July 22, 2011
Google Places has once again “mixed it up” in the review arena. They are no longer showing the count for 3rd party reviews on the main search page and they are only displaying the count for Google reviews. They are still showing the link to the main 3rd party review sites on the main search results page but have removed the review snippets on all businesses except restaurants and hotels. Some businesses, Demand Force clients for example, will have seen a huge drop in the review count. You can bet that DF’s phones will be ringing of the hook with questions about the change.
On the Places page itself, Google is now highlighting with bold, bright red the option to leave a review, they no longer show 3rd party review snippets and the have pushed 3rd party review links well down the page and below the fold. And I for one will not miss the wildly weird review snippets that they often chose.
Google is clearly reducing their reliance on third party reviews and increasing the prominence of their own reviews. That is obvious and it makes sense from their self interested point of view now that they are garnering adequate volumes of reviews on their own.
Minimally it signals that Google thinks that they now have a large enough and useful review corpus that will provide consumers with a decent idea of the quality of the business they are looking at. Google will have more control and better insight over their reviews than those from other sites. It also seems to signal that they think that they are getting their review spam under control….although that remains to be seen.
This move will certainly change the relative importance and value of 3rd party review sites AND of 3rd party review management companies (like Demand Force) in the mix of things. The review sites and review providers will still have good links on the main search results page. That should mean that their traffic will not be negatively affected as most traffic likely comes from the main serps and significantly less from the Places Page. That being said I think this is a shot across their bows that all of them will hear. Review sites and review management companies alike will need to think about how it impacts their business plans.
In terms of Places rank and location prominence, it may reflect an update to the algo or perhaps signal a change of emphasis…. although that is much harder to say and much harder to track if that is in fact the case. If I were to be a betting man I might say that it signals less importance on total quantity of reviews but more on review site diversity and quality. But that is just a guess and is really nothing different than I would have said last week.
Does it mean you or your client should use just Google as a review platform? NO! Putting all of your eggs in one basket was short sighted and will continue to be. If you have a short memory it was but a few days ago that they managed to misplace many of their reviews and have done so regularly in the past.
It does though point out why any business should take a long term balanced approach to review management…. lots of sources; Google, Yelp, demand review sites, CitySearch, industry specific sites etc, It is always best to have a balanced portfolio as the winds could change. They have changed before and they will change again. Truth be told we don’t really know what the winds signify anyways. If you were only getting reviews from one source (like Demand Force) you really need to assess your practices and develop a plan to compliment their services. You should have been doing that already anyways.
You need to be where you clients are, you need to make it easy for the client to leave reviews, you need to feed Google’s algo the diversity it is looking for and you need to protect yourselves as best you can against the vagaries of a crazy industry.
And that means that you still need to be at Yelp and Trip Advisor and Citysearch and Yahoo and Google and where ever and will continue to need to do so.
July 19, 2011
The review world is full of contradictions.
Many review sites, TripAdvisor included, have strong penalties if a business is caught incenting reviews. The prohibition makes sense in that an incentive is likely to lead a reviewer to generate a low quality, less than thoughtful review in order to receive the incentive.
There is also the question of whether the incentive was a “pay to play” arrangement that would create a conflict of interest between the reviewer and the business. Effectively the review would then be an advertisement rather than an objective review.
TripAdvisor is quite clear that there should be no incentives for a reviewer to review a business. Here is the TripAdvisor guideline:
I was offered an incentive for a review – is that ok?
No. Property owners are welcome to encourage their guests to submit user reviews upon their return home, but they are not allowed to offer incentives, discounts, upgrades, or special treatment on current or future stays in exchange for reviews. If someone has offered you an incentive for a review, please tell us about it.
If TripAdvisor suspects faked or incented reviews the penalties they will “red flag” the listing with a large notice. One blogger suggested, based on a search of Google’s index, that TA had flagged as many as 13,000 properties for having faked reviews. I think the real number is quite a bit lower as the Google search stops showing results after 263 results when you click through. Regardless, the flag is a significant penalty on the business and TA has handed out quite a few of them.
