Video Deep Dive: A Look at Review Spam with Jason Brown & Joy “The Hawk” Hawkins
Mike Blumenthal


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Mike: Hi. Welcome to Deep Dive. This week we’re going to be exploring reviews in depth and review spam particularly in depth with Jason Brown, an SEO with Over the Top Marketing and owner of the site, and Joy Hawkins who most of you shouldn’t need introduction to, but I’ll introduce you anyways, author of “Experts Guide to Local Search“. Hawkins started her own agency called Sterling Sky, lives in Toronto, Google top contributor. Jason probably has all these things, too, I just don’t happen to don’t know about him. So, you’re going have to suck it up, Jason, sorry. So anyways, why don’t we kick it off? I ask a few questions and feel free to interrupt me at any time.

Joy, what types of review spam do you see? What are the categories of review spam?

Joy: Yeah. I’d say on the worse end, there would be fake negative reviews, which is the concept of someone going out and posting negative reviews for a competitor. I’m seeing an increase in those and then…

Mike: Are you seeing those at scale or just sort of individual competitors sort of getting a bug up their bonnet and posting?

Joy: Usually, there’s multiples. So normally when someone wants to post negative reviews, they post a lot, not just one for a competitor.

Mike: And you think those are purchased or are they done just sort of as a hobby on the side?

Joy: The majority that I’ve dealt with, I don’t think are purchased. I think it’s literally the person doing it or getting their friends to do it, something of that nature.

Mike: Okay.

Joy: Those are probably the worst as far as being malicious. And then next to that would be purchased positive reviews. So, one of those review swap groups that are like … buy a five review for $5 or pay a marketing company to post reviews on your behalf. There are a lot of those. So I’d say that’s probably the most common that we see.

Mike: Do you see a lot of associations — lawyers, for example — getting together and reviewing each other?

Joy: Yes. Review swaps are very common and I think they’re common because people don’t have to pay, right? It’s like, “I’ll give you a review, you give me a review.” It’s no better than having someone on Fiverr reviewing you from some foreign IP address. Those are pretty common. And then I would say also we see…I’m careful not to label this as a spam, but it’s technically against Google guidelines but it would be the concept of having friends review you or people that never interacted with your business. Another common thing we see is people will have companies they’re clients of review them. So for example, I hire a Google photographer and I pay them, and then leave a review for my business, which is pretty common. Those are not allowed either.

Mike: So, Jason, what is Google — how do you see Google’s sense of what’s a fake review? I mean, clearly I think in the forums, we see a lot of small businesses coming in and saying, “Oh, I never did business with this customer.”

Jason: Yeah. And those are the hardest ones to prove, as Joy has pointed out time and time again. Google allows for people to aliases. So it’s really hard to tell if it’s a customer or not. But usually it’s the people that are complaining that it’s a negative fake review that’s, it’s a one-time reviewer or just a star rating. But Google defines anything as a fake review as in anything that’s purchased, it’s a not real accurate customer interaction. Anything that’s obvious where they’re going around and they’re reviewing 27 lawyers all in 18 different states. That’s what Google really considers a fake review because it’s not an actual personal experience.

Mike: But Google does not require that the person be a purchaser, just that they have an experience with the business. And that’s considered legitimate. I think a lot of small businesses confuse that and think that just because somebody has, they don’t have in their business records, therefore, it must be a fake review.

Jason: Yeah. And I’ve seen it where a business got dinged because a customer didn’t like the parking lot. There wasn’t adequate space for them to park their big rig and so they left a negative review against the business. And even though it doesn’t have anything to do with the business, Google is like, “It’s still a personal interaction.” Or, the other thing…sorry.

Mike: Oh, go ahead.

Jason: The other thing we see, Mike. Sorry. The other thing we see is, somebody will call up and have a bad experience with the receptionist or whoever answers the phone and they’ll leave a negative review and they’re like, “Well, they weren’t a customer,” but it’s still that personal interaction with the business.

Mike: I know you’ve done a lot of work with in terms or looking at review fraud at scale. And I know you’ve been looking at it, as I have, over a long period of time. Are you seeing any trends in that?

Jason: Well, okay, so one marketing company actually has kind of lost their clientele. So I’ve noticed that those businesses that were identified about a year ago between you and I, I’ve noticed a massive decrease and they stopped posting their reviews. One of the businesses just won’t stop and they just keep doing it, it’s part of their ORM strategy, online reputation management. So I’m noticing that they’re still going out there and then posting the fake reviews and it’s beyond obvious that it’s fake reviews.

So, I’ve seen it taper off there, but, between you and I and Joy, I mean, we’ve been watching this. It’s been going on for over two years now where businesses are just continuing to get away with it and then all of a sudden they’re getting caught and they’re being exposed. And once they get exposed, then they’re like that deer caught in the headlights, and they get kind of nervous.

Mike: So, Joy, what’s the best mechanism for…if you find a competitor with obvious fake reviews or if you have a negative, if you think you’re being subject to negative review attack, what’s the best way to report them?

