NY Attorney General Comes Down on Review Abuses – Again

Today, NY attorney General  Schneiderman announced a  settlement with four companies in regards posting fraudulent content in the form of reviews and pay for play testimonials. Penalties ranged from $20,000 to $50,000 and included both NY and Californian companies.

Schneiderman has led the states in enforcement in this area having previously settled similar review abuse cases in the fall of 2013. Settlements were announced with four companies; Machinima, Premier Retail Group, ESIOHInternet Marketing and Rani Spa.

Machinima, Inc. is a California-based online entertainment network that distributes video content relating to video games that paid “influencers” to endorse the Microsoft Xbox and certain games. In return for free and pre release access, the influencers posted YouTube videos and received as much as $30,000 in payment but failed to disclose that Machinima had offered compensation in exchange for creating and uploading the videos.

Premier Retail Group, Inc. is a chain of cosmetic and beauty supply stores with locations throughout the US and NY “solicited reviewers through advertisements posted on Craigslist.org to write positive reviews in exchange for free samples, free vouchers or other compensation. There was no requirement that the reviewer visit a Premier Retail Group location or that the reviewers disclose that they were compensated for the review”. The company paid reviewers $25 for each review link submitted and an additional $50 if the review was still standing in two weeks. They paid for “over 30 fraudulent reviews” and incurred a fine of $50,000. $30,000 of that fine is suspended if they comply with the terms of the agreement. (some quick math: 35 review cost 35 X $75 +$20,000 for a net cost of $646 per review).

Here2Four, Incorporated, d/b/a ESIOH Internet Marketing, is a California internet marketing company that “solicited over 50 freelance writers on websites such as Craigslist.org and Fiverr.com to write over 200 fake reviews of its small-business clients for $10 to $15 per [ficticous] review”. Apparently some of which were filtered by Yelp. Their fine was $15,000.

Rani Spa operates several locations in NYC and on Long Island that contracted with a Canadian businessman  who “offered to boost Rani Spa’s online reputation by posting fictitious positive reviews on Yelp.com”.

“[He] explained in an email how he only posts one review per day so as not to ‘make it look suspicious’ and get past Yelp’s spam review filter”. He charged “$300 per month. Not $300 to get 4.5 stars because of the difficulty”.

Rani Spa agreed to stop posting fake reviews and agreed to a fine of $50,000. $48,000 of that fine is suspended assuming compliance and in consideration of the “financial condition of the company”.

Obviously, NY State is NOT fake review friendly.

In the spirit of full disclosure I am a principal in the reputation development company GetFiveStars.com.

JC Penny’s Offers $500 Sweepstake Entry for a Review – Is it legal?

My wife is redoing our living room and recently ordered replacement curtains from JC Penny.  As you know I also helped create GetFiveStars (although I am not helping with the living room) but anything in regards to reviews gets my attention. So I was surprised last week when JC Penny asked me to write a review about the curtains.:

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Several other things about it surprised me as well. One was that the call to action to write the review link was tiny, effectively buried in the bold red graphics. And secondly it surprised me that there was a sweepstakes contest at all. Aren’t contests for reviews illegal?

I dutifully clicked the link to be brought to a review and survey page that could only have been written by a committee with more requests for more types of feedback, reviews & ratings than any one human is likely to ever complete. Although now the stakes seem to have been raised to $1000 from the original $500.

Submit a new review-without-highlight
Click to view larger
Ever curious, I continued to scroll down the page trying to figure the whole thing out when I saw, far down the page, that I needed to opt in to the sweepstakes via a check the box to be eligible:

Submit a new review copy-check-box

Never one to be slowed by a long form and what turned into an even longer set of rules, I clicked the See Details link and started reading the rules required for me to enter into the contest. As I read through the 2051 words that made up the guidelines I came upon the one nugget detailed about one fourth of the way in that lead to the epiphany:


Effectively that buried requirement would mean that 1)the contest was in fact legal 2)that very few souls would actually enter the contest by checking the check box and that 3)even if they did, they still wouldn’t know they needed to have the “secret code words” in their reviews to enter the contest. Those users that did check the box and dutifully wrote the review would not realize that they were not in the contest. The way its arranged JC Penny might not even be out the $500 (or is it $1000?).