I am not a fan of incenting reviews as the potential for backlash and bad publicity far outweighs the upside. In a recent case in England, The Daily Mail had this headline: Tripadvisor bribes: Hotel owners offer free rooms in return for glowing reviews. Hardly a good situation for the hotel that was attempting to create a loyalty reward via the review process.
Clearly it is not OK for a business to incent a review. But is it OK for TripAdvisor to incent reviews? They seem to think so. I received this email from them a short while ago:
The practice is not uncommon for review sites to incent reviewers. Google was doing something similar in Portland and for which they were criticized. Their response was that there was no conflict of interest created when they were doing the incenting.
While it is true that there is less incentive for a reviewer to leave just a positive review. I would contend though that the practice, while not a direct conflict of interest, does probably lead to a lower quality of review, is hypocritical on the part of the review site owner and sends a very mixed message to the business owner, one that is often misinterpretted.
In the end, if quality of review is what consumers, sites and business owners are concerned with, then the practice of incenting reviews at both the level of the business owner and the review site should be stopped.
July 14, 2011
It appears that Google has removed most but not all review spam from the Moishe’s Moving System’s Places page and from many of the other Places pages affected by this scam. On Moishe’s Places page, the spam that remains (besides their response spam) was posted between July 1 and July 3 and seems to still affect 35 or so other moving companies nationwide. Whether Google just removed the spam affecting the most companies or it is still a work in progress is not yet clear. Kudos to Google for moving on this problem.
Here are a few samples of the spam that still remains and is affecting moving companies country wide:
Another interesting sidelight is that Google is not alone in having been hit with this spam. According to Google’s index, Superpages has been seeing this stuff since February, 2010. It is also present in Rateitall.com, Judy’s Book, Yellowbot, InsiderPages, MyMovingReviews and Kudzu starting last fall and continuing into early this year. While this dreck is visible in all of these sites, it is much less pervasive than at Google. Whether it was already taken down elsewhere or the extortionists are just ramping up their game is not yet clear.
Fake reviews are a problem whether perpetrated by the businesses themselves or by others attempting to gain advantage at the expense of the business. The answer to the problem is not totally clear but a solution probably will need a number of components:
- More FTC enforcement and education
- Better filtering algorithms on the part of the search engines
- Improved and more viable business complaint options, dispute resolution and removal mechanisms.
Google Places is not the only environment in which this abuse is taking place. But Google can and should provide a lead in developing an exemplary review environment that is fair to the public and fair to the businesses being reviewed. Now is the time.
July 13, 2011
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”.
June 28, 2011
Sometime over this past weekend Google stopped showing any review snippet with either Blended or the Branded One Box Results in the main search results view for many results. It appears that snippets are still visible in restaurants, hotels and possibly other heavily reviewed areas
New view (from 6/27):
View from last week (taken 6/23)
Review snippets have also been removed from most typical blended results (again with the exception of restaurants/hotels). This change seems consistent with the recent change to remove the images from the Blended results that occurred earlier in the month and effectively moves more information above the fold. Review snippets were first seen in the Google Blended results tests that ran last summer and were a regular part of the results since the Blended results were formally released in late October of last year. For me, they were a salient feature that dramatically changed the role of reviews in reputation management bringing a “typical review” front and center for all to see. The review snippets were derived via algo and were intended to provide a representative flavor of the review corpus. As in my example above, the snippets were not always accurate. While I don’t think that was a reason in their demise, I am sure some businesses will be grateful they are gone.
May 26, 2011
It was apparent to me in early January that the introduction of Google Hotpot was leading to vast increase in Google’s review/rating corpus. I was seeing reviews and ratings in industries and geographic areas that had not seen Google originated reviews and seeing them frequently.
To get a better handle on this trend I examined the review corpus in Google Places in the restaurant and car repair industries for the two month period immediately following the introduction of Hotpot (Nov 16 – Jan 16) for the top 7 listings in 7 large markets, 7 mid-sized markets and 7 very small markets. In total I looked at reviews/ratings for 147 of the top ranked businesses. The methodology, while somewhat flawed, showed even larger gains in Google’s market share of total reviews/ratings than I had anticipated.I am hoping to revisit the data and examine the changes since February.
