Jul 102012

The matter of privacy, and to what extent it is being abused by Google, has been the hot topic of the last months, and specifically since “Search Plus Your World” was launched. However, it hasn’t really been tackled much in direct relation to the world of local search, but after Google Places became Google+ Local, some legitimate concerns arose.

In order to write a review on a business’s Google+ Local page, you’d need to have a Google+ profile. In order to create a Google+ profile, you’d need to use your real name. There is no way to stay anonymous when posting a review currently. Here is the official explanation by Google:

“Any reviews you write or scores that you provide will be attributed to your Google+ name and visible publicly. Public scores and reviews makes it possible for us to provide high-quality information for all users, and provide you with personalized suggestions based on your preferences.”

Many have expressed concerns about how users would accept this and how online reputation management would become even more difficult for the honest businesses, while the spammers would still thrive. Here are a few threads related to the problem. One of the users summarizes it well:

“I like reviewing, but I don’t want every Tom, Dick and Jane on the web to see me and my review.  I’d be better with a nickname and you could see all my nick name’s comments with out having to worry about harassment from a disgruntled vendor.  A place I do business would treat me worse if I really express my feelings.  Same things with contractors, they know where you live and did a terrible job.  I’d leave a note to warn others, but don’t want that contractor coming and robbing me or harming my pets.”

Some industries would definitely be hit more significantly than others. According to Jeffrey Segal of Medical Justice, seconded by Mike Wilton of Plastic Surgery Studios, doctors (as well as clinics, psychologists, dentists, chiropractors, nursing homes, pharmacies, health insurance companies, and others) would not even be able to reply to negative reviews any more as this would go against the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Additionally, I cannot imagine how a criminal, or divorce, or DUI, or bankruptcy attorney would get legitimate reviews now that their clients would have to post their real names publicly.

Lastly, I am not completely convinced with the reasons of Google to require a person’s name in order to provide “personalized suggestions” to them and other users. Is it that if John C. liked a local restaurant, then it might be very possible that John B. and John D. would also like it, thus Google would make recommendations based on their names? I’d argue that this rule would not only reduce the overall review flow, but also bias the reviews. I’d not be surprised if large part of the reviews written after the launch of Google+ Local are positive. My personal opinion – a lame and unnecessary way to fight spam.

  17 Responses to “Google+ Reviews and Privacy”

Comments (17)
  1. Hey Nyagoslav,

    Excellent take on the Google+ reviews issue. I agree that it’s a ham-handed, overkill, lame way to fight spam, although I also think by the same token it “raises the bar” and prevents many fakes from being written. So I’m kind of split as to whether it’s a net positive or not.

    What’s really puzzling is that making people use their Google Plus accounts and real names doesn’t fit with Google’s crusade to get more of an active reviewer base (like what Yelp has). Sure, the quality of the reviews is somewhat higher now – which obviously is a little step in the direction of Yelp-style QC. But there are just so few reviews being written, and (as you said) the reviews that are being written aren’t being written for a great many industries/professions. How Google plans to stir up activity is beyond me – if there is a plan at all.

    • Phil,

      I’m sure there is a plan, although I’m not sure this plan fits with reality and I’m not sure Google’s engineers understand how the business world works… Practically all their steps prove they do not get it yet.

      They obviously need data. Data, data, data. They seem to be going to be ready to do anything to get more data. This is definitely a step back as it prevents only the regular users from getting active on Google+. It definitely does not stop the spammers as they’d simply build profiles the way Google would like them and they will still spam freely. Reference: How to Spam Yelp. This could work pretty much the same way with G+ :)

      • Agreed. Didn’t mean to overstate the effectiveness of Google’s supposed anti-spam measures. I certainly don’t think they’ll deter all spammer types with the new requirements for posting reviews. But I do think it deters many of the lazy ones – who are a great many. It’s a question of degree, IMHO.

        But just to go off what you and Mike said, Google’s preoccupation with restaurants and tourist-y businesses is disturbing. The real PPC ad money is in the service industries, so it boggles my mind why Google wouldn’t try a little harder to throw those businesses a bone here and there.

        • Phil, my experience with spammers is a little bit different. Yes, they are very lazy creatures, but it is not in their character to give up when someone outsmarts them. On the contrary, they like challenges and they like to trick the system. And this is a very easily overcome-able obstacle for them.

          I completely agree with you there are a lot of money in the service-based local industry. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are the biggest advertisers among the local businesses overall. However, as Mike said, I don’t think Google really understands how things in the real world work :)

  2. Thanks for the mention Nyagoslav! I totally agree with your comment to Phil, Google is too disconnected from businesses to understand their needs and how they work.

    The system seems to be built around the local boutique or restaurant and forgets about the more private service industries like doctors and lawyers. Google needs to create a useful system for these sectors, even if it means specialized features for those types of businesses. Hopefully they figure it out sooner than later.

    • Sure thing Mike. You make a lot of good points in your article, too, so I hope people will click through and check it.

      I’ve always felt Google is thinking of local search as a means for only some local businesses to gain additional exposure. Namely the ones that you mentioned + probably general local retailers. Service-based businesses, and professional businesses seem to be left a bit outside the sight of Google. Sadly so.

  3. Nice article, Nyagoslav. Seems like a quick but comprehensive coverage of the issues:

    Also a lot of links and references to the critical issues: One of those links took me to google’s TOS on usage of your name. Nice job.

    I’m not convinced that dedicated spammers won’t work their way around this. In fact I’m firmly convinced they will be able to do so. If you want to put yourself out there for attack reviews I’m sure there will be efforts to do so and they’ll work.

    But on that note, I’d like to “review reviews” since they changed and are tied to people’s names. It would be interesting to see if there are suspicious looking reviews populating google + local since the change.

