Google Places: Reputation Management or Extortion in the Moving Industry?

Most small businesses live in dread of the day when a competitor drops a nasty review on their Places page. Imagine waking up one day and finding 58 of them. That’s what happened to the Place Page for Moishe’s Moving Systems in NYC. For several days in early July they were finding one 1 star review after another showing up on their Places page. Imagine their sense of futility as they hit the “flag as inappropriate” link over and over again.

A quick call to their competitors across town indicated the same was happening to them. Not just the same pattern but the very same reviews, same bad English, same mispellings, often not even getting the company name correct.

A search in Maps on the phrase “It really hurt me and I highly recommend that NOBODY DO BUSSINESS WITH THIS COMPANY>>>>>> and by the way all the locations they advertise with are 100% fake” surfaced the very same reviews on over 100 moving companies country wide from Miami to LA.

It seems that in this scam, hundreds of moving companies across the U.S. not only ALL received the exact same bad reviews but many then soon received unsolicited proposals to “remove malicious, old, slanderous, unfounded, and internet defamation ratings”.

The internet has spawned a whole new generation of reputation management firms that help make sure that the front page of Google does not have bad things prominently displayed about your company. With the growing importance of reviews and the impact that they have had on businesses a number of companies jumped into the “positive review” only game to be sure that your Places page showed only glowingly satisifed reviews.

But apparently, the review reputation management business has taken on a new, more sinister twist of late. It appears that unscrupulous “reputation management” firms are now not only offering to place postive reviews on your Places page and help take down negative reviews, they are actually creating the negative reviews in the first place. Now that’s a business model! Have you seen this practice in other industries?

Google has indicated that they are in the process of removing the reviews. That being said it does highlight the structural problems caused by a still immature review spam algo AND the frustrating process for an SMB to request that a review be removed via the “flag as inappropriate” link. This problem is much like the issues that they confront with bugs in the Places Dashboard process.

It is likely that this obnoxious review spam will be taken down, it is also likely that the spam review filter algo will improve over time.

The current automated flagging system however is inadequate to handle the situation until such time as the algo improves. The flag, like many Google complaint processes, is likely just feedback to their machine learning system. It rarely if ever leads to an immediate takedown. Google consistently prioritizes their needs and the assumed needs of reviewers in this process. It certainly provides NO feedback to the affected merchant as to what if anything Google will do about the problem review.

As demonstrated once again by the review snafu last week, when numerous revews were lost, reviews are an very much a flash point for most business users of Places. The lack of quick public response on Google’s part demonstrated either an incredible lack of staff, an incredible lack of sensitivity or perhaps just an on-going tin ear to the needs of their small business clients vis a vis reviews.

Until such time as the algo is significantly improved and problems like extortion spam can be greatly minimized in an automated fashion Google needs to create a process that comes down in favor of the SMB reporting the problem. Perhaps one that hides the egregious reviews pending a human review process that actually includes timely communication. Once the algo has been refined they could then think about a cut back to the human intervention.

But with Google’s growing portfolio of Local Commerce products they will find a very chilly reception indeed on Main Street until they do a better job of handling reviews.

Update: Linda Buquet has an excellent piece covering a PR campaign started by one of the affected moving companies in an effort to get Google’s attention.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Google Places: Reputation Management or Extortion in the Moving Industry? by

35 thoughts on “Google Places: Reputation Management or Extortion in the Moving Industry?”

  1. “Have you seen this practice in other industries?”

    Yep, seems kind of like the anti-virus software industry releasing viruses that they can fight :)

    Surely this specific kind of practice would be extremely easy to stop algorithmically with unique-character detection over something like 60 characters…?

  2. Re reviews, I believe that Google need to move toward Yelp’s model of 1) much stronger filtering algos and 2) a large social component to the reviewers (for example, self-policed local reviewer communities).

    Unfortunately, they have clearly chosen to play the quantity-of-reviews game rather than the quality-of-reviews game and as long as that’s the case, these issue will persist and will very likely get even worse as place page reviews become even more important in consumers’ eyes with time.

