Oct 022012
 

Yesterday at Local University Advanced Joel Headley, one of the main people behind the development of Google Maps answered a number of very intriguing questions related to Google+ Local. But before I start discussing some of those Q&A’s I should note that I didn’t participate personally in the event, so everything I know is sourced from the social networks. One of the topics that was of greatest interest to me was the Google reviews one. It all started with the following tweet:

I was curious to get a clearer idea of which reviews have been targeted and that is why I asked:

Mike was kind enough to ask Joel for clarification and here is what turned out:

 

And a bit more details:

 

As I have learnt not to trust Google for anything (they even show me as part of a company I left more than half a year ago for crying out loud), I decided to check this myself. Obviously, the biggest problem in such an experiment would be to find an appropriate sample. It would have to be dated, and it would have to be blatantly fake. How do I find these? In fact, it is very easy. I look for businesses that are very unlikely to be reviewed many times, but in fact do have a decent number of reviews.

I first decided to “target” the plumbing industry. I really “love” exact match domains such as this one, as well as keyword-stuffed business names, so the reviews associated with this business seemed like a promising laboratory rat. I used the following review that dates back a year ago (i.e. Google had plenty of time to figure out if this review is fake or not):

We had 4 different plumbing companies come to our house before we committed to letting Dallas Plumbing do our work. They were, by far, the most professional and trustworthy! We have given out their cards to all of our family and friends. I would highly recomend them to anyone.

How unsurprised I was to discover that there was a very similar review left for another plumbing company on another site (Yahoo! Local) that very much reminds of the above mentioned one (note: it has been deleted by Yahoo – talk about efficiency of combating fake reviews, but it still does exist in Google’s index, i.e. Google thinks it still exists):

We had 2 different plumbing companies come to our house before we committed to letting YB Plumbing Dallas do our work. They were, by far, the most professional and trustworthy! We have given out their cards to all of our family and friends. I would highly recomend YB Plumbing Dallas to anyone.

My second sample was a company in the moving industry. I used the following review, written 10 months ago:

Awesome!!! Called before arriving, on time! Moved everything out of the old house and into the new house in just under 2 hours. They worked hard, were very careful about corners, walls and banisters. Polite, respectful and I can’t reccomend them more!

And I found a very close match on Judysbook for another moving company. Here it is:

Called before arriving, on time! Moved everything out of the old house and into the new house in just under 4 hours. They worked hard, were very careful about corners, walls and banisters. Polite, respectful and I can’t reccomend them more!

Note: what I really “love” the most in both of these examples are the matching misspellings of “recommend”.

My third, and last, example was a carpet cleaning company, and more specifically the following review (from 10 months ago):

After finding that my dog urinated all over my couch, first of all I put him outside, and second of all, I called Los Angeles Carpet Cleaning. They gave me a really affordable price for the cleaning so I hired them and they were able to extract the urine and few other stains I had and the smell is gone.

There is an exact match review for the same business (probably) on Insiderpages.

What is the conclusion?

Google claims to be fighting spammy reviews (check here how long it might take them to get this done in some obvious cases) and they are hopefully getting smarter at doing so, using different signals and thus making the anti-spam filter more sophisticated. Unfortunately, they do not seem to be using the signal of finding exact (or close to exact) match reviews across the web. It should be noted that these should be reviews on business directory and/or review websites, but not simply found anywhere on the web, because in that case it would take, as mentioned here, just a dummy site where all reviews for all competitors could be stuffed, so that Google could match them as duplicates and delete them. There are two very distinctive features of the spammers, which Google could leverage in their favor: they are working in bulks, and they are lazy. This means that Google could easily track down whole networks of fake reviews by finding patterns (such as the one I discussed in this post).

Update (2 October 2012, 9:15 AM EST): Joel gave the following clarification on what he had said during the SMX session:

Communication by tweet always lacks context. Specifically, I said duplication of content was against our terms and doing so could result in removal of said content from our reviews system. I didn’t make specific claims about what had been done in the past, but rather was discussing the policy of duplicating/using the exact same text when leaving reviews.

  5 Responses to “Are Spammy Google Reviews Really Gone?”

Comments (5)
  1. Hey Nyagoslav,

    This is great. Based on what I saw of your Twitter feed yesterday, I kind of thought such a post might be in the works :)

    The inherent difficulty here is that what you said about how spammers “are working in bulk, and they are lazy” also applies to Google.

    Any update to the review filter is a “bulk” action, to say the least.

    As for the “lazy” part, Google has neglected to give business owners a comprehensible answer to what they (the business owners) should do. For example, is saying to a customer “Hey, could you please leave me a Google review” considered “soliciting” a review versus “asking” for it?

    I’m not saying Google is the “bad guy” here. However, it is a cat-and-mouse game. But the spammers are slightly more nimble, and if we’re to take Joel’s comment (with more “context”) even somewhat at face value, spammers would conclude “Ah, so Google is only on the lookout for reviews with the ‘exact same text’. Let’s spin us some reviews on the double!”

    The cat isn’t chasing the mouse any more. It’s brought in the Orkin man to try to fumigate all mice everywhere. Not a bad goal, but the trouble is what happens to the other inhabitants of the house (people – business owners). As long as Google finds it easier to fiddle with its filter rather than tell business owners exactly what they should and should not do for customer reviews, honest business owners are getting hurt.

    I suppose it is what it is, and with time Google’s filters will probably get “smarter.” But I just hate to see so many legit business owners – who just want to do the right thing and make a living at the same time – have their time wasted.

    • Thanks for the great comment, Phil!

      Google is not very good at communicating things out, especially when it concerns a “free” service. They’ve always looked at Places from the viewpoint of users much rather than from the viewpoint of business owners. This is also valid when talking about reviews. The communities they are trying to build in some of the largest cities in the US (and internationally) are focused almost entirely on the user experience, there is almost no interaction with small businesses (other than restaurants and other eatery places probably). From all this suffers everybody, unfortunately.

  2. Oh good lord.

    About a third of the way through, I thought ‘What’s to stop me just creating scraping all my competitors reviews and reposting them to a dozen dummy sites’.

    And then in your conclusion, you pointed out….exactly the same thing.

    I swear, Google just forgets that the internet consists of human beings sometimes.

  3. So glad that you tested this out Nyago.

    I read that tweet from Mike and immediately cried out “Bullshit!”

    Like you, I agree they have gotten much more finicky about reviews they let past their filter. Notice I didn’t say better, just more finicky. More than ever before, real reviews are getting slayed left and right.

    Great post Nyago!

    Adam

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