Hit by Competitor Spam Review – How to Respond?

On July 22, my client Barbara Oliver & Co. Jewelry’s Google Place page was hit with what appears to be a competitor spam review. The review is rather bizarre with racial innuendo and unfounded accusations. It would appear that the reviewer had not ever visited the store.

The timing of the spam review is interesting. There have previously been review complaints against other businesses in her market for having posted their own fake reviews. With Google no longer counting 3rd party reviews as of July 21st, there was a radical shift in the number of counted reviews showing for businesses that were returned in key searches in the market. Barbara fared well with the new review count totals while others in the market did not. Whether these facts are related to the spam review is unclear but I thought they added context and certainly raised suspicions.

The review is in technical violation of Google’s review guidelines although it is not at all obvious that it will be taken down by Google or if they will take it down, when. And like all reviews of this type, it points to a process failure in how Google handles review take down requests by SMBs.

Because of Barbara’s many positive reviews it had no impact on her star rating. Fortunately the best of all possible events occurred when a client responded to the bogus review directly and came to Barbara’s defense and another review was posted pushing the spam review down the page. It certainly points to the benefits of having happy clients speaking on your behalf in the on-line conversation.

I have been of two minds in regards to an owner response and have more questions than answers at this point. Would the review be somehow legitimized by any response? Would it bring unwarranted attention to it? Can a response be written, focused on future customers, that would stand the business and Barbara in good stead? Or is steady at the helm, garner new customer reviews the overall best, singular tactic? Barbara of course was calling for blood but was willing to take my advice and she recognized the power of having her customers speak on her behalf once that occurred.

The question at hand that I would like help answering: Should Barbara provide an owner response? If so why and what should the response look like? And if not why not?

P.S. a few simple Google Places Reputation management tips:


- With the new Places layout on the desktop, Offers (aka coupons) push reviews below the fold on both the desktop and mobile.
- The Share an Update (available from the analytics view) also pushes reviews down the page albeit not as much as a coupon
- Also if a previous reviewer simply edits/re-saves their review it will ascend to the top of the list pushing more recent reviews down.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Hit by Competitor Spam Review - How to Respond? by

35 thoughts on “Hit by Competitor Spam Review – How to Respond?”

  1. I think that little harm and maybe a lot of good could come from a simple question from Barbara in a response like “What actually happened at this business that has you upset? Was it service? Was it price? Please give us more information so we can help you. Thanks.”

    If that spammer doesn’t answer then it completely delegitimizes the review. If they make something up she can ask for them to come to the store with receipts etc and show others that she is engaged.

    I realize that this could be a rabbit trail if the reviewer is persistent.

    Saying nothing, however, has its merits as well but there is a down side. Since you have the chance to answer a Maps review isn’t it best to give the rest of the people reading the idea that you are responsive?

    Good question and I look forward to others opinions.

  2. My first reaction was that she should respond. However, after visiting her places page, I have changed my mind. A couple of reasons: 1. there is no response to all of the positive reviews, so a response to the negative review would stand out and draw attention to the negative review. and 2. the customer response to the bad review is far more convincing coming from a third party vs coming from the business owner herself. Kudos to Barbara for having such loyal fans! I’d let it go.

  3. These are touchy situations… I think most people can spot a spam review, but the accusation that all reviews were written by the owner is uncomfortable. When looking at reviews with non-industry people, it seems common for them to wonder why one company has so many more reviews than everyone else. There’s a natural tendency to wonder if it’s real.

    My suggestion would to explain the reviews. Something like:

    “I’m sorry you weren’t happy with my store. If there’s anything I can do to satisfy you, please let me know.

    Having said that, I need to make clear that I did not write any of the reviews on this page. I have hundreds of satisfied customers (many who return year after year) and when they make a purchase I sometimes ask that they review me here. Much to my delight, many do.

    Again, I want all of my customers to be satisfied – if you have a complaint, please get in touch and I will do my best to fix the issue.”

    This might draw some attention to the negative review, but it’s also giving her a chance to talk about all the people that love her business.

  4. Both Chris and Heather make excellent points. For me the racial undertone of the negative review jumps out and screams “this is spam”. But for the vast majority of the world who doesn’t live the local space as we do, is it obvious to them that somebody is trying to game the system? It helps that 0 of 9 people find the review in question helpful, and I’m sure several have flagged as inappropriate (as Mike points out, whether Google will do anything about it remains to be seen).

