Reviews – Do Positive Only Review Services have a place?

Over the past few weeks, I detailed several successful ways to generate reviews. I promised at the time to detail some ways that I think are ultimately bound to failure. Here is one.

ReviewBoost claims to “Authenticate and Publish positive reviews across the Internet, maximizing online reputation for businesses of any size.” They claim to “publish reviews on partner sites like Yahoo, Yellow pages, Super pages, City Squares” and to do “review syndication and broadcasting on Google search Network” (whatever that might mean).

At the Google Maps forums, a poster (obviously another marketing company) wonders “Is this a legitimate use of Google Reviews?” and goes on to note:

We were approached by a business that provides review submissions on behalf of clients. I have linked to a sample of their work. They approach businesses and offer to post client reviews on their behalf. They are easy to find and follow since they tag the reviews as posted “By Review”. Is this a legitimate service? If not, how can Google address it?

Link to the map or business listing in question if applicable: http://maps.google.com/maps?cid=1868467862308158144&hl=en&gl=us (look at user reviews)

Here are some reviews from the Places Page referenced:

Clearly, the era of outsourced, positive reviews is upon us. Efficient for the business yes, perhaps even an easy sell. It is also clear that these types of services will soon be spoiling the bed in which we all sleep. The footprint is heavy and ultimately, the process is predicated on the deception of both the participating business and the consumers that only good reviews can get through.

How do you think Google will respond? How would you respond in the forum post? How long before reviews become totally untrustworthy and not worth the bits they are written in?

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Reviews - Do Positive Only Review Services have a place? by

28 thoughts on “Reviews – Do Positive Only Review Services have a place?”

  1. I wouldn’t worry about Google – they will take care of this when they want to.

    But, the average user is another issue. Most people will have no idea what’s happening. You could make the argument that a business smart enough to *carefully* use this type of service might also be a few steps ahead of their competition and worthwhile visiting.

  2. sigh….I think that this will undoubtedly be a “slippery slope” and that means that yes, this will become just another spam/scam tactic….

    sigh…not a good sign, eh?

    :-)

    Jim

  3. Mike, this is the kind of review that IS clearly a shill review, and is probably going to leave some kind of footprint for Google, Yelp, and other to wipe out. I can see why the engines want to keep this kind of review out of their index. Which is why I think it’s even more important that they do what they can to help business owners get reviews from their actual customers.

    One idea, in the case of Google, would be to use the QR tag to pull up a ‘leave a review’ page where customers can at least leave a rating of the business on the way out. I believe Yelp has already said they don’t want mobile reviews because they’re not high enough quality but I would expect that to change at some point soon.

  4. A client sent me info on Review Boost after getting a sales pitch from them. They had claimed they had a direct feed to Google. Yeah right, heard that before. From what I could see they are publishing multiple reviews into their own Google accounts (like in screen shot above), which looks too suspicious and ripe for a spam filter for Google to later apply.

    Short term benefits from those reviews but long term risks if/when the the ban hammer comes down.

    Reviews need a systematic overhaul, else scrap them altogether. With the lawsuits and bad will Yelp is facing over their shenanigans, spam and fake reviews in Google Maps, and now these bulk review services popping onto the scene, the general public’s appetite for reviews will dwindle.

  5. Our customers are smart. If they see all positive reviews with the same basic format, they will become suspicious and possibly even submit a review themselves pointing out why all of these positive reviews may not be genuine.

  6. These types of reviews were inevitable given the way sites like Yelp work. Even most of the attempts at mitigating the risk via profile or reputation scores don’t work over time. Sooner or later someone’s reputation is high enough that there review is SO valuable a price will be found.

    We’ve (@ theSUGGESTR.com) have a different approach. Instead of making it be about the review/reviewer make it be about the tastes of the person looking at the review. The main benefit here is that no one or 2 reviews (or even 100) will have a major impact on our algorithm for any given user unless the reviewer shows some trend of having a similar taste profile. Now, this does come at the cost of requiring a user to have built up a profile (which I think we underestimated). However, it does limit the ability for a business or another site to game our ratings as they would have to do almost user by user (which would be cost prohibitive).

    If anyone has time, we’d love your feedback on our approach to this challenging problem.

