May 212012
 

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. &quot;My plumber will be there to fix your problem before you start to really worry.&quot; <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.

  17 Responses to “8 Ways to Recognize Fake Google Reviews”

Comments (17)
  1. Good points all of them, I think Google usually does a pretty good job of removing these spam reviews to begin with.

    • Hi Keith, thanks for the comment! Unfortunately, they do not. While large part of these are being filtered out, there are still thousands and thousands more that are there for months, even years.

  2. Hey Nyagoslav,

    SUPERB post! Long-overdue, too: maybe I missed one that someone else did on the topic of fakes, but I think you pretty much wrote the book.

    Three “warning signs” / giveaways that I’d maybe add to the list:

    1. Keyword-density – particularly of exact-match or near-exact-match search terms. E.g. “Los Angeles Plumbers are great…I needed a Los Angeles plumber because…” Fakers try wayyyy too hard to stuff search terms in there, particularly city names.

    2. Angry “owner responses” to reviews in which a customer (or Good Samaritan) says “Hey, these reviews look fake!” Granted: a legit business owner with legit reviews who gets slimed by a fake review by an unethical competitor is going to be pissed, and his/her rebuttal may not be calm, per se. But the main difference, in my experience, is that when a business owner with legit reviews responds to a cheap-shot fake review from a competitor, he/she tends to be very *specific* and thorough in rebutting the review and explaining why the review can’t be from a real customer. Fakers, on the other hand, typically have some nasty or flippant response, along the lines of “This obviously isn’t from a REAL customer…ignore this person…”

    3. A few positive reviews and a bunch of 1-stars in the reviewer’s profile. In other words, if you look at the Google profile of a fishy-looking reviewer and see one 5-star review for one company and a bunch of 1-star reviews given to businesses in the same industry and in the same local area (AKA competitors), then you’re probably looking at a fake.

    I know #2-3 are partly contextual, in that you have to look at the overall body of reviews, not just at a given review by itself. Still, they’re factors I look at when in doubt – in addition to all the awesome check-up items you mentioned :)

    • Hey Phil,

      Great advice! I agree with all of your points. I included your 1) as part of my 2), but I think I didn’t really explain it too well. And your 3) I could include as part of my 1), but I definitely missed mentioning that when checking the reviewer’s profile, one should take a look at all the trends, not just the locations of the businesses they reviewed, or the time slot. Regarding your 3), I think this could be rather controversial, that is why I decided to exclude owner responses from the article. I have seen way too many small businesses get slammed with fake reviews by “reputation management” firms, or by competitors, and then reply in pretty much the same manner you described as the one specific to the fakers. For many of these people their reputation is crucial, so they might get easily agitated from such kind of subversive attacks. It’s definitely not the best way to protect your online reputation, but not too many realize it. I’ve had a client myself, who got a couple of very negative fake reviews and she replied with equal ferocity. It took me some time to talk her into changing the comments to something more friendly-mindful.

      Whatever the case, I think I will be doing some revision of this article in future, and I will make sure to both include your advice, and your name there :-)

  3. Nyagoslav: The smb that is linked to my name suffered a problem with a duplicate record a little over one month ago. As part of the problem all its then current reviews were lost.

    As a result we started to actively work to add reviews quickly. We generated about 12 in a couple of weeks. In every case we asked customers whom we thought would write positive reviews to do so. Once they agreed to do so, we had no influence on them at all. They wrote the reviews independently. I’m quite sure a lot of them are first time reviewers in google and additionally they might not have reviewed any other businesses beforehand. (one exception that I’ll describe below)**

    Recently some of the old reviews have resurfaced on the record. They are from before the duplicate issue. Again most of them, if not all, came because we specifically asked customers whom we think would write a positive review to do so. We had no other influence on the reviews.

    Do these reviews seem, look, or smell fake??? Make your own judgement.

    One of the reviews that resurfaced included a bad review from a year or two ago. We are 99% positive it was influenced by a competitor. We say that because in a short time frame 3 negative attack reviews surfaced in 3 different review venues and each one specifically referenced an attack on our credibility that was completely opposite of what we do. We simply have completely different processes than what the attack reviews stated. They were false. (we never bothered addressing this with google because we thought that it would be fruitless with google). We did address the attack reviews with two other review venues. One of them removed the attack review. One didn’t.

    Also, on a different review status, almost one year ago, an individual and I wrote several reviews on a business with a variety of locations around the US. All of those reviews essentially violated Google TOS as they were primarily about something we thought was politically inappropriate on a large scale. The other person had to create a new google gmail account to generate the reviews. I had a gmail account with significant history and a history of adequate reviews.