    But should the owner respond? It probably doesn’t hurt to leave a brief reply asking for more information about what the user didn’t like about the service. If the customer has a legitimate complaint, then it shows that the owner is hands on and truly cares. If the customer proceeds to get into another rant, then hopefully most people discount what he says even more. And if the reviewer just doesn’t reply, then their legitimacy is thrown into question.

  5. I tweeted this on Twitter:
    Your professional input needed. How would you respond to this review? All advice welcome

    Here are the first responses:

    From @clairecarlile: “I think Barbara’s evangelists and new clients are doing the job for her. As a business owner I wouldn’t respond to this one.”

    from @trojankitten (via DM) : I just think it’s subtle. I wouldn’t have the owner respond as there’s nothing to solidly refute.

    The spammer could be waiting for that chance to attract attention. If the spammer would send more messages like this, the owner could respond with a short definitive message. “You’re wrong. We don’t post fake reviews for our service.”

    Some suggest in comments the owner should ask what exactly is the problem, but I think the last thing the owner should want is a dialog with a competitor who’s not afraid of lying.

  6. I agree with the advice from twitter. Two new reviews have been posted since the bogus one, and that says a lot about real customer loyalty.

    Barbara is indeed fortunate to have received so many reviews that this negative one is just a small drop in the bucket. A direct answering will likely draw more attention to it.

    Would suggest as many folks as possible hit the ‘no’ button in reply to ‘Was this review helpful?’ I’ve seen reviews like this disappear over time when they receive a critical mass of ‘no’s’.

  7. I’m fairly new when it comes to the SEO space, but in looking around at what others have said, and taking into account what I know so far, I think this is a situation where no response would be better. The negative review does nothing to address actual business concerns – just an underhanded way to cast doubt on what others view as a great business.

  8. “…steady at the helm, garner new customer reviews” No response needed on this one Mike, even though Barbara will feel the need. This review reeks of spam, and most diamond shoppers will be able to see it for what it is. A hands off approach is best in this case. I’d not want to invite this reviewer into a dialogue online; it could get messy.

  9. The problem is not that customers are defending her. I would say that EXACTLY because they do, the situation might get worse. Think about it from a perspective of you not knowing anything about her, being just a regular customer (not a marketer, etc) and just searching for a jeweler. What you understand from the negative review is:

    1) This person thinks that Barbara’s services are too expensive (which is the only thing they consider negative about her service as far as the review goes).

    2) This person believes that Barbara has written her own reviews and that’s why she has so many positive ones, although her services are too expensive.

    What happens next – you see the positive review, in her defense posted immediately after the negative one, speaking about (supposedly) insider information about her business “she’ll be expanding soon”!

    Then what happens next – you see another positive review, saying in the end “THANK YOU, BARBARA!” which is generally one of the most obvious signs of a fake review. This person also defends her, which is already very suspicious.

    What happens next – you go back to check the negative review, and at the bottom you see “0 out of 12 people found this review helpful”.

    If these don’t “prove” you (from the position of a person who doesn’t know anything about Barbara, and not being involved into the problems of online reputation management, or the likes) that actually Barbara is behind all these reviews, I am not sure what else would.

    As I am not a native speaker I would not like to involve myself into suggesting an actual full text reply, but I strongly believe one has to be worked out.

    And I don’t think pushing the reviews down a few pixels by adding an update and/or offers would improve the situation anyhow. Old customers updating their reviews would be a good idea, but this review will still stay. It seems like a genuine one, and I don’t think Google will ever remove it.

    Just a couple of cents by me.

  10. Hey Mike,
    Well, you already know what I think ;)

    But, I will add a few points to that.

    - Yes, you already know the person is a liar, so asking them why they are unhappy could simply result in more made-up bologna.

    - I think both you and Barbara should take special note of what Heather has said, above. There are no responses to any of Barbara’s reviews right now. This should be changed. A positive review is like an invitation to a birthday party. You should always try to acknowledge receipt, even with just a few words.

