Category Archives: Reviews

Hit by Competitor Spam Reviews: The Plot Thickens

I seem to be mired in competitor spam reviews these days. The second bad review in as many weeks showed up this weekend on Barbara Oliver & Co. Jewelry’s Place Page. At first glance it appeared legit. The complaint, that it is pretentious to require appointments, is untrue and probably comes from a misreading of Barbara’s recently placed announcement on her website. She noted that during renovations and expansion construction from the 12th to 24th of this month she would be closed except by appointment.

The second review made an owner- response to both negative reviews imperative.  I had not previously responded to the original bad review thinking that the reviewer might go silent. That did not happen. I think Puresheer and EarlPearl are right in that sense… the spammer is unlikely to go away and defend our honor we must.

The answer I chose to use was Kevin Baca’s (of Customer Lobby)  excellent edit of my original response. I modified it slightly (per CathyR’s suggestion) and removed the words “fake review” to avoid a Google snippet disaster.

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. Barbara

The “perp” though, while trying to be sneakier and leaving a seemingly real second review, seems to have tipped their hand. I was actually “buying” their review of Barbara and Andrews Jewelers until I got to the marketing happy talk left on behalf of the third jeweler.

Responding to the appointment critique was much easier and offered the opportunity to both differentiate Barbara’s services and extol her expansion. The problem is though that it appears that the writer is developing a taste for this sort of thing, however small time.

Should we contact the other jewelers in question and initiate a dialogue? Should we just keep responding and ignore the likely source knowing that they are adding to our review count? Should we consider some third course of action? Perhaps a firm, carefully worded letter from our attorney?

What now?

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:

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Will the Change in Status of 3rd Party Reviews Affect Rank in Google Places?

Will the change in status of 3rd party reviews affect rank? This question was asked in 3 or 4 or perhaps 5 different ways over the past 24 hrs. There is a palpable sense of worry in the questions. The short answer: Who knows but I think not. Better yet, don’t worry about it.

Here is an observation from Linda Buquet:

From what I can tell this was ONLY a front end cosmetic change NOT a backend change that affects the algo or ranking.

In some quick ranking checks I did last night, it appears the lack of 3rd party reviews showing up in the count DID NOT affect rankings. Not in the rankings I’ve checked anyway. Regardless of how many 3rd reviews were removed from the COUNT everyone’s ranking stayed the same.

Same thing holds true for the lack of visible citations. 

For example: Dentists that have 200 DemandForce reviews often have 300 DemandForce citations. Even though those reviews and citations no longer show in Google, the rankings have stayed the same. (Based on just a few spot checks, not saying I’ve done a thorough analysis yet.)

Here is what the recently released Google Local Patent says that was published in September ’10 just before blended results hit the streets:

[0051] The number of documents with reviews of a business associated with a document may be used as a factor in determining the location prominence score for the document. Reviews for businesses can appear in a number of documents, such as newspapers, magazines, web pages, and blogs. In one implementation, the number of documents with reviews of a business may be used as a factor in determining the location prominence score of a document associated with the business.

Here is what I say:

Google is looking to represent the most popular and relevant businesses to their searchers. It would seem counter intuitive for them to ignore signals from websites that have more and better information about a business than they do. Just because they are not showing the data does not mean they are not using it. And just because they are showing the data does not mean that they are using it more.

While I do think this change is a perfect way for Google to get more information about businesses and to “up their review generation” game, I can not see how favoring their reviews over all of the other historical information on the internet would improve search results. Above all Google wants to return the best results. That is where their bread is buttered.

The patent that came out last fall clearly speaks of review diversity as a factor so I don’t think that is going away. Maybe in the future but not yet.

Stop chasing the algo. Treat your customers right, encourage them to say nice things about you on the internet at a place that THEY are comfortable with and all will work out.

Google Places Gains New Ally in Review Battle with Yelp

Google has been in a pitched tussle with Yelp for quite some time. Google introduced reviews to local in 2007 and the fun began. Yelp reviews in Google, Yelp reviews out of Google, Yelp’s anger at Google’s use of their content, Google contrition, a large offer by Google and a failed buyout, Yelp reviews out of Google and in once again, more Yelp complaints… Google couldn’t seem to win but in typical Google fashion they kept plugging away. They weren’t giving up in the review arena.

Finally with the release of Hotpot last year and Google’s subsequent  success in garnering ratings and reviews things started to change on the review front. Research was indicating that Google was making strides and soon Google stepped out and into the “we have lots of reviews game”. Yelp of course rose to the bait and insisted on engaging in the my review corpus is bigger than yours type posturing.

The changes yesterday in 3rd party review handling will change this review competition once again and tilt the playing field a little further towards Google in their battle with Yelp. While I don’t think the change should affect SMBs’ review management plans, it will do just that. Companies that saw their display count drop from 250 to 5 on the front page of Google will shift their efforts to regain an advantage. They will shift their review solicitation plans to refocus their client’s attention on Google.

Google has just gained an unwitting ally in their multi year battle with Yelp on the review front.

Changes in Google Places and Reviews – What Does it Mean for the SMB?

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.

TripAdvisor Sends Conflicted Message: We Can Incent Reviews but Business Can’t

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.

Read more:

Google Quickly Removes Most Review Spam in Moving Industry – More Remains at Google and Elsewhere

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.

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”.

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GetListed Local University Grand Rapids

Today, I am presenting at the seventh GetListed.org Local University in Grand Rapids, MI. in cooperation with Mlive.com and the Grand Rapids Press, Muskegon Chronicle, the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. I hope to personally meet all of you in attendance. Please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask any questions that come to mind or to just introduce yourself.

These links will provide background information and details for a pathway to dig deeper into the world of managing your listing in Google Places and ethically approaching the review process. For those of you that are not in attendance, the links provide a good overview of critical base line ideas and tactics that every local campaign should embrace.
Google Places – Its not your mother’s yellow pages.

Slide 2 - January 2011 Search Engine Market Share
Slide 12/13 - The Importance of Page One Visibility
Slides 16/17 - How the Google Cluster Works
Slide 21- Choosing the Right Category – A Tool
Slide 21 - Writing a Great Business Description
Slide 21 - Google Places Policies: Quality guidelines
Slide 22 - Creating a GeoSitemap – A tool
Slide 28/29 Local Search Ranking Factors – the many variables
Slide 28/29 A brief list of 10 Ranking Factors – somewhat old but still valid and a quick read
Slide 28/29 Thinking about your Business Name in the Internet Era
Slide 30 - Custom Maps – A Goldmine
Slide 30 - User Generated Content – Geo Tagged Photos
Slide 30 - How To Gather Reviews
Slide 30- Where to Gather Reviews
Slide 31- The Importance of Citations
Slide 31 - 20 Citation Sources in the US
Slide 36- A Listing management tool

 

Reviews – Jumping Into the Void

Where to Gather Reviews
Principles for a Review Plan: Considerations in encouraging customer reviews
Responding to Negative Reviews – Your Prospects are the Real Audience
Asking for Reviews – UMoveFree Finds the Groove
Garnering Reviews – A Mom & (no) Pop Shop finally Hops on Reviews
Reviews: Lipstick on a Pig Leads to User Backlash
Google Review Posting Guidelines

Review Snippets Gone From Google Blended Results

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.