  3. Had this happen for the local dentist results near me several months ago. Reviewers left the same bad reviews on all the listings across the board except for one listing. Reported them all and they went away.

  4. Unfortunately, as in the Locksmith industry, ALL of the examples you’ve showed here, Mike, are been done by Israelis. Some of them moved from the Locksmith “deadlocked’ Google Maps arena to the Moving, Carpet Cleaning, Plumbing & Taxi Shuttles industries.

    If we want to see some changes for the spam in the Moving industry, you need to put it under the spotlight for some time, till Google will block them as well.
    Same as was done with the locksmiths’ spam.

    Yam Regev

  5. @David
    It does seem a simple algo upgrade but until they do… smbs should not have to put up with it

    @Jason
    Did they also get solicited? If so by whom?

    @Puresheer
    Yes I am afraid so…. Moishe’s is run by Israeli’s as well…. their second response was… “they are just trying to make a living too”… for me though it goes beyond a creative business plan well into illegal areas. And their spelling is bad. :)

  6. @Yaro

    Yes Google is emphasizing quantity over quality and that has proven to be a successful business strategy for them. The problem of the feedback mechanism and their response processes far precedes the volume approach.

    Their approach can only succeed long haul if, like you say they follow Yelp’s approach of stronger filtering AND more community. In the meantime they need humans to deal with these issues in a more open, timely fashion.

  7. Don’t know. I think it was an anti-Demandforce project. Every doc that was affected used their service. The reviews went on to say how all the reviews were fake…yada yada yada.

  8. Hey Mike, I think that Google shutting down private Google profiles MAY help with this. It’s just too easy to set up a new profile, leave some reviews and move on to create another profile.

    Of course there are now bazillions of reviews now on Google that were made by those with private profiles, so the current review spam may not be affected since Google wants to have more reviews, not less.

  9. Mike: I hope Jeff Huber gets around to the article and notes some of the comments including this one.

    This is sort of an aside and a series of recent anecdotal comments ; but applies consistently to Google Places: Its relevant to spamminess and reviews:

    1. My brother, who is business aware but not SE aware sent me a link to the recent article (July 9) in the NYTimes about locksmith spammers>. The article described how grotesque the information looked on google, how it was misleading and harmful to customers, and how google responded pretty quickly and removed the spammy records that didn’t reflect real brick and mortar businesses.

    I sent him a quick response about the history of locksmith spammers, referenced that Google had a better handle on it, and that according to the article they got rid of most of the spammy stuff pretty quickly.

    2. His response was that if users feel that the google results continued to be gamed people will start using facebook.

    (so much for algos and process, etc. His attitude was just get it fixed!!!). Frankly as a consumer who wants to get screwed by a fake locksmith without an address who blackmails you for an outrageous fee……and all because of a bad google algo!!!!!

    3. Right after that I saw an incredible search/ask for reviews/get responses in Facebook. A fantastic example of using Facebook for culling tremendous reviews that one can trust:

    A relative was considering a household purchase. Don’t know what she did in the first place to get information on the product: Might well have researched it via search: maybe she used a different method.

    Then she posed a question on Facebook: something like “hey facebook friends What do you think about (product name)? She got a fast great response from quite a number of people with details: Where to buy it, how to use it, where it works well and where it doesn’t.

    Those are the best testimonials/word of mouth available–from trusted friends with details.

    The two incidents were independent of one another and coincidental.

    Regardless Google often leaves people frustrated with regard to Places. Clearly the small business owners who need help and express themselves in the Google Places Forum are the prime example. Unknown are the quantity of consumers who have been hurt, harmed, or taken advantage of via bad information in Google. I have read examples of harm caused by bad information. I’m sure the few examples I’ve read are the tip of the iceberg.

    Simply not being more responsive for no reason other than what appears to be blatent corporate stubbornness is a terrible reaction. Google could easily put more bodies into responding to problems expressed within Google Places. They could put more bodies into “hand fixes”. “Hand fixes”/ The kind we have all seen when an embarrassing article like the aforementioned NY Times article comes out and something is fixed very quickly.