    - Nyagoslav’s points struck me, too. There is a chance that the positive reviews defending Barbara could be interpreted as being written by Barbara (especially as this is what the dumb-dumb is accusing her of).

    - That being said, I’m not aware of any hacking of the owner response feature ever having happened (has it?). Thus, the owner response function sends the strongest signal as to whether words are coming from Barbara or not. Positive reviews defending the business could fall under suspicion as to whether or not they stem from Barbara, but an owner response is pretty much 100% certain to have been penned by her, so as I see it, this is the most legitimate way for her to state her case.

    Bottom line: I believe Barbara should respond to this review, as well as all of the positive ones.

  11. For whatever its worth…

    Respond – quick and deadly. And publicly thank the customer that came to aid. If its spam, nobody will reply and orig review gets further marginalized. If not, at least Barbara is standing up for her biz and illustrating engagement beyond POS.

    Be transparent, and call it like it is.

    I kinda feel the question isn’t whether or not to respond – it’s how.

    IMO no response (to avg customer) equals unaware disconnected biz owner, or guilty of accusations. Not sayin its right, just sayin..

    And still feel the reply to review conundrum should be case by case, but there has to be some SOP in place.

  12. Lots of great responses! I am wondering if there is another option-that of responding to those that came to her aid. Something along the lines of, “Thank you for defending our business, we are so happy to have such loyal customers, and it is unfortunate that one of our competitors has tried to hurt our business with such a review. We have chosen not to respond to the negative review b/c we feel that our legitimate reviews speak for themselves…” etc.

    FWIW, I also agree with Miriam that Barbara is missing an opportunity by not responding to her positive reviews.

  13. Not knowing this business from any other the spam review raises questions regarding the validity of the other negative reviews. the fact that there is so quick a response from “real customers”, as noted by Nyagoslav, her entire review history seems a bit smarmy.

    From my real world experience we have actually avoided companies that appear in results the way hers does. A bunch of 5 star reviews written by user profiles with only one review OR I would compare these reviews with those found on Yelp.

    While the negative review is obviously written by a competitor or jaded employee it does raise real questions about her business practices.

    Overall this is an example, argued by TripAdvisor and Yelp, of how Google was benefiting from their content. After the recent change I have found myself migrating my local searches to the various vertical directories and ignoring Google local results.

  14. People consume reviews to find the balance of opinion on a business, not to see their greatest hits. So, readers tend to seek out the 1-star reviews.

    A short response is a unique way to get in front of interested prospects and show them who you are as a business owner. (No one’s gonna read the mission statement on your homepage.)

    Having said that, I don’t think a response is warranted in this instance. In fact, there is a lot of value in distinguishing between negative reviews that warrant a response and those that do not.

    When a reviewer, especially with a fake name, levels baseless accusations, such as fraud and possibly racism in this case, without any reference to an actual customer experience, I’d flag it or leave it alone.

    This reviewer suggests that the other reviews are from sock-puppet accounts and/or fake. That will likely prompt interested prospects to seek confirmation from other review sites on the web. Luckily for Barbara, her good reputation is pretty well confirmed on third-party sites.

  15. I have held off commenting as so many were providing such rich insights that I did not want to direct or guide the conversation beyond what I already had in the post.

    The fact is that all of the reviews are from real customers. The reality is that Barbara, despite my advice, did not feel comfortable asking every customer for reviews and limited it to the ones she knew were ecstatic. This has skewed the reviews to the 100% positive.

    While one presumes that there are unhappy customers someplace, she is a very small, one person shop and really does interact with every person personally so they are few and far between. I do think it advisable that she ask EVERY customer to leave her a review and will suggest that to her.

    As for interacting with reviews via responses. I have always felt that reviews are more a way for customers to interact with each other rather than something like Facebook or a blog where the owner interacts with the customers….

    Happy talk has never been something I feel very good about as it soon devolves into insincere babble. I suggested to her originally that while I thought it a good idea to respond to reviews right along but only if she felt she had something to contribute to conversation. If it was just to say “oh how nice” I think it should be avoided and still feel that way. Fabricating sincerity is a difficult task.

    I think that is still true but am willing to be persuaded that there is a path in this regard that is both sincere and helps future customers.