    When the politcal reviews went up, the other persons reviews were all taken down, pretty much within a week or so. All my reviews of that ilk are still up.

    It would appear that there was a review filter of some sort in place last summer. It primarily seemed to address reviews by new gmail accounts and reviewers….but only acted on issues that were obviously off base on google TOS. The reviews I wrote and the other person wrote were pretty similar in content, simply addressing different locations. Mine are up….the reviews from the person with the then new gmail account are down.

    I guess that is a very moderate attempt at a review filter.

    ** the exception to the lack of interaction between us and the reviewer.

    When our duplicate issue surfaced and we lost all reviews we regenerated the process of asking customers to write reviews. One person wrote this incredibly glowing and incredibly long review. She sent it to us. Frankly I found it overwhelming. She submitted it to google while our record was only partially recovered.

    The long review never appeared. We spoke on a variety of issues over time. In the course of those conversations we both brought up the review that never appeared. I suggested she rewrite a shorter review and that possibly the long review didn’t surface because of the problems with the google places record.

    She did rewrite a shorter review and it is currently showing.

    Lot of commentary. The point is you can go to the reviews in that business…check them out, check out the reviewers histories.

    Would you consider them fake or not…according to your description above? I’d be interested in feedback.

    • Dave, thank you for the detailed explanation!

      I was asked a couple more times similar questions (about how particular review(s) seem in accordance with my article) and what I can say is the following: yes, there are exclusions, and yes, sometimes legitimate reviews look like spammy/fake for one reason or another, but the overall trend should be the thing that could be telling a user what to think.

      Now, what I think about your situation:

      1) I think you went the wrong way by asking for reviews selectively, only customers that would leave positive reviews. By any means this is unnatural behaviour, and Google doesn’t like unnatural things. They look spammy. And they definitely could look unnatural to real people, too.

      2) I think you also did wrong by having periods (as far as I understand) of hard pushes, followed by more quiet times. This also looks unnatural both to users and Google.

      3) Regarding the reviews left for different branches of the same company, as you mentioned, this is in violation with Google’s review guidelines. They are definitely not perfect at spotting and removing reviews that are in violation, but they seem to be improving.

      Overall, I think if all principles are being followed strictly, one should not have much problems with their reviews. However, in some cases (as with yours) it is possible that real reviews appear as unnatural to the users and Google.

      • In regards to 1) The happy clients are normally silent. Sometimes they need to be asked to leave a review. My friend, who is a plumber, he says: “I have to ask satisfied customers to leave anything on a review site, the unhappy people… I don’t have to they come by themselves.” A person, who’s toilet was fixed, will not spend his time to signed up to leave a great review. He paid the money and he is expecting a good work. The unhappy will sit the whole day just to write a nasty review. This is a sad truth about this type of industry. Restaurants are a little different…

  4. Thanks, Nyagoslav, for the good info. I would not underestimate Google. Even though they are missing a lot of the fake reviews right now, it won’t be long before they get it figured out, and I think a lot of these businesses with the fake reviews are going to be hurt by it.

    I always tell my clients to never, ever post fake reviews.

  5. I am noticing a change recently. Reviewer names replaced by a phrase like

  6. This is a great article and all points are absolutely correct, but there are so many details that can hurt businesses on Google.

    1. You mentioned that companies do not allow to leave collected reviews themselves, even if they are genuine. I have seen companies lost all their reviews. So if you did not have saved the reviews in your database, how do you know what and who posted? Also if you did save them, do you have to call each and everyone of your clients to re post a review? What a pain? You need to start from scratch.
    2. I have seen a genuine reviews are getting deleted. It happens to me 50% of the time.
    3. Google filtering is not accurate.
    4. About the avatar, I belong to some review sites and I do not wish to show my face, so I browse and find some funny cartoon, an I a spam?
    5. Some of my friend’s genuine reviews were deleted from Google and when they posted again, it did not stick. I have a feeling that Google thinks its a spammer and banned the email.
    The conclusion, we need a genuine review system with verification, like Amazon.

  7. This same phenomenon often happens on Yelp with its Elite reviewers. The only difference is that the reviewers score free dinners for writing a favorable review.

  8. Hi Nyagoslav, as usual your work is brilliant and thorough. I agree that fake reviews are not good for anyone and definitely wrong.

    But what is upsetting to REAL REVIEWS & REVIEWERS is that in the effort of fighting spam, real reviews are getting thrown out also and discouraged by the very systems of fighting spam, so in the end you are only left with the spammers who are getting paid to do it.