    • Dave, it is definitely great to have additional information on the reviewer. But how would the real name of a completely unknown person help you in that? I honestly don’t see the point. It is very easy for a spammer to create tens, or even hundreds of personas that look exactly like real, or even more real than real…

      • Can’t argue with you Nyagoslav. We both know that google has reversed itself on policies regarding Local over time. They could change, certainly if they measure and value volumes of reviews, and the volumes diminish relative to other review sources: and Google deems the volume important.

        IMHO the most important issue for an smb is primarily high ranking…which you achieve in organic/ in the pac/ or in ppc. Without high ranking you are going to lose a lot of visitors…and they won’t be reading your reviews anyways.

        Reviews are critical but secondary, again IMHO. As an SMB they are like a “love interest”. :D Having them is close to my heart…having positive reviews is closer. Having negative reviews is a brutal hurt. When google loses them its incredibly frustrating.

        But reviews are also a strange animal. Lets face it, they are controlled, faked, honest, dishonest, subject to being slammed by competitors, etc. They have a twisted relationship.

        Clearly, as you have pointed out above, putting actual names to reviews may and probably will limit total volumes and in some industries entirely cut them off. In other cases it might eliminate the volume of artificially created reviews.

        On an anecdotal basis I was involved in “structuring for a law firm that focuses on varieties of defense activities ranging from criminal defense to pursuing insurance claims.

        Its highly unlikely, or better said very rare, that anyone would put their real names to a positive review about how the XYZ lawfirm did a great job in defending me from an assault charge. LOL. I don’t want my name attached to an assault charge, no matter how erroneous the charge might have been. Similarly I don’t want my name attached to DUI charges, certain medical procedures, etc.

        To the extent there are reviews in those categories…..how faked are they????

        Its a dilemma, no doubt. I’m not arguing it, simply pointing out there could be positives with the negatives.

        And I’m not sure this is the last word with Google. Cripes as it regards Local they have a history of reversing policy on many issues.

        • Dave, I’ve been keeping hopes for quite a long time that Google will finally realize businesses are not born equal and they’d be provided with different types of marketing tools. The marketing tools that would work for a lawyer in a metropolitan might not work for a lawyer in a small town or rural area. The marketing tools that would work for a bar in New York might not work for a plumber in Sioux Falls, South Dakota… Then why would Google give them the same type of treatment, and the exact same tools, and the exact same ranking algorithm??? The problem is in the core and whatever Google does in terms of cosmetic changes will simply be wrong.

          Certainly, from the viewpoint of some businesses such a change might be good. These are honest businesses that have previously been attacked with fake reviews. These are businesses that would easily get reviews from users. On the other hand, this change, as Jason stated below, might be devastating for others and might cause to some decent business loss.

          • Nyagoslav: Yeah…the review process does not work equally well for all businesses. I agree.

            Here is an interesting side element with regard to reviews: This thread was started in late April, I jumped in early…but the somewhat unusual thing is that people keep adding to it on an ongoing basis: its a phenomena that hasn’t been adequately exposed yet: The thread: http://productforums.google.com/forum/#!topic/maps/FVuqAeV9YIo

            • I think in this particular case the reviews were simply filtered out. This happens always when reviews are filtered out. The logged in reviewer can see their review, but it is not displayed publicly. It is not very nice of Google not to be communicating this…

  4. Thanks for the great post, Nyagoslav. These concerns echo many of those in the Places forum. I disagree with many SEOs that the shift to G+ Local was just a cosmetic change. As you pointed out, this change has a serious impact on the livelihood of many local business owners. The lack of anonymity for reviewers combined with the exodus of the 5-star rating system is really hurting a lot of businesses.

    Sure the ranking algorithm may not have changed, but lower click-through rates and conversions experienced after incorporating the Zagat ratings has severely impacted the bottom line for many SMBS.

    • Jason, I agree with you. However, I believe most of the industry people refer to rankings when they claim the changes are just cosmetic. Actually cosmetic changes often times impact exactly things such as CTR and conversions (one of the driving elements of which are reviews and the 5-star rating snippets). Sadly, this time the impact was negative, and this seems to be getting trendy. The last few times Google has been rolling out cosmetic changes in local they’ve been having severe negative impact on organic traffic while benefiting advertisers. Coincidence?

      • I know what you mean. I wonder if Google business even runs focus groups for SMB owners since they sure don’t seem to communicate with them directly – unless you count the harassing G+ Local random phone verification checks from India. These are the same people that are paying huge monthly sums for Adwords clicks yet G could care less that their livelihoods are being destroyed.

  5. Jason; Curious. What kinds of smbs have been hurt? Are they certain types or is it across the board from the change from 5 stars to zagat ratings. Our different businesses have not been hurt.

    They are service businesses that don’t naturally generate reviews, without our asking of them from customers. 3 of them had 5 star ratings. They have converted to zagat ratings with high numbers. They are anything but restaurants…so the Zagat brand means nothing.

    The thing is all 3 smbs rank first for a variety of their major search phrases. Traffic has not been hurt by the conversion from 5 star to Zagat. Could relative ranking be part of the cause? Could it be that the eye catching 5 stars was driving traffic to smb’s ranked anywhere but #1?

    Now here is an issue that only google would know and they aren’t going to tell us: Suppose there were 7 pacs with 4 or 5 smbs each w/ 5 stars: Were searchers going to all the smbs or a lot of them b/c of the stars???

  6. I think Google should just make exceptions for particular industries (like the ones you mentioned). One of my coworkers just started working with a sex therapist and she’s in the same boat – no one is going to publicly leave her a review. No other review site requires your real name so I don’t see how Google can expect it.

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