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User Reviews - A New Hub For Spamming & Scamming


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#1 SEOigloo

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Posted 27 February 2011 - 03:35 PM

Hello To All My Fellow Cre8asiters!

It has been awhile since I've started a thread here in the forum, and I thought this might be a good time to open discussion on a topic, the problematic nature of which, I have become increasingly aware. Old timers here in the SEO game have seen so many scamming and spamming tactics come and go over the years. In my own work, the newest one I'm seeing is the paid management/acquisition of user reviews, and the implications of this in terms of the quality of search are pretty serious.

Basically, what's going on is that a host of businesses have cropped up offering the following services:

- The business owner hands over the keys to their local business listings and the company sets up a bunch of reviewer profiles and simply creates fake positive reviews of the company. A few months ago, I stumbled into a viper's nest of this kind of activity in the auto sales industry wherein a single reviewer profile would be filled with reviews for cars they had supposedly bought. Come on; who buys 20 cars in 20 different cities in one day?

- Alternatively, the business owner hands over review management to a company that gets in touch with legitimate customers and gets their reviews, but then pretends to BE the customers and publishes the reviews across the various review indexes.

Neither of these practices are allowed by the major review sources and the immediate dangers of these tactics are:

- Lost money for the business owner who invested in these violations
- Removal of reviews
- Penalties against or even potential bannings of their local business profiles

Needless to say, it gets my goat that unwary SMBs are hiring these firms that take their money, teach them bad practices and wreck their accounts and reputations. It is so easy to scam busy business owners who have no idea what is allowed and what isn't.

Beyond the immediate consequences to the business owner, there are the implications of a completely spammed review scene for all Internet users. We may all be aware of the adage, 'don't believe everything you read', but these spammy review practices are making it more like, 'don't believe ANYTHING you read' when it comes to local businesses.

Bottom line: if you own a local business, please don't purchase these kinds of services. I genuinely believe it pays to play by the rules, and so I'll finish up here with a link to Google's Review Guidelines

Read 'em or weep!

#2 iamlost

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Posted 27 February 2011 - 09:27 PM

Ah Miriam, would you be shocked to hear that what you are seeing is not new behaviour but the behaviour of script kiddies (of all ages) jumping on an already rolling bandwagon? What has been a (largely) quiet custom artificial review/recommendation/testimonial business has (thanks to Google Local requirements) become increasingly mass market mass produced. And so much more obvious.

You can see reviews repeating paid links history. Amusing to the observer but, as you note, distressing and potentially business threatening to buyers. I would hope that webdevs, SEOs, and their clients take heed to your warning. Unfortunately, I rather expect the cheapskates to be ignorant and foolish and the scammers to chase the quick automated well snake oiled buck.

Once again Google is causing a problem and undoubtedly the attempts to fix it will cause almost as much anguish as the problem itself.

SNAFU

#3 Michael_Martinez

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Posted 27 February 2011 - 10:31 PM

I think such reviews would be violations of the Federal Trade Commission's disclosure guidelines (which are not yet being enforced, but the FTC has certainly put the rules in place).

This isn't a business model I would want to be associated with.

#4 jonbey

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Posted 28 February 2011 - 05:02 AM

But what if it is done properly? On a UK business forum there is a chap that is offering this as a service. They contact your clients to ask for reviews which they then write up and stylize for your website. Not sure actually if they go as far as write reviews for 3rd party sites, but still it is someone else essentially writing and publishing the testimonial / review.

#5 Michael_Martinez

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Posted 28 February 2011 - 11:39 AM

Anyone doing business in the U.S. would have to disclose that they are publishing those reviews as an agent of the business being reviewed.

#6 earlpearl

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Posted 28 February 2011 - 11:48 AM

Miriam:

Thanks for highlighting the issue, with the focus on a new business type that is working to pull money from SMB's and fabricate reviews. That is an ugly impact.