    I’ll just use myself as an example…

    NO PROFILE PIC:
    I’ve been online for about 8yrs, but think only filled out my google profile with a pic almost 2yrs ago. Then i think there was a size of my image file issue, so i had to google that and try to find a free tool to reduce size. I’d leave it profile image blank if I wasn’t in online marketing and want to be recognise on the web for my DJing house music hobby also.

    NO/ LOW # OF REVIEWS & LOTS OF POSITIVE/ GLOWING REVIEWS:
    I’ve only reviewed 5-6 businesses ever. There are probably 20 other businesses that i like to review, but all these review posting spots have hindering processes and it’s difficult, so why bother unless you are RAVING about them or HATE them. When i take the time to leave a review, it’s going to be RAVING because i got tremendous value and want anyone that visits their listing to know that. Does this look fake? Should i leave them 4 stars when i think it’s 5 or more??!!

    SHORT REVIEWS:
    This idea that short reviews are fake is strange to me. Often times i want to give a thumbs up and mention one quick thing. You want to hi-five a good business because there are so many bad ones out there.

    Those professional reviewers on Yelp with their 3 paragraph reviews- REALLY? Length equals authenticity?

    For my DJing hobby, i got about 50 friends and fans to leave a review on my GooglePlaces listing about how much they loved the music, but on twitter cause it was shorter and easier i got hundreds!! (it’s funny… some negative seo company made 40+ edits on my places listing over a few months and said my reviews were fake and my listing DISAPPEARED COMPLETELY but in my dashboard)

    It’s too hard for real lovers of what you do to leave a review for you. Often times Customers email you a thank you and that’s it. When I was doing some B2B sales for a few years, for every testimonial by email i got to post on my testimonials page, there were 12 business owners who told me how much they loved me and will send me a testimonial.

    Probably the biggest annoyance for me, and hence this stupidly long comment. Guess this proves that I’m a ‘real’ person. Cheers

  9. Uh. So what? Q: Who wants to spot “fake” reviews? A: Not people interested in SEO. “Consumers” care about fake reviews, and not particularly smart ones, either. Dumb ones care; the dumb ones that want to believe everything they read on the internet is the truth.

    We should all volunteer to let our clients rank below those that fake reviews, so that dumb-dumbs can believe that at least SOME of the reviews are “real”? If they were all “real”, they would all be negative. Most real people don’t write real reviews unless it’s something negative. When I as a customer spend money and get a product or service, that transaction is OVER. I got my and they got my money. You want a positive review? That costs money. Otherwise forget it.

    Besides that, you can’t trust “real” customers to write reviews anyways, because most of them are stupid, and they often say dumb things that, while well intentioned, actually say something negative while they think they are saying something positive. As an SEO, I think it is completely irresponsible and stupid to allow non-professionals to write positive reviews. They just aren’t qualified. They don’t know what keywords to use, the spell the words wrong, use bad grammar and in general come off as sub-literate. “Use Jose the Electrician: All his former customers are idiots.” is the message. The subtext of the message is that “You’ll be an idiot too, just like all these reviewers, if you use Jose the Electrician.

    FInally, people got bills. They have families, mortgages, the economy is bad and going to get worse, and you folks think that Contractors ought to allow their families so suffer, just so you can get some kind of warm & fuzzy feeling that Google (and Yelp) reviews are “real”? How stupid. There are more important things to worry about, and frankly I think it says a lot about some of you people (like how “not so bright” you are) in your pseudo-moralistic posturing here.

    I write fake reviews, and good ones too. And I sell them, for good money. And I’m proud of it. My clients rank higher than the competition as a result, and they outrank competitors that aren’t willing to do what it takes to get to page one. And because of this, they stay in business, make their mortgage payments and put food on the table, while other less-focused and inferior business owners spin around flailing wildly, wondering how they are going to make their next payment.

    And besides that, Google reviews don’t mean squat. Yelp reviews have value, so who cares what insignificant people think about insignificant reviews anyways. Enjoy page 3, newbs. My clients are on page 1, and their phone is ringing.

  10. 16 of the ones at Eurobahn Google Reviews are using hacked identities and 38 out of the 70 are copy pasted form other sites. Judys Book has them with a RED trust score as well..
    https://www.google.com/#q=eurobahn+motorsports&lrd=lrd

  11. What do you do when someone has given your business a fake negative review though? In our case we pursued a particular review to find that actually they were never a customer, there was never any such account, in fact we had never had any client from the area they claimed to be from.

    We’ve flagged it about a hundred times, but nothing happens. Any suggestions?

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