owners, some of the strongest anguish and vitriol is wrapped around situations where owners suspect faked reviews. It drives owners nuts.

3. Finally, Google has spam filters that can catch acts that violate their guidelines. I suspect there are less filters in place in Google Maps than in Google.com. Its newer. It has none of the spam fighting sophistication google.com developed over many years. Google maps operates under different algo's.

My experience on this issue leads me to suspect that regardless of these filters, they seem to not always be applied. I suspect that they are rigorously applied based on some threshhold of activity and popularity.

I'd think that auto dealers would be high on the priority list for cleaning up spam in google maps. Simply the annual aggregate sales value of new cars and trucks in the US alone is in the range of hundreds of billions of dollars. Hundreds of billions!!!!!

The pattern you detected of multiple reviews in multiple cities all in one day is obviously faked. Great detective work. Lets hope Google catches it and begins to act.

#6 bwelford

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Posted 06 August 2010 - 08:52 AM

... great topic and discussion.

As usual Google is chasing its own tail.

When will Google figure out that whatever it does in attempting to measure relevance will cause everyone to adjust their behaviour. I don't know what the answer is but Google certainly does not have it.

#7 SEOigloo

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Posted 06 August 2010 - 04:33 PM

Hi Egol,

That's a good perspective. Just as doping exists in sports, spam exists in marketing. True, true. However, one aspect of this that is of concern, and doesn't seem to apply in the sports world, is that an overflow of spam has triggered a virtual shutdown of certain verticals in Google maps in the past. For example, for awhile, it was impossible for legititmate locksmiths to list their businesses in GMaps because Google had red-flagged the whole industry, due to crazy amounts of spam. In sports, awards can be revoked and games can be declared null because of broken rules...but the whole sport doesn't disappear from the world scene and put all players out of business. So, this is a fear that has to be seriously contended with in Local Search. The bad actions of a few can spoil the whole game for everyone, if Google gets fed up enough.


Hi Donna,
I've had the exact same thoughts as you on this. We all gather our good testimonials and publish them on our websites. We might even hire someone to contact our customers and produce an aggregate of results for us which we can publish, on our websites. Crossing the line is happening when this is being done on third party sites, where the paid reviewer is posing as the customer without any type of disclosure. Both the FTC and Google's guidelines specifically prohibit this behavior, but as others have pointed out, what is being done to enforce these guidelines? Anyhow, I think you've hit on the key point that is the difference between fair and foul play. Great insight!


Hi DCrx!
Great examples! Now, here's something interesting about 5 star reviews. A colleague of mine just told me that he's observed that 5 star reviews get the LEAST clickthroughs. I'm really hoping to talk to him further about this, because if this type of news got around, it might decrease the incentive to spam. Interesting stuff!

Hi Dave!
How nice of you to say! Thank you. I'm so glad to see this being discussed so thoughtfully. The example you've given of previously quiet listings suddenly blossoming forth with a ton of reviews is precisely the type of thing Google needs to work into its algorithm as a red flag, deserved of manual review, don't you think? I would say that my piece on this, and the comments that have come in, are identifying a specific set of parameters that could be put in place, on the profile end. It might look something like this:

If a profile has more than 30 reviews in 7 days from more than 5 cities, this should trigger a filter.

Something along these lines could really work, don't you think?

Dave, talk to me a little bit more about your take on the impact of reviews in the Maps/7 pack algo, if you would. What effect do you think they have, at this point? I didn't feel the consensus was totally clear from David's last LSRF. I'd love to hear what you think.

Hi Barry!
Mary Bowling suggested, on my blog post, that the reason Google wanted to buy Yelp was to get their hands on their review algorithm. I thought that was a very good observation. Lacking this, it is up to Google to create their own algo, governing reviews. There is very clear writing on the wall in 2010 that Google is taking the Local portion of their properties more and more seriously. Let's hope discussion about this specific issue will foster a sense of urgency at Google regarding their handling of reviews which, to date, has been inadequate, buggy and irregular. Thanks for joining this discussion! I'm really enjoying everyone's feedback.

Edited by SEOigloo, 06 August 2010 - 04:35 PM.


#8 Michael_Martinez

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Posted 06 August 2010 - 05:00 PM

Freakin' amateurs don't know how to do sock puppets right .....