  7. I have seen many issues with review legitimacy across many sites (Google, Yelp, Yellowpages, etc). Many times, you’ll actually see customers call out the business who is writing their own reviews. Fake reviews will only lead to consumer’s doubts of all reviews. Google definitely needs to update it’s review filter. If this company is providing legitimate reviews after contacting real customers by email or phone, then this could be quite legitimate and help drive the industry forward, but if they are practicing shady business practices then it will damage consumer confidence in local search and reviews.

    http://www.chatmeter.com (just launched in beta) is a free online reputation management tool that can help small business owners monitor their reviews and those of their competitors. Has anyone heard of success in reporting fake reviews to Yelp or Google and actually seen them removed? Since most of their filters are automated, I have doubts that anyone would remove manually, just curious.

  8. @David
    The review itself is not necessarily a shill but the process that generated it most certainly is…

    Your point of helping the smb get real reviews is an interesting one and one that Google and Yelp should look at.

    @Collin

    Google’s practice is too allow in the good, the bad and ugly and then take their time analyzing so that they can then deliver a reasonable filter. In this case they weren’t faked reviews but faked reviewer…which I do believe sooner or later will as Stever point out trigger an algo ban.

    Google will only remove reviews that violate their TOS so we have seen a few but not many removed

    @Bruce
    Google highlights the reviews in such a way on their home page that most searchers (I presume) never get into the review content to evaluate the quality of the reviews or their source. So it is not a matter of whether they are smart or not but whether they actually ever get that deep into the review. Obviously if they get burned a few times, their behavior will change.

    @Stever
    I agree that the dynamic between readers, reviewers and business is in rapid flux and users will change their behaviors in response….hopefully, as David points out, Google and Yelp et al will hit upon strategies that make providing reviews easier and thus getting more and better samples.

    @Jim

    A slippery slope indeed….

    @Tym

    While you could make the argument, I could also make the argument that any business “smart enough to *carefully* use this type of service might” not be aware of the incredible short term nature and possible downside of this type of service. Alternatively one could make the argument that they must be in it for the short haul advantage and might not be worth visiting given their approach.

  9. This example is no different than any business deciding to post 50+ testimonials (be they fiction or just cherry-picked) into Maps. It will be interesting to see how Google responds to this. I hope they do.

    I think the source of the review is critical piece of information in a readers determination of the credibility of that review. If a review has a clear citation from a source (City Search, Yelp, etc.), readers can evaluate the publishers ability to eliminate review spam and shill reviews. However, in this instance, that information is lost to most readers.

  10. Mike,
    I want to be sure I understand this. This provider has review accounts and is publishing reviews that they write of businesses? Or, they are acquiring reviews from actual customers of the business and then publishing them? If they are just being paid to make up reviews for businesses with whom they’ve never done business, this doesn’t seem like anything other than spam to me.

    It would be the whole paid link thing all over again.

    Steve – the ban hammer sounds like some mighty weapon from a Norse saga.

  11. @Ted your comparison is apt and the core of the issue. I often argue with business owners that they should not even think about posting their own testimonials. Although I can see a slight distinction between posting a clients comments and making them up, the difference is so slight so as to be irrelevant in this discussion.

    I am curious, have you ever done user testing to see how they respond from reviews from different sources? Do they actually make it that deep on Google?

    @Miriam

    ReviewBoost, to the best of my understanding, has review accounts and is posting reviews that they acquire from actual customers of the business. Not as bad as making them up but a violation of the intention of the system. The net result, as Ted points out, is that in the end, little distinction.

  12. @Mike
    We have done some research comparing reviews vs. testimonials. The results in a nutshell: reviews drive a much higher conversion rate and have a much higher Average Time on Page.

    We have not yet looked at the impact of reviews from different sources but I like the idea.

  13. Frankly, I think everyone is worrying about this too much. Most consumers get a sense when they are being manipulated.

    It doesn’t take long on Amazon to get good at reading the reviews for an item, disregarding the top and bottom outliers, and making a sound judgement based on the overall sentiment.

  14. I have to agree with Tym…People are too focused on this issue. I think that, as consumers, most of us can sense when we are being led astray with regards to positive feedback that is just a “little too positive”. Everyone is different, and it is highly unlikely that everyone will like a particular product or service; it sends up red flags (or at least it should).