Joy: Yeah. So if it’s a review on your business, so if someone is leaving you negative reviews, I would definitely say online chat is the best forum to use, mainly just because they found that the operators are inside the U.S., they’re fast, they actually call you back usually within like 24 to 48 hours. So I’ve had a really good experience there, but only if the reviews are for you. If you’re reporting a competitor, on the other hand, best place is definitely the Google My Business forum. And that’s kind of my preference because they actually follow up with you and let you know what happened, whereas like I’ve reported them at Twitter or Facebook before, and they’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, we’ll escalate these, but we can’t update you because it’s not your business.” I’m like, “So what do I do? Like just assume like you looked at it or…” it’s kind of frustrating.

Mike: One of the things that I’ve learned in that process is that you need to spoon-feed Google massive amounts of related data in very explicit ways. I have in the past submitted obvious examples of spam networks and thought, “Well, this is clear. I just gave them 10 examples, they’re all related. They should be able to find the thousand related ones.” They don’t seem to take that initiative or have tools that make that easy.

Joy: No. You literally have to list out every review. I’ve done it before where like my list was 75 for one business. Ridiculous. So, yeah, you do have to list out everything and also explain how you know it’s fake, like, don’t just assume that they’re going to look at it and know.

Mike: Yeah. And this was very frustrating for me because the pattern was what was interesting to me and it was the pattern that was reflected in these 10 reviews. And I had to go back and give them 80 and then they took those 80, and about 800, and then I had to go back and give them the 800, and then I had to go back and give them the 8,000. It’s like, “Holy Christ, my tools are more sophisticated than your tools? How could that be?”

Joy: Yeah. It’s astounding.

Jason: It is.

Mike: So are you seeing any improvement in response to these, Jason? Are you seeing Google being any more or less — are they taking down any more algorithmically than before? You’re still seeing same numbers?

Jason: Yeah, still seeing the same numbers. I mean, once a news story goes, I noticed that within 12 hours, another fake review is getting yanked down right away. And so trying to get more markets to buy in on the story — that I noticed. But, I thought there was a point in time where we had a re-escalation on one business and Google came in, within two days and took down the reviews. But, I mean, Joy and I are waiting on, I don’t know, what?

Joy: Months.

Jason: Thousands of businesses with fake reviews right now. I mean, we’re looking at, I think what, 30,000 reviews that need to come down.

Mike: Wow.

Joy: Just from one network. So, I mean, that’s just one network. There’s lots of others.

Mike: Yeah. So I would just say to the listeners that Google has a hierarchy of priority in terms of what they choose to deal with. One of those is, if you want something taken down right away, it’s quite clear that they respond to local newscasts because they don’t want it to become a national newscast. So if you’re in a major market and you have a relationship with a news reporter and share this information with them, they might respond to that more quickly than if you’re in that specific limited sense. Now, it doesn’t mean they’re going to take down all of the related network reviews in the other 49 major markets, but they will take those down. That’s true. It’s how Google rolls. It’d be interesting, I mean, some of these have such obvious patterns one has to ask, “Why don’t they have machine learning that can pick these patterns up?” And what’s your theory on that?

Joy: Yeah, I don’t know. They just don’t care?

Mike: I mean, that’s the obvious conclusion after years of beating your head against the wall, right? So it’s like what, you can’t see the obvious patterns?

Jason: Yeah. And I always think what Joel Headley at Onward back in November, and he said, they just haven’t put any time, energy, and effort into review spam monitoring. They just kind of did it for a while and then just kind of turned their back and focus on everything else they’re pushing on. I mean, as you both have covered and we’ve seen, there have been countless changes to the GMB over the last year and the half, and I think they’re more focused on the new toys and tools, and options, than they are in regards to what they could be doing to, weed out the review spam. And the other thing is, we also noticed with like the fake business listings and keyword spamming, those are the ones that are the most notorious for getting the fake reviews. They said about brand listing and within an hour, they’ve got five fake reviews and the business never even existed.

Mike: That’s a good point. So, Joy, what kind of penalties are you seeing when you do report these different types of reviews?

Joy: So, I wish I could say I’d seen more. Only as of recent, like, in the last month have I even seen like real penalties for businesses that are purchasing or, somehow getting lots of fake positive reviews. So there have been two cases I’ve seen, both fairly recently within, say, the last month or two, and they’re both attorneys where basically because of the amount of reviews they had that were not legit, Google actually removed every single review. And it was probably like four to five years worth of reviews on both these cases. So I’d say that’s like, definitely a penalty because they lost legitimate reviews as a result of fakes ones. In both cases, the majority of their reviews were fake.

So, I mean, that’s why I’m saying it’s like a penalty, but I kind of wish they would do that more frequently because they do it with incentives. If they catch a business offering incentives for reviews, they will remove all reviews within that time period. In one case on the forum, the guy was able to give me, I think it was like a picture of something, that showed they were offering a discount and it was on their site according to the Way Back Machine for like five years. So Google removed five years worth of reviews. But, again, those are like edge cases, you know?