These idiots give black hat SEOs -- I mean, our industry -- a bad name.

#9 JVRudnick

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Posted 09 August 2010 - 08:26 AM

great piece Miriam....and thanks too to Paul for the original catch of same....

seems like this is the 'new' state of reviews for local businesses....

...sigh...

:)

Jim

#10 A.N.Onym

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Posted 09 August 2010 - 11:23 AM

If Google grants us an opportunity to store our business information on their site, why can't we store testimonials that our customers gave us there? What if it's in a form that's different from the one, where reviews are left by the customers (i.e., as a single block of text in a description)?

On the other hand, can we encourage customers to specifically write reviews on Google Place pages?

Edited by A.N.Onym, 09 August 2010 - 11:23 AM.


#11 SEOigloo

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Posted 09 August 2010 - 02:45 PM

Hi Michael -

Yes, these marketers don't have a very good future as black hat SEOs. Too detectable.


Thanks, Jim!
Glad you enjoyed this discussion and the original post.

Hi Yura!
If it's a one-off review by a real customer, Google has no problem with that. Google doesn't want there to be any incentive for reviews (no money, benefits, etc.) but it's okay to simply ask for a review. But Google's reviews are not equal to testimonials on your website. You have total control over what goes on your website. What goes on the review portion of your Google Place Page/maps listing is meant to be in control of your users, not you. That's just the way it works.

#12 bwelford

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Posted 09 August 2010 - 07:14 PM

What goes on the review portion of your Google Place Page/maps listing is meant to be in control of your users, not you. That's just the way it works.

... that seems very naive on the part of Google. Especially when you insist on using only scaleable computer algorithms to make any adjustments. Seems to me you need to have some human 'referees' around to ensure that there are not gross misdemeanours. .. which is where this topic started. :(

#13 tam

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Posted 09 August 2010 - 07:56 PM

The company highlighted were stupidly obvious about it but it's what we all do on a lesser scale. You could easily sway results just by pointing only your satisfied customers at your google listing and asking for reviews. Even be extra nice to a few people and point them at your google listing. You don't have to add them yourself, you've still upped the proportion of satisfied to unsatisfied customers and created a biased set of reviews.

Mixing asking the business owner to create their own listing but then not giving them control over what is displayed on it is always going to be a be awkward. You're encouraging them to create a positive marketing tool and that's what they are going to try to do.

Google should be able to detect the stupidly obvious but even with human operators they've never get the subtle ones. The review system in general seems in need of a little more work. I've seen lots of 'reviews' that have been scrapped from other websites by google and presented as reviews when they are just text descriptions of the business (usually written by the owner) not a review at all.

#14 A.N.Onym

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Posted 10 August 2010 - 05:43 AM

What if there are 6-8 great testimonials from an old Google Local listing that got deleted? Obviously, the owner won't contact the buyers and ask them to write Google reviews again (though that's the best plan, possibly). I don't see a reason why he shouldn't be able to reuse the testimonials on his new Google Place page in any form (rather than submitted from various accounts).

Thanks for clarifying these things to me :(

#15 SEOigloo

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Posted 10 August 2010 - 02:45 PM

Hi Barry, Tam & Yura,

The points you are making and questions you are asking are so good and logical, and also reflective of much public opinion on the failures of Google to make Local truly friendly to business owners. The problems with Place Pages/Maps will have a familiar ring to all SEOs/Marketers who have been historically unable to stomach Google's 'no paid links unless through Adwords' policy. You have to apply the mindset that one must play by Google's rules in Google's ballpark, however unfair and frustrating those rules may be. If a business owner chooses to put an interpretation on Google's rules that Google doesn't like, however justified he may feel, he risks having his business listing banned, his reviews wiped off the board or some other punitive action. This is the big threat...and hope of reinclusion after being banned is slim to none.

I completely agree with the points you are making and hope Google will continue to refine their handling of Local, because it is just such a powerful force in business owners' lives. Most people say what Barry has said, above, that Google needs to manage reviews manually, but Google has never had a manual approach to anything. They believe in an algorithmically-managed Internet, but the failures inherent in this are making themselves especially obvious in Local.