I don't conduct large scale studies but I do look at certain test examples:

Over a year ago I noticed how in Google rankings for local dentists a local dentist in a suburb of DC was showing #1 rankings for results in 2 adjacent towns. The dentist was using DemandForce a review/marketing service for several types of industries. Demandforce is not the "devil" in the context that you describe. Its an active "review management/communication service. It also charges its client dentists/ and it managed to secure volumes of reviews within Google Places. In essence there has been a question about whether this violates Google's terms of service for reviews: While nobody pays the reviewers/ the dentists are paying DemandForce to secure and publish the reviews.

In any case I went back to the search terms for that service (dentist/ Town A) then dentist/Town B).

The new merged rankings of organic/local restated the rankings with the dentist w/ the huge volume of reviews no longer ranking respectively 1st and 2nd within the local rankings.

Meanwhile back to your main thesis, which is that a spammy business model has evolved to totally fabricate reviews, charge business owners for them, and spread them across the web.

Yep that is a ripoff service and I hope SMB's avoid them like the plague.

The dentist in question still has enormous volumes of reviews relative to the others in the 7pac/merged rankings. The demandforce process generates incredibly more reviews than not using it.

Another element of the demandforce communications /review process is that it encourages response by the dentist. While scarcely any of the demandforce reviews are less than exemplary there are a few with minor complaints....and those get responses from the dentist.

What amazed me, was that if one deep searches at reviews this dentist received horrendous reviews pre-demandforce. The dentist was characterized as a money grubbing jerk. Since then there have been no comments in that regard.

It could be that the demandforce communications system actually served to help enhance the dentist's level of customer service.

whoa. That is pretty amazing. A review mechanism that might have actually assisted in improving customer service.

#7 SEOigloo

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Posted 28 February 2011 - 02:19 PM

Hi Iamlost,
You are totally right. The tactic is not new. I should have been clearer in what I wrote. It's the setting that is relatively new (local), but the tactic, itself, is as you say. Thanks for pointing that out.

Michael,
Yes, these would definitely violate the FTC and I've seen a number of folks pointing that out, but as you say, enforcement is making this a rather weak threat. There have been a couple of instances in which lawsuits have happened. One in particular is not coming to my mind fast enough, but it was made very public that the business had been faking reviews. EarlPearl might remember what I'm talking about...what was it, Dave, a plastic surgeon? About a year ago?

Jon,
Gathering data for publication on your own site (testimonials) is a completely different animal than republishing it on third party sites while pretending to be the customer...at least in my opinion. However, there was a fascinating discussion about this very topic at Mike Blumenthal's blog a couple of weeks ago in which folks were trying to figure out what Google's real take is on the publication of on-site testimonials. Worth a read!

EarlPearl,
You know, I've never quite understood DemandForce's business model. I have heard them spoken well of by some folks. But, question, are they PUBLISHING the reviews in Google Places? Or are the customers doing that with a nudge from DemandForce? I'd like to know more about this.

Edited by SEOigloo, 28 February 2011 - 02:20 PM.


#8 earlpearl

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Posted 28 February 2011 - 03:54 PM

@Miriam: I also forget how the review based lawsuit arose or which industry it was.

As a business person I'm uncomfortable about the review phenomena. We have a number of businesses in 2 industries that normally don't generate public reviews. On the other hand in all locations and in both business types we have specifically requested summary internal reviews from every customer.

On old websites we took the best of those reviews and copied them into testimonial pages. Long before reviews became a public web phenomena I searched for reviews for both those industries and public commentary on our businesses. The results were:

1. Scarcely a customer anywhere in the nation publicly wrote a review.
2. One of the industries got a fair amount of attack comments from unsatisfied customers
3. In that industry we never received negative publicity and of what little there was ours was always positive.

(whew--but that is really about customer service.).

I've heard from 2 very different sources that when Yelp started around 2004 most of its seed investment money went into paying people to write reviews. (so much for their consistent admonishment that nobody should "ask for a review".)

I think one metric about the popularity of reviews is how Yelp cracked the top 50 US website visits in January 2011: http://www.screenwer...omscore-top-50/ Over 27 million unique visits in January as measured by Comcast; That is a lot of traffic (and incidentally greater than the 12% of Google search queries impacted by the latest algo change--(had to throw that in :D ).

