How Google Helped Foster the Fake Review Economy and Benefits from It

Fake reviews are a long term AND growing problem at Google. The unfortunate reality is that Google helped create this illegal market place and benefits from it economically.

Google has, over the years, created both new opportunities in existing markets AND created new market opportunities. 

And Google often touts the economic benefits that it brings to society.  In fact Google claims that “last year, Google’s search and advertising tools helped provide $283 billion of economic activity for more than 1.5 million businesses, website publishers, and nonprofits nationwide”.

Unfortunately Google doesn’t much care whether the activity created is legal. And they only proactively go after illegal activity once it has become a visible public relations problem.

The drug rehab space comes to mind (although there are many other previous and current examples). Google did very little until the Verge expose by Cat Ferguson brought national attention to the abuses of needy people by unscrupulous Rehab Centers in the fall of 2017.

This pattern of market creation and profiting from illegal activity on Google’s part is no where more true than with fake reviews. 

– Google created search results that favor businesses with more reviews. 

– Google has rarely created significant barriers to fake reviews, often allowing them at massive scale. 

– New businesses sprang up to help local businesses get more, often illegal, reviews. It would appear from the scale and increasing frequency that this has become a criminal enterprise that includes threats and retaliation to those that report them.

– Google supports a vibrant market place for businesses to sell fake reviews using Google’s organic, email, video and ad platforms. 

– Google profits from this illegal marketplace by selling AdWords into the space

– Google has done little to dampen or eliminate the fake review market despite the fact that it is both against their terms of service and a violation of state and national laws. And Google externalizes the costs associated with identifying the spam review to volunteers. 

– While there has been some limited public relations blow back on the review front, Google has not yet put in place adequate filters for fake reviews, does not filter these illegal results from their search engine and apparently has not enforced rules in Adwords that prohibit advertising their acquisition. 

– Ultimately, after years of neglecting growing problems, when the spam  gets so bad that it makes the product worthless, Google tends to throw up their hands and create a pay to play product like Local Service Ads or Google Shopping.

It really doesn’t matter where you look on Google, the activity to sell fake reviews is obvious and easy to find. 

Last week, a Gmail user solicited me to buy illegal reviews. I had a long and interesting back and forth with him (I assume it is a him) about the quality and reliability of his product. He notes that he only uses long standing Google accounts and can thus guarantee that he can get me  reviews every month .

All the accounts that we use to post the reviews are 6-10 years old that we have been maintaining as a real person would do, that is why we are able to maintain more than 95% success rate with the reviews we post and that is what makes the reviews look organic and real.

After some negotiation, he guaranteed that he could provide me with 10 Google reviews every month on his subscription plan for only $50. And the first month was free!

Search Google for buy fake reviews and while the first few results are why you shouldn’t buy them, I am sure that the organic result in the number 4 position gets most of the click throughs. 

A quick search on YouTube finds fake review offers at the top of the results. 

Never one to leave a new market place untapped, Adwords continues to provide opportunities for businesses to sell into the space.  And for Google to profit from this activity. 

Google lives in a very strange world, with near categorical protection from use of their platform by bad actors, only reacting when a problem becomes so big that they have to respond or face the wrath of the public and the government.

Fake reviews certainly warrant a response from Google. Legitimate businesses are hurt every day and more importantly consumers world wide are deceived. And yet they continue to act as if it isn’t a critical issue.

Google’s failure to act decisively in the review space, now that they are THE local monopoly and dominate the review space, will ultimately decay consumer trust in reviews and lead to the failure of reviews as an alternative to traditional word of mouth.

What will it take to make them respond? It remains to be seen.

Google My Business Deprecating SMS – Caught in the Google Messaging Cluster F%#k?

It appears that Google is discontinuing Google SMS in the Google My Business dashboard and in doing so leaving large companies in the lurch.

Google My Business has yet to make a statement but it appears that the GMB SMS feature, which preceded their new App based messaging, is soon to be on the chopping block.

As a result companies that previously committed to the solution will be left with nothing until Google gets its local messaging act together. Dan Leibson from LocalSEOGuide described the problem to me:

We have a few clients (both are 500+ locations) that have heavily invested in website chat and integrated that provider into GMB chat for pre-sales support and customer service. It’s has been a great lead producing and review management (via solving customer service issues before it comes to a review) tool.

