Google Places: Testimonials as Reviews Now Viewed As Spam?

In early October, 2010, shortly after Google announced support for Rich Snippets in Local, Google Rich Snippet FAQ noted the following:

How will Google treat businesses posting testimonials with review mark up on their own site? Will these be treated as a review by the Place Page?

Testimonials will be treated as business reviews on the Place Page.

Since that time, I have been tracking the appearance of testimonial pages as reviews in Places. And while I have been finding some they have mostly been non marked up pages and these results have not been coming into Places with more than very sporadic frequency. That being said, they are in fact coming into Places.

Today when rereading the Google Rich Snippet FAQ I discovered this change in Google’s position on this topic (when it occurred is unclear):

How will Google treat businesses posting testimonials with review mark up on their own site? Will these be treated as a review by the Place Page?

Google’s goal is to provide a comprehensive, unbiased, and credible view of businesses. Reviews should come from an independent source to remain trustworthy. Posting testimonials or using review markup on a business site will generally not improve how its listing appears on Google. As with any form of unuseful content, reviews markup intended to game search results will only undermine the listing’s credibility and may negatively affect its ranking. See our Webmaster Guidelines.

What is odd about this pronouncement is that testimonials are in fact flowing into Places. In a review of the 24 hotels in the the 7-pack for hotels in Buffalo, NYC, New Orleans and Miami, I found at least 5 Places pages with their own hotel sites listed as a review source.

I have also found three other site smb sites that have their testimonial pages listed as reviews in their Places Page (again not marked up). I have found no rich snippet marked up testimonial page appearing.

Consistency and stability allows businesses to plan and execute. Google’s inconsistencies and changing position make this issue a moving target and one that is frustrating.

Should SMB’s include testimonials on their websites? Will they be penalized? Should they or should they not be marked up? Should Google include them on the Places Pages?

Google has once again managed to send very mixed signals to the business community that makes the job of running a business that much harder.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Google Places: Testimonials as Reviews Now Viewed As Spam? by

26 thoughts on “Google Places: Testimonials as Reviews Now Viewed As Spam?”

  1. Stop moving the gosh-darn target G!

    As far as I’m concerned this is a bunch of BS. Carter Maslan specifically indicated to us at SMX West last year and since that Google was LOOKING FOR THESE DATA!

    I’m pissed.

    GO BING!

  2. @Will
    It is incredibly frustrating. Being able to advise SMBs on ethical practices is very difficult. Obviously Google doesn’t think through these things before they say them but it sure seems to indicate an incredible lack of respect and an inability to create a consistent environment into which a business can make a decision.

    I don’t really care which way they go on this… but I just can’t abide by the changing…

  3. The mixed messages are trumped by the evidence that Google is indeed pulling reviews from the business websites.

    The recommendation to our hotel clients will be to continue to publish customer reviews on your site. It helps influence the customer buying decision and has the potential of helping your local ranking.

    There is no need to include the rich snippets because as you documented, the reviews are showing up in Google places without it. As long as you leave the snippets out you have no risk of being viewed by Google as “gaming search results” and therefore no risk of the potential negative consequences.

    All of the value with none of the risks! Not a bad proposition.

  4. @Matt
    That is my sense. It is certainly within a websites owners prerogative to use reviews and testimonials on their own website. It is certainly easier to do so without hReview mark up and it is hard to imagine that Google would/could penalize it as gaming.

    It will be interesting to track going forward. Do you have some examples of hotel review pages that were included? Most of the ones I found were “mistakes” in that they were not really review pages…

  5. Soon Google will announce that the microformats are evil and will ban every site using them. Gosh.

  6. I’m still going to encourage clients to use them. In the next couple years, hReviews are likely going to be accessible by

    – Mobile Apps
    – Data Aggregators (one can only hope)
    – Bing
    – Blekko
    – …?

    It’s not spam if they’re legit reviews. I don’t know why Google thought they wanted to PUBLISH them on Place pages, but it’s still relevant meta-content about a business.

  7. I’m with you (most of you) — adding this type of content to your business website is useful for your site and your customers, regardless of what Google ends up doing with it.

  8. Bizarre. Why edit an answer in your FAQs to provide less clarity.

    I admit that I thought Google was opening a Pandora’s box of spammy testimonials with its prior stance on this issue but implying that they will penalize the ranking of business because they have testimonials on their site is a little harsh.

  9. Has anyone seen any penalties as a result of having the hreview code on a site? How will G ascertain what is gaming and what is not? Am I better to have it or not? ACK? I don’t want to do harm to my clients… G please help us on this – what do you want? review data or no review data?

  10. @Plamen
    Not till next week. :)

    @Ted
    And without further clarification clouds the issue….

    @David
    Interestingly Google noted that they want all info included on Places in microformat form… just not this..

    @Lee
    I agree with you and David that the content should be on the website…. the question is….

    @Andy
    Or review data w/o markup….

    A crap shoot for sure.

  11. This makes absolutely no sense. I am reading the above italicized quote and it’s almost coming across as if google is attempting to arbitrate what types of content can appear on website. If, as a website owner, I am suddenly being seen in a bad light because I am putting reviews and testimonials on my own site, markup or not, I think that is total nonsense.

    These guidelines are terribly unclear and need revision. Just because Google has stepped into local does NOT been that they can dictate what appears on websites that do not belong to them, and it would be ridiculous to red flag a type of content (testimonials) that has been used on websites since the beginning of the Internet. This cannot be what they mean.

    Grrrr!