The legality: Why did this make the review incentive legal? Incentives per se are not against the FTC rules. What is against the rules is not noting the incentives in the reviews so that readers would know that the reviews may have been influenced by money. These reviews would clearly indicate that.

The unlikely outcome: Given the length of the form, the almost hidden requirement for the opt in and the arcane requirements for entry mean that most reviews will not in fact be eligible to win the contest. But, because those users that did write reviews but didn’t make the Sweepstakes Entry comment weren’t actually entered into the contest, they were likely legal.

This “crafty” program will mean JC Pennys will get lots of reviews with promise of reward without the users actually entering the contest or being eligible for the reward.

Illegal? No or probably not. Totally disingenuous and deceptive yes. A plan that was likely concocted by a Reputation management expert and a lawyer. What a combo.

But I persisted. And I am now one of the (likely) few entrants in the contest. I will let you know if I win (and how much).

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Video: A Look Back (& Forward) at “The Big 4” in Local

Join Mary bowling, Aaron Weiche and myself at LocalU.org as we discuss the past year and the major directions of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon in Local. What are the trends and how should you respond?Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 10.05.27 AM



The Deep Dive Video Series is a weekly discussion of an important aspect of Local. They are part of our weekly update (paywall) that appear first on the Local U forum.

Here are some recent previous Deep Dives that will give you a flavor of the ongoing discussions:

We hope you will join us at LocalU for this regular feature.

Google Trusted Verifier Program – What is it? Where is it?

Early today at Linda’s forum and the Local U forum it was reported that Google had rolled out a Google Trusted Verifier Program that allowed folks in the field to verify a business while on site, using an Android app. It now appears that the help files were released prematurely and they were all removed from Google or only made available to beta testers. .

We have posted some of high level details from the now removed documentation on the Local U Blog.

Become a Google Trusted Tester for New GMB/Adwords Products

Living_Crash_Test_Dummies_2Google is looking for folks to test upcoming SMB products:

The Google My Business and Ads teams are working on several new product features in 2016 to improve overall merchant/advertiser engagement and value. Before releasing these products/features to the general public, we want to beta test them with a group of trusted business testers who are willing to use these features and provide detailed feedback to our product team to help them improve the experience.

We are looking to build a group of business Trusted Testers based in the US who meet these requirements:

Willing to test out early stage products and features, and use the products consistently

  • Have less than 100 employees
  • Willing to provide feedback to our product team
  • Willing to sign a confidentiality agreement
  • Preferred (not required) existing GMB or AdWords/AdWords Express user, a plus!

Google has noted that if you meet these requirements or know of a business that does, you can fill out this form, or send the form directly to the business. If the business meets their requirements, they will reach out with next steps and more information.

Google Implements Direct Knowledge Panel Editing on Desktop and Mobile

Google has confirmed that they are now allowing a business to directly edit their business information via the Knowledge Panel and the Local Finder on the desktop and mobile WITHOUT visiting the Google My Business Dashboard.

Prya Chandra reported earlier today on G+ a new Knowledge Panel interface that allows direct editing of a local listing to correct errors in the local information.

However, when you are logged into Google on the desktop with an account that has the ownership or management of the listing, this edit mode allows for direct updating of your business information without needing to go the Google My Business Dashboard.  The information will flow, in essentially real time, back to the dashboard and out the listing wherever it might show.

However, a listing owner is still unable to edit things like menu or booking links that frequently go awry.

This was first reported as a future feature by Barry Scwartz at SeoRoundtable based on a comment by Gary Illyes at State of Search in mid November.

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When you click on suggest an edit you are presented with a direct edit screen of basic information for a business.


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If you are logged in as a manager or owner of the listing edits get approved immiediately


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The edits show up in real time in the Google My Business Dashboard
Editing is also allowed in the mobile browser interface. Note that the hour change appeared there immediately as well
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upon completion of the KP edit I received this confirmation.

This new edit capability is available in the Knowledge Panel and the Local Finder on the desktop AND mobile but is not available via Google Maps. One assumes that this same interface will make its way into Google Maps desktop and mobile in the near future.