These large clients that were using Google SMS for GMB in their communication strategy were told by their SMS vendor that they will have to stop using GMB chat when Google deprecates SMS. And that no solution on the immediate horizon but that a solution “was coming”.

Now this revenue and support stream will be completely cutoff.

What is going on?

The new Google My Business App messaging, while a very solid release, is very focused on small single location businesses. It doesn’t scale beyond a few locations and doesn’t really offer a multi-location solution.

Unfortunately, if one assembles these tea leaves it appears that Google GMB SMS was using the soon to be retired Allo back end and that the new(ish) Hangouts back end is not yet ready for prime time.

Google has long had problems with their messaging strategy. This past fall they announced the “simplification” of their messaging products from 7 to 5. Allo, Google’s big push into modern messaging announced with big fanfare in 2016, was one of the high profile products to take the axe.

Hangouts was also noted at the time as receiving the axe (despite Google denials) but Google recently noted that they were updating Hangouts by deprecating the current Hangouts and creating two new apps; Hangout Slack Chats and Hangout Skype Meet.

They noted in the article that:

Between April and September, Google says that Chat will integrate with Gmail and gain the ability to exchange messages with external users. Additionally, it’ll get an “improved video calling experience,” plus voice calls powered by Google Voice.

As for non-enterprise users, Google says they can expect to see a free version of Chat and Meet following the G Suite transition

OK, if you are not yet confused, I am a better writer than I thought.

Bottom line:

This all leaves GMB SMS out on a very thin branch ready to be sawed off with no idea (if?) when it will once again become a real, enterprise scale functioning product.

Communication Anyone?

Google has always been terrible at making these large scale transitions transparent and providing replacement products in a timely fashion. This has left many businesses who have attempted to integrate Google’s technology into their workflow feeling like they were on thin ice and that a product could come and go before they knew it.

We had seen some stead progress on this front with the GMB and particularly the steady, freddy reliable updating of the API. It was almost as if a business could trust that the folks at Google Local understood their needs.

But this is a huge step backwards. The least Google could do in this situation is to provide meaningful communication to the businesses affected, provide a detailed transition plan and communicate necessary next steps.

When will Google publicly make a statement detailing the apparent SMS deprecation and providing a path forward?

Who knows but yesterday would have been good.

The Future?

I fully expect that the Google GMB will in fact support some sort of enterprise level SMS, something that integrates with current SMS tools and products and functions well at scale.

They have to if they want to compete with Facebook who is currenlty consolidating Whats App, Facebook Messenger & Instragram messaging into a single back end and Apple that has been slowly building out their Business Chat tool for iMessage users.

The question is whether multi-location businesses, already burned by Google, will be around for the uptake.

Google Spam Hall of Fame: Cheap Auto Insurance – #ShameOnGoogle

Google has the unique ability to look like they are doing something about systemic problems in Local when in reality it is just misdirection.

Spam reporting is but one flagrant example of this. I recently reported some obvious spam. Any effing idiot could see that it is spam and yet my edit was denied. #ShameOnGoogle

Curious, I called the number and it was clear that it was lead gen spam. After a set of qualifying questions from the auto attendant, it directed me to the corporate offices of Liberty Mutual in Orlando.

Obviously these are showing in the search results. So naturally I set aside all of 15 minutes and explored whether this was just a regional or nationwide “marketing effort”.

Clearly these are national in scope. #ShameOnGoogle

I called bogus listings in Cincinnati, Buffalo, Denver and Los Angeles (when I stopped looking) and was asked the exact same set of qualifying questions by the exact same automated attendant but each call led me to different actual AllState or State Farm etc agents around the country. Usually in the same state but often hundreds of miles away from the pin. Often the listings were not even verified.

Another flagrant example of Google’s misdirection is when I meet with Google about spam, I am often told “Show us the pattern” or “we can’t do anything if we don’t know the pattern” or “we are a search company and have a lot on our plate” or “blah, blah, blah”.

WTF? This pattern isn’t complicated, it isn’t hidden, it isn’t all that difficult to figure out… #ShameOnGoogle.

