Category Archives: Reviews

Google Places: Selective Reviews Now Being Removed

Update: Google Confirms New Review Removal Practices

Google appears to be actively removing some reviews from Places listings.

Some of the recent problems of reviews being lost are clearly algo based and reports of lost reviews continue to pile up in the forums. But my poking around in Places indicates that there is more intentionality than bug in the behavior (although never underestimate the bugs in Places :)).

Yesterday I noted that Google is favoring reviews that were written by reviewers that have a public presence. Clearly, they are now not displaying the names of “private” reviewers. Have the changes gone deeper than that?

I  wanted to go back and see if any suspicious reviews had been removed. This is harder than it seems as very few people keep track of individual bogus reviews… where and when they saw them, who posted them… those details are usually lost.

However, I did remember that both Miriam Ellis and I had done articles about reviews that seemed suspect; me in Do Positive Only Review Services have a place? and Miriam in her great piece Are These Reviews Authentic? You Be The Judge. Serendipitously both pieces had identifiable screen shots of obviously faked questionable reviews as a basis for a limited test.

Surprise! (or maybe not) In both cases, all of the questionable reviews in the screen shots are no longer showing in Google Places.

Miriam’s blog showed reviews from Goodson Honda West’s Places Page that were dated between July 23 and August 2:

Questionable reviews in Google Places

While Goodson still shows 32 third party reviews and 20 reviews from Google, there is not one review from the timeframe from July 23 to August 2  still visible on the Places Reviews by Google User page.

The screen shot from my article showed reviews for a Cahuenga Pet Hospital from March 16th through March 24th:

Questionable reviews on Google Places that have been removed

Like in Miriam’s case, those reviews have been excised from a Places page that still includes 14 additional reviews.

Clearly, the disruptions that we are seeing in the Google Places Review environment are more than bugs, quirks and algo twitches. While two Places accounts are not a significant sample and may not totally reflect the new reality, these two cases are not accidents.

It appears nearly certain that Google is starting to clamp down on the fire hose of review spam.

Google Places – Are Reviews Now Being Filtered?

Last week I wrote an article, Google Places – Reviewer Names No Longer Showing. Feature or Bug?, where I highlighted the fact that reviewer names were not showing on reviews on a business’s Places listing.

I and a number of readers noticed that some names were showing and some were not. I received two reviews yesterday, one with user name and one without, which forced me to dig into the issue more fully:

After some digging (Andy only had one review on Google), I tested what seemed the obvious choice. If the user was publicly showing their name in the profile, the review would show and if they weren’t it wouldn’t.

This review was made on a Google account with no previous reviews that included a public profile & the option to display their name. The review was immediately visible with the reviewers name:

The second review was made on a Google account with no previous reviews in the same time frame, without a public profile and the option deselected to display their name.

Initially it was showing on the Places page without the name but has subsequently disappeared from view. Whether the review will ultimately display on Google Places is not clear. Perhaps it will show up sooner or later or perhaps, Google, like Yelp has started to not show some less trustworthy reviews… That is still to be determined.

The scenario reminded me of a comment made in March by Daniel Tunkelang, a tech lead at Google, in his article about review solicitation:

Still, my hope is that consumers will start placing less stock in the aggregated opinions of anonymous strangers and shift their trust to people who are more transparent about their identities and motives. The more that reviewers stand behind their opinion and put their own integrity on the line, the less it will matter whether those opinions are solicited or spontaneously expressed. We’ll see how the opinion marketplace sorts this out.

Regardless, it seems clear that this move is not a bug in Google Places but rather an intentional change. Minimally, it seems an effort on Google’s part to create a distinction between public and private reviewers. Perhaps though it is more….it remains to be seen whether they are filtering reviews and/or removing them algorithmically for violations.

It appears, that the review game is afoot.

Google Places – Reviewer Names No Longer Showing. Feature or Bug?

Last week the name of review posters disappeared in Canada. It appears that they have now stopped showing for reviews in the US now as well.

Here is a review on Places today:

 .

Here is the same review from October 20th of this year:

Google review with reviewer name

For a serious student of reviews I find this loss of information regrettable. Who knows why Google made this decision to add another level of anonymity to reviews. If anything, a great review site should be shining the light of transparency on reviewers. This change not only makes thorough investigation of review abuses impossible, it makes reviewers less accountable for their actions.

Being able to see the corpus of reviews by a given reviewer allows readers to understand the context of the review and more about the reviewer as well.

The lack of accountability on the internet has lead to significant review abuses. From where I sit, Google should be moving in the opposite direction. Given Google’s bogus review removal policy up to this point, requiring real names for reviews and making the poster more responsible is the best way to bring the system into some sort of balance.

It is possible that this change is but one bug among many in the pantheon of Google Places bugs. Jim Rudnick reports that the names appear to be coming and going in the review space in Canada. Here’s one time that I for one, am wishing for a bug!

Google Places Search to IYPs – What is the Message? Go Microformats, Young Man!

