Fake reviews are the plague of Google Places. The search company is reportedly working on improving their anti-spam algorithm, but the status quo (according to my small-scale research) is that over 50% of the reviews are either fake, or not left by the customers themselves (which is against the terms of service). This percentage may go to over 90% when talking about service-based businesses, and specifically locksmiths, garage door repair, towing, taxis, movers, plumbers, electricians, painters, HVAC engineers, to which we could add bail bonds, personal injury attorneys, escort services, and limousine services. It could be hard for the regular user to know this and to recognize the fake feedback. There are a few signs that could help in such situations (ordered according to the strength of the signal):
1) Reviewer’s other reviews
This is the strongest signal. Google Places allows everyone to check the profile of each reviewer. In the majority of the cases the fake reviews are being left by fraudulent “reputation management” or “SEO” companies, which frequently handle tens, or even hundreds of listings. They have the habit of posting the reviews via the same accounts. User “Mike M.“, for instance, seems to have a lot of favourite businesses across the entire United States. He is getting his trees cut in Saint Louis, MO, his iPhone fixed in Salt Lake City, UT, and his carpet cleaned in Houston, TX. If I see even one of the reviewers for particular business have such a profile, I’d consider two options: either call the business and ask them if they know they have many fake reviews on their Google Places listing (they sometimes won’t know that); or simply run, fast.
2) Generic reviews
Very often the fake reviews are written using a template. Again because most of them are being handled by reputation management companies with multiple clients. Such reviews usually don’t mention any details about price, concrete dates, concrete explanation of the situation(s), or anything else that could personalize the review and give something more than an appraisal to the business. They normally look like this:
“Los Angeles plumbing was recommended by my friend who used them before, introduction was great and the experience was believable so I contacted them and they sent professional plumbers to fix the leaking faucets in my home. The price was affordable yet the service was professional. Thanks!”
Additionally, the usage of exclamation marks and generic words, such as “Thanks!” in the above example, is frequently noticed among fake reviews. They also like to use the name of the business (especially if it is keyword-rich), as well as keywords that sound very unnaturally and not at the right place (as with “professional plumbers” in the above example). In the case below the fake reviewer was so much in a hurry that even forgot to remove the HTML tags from the review:
“My basement flooded and I called Magic Plumbing. They gave me in the moment advice – are your faucets off? Don’t use unnecessary water. "My plumber will be there to fix your problem before you start to really worry." <br/>They were completely professional, personable and left me feeling confidant that they would be there for me again. Thank you <br/>Magic Plumbing for being there when I <br/>Needed you the most.”
3) Reviewer’s avatar
Many of the sock puppet profiles, created for the sole purpose of writing fake reviews, use as avatars either non-face/non-person images, or images of faces stolen from the Internet (this goes very close to criminal behaviour). In the second case, it is easy to check if the face belongs to the reviewer if you do a search on images.google.com. You simply need to drag and drop the image in the search box and it will show you where else this photo appears on the web (if anywhere). Below are some images that fake reviewers use frequently:
4) Best-ever badge
The fake reviewers seem to love it. They probably think it adds some value to the review or to its trustworthiness, but it actually reveals them. Very few users actually know about this feature or how to use it, because it is practically hidden deeply inside the profile. Even fewer would choose a plumber, or carpet cleaner, as their most favourite local business.
5) Same reviews
Fake reviewers, while knowing how to cheat, are usually not the smartest people. That is why they tend to steal reviews from other websites and use them for their activities. One can easily discover if a review has already been written somewhere else on the web by a simple search on Google.com. Surprisingly enough, Google themselves don’t seem to be using this tactic to stop the spam.
6) A couple of 1-star reviews, and 20 5-star ones
This situation would be a valid fake review detector if the 1-star reviews are long, containing a lot of details and explaining particular situation(s), while the 5-star ones consist of one-two sentences, and look like the ones mentioned in point 2 above. Usually the bad reviews are being buried below all the good ones, so you will have to dig to find them. Here is a good example. However, in some situations such fake reviews might have been posted by a competitor, or by the same “reputation management” firms, who would later go on and extort the business.
7. All reviews posted along a short period of time
While this might be a result of an inconsistent and badly planned online reputation campaign, it is most probably caused by the business (or someone on their behalf) posting fake reviews. In many cases these are testimonials, previously left by customers that the business owner decided to post on their behalf. However, I’d suggest that these be taken with a grain of salt.
8. The overall appearance of the Google Places listing
If the listing contains pictures stolen from the Internet (to verify you can use the same tactic as in point 3 above), has a keyword-stuffed business name (Los Angeles Plumbers, Premier Locksmith Nashville), or is located at a strange position, close to the city name label on the map, the chances are good that this information is partly, or completely, fake. Such businesses rarely (if ever) have any real customers leaving good reviews for them.
The saddest of this all is that I didn’t even have to go past page 1 of Google’s local search results to find all the examples. Most of the businesses that have fake reviews rank very high organically, which is scary. It means Google not only provides bad results (wrong business information, addresses, phone numbers), but also ones that are potentially dangerous for the average user. My advice is that you make a thorough research before calling any business, even (especially!) if you are in an emergency situation. If you ask me, I’d use Google reviews as just a minor factor in my decision making.