    Its stunning they refuse to do so. Last financial quarter it was shown that Google had huge increases in sales and a huge increase in expenses. Profits went up but not as high as people (analysts) expected. You know why? Google spent lots on hiring new people and giving existing employees a 10% raise.

    Now Google is hiring lots and lots of people to sell directly to SMB’s. You have documented that quite well.

    Meanwhile there is no apparent investment in servicing the problems that keep reoccurring in Google Places. Makes ZERO sense to me. Google is currently being investigated about monopoly practices. Google Places is an area where they respond to the public in a monopolistic manner. They don’t seem to give a care. That sticks out.

    Meanwhile I’d love to hear Jeff Huber address this issue. :D

  10. @Mary
    [How you doin’? :-) )

    Actually, blocking spammers from creating multiply Gmails accounts is something that Google are doing for the last 1.5 years.

    When we used to fight spam with spam (b/c Google did nothing for stopping the spam), we 1st used Indian SEO companies to create huge amounts of Gmails accounts, after Google started denying their IP address. We started working with young guys in this way: We gave them laptops & money for coffee & croissants. They moved from 1 coffee shop to another & by that got new IP addresses, of course.

    We are not doing it anymore as there is less spam now than ever. But apparently others do.

    I agree with you that Google is enjoying from all this big activity of fake reviews, etc.. as they can learn a lot & improve their spam fighting method from the future aspect.

  11. Charging these types of spammers with large civil penalties will cut down on your competition from starting this practice and forcing Google to become attentive to SMB’s is the other prong.

    Also, if each poor review had to be addressed by both parties so that a resolution could be worked out with a 30 day window, this would increase business practices everywhere.

  12. @Mary

    I think that public profiles are a step in the right direction and I agree with Puresheer that Google has made strides in this area and I agree with David that they should (and will) be able to filter a lot of this crap out…

    But I think in the meantime that they need to put people and systems in place (pun intended) that makes them more responsive while they are getting there.

  13. Have not seen it here yet, but will be on the lookout for it. We are all now so dependent on these reviews to distinguish our business from the competition it would be a major blow to see that extortion start happening.
    Hope Google comes up with a quick method to correct it. I am sure I will read about it here first.

  14. What an outrageous scheme, Mike! Thanks for reporting on this.

    My own 2 cents…reputation management is the slippery slope. When you’re dealing with outright spam, getting reviews removed is certainly ethical, but if the company simply wants to bury any criticism, that’s another matter all together. Learning to respond well to negative reviews is, in my opinion, the more sustainable approach.

    BTW did B. Oliver’s reviews come back. Mike?

  15. Mike: I looked at the reviews. Very grotesque and amazingly faked. I took a look at reviews on July 3 and July 5. one attack review after another.

    Reaction…a slew of positive reviews. also grotesque.

    hey Google Places: here is a filter idea: Set up a very low threshold for reviews in a day. After the threshold is hit, just shut the whole thing down. One thing we do know is you are pretty good at losing reviews ;)

  16. @Miriam
    yes her reviews did return last week with many others

    @Earl
    Yes … I spoke with them and they felt given the lack of responsiveness on Google’s part they had no choice but to leave positive reviews to push the bad ones down the page…. bad tactic but understanable.

  17. @David

    Speaking of coding solutions…. here is one of the reviewers leaving the spam. Vladamir is his name and he left 280 reviews in ONE day. All against moving companies.

    There are two glaring signals 1- the quantity and 2- the wide variety of locations that could easily be used to supress this stuff… but I am still waiting. :)

  18. @Mike…shameful is the term that comes to mind…and yup, moving companies have joined locksmiths et al as the latest foray into this review extortion paradigm….

    wonder tho, what kind of $ would a firm pay these scam reviewers to get this done? it surely can’t be much…but the damage that it does to honest reputable SMBs is too harmful for words!

    …sigh…but oh yeah, I do like David’s idea of the char recognition filter at 60 chars say….