There has been a lot of discussion* (David Mihm, Greg Sterling, Chris Silver Smith, Andrew Shotland) in the local search community about the meaning and impact of the new Places Search organo-local blending of results on IYPs, directories and Review sites. All interesting and all of value. Clearly there will be winners and loosers, clearly Yelp made out better than Superpages. But is Google passing judgement directly on the IYPs and their future?

I would contend not. To me the message from Google to all of these (and other) sites that want to be included in the Places Search results: Send us unique review content about local places. Google has plenty of directory information, they pretty much have figured out location information…. what they want now is reviews.

When you combine this “message” of more reviews with the recent announcements around supporting Rich Snippets in Places and supporting testimonials marked up in hReview format as reviews, the message becomes even more nuanced and is no longer directed at just the IYP sites: Send us your reviews about local places in semantically marked up syntax.

This message applies as much to the up and coming reputation management company that focuses on presenting microformated reviews like Customer Lobby as it does to the small real estate website that has taken the time to properly mark up their testimonial page. Google is saying that everyone, big and small, directory or newspaper, local or national can now play in this arena.

Google has democratized the sourcing of unique review content around Places and has highlighted it front and center with a link. All comers are welcome. You no longer need a unique special relationship with them like CitySearch or DemandForce have. Everyone can play.

But is this just about reviews? I would contend that going forward it will be about other unique, high level information about local businesses…. coupons, sales events, specials… as microformat standards evolve and as microformatted content becomes widely available.

If you are building a site that deals with local, include microformatting as an integral part of the plan now and for the future. Go deep rather than wide as quantity about specific businesses is what will land you on Google’s front page. Keep track of the rapidly evolving world of microformats and be sure to apply it to unique content whenever possible.

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* Others that have provided excellent high level overviews of Places Search but didn’t address the questions of Google’s “message” to IYPs:

Miriam Ellis – New Integrated Google Local A Game Changer
Matt McGee – 5 Quick Impacts of Google’s New Local Search Results

Reviews: Lipstick on a Pig Leads to User Backlash

Reviews have become important. Having them helps with rank, the good reviews bury any negative comments and create higher averages. Good reviews and good rank lead to sales. I am a big believer in actively managing a review solicitation process. It is a winning combination if done correctly and respectfully of customer needs.

The pressure to get reviews and make them look good has led to a number of businesses to take short cuts. They have started to write reviews themselves, work with services that filter out bad reviews, trade reviews with peers or engage sock puppets to increase their volume. I am not a big believer in faking reviews, filtering them or otherwise attempting to game the system. In fact I think that it is a terrible idea.

Here is why:

Faking reviews by whatever means,  makes assumptions that just don’t hold up in the real world. The first one being that customers are idiots and can’t tell the difference. The second being that you can put lipstick on a pig and she will instantly be beautiful.

Consumers are neither stupid nor any longer passive. Fake reviews will sooner or later come back to haunt any business that goes that route. And it will come back in spades. Customers seeing faked reviews will respond vociferously in reaction, as they should.

In the brave new world of reviews there is no short cut to getting good reviews. In the business world prior to the internet it was important to know your customers and treat them right. In the post review world, as I often say, “know your customers and treat them righter”.

The penalties can be severe.

Google Places Upgrades Review Display, Yelp Reviews Back

Yesterday afternoon, Google upgraded the display of reviews on the Places Page. The new display aggregates reviews from third parties with an icon and a  link to the the review site and continues to show individual Google reviews below that display.

The aggregate display shows the third party site with the most reviews at the top of the list and displays 2 recent reviews from them as well as the aggregate star rating and total number of reviews and one review for each of the other two sites. Only the top three review aggregators are shown on the first screen with additional review sites visible at the More from around the web » link. This puts a real premium on volume of reviews from review providers because if the Places Page gets moderate traffic after 2 clicks, the More from around the web » gets far less.

The new display shows below the sentiment analysis if there are enough reviews or just below the business details & photos if not:

As David Mihm points out, this is likely in preparation for the influx of testimonials as reviews to the Places page. It would allow them to be easily deprecated to only show in the more from around the web section if need be.

This display is consistent with the review display in Google’s test of organic-local listing integration in the main serps, with the review sources being given more visibility and a link rather than showing all of their content. It is the first recent development in Places that moves users away from Places. That being said it still spawns a new window, leaving the Places page open on your desktop.

In a TechCrunch interview at the end of July, Jeremy Stoppleman of Yelp noted in talking about Yelp’s review spat with Google:

“And then yeah, we found our content was showing up there and it is ranked dead last right now. I don’t think that’s sort of a permanent situation from what we gather from talking to Google, they are sort of headed in a new direction that which hopefully will be more positive.”

Clearly this display of summary review information, a high placement on the page and a colorful icon seem to put more emphasis on the review source and will likely lead to more traffic for them. WhetherObviously, this treatment is enough to bring Yelp reviews back into the fold of Places is yet to be seen but the above statement indicates Stoppleman’s willingness to allow Google to include Yelp’s reviews as they are now again showing.

One interesting design element related the new display is the handling of the destination a user is taken when clicking on the the Review link in a OneBox. If the user selects the review link they are taken to the Google reviews, effectively hiding the 3rd party reviews.

Update: Here is the Lat Long announcement on the new review display and here is TechCrunch’s take on the Yelp reviews once again showing up.

