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Review Extortion Reveals Strengths and Weaknesses of Local Ecosystem

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In recent New York Times coverage of a wave of extortion schemes targeting U.S. restaurants, a quote from restaurant marketer Jason Littrell says it all: “People are willing to go further and pay more for the higher star rating.” Study after study has shown that reviews of local businesses play a major role in the buying decisions of today’s consumers, and restaurants understand that. The popularity of reviews as an evaluation tool has made them ubiquitous, but that power can be wielded for ill as well as good.

The Times story details the exploits of scammers who flood targeted restaurants with one-star reviews, then demand payment in the form of hard-to-trace digital gift cards to take the reviews down. The threat appears to have a common source, with identical messages from scammers claiming to live in India and to have been forced into the scheme by poverty.

The impact has been devastating and frustrating for restaurant owners and managers, who are fully aware that they live and die by reviews. Littrell, who serves as marketing director for Overthrow Hospitality, a vegan restaurant group, accuses the scammers of “weaponizing” online ratings, noting that “our reputation doesn’t really belong to us anymore, which is really scary.”

The Times quotes a Google spokesperson who offers reassurance that any review violating Google’s policies — including reviews that do not accurately reflect the experiences of actual customers of a business — will be taken down by Google’s moderation team.

Google has gone to great lengths in recent months to create positive PR around review authenticity, presumably in light of recent press around crackdowns by the FTC on various forms of online review fraud. However, positive PR does not always reflect reality on the ground. Though some reviews from the restaurant scam have been removed by Google, others have not, and the timeline for removal is often uncertain, leaving restaurants vulnerable to the real-world impact of a poor online reputation.

On Google especially — now by far the dominant local review platform by volume — the competition for high star ratings has become intense. Due in large part to a lack of stringent moderation, Google ratings have arguably become inflated.

According to SOCi’s Localized Marketing Benchmark Report, the average business in 2022 has a Google rating of 4.2 out of 5 stars. By contrast, the average business on Yelp, which has long upheld much stricter moderation, has a rating of 3.2 stars. These are reviews of the same set of businesses, so the rating difference speaks to the platforms themselves.

Yelp’s recommendation software selects reviews for publication that are deemed trustworthy, based on various factors such as the number of reviews written by the same reviewer and any signs of bias those reviews may contain. Reviews that are not recommended by Yelp can still be seen on the site, but users must click a special link at the bottom of the business profile to get to them. Non-recommended reviews are not included in average rating calculations on Yelp.

In addition to its automated processes, Yelp has an active content moderation team that flags reviews exhibiting signs of fraud as well as reviews that violate Yelp’s content policies. Businesses sometimes complain that Yelp reviews are biased toward the negative, given the platform’s comparatively low ratings; but it’s probably more accurate to say that laxer platforms like Google are biased toward the positive — and that more liberal platforms contain more instances of undetected fraud in both positive and negative reviews.

Ten positive Google reviews will cost you $75 at UseViral, a company recommended by EarthWeb

This is what makes it so tempting to pay for Google reviews, a practice to which many industry experts feel Google turns a blind eye. In fact, if I search Google for “buy Google reviews,” the first result is EarthWeb, a site that lists 2022’s nine top providers of paid reviews on “Google My Business” (which became Google Business Profile in 2021) and Google Play. The post encourages business owners to buy reviews in order to “nurture your reputation online and ensure that good things are being said about your business.”

UseViral, a company recommended by EarthWeb, charges $75 for ten positive Google reviews. Similarly, the extortionists in the Times article demanded $75, in the form of a Google Play gift certificate, to take down all of the one-star reviews written about a particular restaurant. Even the low dollar amounts seem to be part of a strategy to safely pursue ongoing campaigns of fraud and extortion, by remaining little more than a rounding error in the eyes of a massive company like Google.

These activities threaten individual restaurant owners but may seem insignificant to a company with billions of users and millions of business listings to manage, in what is essentially a free product. To quote the extortionists, in a followup email to a restaurant that was reluctant to pay up, “We can keep doing this indefinitely. Is $75 worth more to you than a loss to the business?”

But stories like these may yet have an effect. If public trust in Google reviews erodes as a result of the perception that those reviews are too often biased or fraudulent, the value of Google as a local platform will be significantly reduced. If Google’s own reputation is on the line, review authenticity may take on a new urgency.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.