Nov 072011

In the past week there were numerous users from the Google Places Help Forum who reported loss of reviews. At the same time I read this really interesting article by Adam Steele who tested how Google treats reviews left directly on Google Places. These two events triggered my interest to take a closer look at the Review Posting Guidelines and share some personal thoughts.

Google has a long history of losing real reviews, and at the same time doing nothing to stop mass fake ones. The Review Posting Guidelines state that they “have a system in place that may remove individual reviews” that are considered inappropriate or spammy. Let’s take a look at which reviews Google does not like:

1. Inappropriate content

We want to provide a clean and positive user experience for all users. We may remove reviews that contain or link to unlawful content, or content that violates our Google Places content policy. We may also remove reviews that include plagiarism or are copied from other sites.

The Google Places Content Policy states that the following violations might result in “the denial of access, removal of one or all of your listings, being blacklisted from adding future listings, or deletion of your Google Account”:

- Nudity, Obscenity, and Sexually Explicit Material
- Violent or Bullying Behavior
- Hate Speech or Incitement to Violence
- Impersonation
- Private and Confidential Information
- Intellectual Property
- Illegal Activities or Content
- Spam or Malicious Content

While these are pretty straightforward guidelines, there is still the question of how long it takes for Google to remove reviews that violate the rules. In a famous case, it took them 18 months to delete the following review:

Robbed My RAM and Touched 9 Year Old What a scam artist, he stole RAM from my computer and replaced it with smaller chips hoping I wouldnt notice and also I later found out touched my 9 year old inappropriately. A Violator and a rogue trader. DO NOT DO TRADE WITH THIS MAN!

Notably, Google acted only after the BBC contacted them to ask about this particular case. Why should a media giant get involved so that Google would act promptly? 18 months is obviously way too long a period and according to the affected business owner it decreased his business by 80%. Google told the BBC that “from time to time it re-reviews comments flagged as inappropriate” - something I believe happens only when companies from the rank of the BBC and the New York Times are involved.

2. Advertising and spam

Nobody likes spam and it can only make its author look bad. Don’t use reviews for advertising or post the same or similar reviews across multiple places. Obviously, don’t post fake reviews intended to boost or lower ratings.

‘Problem is, I don’t think any spammer has ever cared about how they look in the eyes of the others. Posting multiple same (not similar) reviews across different listings is a common practices among spammers. The only way to catch such an activity is to have an anti-spam system in place, which Google currently does not have.

It gets messier when we talk about negative fake reviews in concrete. I have written in the past some tips for getting rid of such problems, but the resolution is neither easy, nor guaranteed. Actually Google is so bad at dealing with negative fake reviews that a whole industry owes its birth to the giant’s messiness. There are now tens (or even hundreds) of “reputation management” companies, which post ripoff reviews on businesses’ listings and then call them to offer a “Google review removal” service. Note that the only people that can manually remove reviews from Google Places are: A) A Google moderator; B) The person who left the review. Therefore, this service is a complete scam.

Rules for reviews can at least be defined. Unlike rules for ratings (without any actual text) which cannot. How would you prove that a single 1-star rating is genuine or fake, when the poster can be completely incognito? A negative rating has the same impact on the overall business rating as a negative review. Probably some people realized this fact and are broadly using it as an anti-competitive tactic.

3. Off-topic reviews

Reviews should describe your personal, first hand experience with a specific place. Please do not post reviews based on someone else’s experience, or such that are not about the specific place that you are reviewing. Reviews are not a forum for personal attacks, rants or crusades. Please also do not use reviews to report incorrect information about a place — use the Report a problem link for that place instead.

Then why do reviews such as the one by “White Guy” here are stuck on the Place page, after having been numerously reported as inappropriate? After the story of this particular review, Mike Blumenthal wrote a great article on how to avoid negative public feedback. My personal favorite is tip #7 “Communicate with your local competitors.” Most of the fake reviews come exactly from them or from people they hired to do the job. Taking the time to say “Hi” and to try to discuss a common business issue with the competitors might prove one of the best precaution tactics in such cases.

The three review posting guidelines discussed above relate mostly to spam and spam prevention. Having them is a good start, but actual prompt implementation is necessary. Unfortunately, it is obvious that the Google reviews filter algorithm has a lot of loopholes. A few things that are missing:

- no detection of same reviews across different listings
- no detection of same reviews on Google Places and third-party websites (Yelp, Citysearch, Trip Advisor, Urbanspoon, Yahoo Local, etc)
- no detection of numerous reviews by the same users for businesses located at big distance from each other (very widespread among service-based businesses)
- no protection against negative ratings (even the “respond publicly as the business owner” does not work in this case)
- no system for the business owner to prove the legitimacy or “fakeness” of a review
- no system for the business owner to monitor their Google reviews

Google seems to be pushing their reviews service very hard marketing-wise. If so, why don’t they prioritize the cleaning of spam and the prevention of malicious behavior? This will make the system more useful to the end users and ease the stress experienced by business owners when they encounter a negative review. After all, aren’t these same business owners the very source from which Google draws in order to deliver their employees their paychecks?

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