In this regular Street Fight feature, local marketing gurus David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal kick around some of the biggest ideas affecting the local search ecosystem and the broader industry. Send us an email or leave a comment if you have specific topics that you’d like them to touch on in future columns!
David: Mike, this month it seems like what’s old is new. Yelp’s market cap is once again taking a huge haircut, Google Maps is once again losing towns left and right, and fake reviews seem to be popping up more frequently than ever in Google My Business. I hear Mercury is in retrograde, but surely that can’t be the cause of these events.
Mike: Yelp’s haircut has been long time coming. You and I would have sold them short years ago. I see them totally caught between the boutique side of things and unable to scale fast enough to get out of Google’s and Facebook’s way.
David: Well, yes. I’m probably as harsh a Yelp critic as anyone, but let’s set Yelp aside for now and focus on Google.
I’ve been following with great interest your series of posts in identifying review spam that should be trivial for Google to themselves identify. How did your interest in the topic get reinvigorated all of a sudden?
Mike: Google so annoyed me with their fake news about how spam-free their listings were and that occurred right at a time when I was struggling to have them look at a fake review spam network.
David: I hear Sean Spicer is on his way out of the current administration; perhaps Google has an opening for him in Mountain View.
I found Google’s map spam “study” to be even more insidious than fake news, though, because it was cloaked in the mantle of a rigorously-constructed academic paper. It was the faux-academic equivalent of a push-poll: framing the question in such a way they could only come to one conclusion.
Mike: To me that sort of self promoting hogwash is not as damaging as a systemic decay of the public trust in the world of reviews.
It’s incredible to me that given all of Google’s focus on new local products that they are still getting some of the basics wrong. People who rely on Google more and more to find local businesses need to know that the fundamental metric of the business quality, reviews, is fair and well policed.
David: I’m always amazed by the reported levels of consumer trust in reviews (84%+ according to BrightLocal) and those levels of trust don’t exactly seem to be diminishing. So reviews are clearly a productive channel for spammers.
Mike: Its interesting to me that the bad reviews I am finding have branched out beyond the normal culprits of roofers and locksmiths and showing up in dental and legal as well.
David: I’d guess that any industry in which it’s not a natural behavior to leave a review (such as restaurants or hospitality) would be particularly vulnerable, since the degree to which reviews move the needle in those spaces is enormous and the likelihood of actually getting a review from a real customer is near nil.
Mike: Apparently, at least in the review network I am looking at, resellers must be whitelabeling the service as I find pockets in surprising verticals as well as the occasional brand.
I became so interested in the fake review network that I had a friend build a tool to help me scrape fake reviewers and businesses that they reviewed. It is still slow and tedious but I am finding hundreds and hundreds of fake review accounts. These accounts have left many thousands of reviews across thousands of businesses.
David: Do you think the problem is actually worse than it’s been historically, or that Google’s filtering has become less stringent?
Or is it just that 3-packs and Knowledge Panels now show up with such frequency that reviews are just much more visible than they used to be?
Mike: Google originally introduced review filtering in 2010 and then really upped their game in 2012. But the howls that came in from businesses led them to tone it down in 2013. Since then the algo has stayed much the same and despite what I perceive to be widespread abuses, little enforcement. I think that Google has just not done anything on the filtering front and that spammers have taken advantage of the situation.
It would appear that despite huge gains in their review counts and utilization Google has done very little to guarantee the integrity of reviews.
David: Well, I can actually empathize with Google in terms of being wary of filtering too many false positives (a practice for which Yelp’s algorithm is notorious). But you’d think Google would have gobs of data on individual reviewers: search history, Chrome browsing history, usage of Gmail, location-tracking, and so many other factors.
They don’t really have the same excuse that Yelp does in terms of filtering reviews from newbie users without a behavioral history pattern. They can serve hyper-targeted ads based on those signals, and yet they can’t spot a fake review account that lacks that history?
Mike: Google, with all of their tracking, should have a very good idea whether a user, new or experienced, has visited a locale and a local business. There is no excuse whatsoever to allow a reviewer that is sitting in the Ukraine to leave worldwide reviews. And likewise they should be able to understand which first time reviewers are legit.
David: What options exist for the local business whose competitors are using one of these review spam networks? Does Google even look at flagged reviews anymore?
Mike: There are not many options for legit businesses to deal with the spate of fake reviews. Google does look at the flagging of reviews BUT they typically only take down reviews that violate the limited terms of service. The only hope a business has is to demonstrate a systemic abuse and raise that in the Google My Business forum. That can succeed in getting them taken down.
David: What do you hope comes out of your “crusade?” How can white-hat marketers who follow you on Twitter, Facebook, or the blogosphere help out?
Mike: Short haul I am hoping that Google begins work again on a filter that catches the obvious spam and begins the process of only allowing legitimate reviews to make it through without NUKING real reviews. Long haul, I think Google has a huge opportunity, given their access to user data, to really make a difference in providing a review corpus that is fair, honest and legitimate. The industry, businesses and the public would all be the better for it.
David: And if they don’t? Do you think searchers’ own B.S. radars will ever go off to such an extent they stop trusting reviews and rely on other signals to make local business decisions?
Mike: I think that consumers will start to trust reviews less and I think that the government will ultimately step in making life more difficult for Google and businesses.