Google if you are reading this, here is the pattern: reported as spam, suspiciously spammy name, with exactly the same listings effing EVERYWHERE and they all ring into the same automated attendant.

Shame on you.

Near Me Searches Peak on Weekends in Search of Mind Altering Substances

Who knew? Near Me searches peak on the weekends.

In October, I noted that Near Me searches, while generally going up, had a distinct seasonal peaks in July and December. Actually more careful analysis shows those peaks to fall around the 4th of July and the week right after Christmas.  Both correspond with high travel periods.

The fact that, when viewed over a shorter time  fame, it is obvious that they peak on weekends seems to confirm their most common use is likely associated with travel.

Each peak covers a two day week end.

These queries viewed over the last 90 days reflect both travel and seasonal interests:

However, I found this two year look back telling. It appears that folks were very interested in finding nearby early voting opportunities. Barring that they needed some psycho-active stimulation or escape.

Makes sense to me.

 

 

Google Adds Messaging Directly to GMB App in New Trial & Further Muddies Messaging Strategy

Google My Business is testing a new, direct in the GMB App messaging capability. This was noted by Casey Bryan(from down under) on Twitter and confirmed by Steven Johns in the UK:

I have yet to see a test in a US based company although I presume that there must be someone that has received beta access. The Help page notes that it is “currently available to select merchants in select countries”. And that it is not to be confused with the GMB’s SMS capabilities.

How it works (from the Help page):

Once you turn on messaging, customers will see a “Message” button on your Google My Business listing. Customers will then be able to message you at any time.

  • Messages will appear in the Google My Business app, and you’ll receive notifications for incoming messages.
  • You can customize the automated welcome message that customers will see when they message you.
  • If multiple people own or manage your Google My Business listing, each one can message with customers.
  • Customers may see your name and profile photo from your About me page

But this is a new and as yet unannounced capability that takes the GMB onto an independent path for b-c communications. This feature, like review responses and the new(ish) ability to communicate with followers, is a clear indication of the GMB is gaining capabilities for better b-c communications.

When viewed in tandem with their recent decision to allow GMB Website creators to use WhatsApp as the communication app of choice it also seems to indicate that the Google My Business team is marching to its own drummer vis a vis Google’s over arching messaging strategy (if you can call it that).

Google’s messaging strategy has long confusing and not made less so by recent announcements to cut their messaging apps from 7 to 5 over the next few years as they focus on their new telco driven RCS messaging standard and their Hangouts Chat.

While I think that GMB efforts to create better communication between the consumer and the business is a good thing, this new beta for direct GMB messaging and support for WhatsApp both seem to further muddy Google’s larger messaging strategy.

Continue reading Google Adds Messaging Directly to GMB App in New Trial & Further Muddies Messaging Strategy

Reserve With Google – Which Categories & Services Are Eligible?

Over the past year we  have seen the expansion of Google’s Reserve with Google call to action in all of their local products.

It was never very clear to me which categories were eligible for Reserve with Google  or which might get it in the future. Joel Headley of PatientPop recently shared a link to Google’s API documentation that clearly indicates which verticals are eligible for the feature and provides insights into both those that might get it and those that probably won’t.

At the highest level, it requires a merchant to have a physical address and a booking service compatible with Google’s API. Thus no service area businesses allowed.

Supported Services

Google lists off the types of services that are eligible although the docs is outdated as we know that restaurants, which are not on the list, are supported:

  • Appointments
  • Reservations
  • Classes
  • Activities
  • Basic ticketing
  • General admission day tours
  • Consults and evaluations
  • Signups and trials

And which health, fitness, spa and beauty categories are currently embraced

  • Acupuncture
  • Craniosacral therapy
  • Physiotherapy
  • Sports medicine
  • Sleep clinic
  • Drug testing
  • Retreat center
  • Speech pathologist
  • Meditation
  • Reiki
  • Massage
  • Lymph drainage
  • Spa
  • Skin care
  • Hair removal
  • Hair replacement

Non Supported Services

However, the most enlightening section details the types of categories and services that are explicitly not allowed.  Essentially any service that utilizes insurance payments, doesn’t have a confirmable, discreet bookable time slot or any on-demand service that is provided at the searchers home or place of business are proscribed.