  15. @Tym & 4

    In marketing there is black, grey and dumb…Dumb is the low hanging fruit that Google can easily deal with via algo. Google will soon get around to Black and Grey as well but dumb is so obvious that it bears highlighting.

    The value of looking at dumb is so that the businesses that read this blog are aware that the use of the dumb is a very, very short term strategy and one that is not worth putting significant energy into. Why go to the trouble of paying someone to generate reviews that will sooner or later be of no use? Spend your time on something else.

    I think that from a business and professional point of view, it is also useful to have a discussion about ethics and boundaries…

  16. I think that the only way to battle this is the situation where business owners are generating 100′s of real reviews throughout a year from customers.

    Now I know that some model’s won’t allow for this, but the point being that a fake review company can always work the system if they wanted to take the time to mask themselves. The thing that they can’t do is compete agains’t others who have a solid review system in place where they are getting a major amount of feedback from customers as David mentioned. Then #’s don’t matter so much.

    ReviewBoost is “off their rocker” to leave them all in the same name and with a logo. But, I am sure that there are high profile “review gamers” that have sneakier methods. The fact still is, an algo might not catch “fake” so it will ultimately come down to real promotion from SMB’s. The sooner Yelp and others realize this and allow for reviews the better.

    One system that I have thought of is based on foursquare where the only reviews that would count would have to be geo-targeted ones left at a company whilst there. This would “long term” cut out any amount of fake reviews that a business could leave unless a SMB created 100′s of accounts himself.

  17. Mike,
    Thank you for answering my question. I am extremely curious to know how they are accessing their clientele’s customers to get reviews from them. Data collection?

  18. @Miriam
    Not really sure. On their site it says: “We work with businesses to collect feedback from existing and new customers to then publish positive data online for all to see.”

  19. Mike,

    I recently found this thread on the G-Map forum:

    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/maps/thread?tid=622e1ebff80574ae&hl=en

    Similar concept, but what these guys do is actually get a comment card from the customer and then scan it and post it on blog (using posterous right now) and then post the review in Google Maps with a link back to the scanned comment card.

    Do think if there is transparency here that the reviews are real, but they just take the offline comment cards “real reviews” and then the service is posting them.

    If done “right” it may have a leg to stand on. As long as they are real reviews and the service is bridging the offline to online.

    I could potentially see how this could help secure more “real” reviews for local businesses because it’s like pulling teeth and nails sometimes to get reviews from people. Especially if they are not web savvy.

    Love to hear some other’s opinions on how this other company is offering these review services…?

    BTW, just so I am being clear – I don’t condone fake reviews, but I might see some merit in a service like this (if done with total transparency).

    Oh! And wouldn’t just be easier to create a site with the correct micro formatting for reviews and post there… wouldn’t Google find it and display the reviews in the businesses Google Maps Listing? What does Google Maps determine a creditable site to pull review data from…? They pull from a ton of sources, right?

  20. @Mathew

    Any comments that have been filtered not once but twice are not reviews but testimonials. There certainly is a place for them, just not at a review site and not called a review. Any comment that is not placed by the reviewer is not a review.

    It is not clear to me as to whether Google will pull any microformatted review information into a places page.

  21. Hey Mike,

    I absolutely love your blog (I subscribe to it in Google Reader) and this topic specifically is something I’ve really been looking into.

    Something I’ve been hearing a lot lately is if Google sees a business with fake reviews (postive reviews posted by the same IP or by reviewers who posted on similar businesses) they will punish the business and lower its ranking.

    My understanding of the matter is that Google would just delete the review but I wasn’t sure if the business listing would be jeapordized/blacklisted/rejected in the process. I want to try and find an answer because if a business owner hires someone unknowingly (we all know how unfamiliar most small businesses are with Google’s guidelines) and gets reviews posted on their listing by this company – will the business pay long term for their ignorant mistake?

  22. It may get even worse. Instead of Positive Only someone will pay for All Negative reviews to damage the competitor’s reputation. I think Google should address this the same way they addressing any Adsense clicking scams – by banning the IP addresses and/or sites that promote or order these services.

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