Category Archives: Reviews

How to Use Google Places New RSS Feed To Automate Your Review Spam Farm

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: Continue reading

My Review Corpus is Bigger Than Your Review Corpus And Why It Matters

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?

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Responding to Fake Reviews – Return of the Dentist

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
Verified owner

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?

Google Places Dashboard: QR Code MIA, Good riddance!

The printable QR Code that directed folks to your Places Page that Google offered up in the Places Dashboard went missing last week. A number of posters have turned up in the forums asking where it went, wondering how to print out the QR Code for their Places Page and lamenting its absence.  Google has not yet made a public announcement whether the feature has been pulled or is just missing as a result of another bug.

My response to the posters: GOOD RIDDANCE!

While the availability of the QR Code in the Places Page raised the visibility of the idea of the QR Code for millions of SMBs that otherwise would not have thought about them, Google’s self serving implementation of QR Codes was never one that was in the best interest of the business owner.

It is incredibly easy to create and print your own QR Code that can be used in a range of environments that better meet the needs of business. For example this site CreateQRcode.appspot.com uses Google’s QR code API to allow a user to embed any URL in the code and print at a range of different sizes. It’s as simple as deciding which web page should be referenced in which campaign and pasting the URL in. The QR Code graphic is then generated in a choice of different sizes.

QR Codes could be added to newspaper ads, yellow page ads, billboards, business cards, TV commercials and signage. They are a useful way to encourage online engagement from the offline world. One suggestion that I have been making of late to clients with heavy foot traffic is to use the code to drive mobile shoppers directly to the Google mobile rating/review entry screen so as to facilitate the process….. here is the “recipe:

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FTC Extracts $250,00 Fine for Affiliate Reviews & Endorsements

Bill Hartzer highlighted this recent FTC fine levied on Legacy Learning Systems for having its affiliate seller network aggressively laud the product on their websites in close proximity to affiliate purchase link back to Legacy’s site. The FTC argued that these affiliate websites “falsely posed as ordinary consumers or independent reviewers” and thus violated the FTC rules requiring endorsement disclosure.

It appears that Legacy Learning Systems was actively recruiting this “Review Ad” affiliate network. As part of the settlement they agreed to monitor the network and be responsible for any future behavior of the affiliates. An onerous task indeed.

Eric Goldman’s blog summarizes the issue as follows:

What did the reviewers do wrong?: Reviewers did not disclose that they were affiliates of Legacy – i.e., received a cut of the sales, and in some cases were paid to review Legacy products . These were not “the independent reviews reflecting the opinions of ordinary consumers.” (Examples of the reviews can be found in Exhibit A to the Complaint [pdf].) In some cases, the reviewer websites had disclosures, but the disclosures were anemic at best and were not contained in the posts themselves (e.g., “we are paid by some of the companies who’s [sic] products we review” – not exactly a robust disclaimer). [Italics added.]

Where did Legacy go astray: For one thing, Legacy called these affiliates “review ad” affiliates. I would probably avoid this terminology. The complaint did not include a copy of the affiliate terms, so we don’t know whether Legacy contractually required the affiliates to comply with the FTC’s guidelines or explained how to comply. The complaint also does not specify whether Legacy paid the reviewers for their reviews (it alleges that the affiliates received a cut of the sales), but judging from some of the reviews and the websites of the reviewers, and from Legacy’s suggestions to its affiliates, this seems to be the case (at least with some reviewers). Legacy offered suggested disclaimers (to affiliates) on its website but even these were ambiguous (“Affiliate Disclosure Requirements and Examples Legacy Learning Systems“):

[Suggested] Disclosure: We are a professional review site that receives compensation from the companies whose products we review. We test each product thoroughly and give high marks to only the very best. We are independently owned and the opinions expressed here are our own. [emphasis added]

Regardless of what Legacy may have suggested or required of its affiliates, Legacy also did not have any sort of compliance program to make sure that its affiliates made the necessary disclosures.

In this case, the FTC has essentially argued that affliates that are speaking highly of a product need to dislose that they are in fact benefiting from the product that they are touting. The FTC  previously fined an Ad Agency that posted fake reviews on iTunes on behalf of a client.

It is clear in this settlement that the FTC thinks any type of deceptive on-line self promotion is a violation of their guidelines. While this settlement does speak tangentally to the issue of online user reviews at review sites, the FTC has yet to directly the address the responsibility a business owner in encouraging faked reviews at sites like Google Places and Yelp.

Given the uptick in fake reviews coming from businesses large and small, one has to think that additional enforcement efforts focusing directly on businesses posting fake reviews can not be far in the future. From where I sit, it can happen none too soon.

5 Tips for Responding (or Not) to “Fake” Reviews

Reviews come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they are used to get back at a business for bad service but they can be used as well to settle a personal or political score in a public forum.