  12. Personally, I try not to listen too much to bits a pieces of what Google says around the net. As you say it tends to contradict itself in most cases and brings more confusion than clarity! (Local search a clear winner for Google confusing the masses…)
    I prefer to look at case studies and test out trends to see what’s working or not, I’d be interested if anyone has used review markup, had them pulled into their places listing and their ranking/standing has improved?
    I personally haven’t experienced this – really wondering whether the concept is just an underdeveloped angle that Google should of kept to itself until perfecting?
    Great article Mike!

  13. Simple. It is a work in progress. We ALL go through this when we bring a new product of service to market. It’s never perfect when we release. We’re always tweaking and adjusting. Sometimes we scrap the ideal all together. Cut some slack. ~ James

  14. I can see why they changed the text – it was a clear reason to do it before. I can’t see how they can penalise sites for adding review markup, that doesn’t make sense, but they can choose to ignore it, which they can with any ranking signal.

  15. @Kerry

    Certainly the first text made little sense when they released it. The question is what were they smoking when they did?

    Google has an obligation to think through these public pronouncements and when they make them vet them properly.

    Any reasonable adult would have looked at the “testimonials on your site will be treated as reviews” statement at the time and thought wow…. that’s a pretty broad statement and that it made little sense. In fact if you go thru this blog you will find that very conversation. They could have said might, could, or “if found to be properly obtained”… they said none of that.

    Now, instead of rewriting it with a measured and communicative tone to clarify what they mean, they once again overshoot the communication mark and threaten excommunication.

    As a dominant player with such an impactful role in people’s live… I am just of the belief that they should think prior to inserting their foot.

  16. I was surprised when they first said you could write your own testimonials to enhance your places listing. So the change is no surprise.

    I also read in it that quote that they are not penalising you for it, but not giving you credit for it either, unless you are obviously doing it to game the system.

    I have an RDFa based testimonial on my website. It’s for my visitors and just happens to be semantically marked up. I have no worries.

  17. more evidence that chasing google is a dangerous path. i’d advise business owners to do the things that make sense. google will figure it out eventually. and then they’ll figure it out again.

  18. It has been standard practice in the hospitality business to have guests leave comments..These should be included in the google places weather they are testimonials or reviews..
    Question to ask is 1.;what is a review and what is not–2.what kind of people leave random reviews–3.And what kind of sites proclaim to be independent review web site..
    My view. 1. any comment left by anyone should be used as a review by google or anyone else if not the business owner or the person giving the comment should have a legal recourse..2. Most people do not leave reviews and most honest people will do it sparingly but then there are some who do it to satisfy there ego. 3. The review sites are doing it for profit and like to have sensational reviews.(Bad reviews are sensational)

  19. ” Google has an obligation to think through these public pronouncements and when they make them vet them properly.”

    If you’re the Mike B. Then you are a recognized authority on this. Therefor I have much respect for your views on it. However … and for others as well. Time to get down to cold hard facts.

    That being … google doesn’t have to do anything. Morals and good business are often too entirely different things. Personally I don’t like google. Any corp with that much money and influence is on my don’t like/trust any further than you can throw em list. :D

    What I’m trying to say though. We all need google, wayyyyy more than google needs us. The ” google can’t dictate” yada, yada … is just wishful thinking. Google can and has been dictating what people can/should put on their websites a long time.

    Cause if your site doesn’t rank well in google. Then good luck to you ever being found online. While there are plenty of alternate methods. Any web admin with any common sense. Knows they have to take steps to placate the mighty, all powerful and stupendous GOOG!

    Also not to defend them. Cause as mentioned I don’t even like them. But the constant changes google makes is to protect it’s butt. If they stay stagnant on something too long. People will learn how to game the algo’s and take unfair advantage. Which skews the SERP’s … Resulting in a lower quality “user experience”.

    And google stays very much interested in keeping up their users experience. Cause those users are making google more money than GOD. Which end of the day, that’s really what google cares about $$$. Like facebook, they’d sell what color underwear my mom wears to the KGB for $2 bucks.

    Change in the stance on hReview makes sense to me. Penalizing people for putting testimonials on their own website(s), doesn’t. However the dreaded google slap is not something anyone should take lightly. Plus there are work arounds to the issue.

    Summary, we may not like it. But the wise will heed whatever google dictates and/or try to with ( or around ) them. Sadly google says jump. I either say how hi Mr G ? Or find some kind of gray( to darker than gray)hat work around.

    Google owns the internet … They’re just letting us use it folks. Would advise people to trash hReview. The mighty GOOG! HAS SPOKEN INSECTS, lol. ( myself included in that. Sighs … )

  20. Ouch, guess I should really have read through that. So many stupid typo’s … am so embarrassed. Oh well, not like I shouldn’t be used to embarrassing myself by now. After all these years.

    :D

  21. @MrSmith
    While I generally agree with you. These are cold, hard facts. Google does not HAVE to do anything and it is not a morality play.

    That being said it doesn’t mean that Google should not be held to a high standard publicly nor that I can not criticize them. I think that in the end perhaps they will perform a wee bit better or that they might think twice before their next faux paus. In the end it is both better for the user AND a better long term business strategy on their part.

    PS send me your edits and I will correct your comments.

  22. Ah … I do see your point. Personally keep hoping and expecting something better to come along. Just my opinion, but internet search has a long way to go. Until someone figures out a way to truly automate it. Get the nagging feeling, finding quality content online should still involve human review and involvement. Thought social bookmarking had/has some potential.

    Thanks for the offer Mr. B. Would be more work for both of us than it’d be worth. I’ve pretty much adjusted to embarrassing myself anyway, lol. ;)

  23. How will Google ascertain what is trending, toping and what is not?How shall our business go with that?

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