    :-)

    Jim

  19. @Jim

    The number I saw was $399 a month… with roughly a years commitment to get the bad reviews taken down….

  20. Mike,

    This is excellent information. Some of my clients have already been hammered by these unscrupulous characters.

    Great if Google could figure a way to solve this but what about the other sites – Yahoo especially that seem to trade on this practice consistently?

    I’m not a programmer so have no idea how to solve this.
    What about a Captcha system or that they have to validate their email address before they can post a review.

    Nat

  21. @Nat

    There are many programatic techniques that Google could use to algorythmically improve review results… as I pointed out to Linda B, they have more Computer science PHDs per square foot that understand filtering techniques than sand grains on a beach. I assume that they have not yet implemented them because the need has been low and because they are watching and learning the behaviors of spammers and criminals.

    The problem is while they are waiting a number of SMBs suffer a lot. From Google’s perspective maybe not a huge % (1,2,3% or less) but if you are one of those it really, really sucks… which is why I suggest that there needs to be intermediate human solutions AND laws to get us from here to there when the algo can be improved.

  22. My husband had a problem with fake negative reviews against his company but they were on FreeIndex (UK). We can only assume it was the work of a competitor.
    Luckily there were already quite a few glowing reviews already on there and it was pretty obvious that it was malicious so FreeIndex removed the nasty stuff quickly.

    We do ask our clients for reviews and most say they will but never get round to it. Also we have so many places where clients can leave reviews that it is difficult to decide where’s the most important.
    Would you say we should point them to Google places to leave a review instead of all the others directories we are listed in?

  23. @Naomi

    Google Places should be just one of the many places you send your clients for a number of reasons:

    1)Not all clients have Google logins… you should send them someplace with the least friction so it needs to be someplace that they already have a login to
    2)Google periodically loses their reviews so having reviews at 3rd party sites gives you back up when that happens
    3)Google periodically loses 3rd party reviews so having Google reviews makes sense
    4)If a review is picked up by Google from a 3rd party site that will give you more exposure in aggregate. Since Google does not syndicate reviews having reviews on 3rd party sites increase overall visibility
    5)Google likes to see review diversity…

    So I would never recommend going with just one, two or even three sites. I would pick sites that are used by your customers, are highly trafficked and provide all of the above.

    Give the customer the choice of where to go… they will figure it out.

  24. “never recommend going with just one, two or even three sites.” Thank you for the advice. This makes so much sense. I have been wondering if it was worth telling all my clients to go to google. I have lost reviews from yelp that my clients put up there because after they gave me a good review, they never went back to review any other business, so after 6 months yelp deleted my glowing review. What a waste.

  25. I had no idea Yelp deleted reviews if the poster had no other reviews! Is this something that the other directories/resources do as well?

  26. @naomi

    Google will frequently push a review from a new reviewer all the way to the bottom but few sites are as aggressive as Yelp at limiting reviews by newbies.

  27. I’m suprised something like this hasn’t come up sooner…quick note mike, I tried to retweet ur article from my droid using your link below the post and the tweet it gave me didnt shorten your url. The character count limit was too long with the full url in there…hopefully its an easy fix…keep cranking out the great posts!

  28. @Brian

    It has in the Locksmith and the Payday loan industries but this was so egregious and obvious and such a large scale and so brazen that it deserved special mention. :)

    I will look at the url issue… thanks for letting me know… I suppose I could create shorter titles :)

  29. This seems to be happening a lot lately; I don’t get it. It happened to a friend of mine who owns a local business—they spammed with bad reviews. If it’s not the competition, then who is doing it? I know someone is getting paid to do this, but it seems like a lot of effort with little or any return of value. Maybe I’m missing something here.

  30. Wow. I remember joking (seriously, we were only joking) with a coworker a couple years ago about starting just this kind of reputation management business. Looks like someone beat me to it. It’s amazing that sopmeone is that brazen to actually do this.

    Just curious, have any businesses that have been affected (and then contacted by the rep. management company) tried to file suit against the company or try to bring any legal/criminal charges forward?

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