The following is a list of some specific examples of services that aren’t supported:

  • Medical services:
    • Doctors, dentists, or surgery
    • Medical spas that aren’t covered by insurance
  • On-demand or home services:
    • A stylist that comes to your workplace
    • In-home trainers
    • A pet grooming truck
    • Field services, plumbers, or contractors
    • Mobile mechanics
  • Location-agnostic multi-day tours

If I were to speculate on the whys of this, the prohibition of on-demand service involves liability risks with the possibility of in home visits from unvetted businesses. I think Google’s approach to these types of businesses can be seen with the extra vetting required in the Local Service Ad program.

I assume, but do not know, that liability issues may still be present in the desire to avoid doctors, dentist and spa bookings as well.

It is also understandable that Google wants to avoid booking for things that are messy and include too much back and forth to nail down the schedule or might provide too much private information about the searcher.

The Future

We have seen the expansion of the program to restaurants,  museums and events. We also know that TripAdvisor and Yelp have signed as partners to this program.

In fact last week I saw my first screen shot of Yelp’s participation via the Duplex project reported in the VentureBeat last week*.

Given that this program is available via an API and we know that beyond Yelp, TripAdvisor, Thryve and TicketMaster are all “coming soon” we can expect to see this transactional capability expanding across more categories and services.

Categories beyond those noted are speculative but obviously could include legal appointments and others.

Monetization

Clearly transactional capabilities in Maps, the Knowledge Panel and Google Assistant are coming and coming at a furious pace. While we have seen monetization of certain bookable events in the Local Service Ads arena, these Reserve with Google have not been monetized directly.

I would ask two questions:

What other categories might they include by the above. criteria?

Will Google further monetizate Reserve with Google beyond the the current API billing?

*It will be interesting to see if Yelp is “happy” with their positioning and this new program. 

Google Maps “Follow Posts” – a Revolution or Just More “S%!t” Thrown at the Wall?

Google Maps announced yesterday that searchers can now follow their favorite businesses and be alerted to offer and event Posts from that business. 

I have long believed that Google Posts is a solid investment of a business’s time as Posts show up in a brand search, in the local finder and on keyword searches in Google Maps. They provide the opportunity for a business to offer up coupons, events, education, brand story telling and more. 

Equally important is the fact that Google seems to parse the content of the Posts to increase their understanding of a business. Like reviews, Post content can have a small boost on your visibility. 

But is this new feature that actively notifies user of new posts via a follow in Google Maps revolutionary? I think not. 

Interesting yes, offers some potential yes, but revolutionary it isn’t. 

What is the Google use case?

A consumer loves a business so much that they go into Google Maps and they take the step of following a business to get notices of their offers and events. 

Well that’s not going to happen very often. I suppose if the consumer were a jazz fan and you as the jazz club owner regularly posted your events it might. But there is a big spread between might and will happen. 

What are the impediments?

Well firstly it’s only within Google Maps. Google Maps is popular but has nowhere near the reach of say Facebook or organic Google search. 

Also I don’t know about you but I use Google Maps for very utilitarian purposes. “Locate the nearest Tim Hortons” Or “show me how to get from here to there” or “show me a Tim Horton’s en-route to there”.  It is not where I go for updates about sales, events or offers and I don’t think most users of the product do either. 

Google Maps is not generally perceived as a business related communication tool or as a social network. So for consumers to use it this way would take an incredible rehabituation of the searcher. 

Who is going to do that? Google? The business? 

Google throws shit at the wall all the time and if there is uptake great, if not then, well it’s just another “honest effort” that didn’t make the cut. No skin off their nose. 

They assume if something is good users will just use it. They have rarely worked to actively educate (or in this case re-educate) customers to  embrace a new feature and take on new behaviors. So it’s unlikely that Google will work to do this retraining of searchers needed for broad adoption of this feature. 

The business could do it. That is, the business could incentivize the searcher to follow the business on Google Maps effectively retraining the searcher for the greater good and the business’ own good. 

But why would a business that is already using Facebook, or better yet email, for this task want to learn and implement a completely new “follow us on Google Maps” campaign? So it seems unlikely that businesses are going to do it. 