I am curious to know if this has rolled out internationally. If you live in Canada, Europe, Australia please let me know. I assume that it has.

The real question about this change is what is the future of the Google My Business Dashboard? With its current limited functionality businesses will have even less motivation to visit it.

Google Local: Direct to Knowledge Panel Updates via Schema

Imagine a world where multi location business no longer have to continually mess with the Google My Business bulk dashboard and could have a direct feed of their critical location data to the Knowledge Panel via their website with schema markup.  Apparently that world is right around the corner.

Rohan Ayyar of E2M pointed out on Twitter the fact that Google had recently moved the local schema page from Webmaster section of their website to a new Google Developer page and announced the pilot using schema to directly populate the Knowledge Panel and local database with location data :

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 7.26.02 AM

Google recommended the use of JSON-LD as the data format and to use the most specific LocalBusiness sub-type possible “e.g. RestaurantDaySpaHealthClub.”

The specification supports the standard array of schema options including address, lat-long and phone as well as the recently added place actions like reservations and ordering, special hours and departmental detail.  For more examples visit this page.

With this direct schema to Knowledge Panel pilot and the broad rollout of the Google My Business API, Google is signaling a more open and flexible approach to allowing multi location businesses to provide detailed location information to Google.

It is a radical shift from the day of “do it our way, or the highway” approach that has long affected Google’s local efforts. The question remains as to whether Google’s crawling and populating the local database can keep up with updating the Knowledge Panel in time to deal with the messy world of not just opening hours but other changing realities. It would seem for example that it would work best with businesses that don’t change hours that frequently and use the special hours feature well in advance for those days that don’t fit the norm. Whether Google can keep up with the ever changing hour needs of the amusement parks of the world is another question.

If you are currently in the pilot or know of any companies that are, I would love to hear how it is going.


Google My Business Releases V2.0 of the GMB API

API-V2aToday Google is releasing of V2.0 of Google My Business API and has just updated their website with new information about the open API.

The V1 was originally released in mid October to a limited audience and with a limited feature set. V2 is being opened up to anyone and comes with a number of new features. Unfortunately access to Insights, review or verifcation are not among them.

Features included in this release are the ability to:

  • Create business locations
  • Manage special hours
  • Mark a location as permanently closed
  • Manage business photos
  • Invite & remove managers on locations and business acounts
  • Read listing state to identify listings that are Google updated, duplicates or suspended
  • Filter locations by name, category or label
  • Set the service area by specifying a point and radius

Features that are not supported by this release of the GMB API and must still be done manually with the location dashboard:

  • Insights
  • Reviews
  • Verification
  • Creating Business Accounts
  • Resolving issues with suspended or duplicate listings
  • Requesting Ownership
  • Ability to query user generated content associated with the listing

Obviously these missing features make the API less useful in any business oriented forward facing dashboard an agency might design but the API should still facilitate managing the basics of listings at scale.

There are several other limitations including the fact that accounts that have not been bulk verified can only manage 100 locations. This will force agencies that manage a lot of individual locations to have multiple accounts to do so.

By default an API account (known as a basic account) allows for 1000 edits/creates per day, and 100,000 reads per day. Apparently application can be made for a standard account that has a higher daily edit rate of 10,000 edits/creates per day.

Screenshot 2015-12-14 13.40.01An interesting feature for those managing Adwords for clients but not managing their GMB listings is the ability to use the API to create/update listings and and then link unverified locations in the GMB to their Adwords campaigns.

Google has released a new set of documentation for the GMB API that includes guides, reference materials as well as samples and client libraries downloads for Java, C# & PHP and the Google API discovery service. Google has also made available a complete list of categories by country with this release. The FAQ can be view here.



LocalU Blog: Video Deep Dive: Google Local Gets a Promotion

In this video discussion at the LocalU forum David Mihm, Mary Bowling and I look at how the role of Google Local at Google and where does it fit vis a vis Plus and search.

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In thinking about the role of Local at Google, going forward we look at a number of interesting recent developments as well as the forced separation from Google Plus and consider the implications of these moves. Has the importance of local decreased or increased at Google?

Developing Knowledge about Local Search