In this review and review response, it really isn’t totally clear who is telling the truth.

jared – Mar 8, 2011

TO ALL MY VALUED PATIENTS, FRIENDS AND FAMILY : This is Dr. Jared Anderson, and I am writing to address the appearance of several scathing reviews written about me by my ex-girlfriend, Christalyn Delzell, who apparently is not able to move on after the ending of our relationship over a year and a half ago. In the reviews, you will undoubtedly see one written by ‘Christlyn’, dated Nov. 14 in Google, and another nearly identical one written in Dexmedia, dated Oct. 17. When this was originally written, Google was not listing the identity of the authors for reviews, so I was left to assume it was her. Recently, Google has made the (wise) move of listing the first name of the authors of reviews, and I see it is indeed my ex-girlfriend, Christalyn Delzell who wrote this one. She also wrote a review of almost identical content and wording in eSouthernoregon….and any other site she could find. I assume the other scathing review written by ‘Martha’ (dated Dec. 30) is either a friend or a family member of Christalyn’s, because I have only one patient in my patient base by the first name Martha, and this person has never received the treatment described, and has certainly not been “kicked out” of my office. At any rate, ‘her’ full identity is being investigated presently. I have a sincere and thorough respect for all the patients I treat in my office, as do my staff, and we take tremendous pride in delivering the best dentistry available in a professional and caring manner. I would like to sincerely thank my patients for voting me “Ashland’s Favorite Dentist” again in 2011in the Sneak Preview magazine. This is the second time in 3 years that I have received this honor, and I feel this is a reflection of what one can expect when you come for treatment in my office. I hope that Christalyn Delzell can find peace and happiness in her world soon, and heal from whatever it is inside her that makes her feel that trying to damage my business is the right thing to do. In the meantime, I will continue to love the work that I do, and show up every day giving my patients the very best care possible in a SAFE, CARING AND COMPASSIONATE environment. Sincerley, Jared R. Anderson, DDS

Christalyn – 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.

Regardless by not measuring his response, the business owner has managed to make matters worse. He has provided what my kids refer to a TMI (too much information). What should he have done?
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Fake Reviews Starting to Get Mainstream Media Attention

The latter part of this otherwise lame ‘expose’ about deceptive hotel marketing practices from NBC’s 2/24 Today show highlights the issue of fake reviews.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Certainly the issue of fake reviews is both more pervasive and more common than the report indicates. Our industry has been reporting on cases of fake reviews for a long while.

While there has been a few cases of state and national government enforcement (contrary to the reporting on NBC), it has been extremely light.

Services promoting less than ethical review practices have sprung up. Even in the hinterlands, fake, purchased reviews are showing on Google with the ability to purchase reviews available through a number of channels.

While Google, Yelp and Tripadvisor have implemented some measures to limit fake reviews, the efforts have only been partially successful. Given the increasing media coverage of the issue, it seems probable that the FTC and State’s Attorney Generals are likely to pursue more aggressive enforcement going forward.

GetListed Spokane

Today, I am presenting at the seventh GetListed.org Local University in Spokane, WA. 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 on Google Maps 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

Testimonials as Reviews – A View from the Field

Last week after publication of the new Google Rich Snippets for Local FAQ and follow up comments by Carter Maslan, there was a great deal of discussion about what was best practice vis a vis testimonials on a SMB web site.

Clearly, when you focus on the client, having this type of content can be a good practice and as David Mihm pointed out there are a number of reasons that semantic markup of the testimonial information on an SMB website makes sense going forward, Carter’s ambiguous comments not withstanding.

All that being said, the question of how Google is actually handling testimonial information in Places is still of interest. Are they or are they not including it in the Places Pages as reviews?

The answer is yes, in a limited way.

The Data

I have been looking for examples of Google’s use of owner website pages as reviews since October of 2010. Some of these examples were discovered by research but many are user contributed (I apologize for the lack of credit but I just lost track of them all). I am sure that there are more examples of Google including testimonials on the Places Page and I would encourage you to send them along. It will add to the very limited view we now have of Google’s use of this content in practice.

I am presenting the data in two groups of results, hotels and SMBs, as I think that Google is handling the two cases differently.

Continue reading

Google Places: Respond To Review Fixed (Again)

The “Respond Publicly as the Owner” is now working once again. According to Stephen from Google, the respond to review feature for Places listing owners is now fixed. Reports in the forum indicate that those recently experiencing the problem are also noting the problem as fixed.

We’ve rolled out an update today that should resolve this issue for users that were having technical issues posting owner responses. Responses that did not show up on your listings after posting should have been restored.

If you are still experiencing issues with this feature please be sure of the following:

1. That you’ve verified your listing using Google Places [1].
2. That you’re logged into the Google account that has claimed the listing you are trying to post the response for.

If you are still experiencing the issue of being able to post a response but the response not showing up on your listing please let me know on the attached thread [2].

Stephan

The feature was rolled out in August but starting in September, reports starting rolling in as to a problem. Initially it was thought that users with their listing in two accounts were logging in with the less dominant listing and/or there was a browser compatibility problem.

That did explain some of the issues. Google did once report the problem as solved but again reported problems persisted throughout January and February.

Hopefully the problem is solved for good this time. We shall see.