Google Maps Rich Snippets for Local FAQ: Testimonials to be Treated as Reviews

When Google announced support for Rich Snippets for Local 3 weeks ago, there were a number of unanswered questions. A number of these are now answered in the Rich Snippets for Local Search FAQ:

- Currently Google (FAQ #3) only recognizes microformats (hCard, hReview) for Rich Snippets for Local Search. Thus, until Google expands support for microdata and RDFa formats, you should stick with hCard and hReview formats.

-You (#4) should only provide the actual phone number for the location and should not include call tracking numbers.

-If you (#6) provide precise geo-coordinates Google will use them but if not then address alone is okay.

-Structured data (#9)should not be used as an alternative to verifying your Places listing but in conjunction with it.

The big surprise for me though was FAQ #10:

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.

This means that site owners will be able to contribute testimonials from their site to their Places page. The implications of this are profound in terms of the impact that these testimonials will have on review count. The impact that they will have on tone of the reviews, sentiment analysis and rank are yet to be seen but if they are handled exactly as current reviews are, this too will be profound. Webmasters will be busy tonight! :)

Here is the complete list of links to the questions answered in the FAQ: Continue reading

Google Places Reviews Being Lost – Houston We have a Problem!

Google Places seems to have again misplaced reviews in significant quanties. The forums are loaded with complaints particularly during the past 24 hours with 5 of the last 10 postings in the forums being about missing reviews (here, here, here, here, and here).

Reviews for a small business are a very sensitive area. Initially most SMBs are hesitant to engage in the process for fear that they won’t be liked and their warts will be visible for all the world to see. Once they do engage in the review process they become the ultimate proud mother hen, protecting their reviews as if they were the palace guards and the reviews were the crown jewels. It in area of great angst for many and Google’s poor handling of them brings down a stream of complaints and insults like no other area in the forum.

Google Places has a long history of loosing reviews. It usually occurs when there are large changes occurring. Often times they return after several weeks although in my case it has been 3 months without seeing them on my listing.

Exactly why reviews are lost but business listings are not, implies that the information is kept in a different index. When there is a major upgrade  they end up needing to be reassociated with the cluster. (At least this my theory and for what it is worth, publicly embraced by Google).

Regardless of the cause, it appears to be a systemic weakness in the architecture of Places. It is also a weakness that is noted by many a business who readily point it out. It is strange to me that Google would leave such a weakness so visible if for no other reason than a fix would quiet the rioting hordes.

So, what exactly can a business do if their reviews go missing? What tactics can help in this situation? Continue reading

Pew Research: 24% of American Adults Have Posted Reviews

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just published their recent results of Online Product Research by American adults. The hghlights:

*58% of Americans now reporting that they perform online research concerning the products and services that they are considering purchasing.

*The number of those who do research about products on any given day has jumped from 15% of adults in September 2007 to 21% in September 2010

*24% of American adults say they have posted comments or reviews online about the product or services they buy,

The numbers confirm Greg Sterling’s long stated Research Online Buy Offline mantra. The number of adults reporting having done product reviews is somewhat surprising to me. Interestingly the reviewers are roughly equally split between men and women and across age groups with some tilt towards white, higher educated and higher income individuals as more likely to leave reviews.

While the research is specifically about product reviews, I think it not unreasonable to think that a similar trend will apply to business reviews.

Review Spam Under Attack by the FTC

I somehow missed this FTC enforcement action when it was released at the end of August. The FTC used the blogging disclosure guidelines that it released at the end of 2009 to slap the hands of an advertising firm that had it’s employee post reviews on iTunes without full disclosure.

From the NY Times article:

The Federal Trade Commission said on Thursday that a California marketing company had settled charges that it engaged in deceptive advertising by having its employees write and post positive reviews of clients’ games in the Apple iTunes Store, without disclosing that they were being paid to do so.

The charges were the first to be brought under a new set of guidelines for Internet endorsements that the agency introduced last year. The guidelines have often been described as rules for bloggers, but they also cover anyone writing reviews on Web sites or promoting products through Facebook or Twitter.

They are meant to impose on the Internet the same kind of truth-in-advertising principles that have long existed offline.

Last year, New York State settled a lawsuit against a Plastic Surgeon over false reviews but this is the first instance that I know of where the Federal Government has intervened in the review world. It is one thing to annoy the historically aggressive attorney generals of New York and another to put into motion the federal government looking at review spam. Clearly, this effort was targeted at ad agencies:

“We hope that this case will show advertisers that they have to be transparent in their practices and help guide other ad agencies,” said Stacey Ferguson, a lawyer in the advertising practices division of the trade commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

That being said it should throw up a warning flag to any company doing the same. Too see an excellent example of the type of review spam that is becoming fairly common in Google Maps, see this article by Miriam Ellis. The article was written prior to the FTC ruling and Miriam asked the basic question of what would the FTC do in such situations. Now we have more than inkling of their direction.

Some other articles about the ruling:
MarketPlace: New FTC guidelines apply truth-in-advertising principles to online reviews
Citizen Media Law Project: FTC Flexes Blogger Rules Again