Mike: So incentives are an interesting are for me because it crosses the whole spectrum of issues that a small business or business confronts in terms of service at the review site, in terms of the legal requirements from within the state and/or federal authorities as well as consumer attitudes towards the incentives. Obviously, the major review sites all have a rule against incentives — Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google, although Facebook might have and one would never know if they did because they would say it or enforce it. But one presumes they have that somewhere buried deep in their system. But clearly, there’s that.

So if you get caught incentivizing reviews at those sites and somebody turns you in, they get removed. But there’s also a legal imperative that most people are not aware of and that’s the sort of came out of the pay-to-play sort of era of radio in which the federal advertising bodies and the state advertising bodies, in the case of the United States the Federal Communications, FTC, and the states, State Attorney General, which state that if you incentivize reviews or testimonials and use them in your marketing, then it’s incumbent upon you as the business to make sure that you’ve noted that these are in fact incentivized. So obviously, that doesn’t work with Google because if you noted they were incentivized, they’d come down immediately, but this is in terms of first-party reviews in your website. If you’re incentivizing reviews, it’s imperative that they be noted.

But I think that there is actually a bigger danger in incentivizing reviews. I’ve seen this happen where a business incentivized $5 off the next purchase, reviews good or bad. And what happened was, several users then who had a bad experience posted comments — and this was in Yelp where the negative is going to for sure show — negative comments that said, “This business had been offering incentives, and therefore all of their reviews are suspect.” To some extent, that’s almost the worst thing that could happen. So there’s a lot of sort of very rough waters in the review incentive worlds and yet we still see, “Oh, well, I’m not telling them to give me a good or a bad review, let’s do an incentive attitude in both in the forums and in small businesses.” I guess they haven’t got the memo yet, huh?

Joy: Well, but the thing that business owners don’t really understand Google’s guidelines, either. Like most of the time — I talk to business owners all the time and I ask them flat out like, “Was your SEO company posting reviews for you? Because it looks like it based on your reviews.” And they’re like, “I’m not certain, but probably.” Like they don’t seem to be aware of what is going on.

Mike: Yeah. That’s interesting. So in terms of agencies dealing with this, what is your recommendation? Do you think this is a tactical, I mean, an area that they should explore in terms of impacting they’re … up the competition? Do you think that they should turn, run away if a client asked them to do this? I mean, what do you think the choices are at an agency level?

Joy: Well, we do it. And I can say that the results are definitely like good, in the sense that if you’re being outranked by someone who’s got, 500 reviews and you’ve got 20, and their 500 reviews are, obviously fake, then getting rid of them and leveling the play field is a smart thing to do. I know sometimes people feel slimy about reporting competitors, but it’s one of those things that if Google doesn’t catch it algorithmically, what are your options? You either leave it and let them continue to slaughter you, or you do something about it. So I’m always a big fan of doing something.

Mike: Yeah. I’ve always reconciled it that it’s different in local where consumers are expecting the truth, not just relevance. It’s one thing to not report bogus websites because it’s Google job to figure out which websites are relevant, and which aren’t. In local, though, given that Google doesn’t really know and given that consumers are expecting truth, not just relevance, then there’s a third party involved in this that needs protection and is not being adequately protected either by the legal authorities or by Google in this case. And so I don’t have any problem reporting fake reviews. I don’t see it as slimy or not. It just is a reality of the world we live in. There’s a balance between the consumer, the business and Google and I see one of the things I can do is help sort of do that balance.

Joy: No. I definitely agree. it’s not helpful to a consumer to see a bunch of fake reviews. Usually, they are crappy companies, like usually the ones that have to buy reviews and they have to buy them because they wouldn’t get them naturally. So those aren’t the businesses that I want to be like, “Oh, that’s a five-star rated review business,” because it’s not true exactly. So it’s literally lying.

Mike: All right. So it’s probably time for us to wrap up. I’m going to give each one comment or question that you think is important now going forward. So, Jason, why don’t I start with you.

Jason: Sure. My question is who’s Google’s user? So is it the consumers that are searching? Is it the businesses on it? Or is it the spammers that have got carte blanche to do what they want with GMB? Another thing Google needs to figure out.

Mike: They would clearly state it’s the consumer. But, obviously, their behaviors don’t reinforce that, do they? And, Joy, what thought would you leave our listeners with?

Joy: I posted a guide recently on the Google My Business forum. They have a section for articles and, basically, the guide, I think it’s called How to Properly Report Spam on the Forum. So it’s just for anyone that’s kind of new at this and they are looking to report some stuff on the Google My Forum. Read through that guide first, because it will kind of show them what items we need in order to actually be able to escalate something. A lot of people don’t include the proper information and then it just, goes back and forth. So I suggest checking that out.

Mike: Great. Great suggestion. Well, thank you very much for joining us, Jason and Joy. Thank you to the audience for listening to us one week again. We’ll see you next week for a Deep Dive in Local. Thank you very much again. Bye-bye.

Jason: Bye.

Joy: Bye.

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