    As to the response, I am still on the fence. I am curious your opinion of something like this:

    Dear White Guy,
    This is Barbara Oliver, owner of the company. You are so right in that there are business owners out there faking reviews. In fact, I’ve learned that many business owners get confused and pay marketers to write fake reviews for them, if you can believe that! This is a subject I’ve ended up having to study, because I’ve suspected some of our local competitors have been doing this, and I believe I have even seen them leaving negative reviews for one another, which is just the lowest form of bad sportsmanship I can think of, not to mention, a court might consider it fraud. This is not something I would ever even consider doing, as I’m from the old school of small business ethics that insists on earning a good reputation over time with excellent customer service.

    I’m writing to give you my word that the reviews here on my Place Page are 100% legitimate and left by my real customers. I personally remember each of the wonderful transactions they are mentioning that inspired them to review my shop. As you can imagine, we really appreciate the time they took to do this. We have worked so hard over the past 7 years to deliver the highest quality jewelry, coupled with really friendly service.

    Thanks for highlighting your concerns about the problem of fake reviews that is plaguing all of Google Places. I totally share your concerns about that, and assure you that this is not something my business would ever do. Please, accept my invitation to come to our shop to see for yourself our beautiful jewelry, fair pricing and the fabulous shopping experience we provide for each of our valued customers.

    Kind Regards,
    Barbara

  16. I dunno…it’s well-written, but I think it lends too much legitimacy to this fraudulent reviewer.

    Honestly, I think you’ve already taken the best possible action — write a blog post pointing out this flaw in Google Places, and hope that the visibility here will cause a manual review of this fake ‘review.’

    Either way, I think Barbara is lucky to be your client.

  17. It is definitely well-written. Something about the first paragraph bugs me…can’t quite put my finger on it…I’d still leave it alone, but in the grand scheme of things I doubt it will affect her business either way.

    Interestingly, I noticed this reviewer who left a negative review for Andrew’s Jewelers and a glowing one for Barbara. It occurs to me that, assuming it is the owner of Andrew’s who left the review, the business owner may have only just noticed this review and believes that it came from Barbara (possibly calling him out on his own shady review practices). Upon further investigation, he notices that she also has many glowing reviews from reviewers with no other review history. I would guess that he actually thinks she was trying to leave him a phony negative review and this is his way of fighting back. Not that this changes the situation, but it does shed a slightly different light on things.

  18. @Mike My 2 cents, I think she should respond. He opens with “This place is the biggest rip-off…” but doesn’t state how he got “ripped-off”. Instead, goes into an “example”, unrelated to his issue. Trying to divert the readers’ attn from “his problem” to his apparent real motive of leaving a bad review.

    How about something like: “I make it a point of getting to know each and every one of my customers and take pride in ensuring that each customer is more than satisfied with their purchase. (I believe this is one reason that we’ve had so many repeat customers.) Please forgive me but I don’t recall us having met. And I certainly can say that you (nor anyone else) has voiced such a strong concern about our service.

    Please stop in at your earliest convenience so that I can better understand what you were unhappy about so that, whatever it may be, can be quickly resolved. (dirt-bag!) ”

    (Ok, leave that last part out.) I think this addresses his “issue” head on, shows readers her relationship with customers and her willingness to resolve whatever comes up.

    (Liked your “reputation management tips”!)

  19. @Mike…I like the response letter from Barbra…and yup, I’d definitely get it posted…as I believe that engagement requires this kind of a response…

    :-)

    Jim

    PS do let us know the results of what is done too, Mike….will help us all learn more about this kind of engagement….

  20. @Mike – The response is well written, yet I’d be very careful about using the term ‘fake review’ repeatedly in the text.

    With G Places grabbing words commonly found in review texts, this set of terms may very well pop up in the set of descriptive terms. That would be far worse than the single spam review.

    Am not certain owner responses are included in the mix, but it’s a chance I wouldn’t take.

  21. Mike: I think the response reads like its meant for this blog more so than customers, and more importantly potential customers of her store. The important audience are potential customers. The attack review was written with that in mind.

    Frankly its grotesque and weirdly racist in my opinion.

    We run several businesses. One of them is a bartending school which recieved what we are convinced were 3 attack reviews by a competitor over a period of time. One of them still sits here with a response:
    Each of the attack reviews repeated something which is 100% opposite from how we operate. The attack reviews ripped at our credibility.