#16 earlpearl

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Posted 10 August 2010 - 04:03 PM

Miriam:

My apology. I didn't respond to your question from above. My comments on volume of reviews are mostly a function of observation. About 1.5 to 2 years ago it appeared that there were a lot of records that were both a reflection of spamming google maps and had an inordinate amount of reviews versus competitors. It appeared to me there was a correlation between volume of reviews and #1 ranking or higher ranking in the 7 pac. Around that time we participated in Mikes quantitative study. His quantitative findings were that if sites had a lot of signals that related to higher rankings, volume of reviews didn't seem to matter much.

That is where my thoughts are. If a 7 pac has several competitive businesses with few signals, reviews or other efforts should vault one record with a lot of effort to a top ranking, IMHO.

As to Google interacting with businesses on reviews. Right now I think there is no chance at all.

In general google doesn't interact much with the webmaster world. Its very selective in its communications. As little as it interacts and communicates with webmasters it virtually does nothing interactively with small businesses whose records show in Google Maps. Its virtually impossible to get communciations through to google.

OTOH: a business operator can contact both Yelp and Yahoo vis a vis bad reviews. Both sites will respond to you. Google simply won't respond. Imagine if your electricity went out and you called the power company and they simply didn't respond. Or your phone service went out and the phone company never acknowledged that you had a problem. Or someone hacked your bank account and the bank never responded to a call with a problem.

Well Google simply doesn't respond to smbs with problems in their records probably close to 95% of the time. Its unfathomable. But they manage to get away with it. So far.

At some point in the future I imagine there will be a response mechanism within Google but right now it is lacking.

As to fishy reviews, I have one business with 3 bad reviews in 3 different sources over the last 8-9 months. I'm pretty convinced they were all planted by a competitor. They all include language about something that we specifically don't do. The language they use is specific to complaints I have seen written by customers for years about the industry. We specifically don't take this action.

Two of the attack reviews specifically came from people who admittedly weren't customers. How lame is that?

I've addressed 2 of those reviews with Yelp and Yahoo. They responded directly. Yahoo removed a review. Yelp hasn't. At least they read our reasoning and responded.

I have no illusions to think Google might respond.

In one form or another there have been people screwing around with reviews in Google in situations like the one you described, Miriam, or in different scenarios. If you read in the Google maps forums for business owners you will see how utterly desperate business owners get as it regards various reviews schemes, and how frustrated they get in that Google doesn't respond to them.

I can't imagine it will go on like this forever. I suspect at some point it will change. As to when that occurs who knows.

#17 bwelford

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Posted 10 August 2010 - 04:44 PM

Google needs to manage reviews manually, but Google has never had a manual approach to anything. They believe in an algorithmically-managed Internet, but the failures inherent in this are making themselves especially obvious in Local.

It seems to me that this is an issue that the FTC should get involved with, although it would break into new territory for them, I believe. However I think there is a parallel with the pricing dimension.

The FTC among other things tries to ensure that dominant suppliers in a market place do not use unfair methods to kill the competition. Such a dominant supplier cannot sell below its cost in order to drive out a smaller competitor who has little ability to survive if it tries to match the price. Such pricing is called 'predatory pricing' and is illegal.

Here in Local and particularly in the Maps area we are hearing that the dominant supplier, Google, does not validate its results but relies on computer-based algorithms to develop results that they represent are of the same quality as the other Search results that they offer. There is no disclaimer about the likely inaccuracies. Of course other smaller competitors who do human validation are hard-pressed to match the extensive results sold under the Google brand. To my mind this approach is predatory and attempts to kill competitors such as Yelp, etc. and also the other map makers.

I believe a dominant market position requires a policy that is clearly 'fair trade' and would pass the scrutiny of the FTC. I would have thought that a company whose mantra is "Do No Evil" would be very comfortable with that position.

#18 SEOigloo

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Posted 11 August 2010 - 02:33 PM

His quantitative findings were that if sites had a lot of signals that related to higher rankings, volume of reviews didn't seem to matter much. That is where my thoughts are. If a 7 pac has several competitive businesses with few signals, reviews or other efforts should vault one record with a lot of effort to a top ranking, IMHO.


Dave,
Okay, that's what I thought you were saying, but I wasn't sure. So, to be clear on that, where few signals are present, any one signal (such as reviews) can be powerful, but multiple signals can have the effect of less weight being present in a single type of signal (such as reviews. Am I right that this is what you mean?