I guess about 2 years ago, with Google establishing its local index and including volume of reviews as a possible element in its ranking algo....reviews took off....and specifically the fake review on the web phenomena exploded.

At least one analysis of the ranking impacts in Local (in which both Miriam and I participated) found that in the absence of other "signals" volume of reviews was not a significant indicator of rank. (that is a couple of years old).

In any case, in my businesses, whereupon the customers don't naturally generate reviews, I'd been reluctant to generate them on the web, regardless of the method. It's just not totally natural.

It wasn't until, what I strongly suspect were "faked spam attack reviews" towards some of these businesses that I felt I had to jump into this arena. (Surprisingly the attack reviews were written against, among others, the business that had clearly distinguished itself over decades with superior customer service.)

The entire thing is ugly.

Now we request specific reviews for use on the web. We contact "satisfied customers" after the services rendered, give them links to specific sites on the web, and ask those customers to write reviews.

To date the process has been great. We have a reasonable volume of reviews that are overwhelmingly strong. They've drowned out what we are sure were the "planted attack reviews". It requires extra work on our behalf and the generosity of our customers. There is no doubt its a selective process. On the other hand its no more selective than any business has used deep in the past wherein they advertised with selected testimonials.

We've also discovered, in polling our customers, once they engage our services that many of them read the reviews and they are important in deciding to purchase our services. We learned this when the only reviews were the negative planted ones, and since with a large volume of positive reviews.

As any business person knows, Word of Mouth (WOM) is easily the number #1 marketing tool for any business.

All of which has contributed to this environment in which spam review businesses have sprouted up. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise. Reviews have become so powerful and prevalent that I and some others have discovered that the usage of this search phrase (business service/review) dramatically expanded during 2010. That in itself is interesting.

I simply hope that small businesses refrain from using and paying for the fake review generators. It will probably rebound to hurt them in the long run in some form or fashion.

As to demandforce. Primarily its a "communication service" as distinguished from a fake review generator. As I generally understand it provides certain industries with a communication tool with customers which involves a variety of contacts; one of which is the request for reviews.

as a result its dentist customers generate a quantum difference in volumes of reviews than do their local competitors. From the one's I've read, the reviews look to be 99% great. (do you believe there is 99% satisfaction with your dentists?? :D )

One controversy that arose a bit ago involving them was based on the fact that demandforce was one of the only vertical review sources that were being scraped by google and thereby showing in its Places Pages totals. Additionally, the dental demandforce customers were paying demandforce for its services.

Therein established a question about whether demandforce reviews violate the google term of service that bans paid reviews. Its a sticky issue.

The one thing I noticed, though, in tracking a single dentist that hired demandforce was that the process seemed to incorporate a change in customer service toward better responsiveness to customers.

If that is a side effect from the web phenomena of reviews that would be a positive result, IMHO.

#9 SEOigloo

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Posted 28 February 2011 - 06:34 PM

Fantastic response, EarlPearl :applause:

I was nodding my head all the way through. Thanks for the clarification on the DemandForce thing. In my opinion, that should NOT be viewed as a violation. It's marketing...it's a tool...it's not really any different than corporations paying firms to take polls on user sentiment for them...so long as the customer is the one leaving the review. Like you, I've heard them spoken well of amongst SEOs who work in the dental industry.

It's interesting about the near-perfect positive review profiles. I wonder if some form of pre-qualification happens, as in, Dr. Jones says, "Contact this person, this person, this person; they've been patients of mine for years."

Could be.

#10 earlpearl

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Posted 02 March 2011 - 01:02 PM

Miriam, Michael:

Here is a reference to the fake review case that was litigated and resulted in a settlement: http://blumenthals.c...-false-reviews/ from 2009

#11 SEOigloo

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Posted 02 March 2011 - 05:17 PM

A-ha! It was a plastic surgeon, EarlPearl. My memory is better than I thought. Thanks for the link!



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