    In our case we could afford to wait. We noted that even though the attack reviews were well placed in visible areas in Yelp, Google and Yahoo neither our volume of leads or sales suffered.

    Clearly people read the reviews. Customers/students told us they read them….yet they took our classes. Interesting isn’t it? Regardless we know those reviews worked to dissuade some people from attending.

    Such is business. Its often dirty and very competitive. As other’s above referenced its quite possible this attack review came from a competitor. I’d bet your client and the competitor sell similar merchandise.

    After reading the rave reviews about your client I believe she should respond. I’d call the review out as a fake. I’d use the response as a means to emphasize her customer service attributes.

    Also as I recall there is a limit on characters allowed in a review. Still there is plenty of room to get a simple point across about suspecting the review is a fake and/or an attack review and an opportunity to reinforce her businesses positives.

    I also agree with Heather. I’d respond to all reviews. There aren’t that many. In virtually all cases it might just be a thank you and remembering something about the customer. It appears she has a small business. I bet she remembers nice things about the purchases or the events that spurred the purchases.

    Thanks for all your work on this blog

  22. Mike:

    I’d suggest a response but I don’t like the one you presented. Its a matter of tone and focus. To me the first paragraph and other parts sound as if its being written for people in this blog, seo’s, other small business owners, and those who know a lot about reviews…from the professional sense.

    It should be written as a response wherein future customers and possibly existing customers will see it.

    I’d call it out as an attack review. Plain and simple. I’d point out that the reviewer said nothing about her business, her inventory, her service. Its not somebody who visited the store. Its an attacker–probably a competitor. I’d point that out briefly and too the point.

    I’d write about customer service as part of the benefits of her business. I might look at the tone of all the wonderful reviews. That might guide me in emphasizing her benefits. The big thing on the other reviews is that they all visited her store and bought something and liked her service and this reviewer evidently never walked in the store. I’d make sure future readers realize that.

  23. If it were me I’d leave it alone to eventually be buried by a plethora of good and real customer reviews as is the norm for this places listing.

    Amongst these good reviews it will stand out as what it is: a vindictive piece of absolute nonsense.

  24. Mike,

    I think Barbara’s response covers most of the bases: It addresses the reviewer directly, it is not defensive, and it ends with a powerful gesture.

    2 things: I would pare it down to ensure the message is read in its entirety. Also, while I think it is important to always take the high road, the tone could be perceived as disingenuous.

    Maybe something like this:

    This is Barbara Oliver, owner of the company. You are right in that there are business owners out there faking reviews. I’m from the old school of small business ethics that insists on earning a good reputation over time with excellent customer service.

    I give my word that the reviews here on my Place Page are 100% legitimate and left by my real customers. I personally remember each of the wonderful transactions they are mentioning. As you can imagine, we really appreciate the time they took to do this.

    I invite you to come to our shop to see for yourself our beautiful jewelry, fair pricing and the fabulous shopping experience we provide for each of our valued customers.

    Respectfully,

    Barbara

  25. I don’t think Barbara should just let it go and be silent, and I think your letter is well done, though a bit long as Kevin points out. So I like his pared version, but I’d include the fact that unscrupulous business owners are also leaving negative reviews on their competitor sites. That way other readers might get what is really going on here.

    What I also liked about your reply is you did not try to engage White Guy into a dialog by trying to find out why he felt it was a rip off. That would just open the door for more trouble.

    The tone is also calm and respectful, not something you might get from someone who is angry or defensive, or worse, guilty as charged.

    It also comes across as warm, friendly, and inviting. Everything a business owner wants to project. I’d do business with her if I read that.

  26. Before the social media revolution, on martial arts forums, we always used to say ‘Don’t feed the trolls’. If you respond, you just give them a platform from which to launch.

    Because of the advent of online interaction, we feel compelled – almost as if it were etiquette – to respond and thank and deal with. I had read that one should respond to reviews but it all just seems like a sugarfest so I am trying to find a better angle. I can only hope that, if something similar were to happen to me, I would have such lovely, loyal customers defending me.

    Personally, I think it looks like what it is – something nasty. Yes, I always read the 1 star reviews as well as the 5 star ones but this one is quite clearly out of kilter with a regular 1 star review.