Also, Dave, at least you can now respond to your negative Maps reviews, explaining that your business doesn't partake of the actions being cited by the suspect reviewers. Have you tried doing this yet, now that the owner response function is available?

Barry,
I'd LOVE to see the FTC look into what you are describing. That would be really interesting! I feel that Google started out in Local on the wrong foot by aggregating data rather than making Local opt-in. The end result has been that they are representing businesses without the permission or knowledge or the business owner. When you add to this the lack of accountability even when a business becomes aware of and claims his pre-created listing, you've got a scenario that doesn't look like a fair practice to me at all.

After all, if Google can do this, what's to stop me from creating a directory of every business in my town, getting all the addresses and phone numbers wrong and giving no way for the misrepresented businesses to contact me to correct their data?

Edited by SEOigloo, 11 August 2010 - 02:36 PM.


#19 JVRudnick

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Posted 11 August 2010 - 02:49 PM

further....after experimentation on this...YES....the same review-spam (least that's what I'm calling it!!!) exists up here in canuckland in google.ca!

did a test just like yours Miriam on a local large car dealership...and yup, same "tell-tales" were found and investigated by me too....

oh - side point...Andy Beal here -- http://www.marketing...elp-review.html -- shows a unique and very gutsy review response by an owner...along with lots of other links too...surely worth a read, eh!

so....wonder when - I imagine they'll have to eh? -- Google will notice and do sumthin bout this....

...sigh....as if managing client's SEO campaigns aint tough enough....

:-)

Jim

#20 earlpearl

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Posted 11 August 2010 - 03:59 PM

Thanks for that reference, Jim. That is a terrific follow up on the issue.

The tirade/response by the owner has generated significant press in the Scottsdale region. It generated a lot of follow up reviews subsequent to the response on 8/1. The majority of them have been negative.

The reviews prior to that date were generally positive and additionally glowing...going back over 2 years.

What a lesson. Your link reference and another referred to the "phenomena" of reviewing including the potential consequences.

Personally, I've one business with 3 attack reviews. I'm over 90% sure they were planted by a competitor, but of course I can't be sure. The 3 were generated subsequent to the particular business testing something that is increibly popular...but we still haven't widely marketed the process. Meanwhile, subsequent to that we received 3 attack reviews, each one referencing something that we absolutely don't do, has been a key form of complaint about the industry for decades, and in fact our new process provides a more or less 180 degree response to that industry complaint by this single business. Of course all 3 reviews were anonymous.

Of interest we interacted multiple times with Yahoo on the one placed there, explaining our reasoning that it was a planted review. They finally agreed. We had several interactions with Yelp and they haven't removed the review. It appears their internal bias leans towards valuing and maintaining the reviews rather than responding to the business operator, at least in our case. We wrote a response to the Google review. I haven't bothered interacting with them. I've actually generated some responses by google...but it is so incredibly difficult and time consuming.

After months of living with the attack reviews...and "managing" reviews to get some good ones up there (from real customers) here is our experience:

By far potential searchers will see the Yelp reviews far more than any other current source. We've had customers who chose our service, despite reading the negative yelp review. They've told us that.

We have no doubt the negative review has hurt us. We simply can't tell how much.

In the meantime I've privately contacted the Yelp reviewer thru Yelp. No response. (of course). The yelp reviewer generated 2 reviews (enough to work through their filter--and get it published) and has not generated a review since.

I've been SO to write a scathing response. Thankfully I haven't. That reference to the Scottsdale pizza place is a terrific lesson.

thanks again.

(nyook, nyook, nyook)

#21 SEOigloo

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Posted 11 August 2010 - 04:33 PM

Jim,
Thank you for sending me on the odyssey into how not to respond to a negative review, as blogged about by Andy Beal. What a super example; so instructive.

Also, thanks for confirming that you are seeing this problem with car dealerships up north. I swear, it shouldn't be all that difficult for Google to create an algorithmic detection of this type of spam. It has very specific earmarks.


Dave,
I didn't realize your neg. reviews were in Yelp. I thought they were in Maps. Kudos to you for keeping cool and not blowing your top like the unfortunate woman in Jim's linked-to example. What a mistake that would be!

Edited by SEOigloo, 11 August 2010 - 04:34 PM.




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