Oh some will. And just like Nearby Notifications (which was a very cool beacon feature to actively engage customers on premise with notifications that just got axed because of spam) many of those will abuse the feature. 

But you say, and I tend to agree, it would be perfect for that Tim Horton’s I love, to send me a discount as I am driving down the road with Google Maps open and in desperate need of the worlds best cheap cup of coffee. 

Yes perfect IF. Perfect if I could follow a brand and the brand could alert me. Perfect if the brand could do Posts. Both are non existent “perfects” in Google’s mobile local ecosystem. 

In the end the idea of following a business’ Post on Google Maps is a decent idea. It might just work for that incredibly active, local event space. And generally it’s one more way for a business to “project” their content into the Google search ecosystem. 

Interesting yes. Revolutionary no. Worth keeping an eye on? Yes. Worth changing your marketing workflow? Not now. Maybe never.

My money, if I had to bet, is against success. Fortunately this is not one of those epic Mihm-Blumenthal battles with a beer on the line and I don’t have to bet. I can wait and see. And change my mind if it suits me. 

Who knows? Maybe Google will create brand level for this sort of activity. Maybe Google will do what it takes to get consumer uptake of a feature like this. If they do great. 

In the meantime…

Check back in 9 months. 

How Does Reserve with Google Show in the Knowledge Panel ? Who the ‘f knows!

This is my third post in the “who the f knows” series.

Google has rarely been accused of great wordsmithing. But they have been accused of testing. In this case it appears that they are testing wordsmithing.

Seeing the schedule/book/make an appointment CTA in the 3 pack motivated me, like any rational local searcher,  to once again compare the click through destinations in each of the four iPhone environments to see what it looked like.

Go figure, even on something as simple as a CTA, Google manages to present four different displays and three different wordings in each case it shows.

Why present it one way to the user, when four ways can be created? Data science is a wonderful thing but I think that someone at Google forgot to put in any guard rails.

Of you think it is any different on Android. Think again. Well it is different but different in the same way. The Google App, Chrome and Google Maps are each different.

—-

Google Safari Knowledge Panel on the iPhone. Lets just cut to the chase and go for the booking.

—-

Google App on the iPhone. Google is content just allowing a user to see the schedule as the call to action.

 

—-

Google Chrome Browser Knowledge Panel on the iPhone. Google can’t seem decide between seeing the schedule and booking as the call to action.

 

—-

Google Maps Knowledge Panel on the iPhone. Note that there is no appointment call to action.

Google Maps Knowledge Panel on the iPhone

 

Mike B Around the Interwebs

I will be heading out on vacation on Friday so my production will be non existent for the next month or so.

But if you haven’t heard enough of me for the past few days here are some other tidbits I worked on across the interwebs:

Google and the On-SERP Experience: We’re Just Gettin’ Warmed Up – If you are an agency and are only going to read one thing today that makes you think about your future read my bi-weekly column with David Mihm.

Scoring Google as Your New Home page – an agency view with Mary Bowling and Andy Simpson

Deep Dive: What Drives Local Mobile SERP Images? with Mary Bowling.

Why I Love 1st-Party Reviews & Just Might Marry Them – This one is a little older (on the GatherUp blog) but I really think that folks should pay more attention to first party reviews. Ok, Ok, I get that its a conflict of interest for me to say so but I really think that every small business and SEO agency should wrap their head around them. And leverage the heck out of them. Why should Yelp or Google have all the fun and all the benefit?

 

When Does Reserve with Google Show? Only Google F’ing Knows

This is my second post in the “who the f knows” series.

And it relates to Google now showing the book or schedule button in the 3 pack. Or not showing as the case may be.

When your boss comes and sees you and asks why are your booking buttons not showing you can either say “who the f’ knows” or the current, more accurate variant “Only Google f’ing knows”.

On a tangental a note, these book buttons were first spotted in the SERPS by Sergey Alekov in February when Google released Reserve with Google in Canada. I don’t think they showed in the SERPS reliably at that point.

In fact they still don’t show in the SERPS reliably.

Over the past day or two I have spotted the following desktop and mobile variations involving or not involving the booking button as the case may be.

Mobile variants:

Desktop Variants

Developing Knowledge about Local Search