  27. @Jo
    Great term for the uber sweet bs of the insincere review response: sugarfest… I am struggling with the logic and form of the etiquette vis a vis reviews and have yet to come up with a great structure and plan for it.

  28. Mike: Here is an attempt at a response. I’m trying to write this as a response to the writer and keeping in mind that the people who count who read this are not SEO’s or commentators on Local SEO but potential and existing customers for jewelry in the Buffalo region. I don’t believe they are schooled or cognizant of the specifics of spam and attack reviews:

    Dear Sir:

    I believe this is an attack review written by a competitor. Unlike the other reviews which have been written by customers there is no mention of a shopping experience at my business.

    I greatly appreciate the other reviews. They describe actual shopping experiences. One can read them and see they come from a wide variety of people shopping for different needs. I encourage people to review them.

    Then visit the store. Comparison shop. Quite a number of the nice people who wrote reviews did just that. We focus on a level of high customer service and trying to meet the needs of each individual customer.

    I appreciate the other reviews. I believe I’ll start commenting on all reviews in the future, both good and bad.

    Sincerely,

    Babara Oliver

    Essentially I wouldn’t overwrite about the specifics of spam reviews, attack reviews or the phenomena across the web. I’d suggest focusing on this review and reemphasizing the attributes of the business.

  29. One question – does the business owner’s response to each review count as part of the number of reviews that shows…?

  30. I agree with those who say “don’t feed the trolls.” Those who actually read and rely on reviews as a means to make their decisions can clearly see that there are 38 other legitimate positive reviews, and this guy is just a one off extreme case.

    I know this has nothing to do with Google Places, but what really boils my blood is those unsubstantiated rip off report posts. And there’s no clear way to have them removed.

  31. Coming from a mega spam industry, i can tell that:

    Respond? OF COURSE! This is business (reputation) we are talking here:
    A. Report abuse couple of times a day.
    B. Have couple of good reviews on top of that (racist) spammer’s one. Spammers will invest time to ruin you anyways. If the spammer will continue positing bad reviews, he’ll be blocked eventually by Google.
    C. Get Google Maps employee’s attention by starting an Adwords Express campaign
    D. Ask customers to mark it as Not Helpful.
    E. 2 paragraph of a sharp & cold respond. Something like:

    “””This is Barbara Oliver, owner of the company. After careful examination of the below review given by “White Guy” on July the 22nd. I can say that this is a spammer trying to hurt my business’ reputation. I’m aware that as a {..well based business..} I will inevitably face negative reviews, yet it seems this review was written with malicious intent possibly by a competitor.

    Barbara Oliver & Co. Jewelry respects its customers and always strives towards a high level of customer service and professionalism. As for the complaint about the fake reviews in my Google Places listing, the reviews are 100% legitimate and left by my real customers. Also, on my website you’ll be able to find more {..legit reviews from other customers..}.
    Looking at my large number of return clients and positive customer testimonials it is clear that I offer a high level of customer service. Barbara Oliver & Co. Jewelry “””

    I think that the respond should be directed to the other customers & not to this SOB.

    Here are some facts (according to my experience & knowledge):

    1. Bad reviews’ snippets increase listing’s CTR as people are eager to see ‘what have happened there”. ye, ye we are social animals..
    2. Google gives more weight for reviews’ quantity & not quality, so in a crazy (Locksmiths) world, you’ll not be a afraid of playing ‘good review – bad review – Respond’ Ping Pong game withe the spammer.

    Yam Regev

  32. I agree with Yam Regev who wrote a response above in #32. I also took a shot at a response in #25 above.

    Specifically, spammers do not go away!!! While my experience with spammers is probably less than that of Yam :D I still have experienced the non stop attacks. The spammers don’t quit. Its in their blood. You cannot ignore them. I have partners who felt they could be ignored. Our businesses learned the reality the hard way.

    I still believe the important and critical readers of the reviews are potential customers–not people who read and study about spam reviews such as the commentators in this blog piece.

    Write a response that keeps the customers in mind.

  33. I think that if someone was to come into your store, and say that to the other customers, in there, then you would certainly say something. So why not respond simply because it is online.

    Just becasue this is in the webspace, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat with just as high an importance as the “real” world.

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