Rather than letting this data sit unused on my hard drive I am publishing a small subset of the data for all to see.
Some conclusions that I drew at the time:
-Google had effectively moved from a minor to a major player in the review space in a very short period moving from 3-5% of the total review corpus to 20%.
-Google Places for Hotpot is a mobile success story demonstrating that having the right product at the right time AND promoting them can dramatically change markets.
-Historically Google reviews were stronger in both secondary and tertiary markets prior to 11/16 but showed dramatic improvements across the board with the rollout even in large cities where Yelp has always had a very dominant position. They also showed significant growth in hi tech markets like Ithaca NY.
-In Portland, where Google had significant “feet on the ground” they were able to increase their share to almost 40% to the total corpus. It is clear from their success in Portland why they have rolled out their marketing efforts to Austin, Madison, Charlotte and Las Vegas. Mid-sized cities all where Google’s marketing dollars can have the most impact. While their expenditures in Portland may have seemed exorbitant, it demonstrated how they can “own” a market going forward.
-The success of Google in the space further removed opportunity for general review sites to succeed. There are still opportunities in the review space but only in local niches and for companies that approached reviews in a different way.
May 25, 2011
Last week I struggled to understand how to properly use the newly introduced RSS feed import feature in the Google Places Hotpot feature that allows you to quickly review places of interest to you. I struggled with the interface and the instructions wondering exactly which reviewer would succeed with the task but along the way I discovered a creative black hat use. Use the feature to automate your spammy review farm activities.
Google Places has implemented some algorythmic filters to remove spammy reviews from Places account. The filters are still a work in progress and often catch good reviews along with the bad. While the algo seems to be able to filter the obviously bad reviews it often seems to not catch the review content from “positive review only services” that are obviously spam.
Usually these services have a number of clients and an equal number of “reviewers” that post reviews on the client’s listing page. Any given review and reviewer look legit. But in aggregate the quantity of reviews, the distance and location of the reviewed businesses, the rapid change from negative to many all positive reviews and the reoccurrence of certain businesses amongst the reviewers point to spam. This particular pattern of review spam abuse is only obvious when you look at a number of the reviewer’s history and a number of listings that they have in common. An example of this pattern is often visible in car dealers. See these dealers: here, here, here and here and these reviewers: Anastacia, Debi, Rachel and Candida and it becomes clear to a human viewer, if not the algo, that it is spam.
The new RSS feed capability that Google added to Places allows a user to easily (well the activity is easy once your figure out the totally wigged out interface) import their favorite businesses from MyMaps and FourSquare into Hotpot for a quick and easy queue of Place listings to review. The feature, as obtuse as it is, might attract a few active, geeky FourSquare users but it also seems to be the perfect tool to make review farms more “efficient”. As the price of fabricated reviews continues to drop in the open market place, it is important to your long term success that you are the low cost provider.
Here is a step by step guide to the vagaries of this new feature for all of you black hat review spammers out there that want to achieve greater scale to your operations: (more…)
April 11, 2011
Yelp has obviously always wanted the spot of top dog in the general review world, moving out of their niche in restaurants and large markets several years ago. Google recognized Yelp’s strong position and made a play for them in late 2009. Obviously Yelp felt that their independent position was defensible. At the time, Google’s review efforts were lagging and Yelp was expanding across many fronts.
In their effort to buttress the public and market perception of themselves as the front runner in the general review world, Yelp has often touted both the quality and quantity of their review corpus. They proclaimed in March of 2010 of having reached 10 million reviews and again last December they stated that they would have 15 million reviews by the end of 2010. Last week the publicly offered number had now reached 17 million. Talk big and the markets perceive you as big. It’s what I call the Peacock Method of marketing.
Google on the other hand never would make a comment as to how many reviews that they had accumulated since rolling out reviews in 2007. It was understandable why Google never made a public comment. My back of the napkin calculations indicate that Google had only managed to accumulate a million or so reviews prior to the mid November rollout of Hotpot.
But things started to change after the rollout of Hotpot. Google essentially democratized the review process and made providing a rating much easier. It became obvious to me that they were making huge strides in gathering these ratings as well. By January, ratings were showing up in rural areas and mid major markets where Yelp has had little traction as well as in technically savvy and larger markets that had been Yelp’s strong hold. The ratings were also showing up in industires that were not traditionally review honey pots outside of Yelp’s central strength in restaurants. My calculations in mid January were that Google was managing to suck the air out of the general review world and moving towards parity with Yelp. The dominance that they crave and need, was even becoming conceivable.
When Marissa Meyer announced at SXSW conference that Google had garnered 3 million ratings and were achieving a greater than a 1 million a month run rate (Yelp’s run rate is in the 700,000 range), it was clear that the game for Google had changed. Traditionally Google has highlighted traffic or quantities of a given product when and only when they sensed that they were in the hunt for their objective. If you remember the many times Carter Maslan refused to answer the question of how many businesses had claimed their listing in Places. That was until they surpassed 4 million and now we hear the statistic on a regular basis.
Why is this important?
March 25, 2011
Earlier this month I ran an article 5 Tips for Responding (or Not) to “Fake” Reviews that described the terrible situation of a dentist whose personal life had become the subject of reviews. When we last left this saga, the dentist was not fairing well in the drama to clear his name. The post generated lots of comments and interestingly, the dentist that the post was about showed up and joined the discussion.
He took the discussion to heart, hired an extremely competent copywriter, removed his original response and came up with the following response to his reviewer:
Nov 14, 2010
Completely Unprofessional I had heard some good things about Dr. Anderson and decided to switch dentists. Biggest mistake I could have ever made. Not only did I have to wait 30 mins past my scheduled appointment, he walked past me in the lobby laughing with his front desk girls as if I wasn’t even there. His hygenist was mediocre at best. She smelled heavily of perfume and scratched my gums and just giggled about it. When Dr. Anderson finally graced me with his presents, I felt completely violated! He touched my shoulder enough times to make me feel uncomfortable. His line of questions about my personal life and what I like to do for fun was borderline indecent. All in all, if you want to be hit on and visually molested by your dentist, then this is the denist for you. Anyone else should walk way as fast as you can! Just a plain horrible experience.
4 out of 15 people found this review helpful. Was this review helpful? Yes - No – Flag as inappropriate
Response from the owner
All ethical dentists comply with the practice of ensuring that a female hygienist or assistant is always present during dental appointments, and that doors are kept wide open, precisely to prevent these kinds of situations and very damaging complaints. My practice upholds these standards to the letter. For several years running, I’ve had the honor of being voted Ashland’s Favorite Dentist, due to my patients’ appreciation of the excellent care they receive in my office, and in-coming patients may be 100% certain that they will receive ethical, professional, respectful care here. Due to the seriousness of the complaints in this review, my staff and I felt forced to attempt to inquire into the identity of this reviewer, and unfortunately, had to conclude that this very hurtful review is the result of a personal conflict. This is a shame, and we sincerely invite all potential in-coming patients to take a glance at the glowing reviews our office typically receives and also, to come into the office to see for themselves the professionalism and dignity of our practice and staff. We are ready to provide you with the exceptional dental care that has made us ‘Ashland’s Favorite’.
Flag as inappropriate
Jared R. Anderson DDS, PC – March 24, 2011
The standard advice in responding to negative reviews is to “own the problem”. However, if the review is fabricated that sometimes becomes next to impossible. Rather than alienating the reader with too much drama, the response calmly and cooly pointed out the Dentist’s standard policy. I thought this review response language did a masterful job of putting the responsibility in this situation back onto the reviewer without being a jerk nor divulging too much personal information. Yet it still managed to raise the very real possibility that the reviewer was motivated by a personal vendetta.
He has worked his way through the first issue. While there is no perfect response, he has made the absolute best of a situation over which he has no control. Now that he has honed his response he can move onto phase two of local reputation management…. review management.
What do you think? Think we can now convince the good dentist to embark a review management strategy to get some more reviews?