Fake Reviews: What’s the Impact and How Can We Combat Them?

Fake Reviews: What’s the Impact and How Can We Combat Them?
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As online reputation becomes more and more business critical, fake reviews aiming to discredit competitors’ businesses are seeing a surge. Want to know how to get a Google review removed from your business listing? Read on to learn contributor Ben Fisher’s steps to flag reviews for removal in a way that’s most likely to see success.

In this day and age the attention economy is fueled in part by online reviews. In many cases the quantity and quality of reviews can make or break your business. Reviews bolster trust, and when a potential customer is comparing your business to another business it can be a major deciding factor when determining if they will want to even consider you as a potential vendor.

In 2017 BrightLocal did a study with local consumers and discovered some great statistics on how reviews are perceived. Some of the highlights are:

  • 85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations
  • Positive reviews make 73% of consumers trust a local business more
  • 79% of consumers have read a fake review in the last year, but a worrying 84% can’t always spot them.

That last stat should make any business owner concerned. Fake reviews can be really hard to spot by a human being.

What makes the problem of fake reviews even more concerning is that Google, even with all of their computing power, machine learning and artificial intelligence, can still not effectively detect review networks or swapping behaviors, they still allow for 1-5 star reviews with no content, and, to make matters worse, it doesn’t seem like they perceive fake reviews as a significant enough of a problem for them to effectively address it. And when they do try and address the issue, even they make mistakes.

For instance, in June of 2018, Google in their ultimate “wisdom”, decided that they would remove all reviews from “A Google User” (i.e. anonymous reviews) from Google My Business listings. The intent may have been good, as they were removing anonymous reviews that were created back in the Google+ days, but the effect was devastating to some business owners.

I was talking to a BBQ cleaning company on that day. We were going through GMB and troubleshooting some real issues, when the owner noticed that while they have 71 5-star reviews inside GMB, only 41 were displaying on Google Maps. 30 perfectly real, hard-earned reviews had disappeared overnight. Imagine if this happened to you or your client’s business? But, I digress… let’s get back to the subject at hand.

Google Local Guides Gamification

In June of 2017, Google implemented a system that gamified contributions to Google Maps. Local Guides would now earn points for leaving reviews.

Leaving a review initially netted you 5 points, but Google later added that if a Local Guide left a review of over 200 characters, they would get even more points. In April of 2018, they doubled the points. The unintended consequence of this action accelerated the influx of reviews by Local Guides and created an economy that could be likened to how SEO’s would buy links from websites with high PageRank. Now Local Guides with a high level could monetize their “standing” and sell their review services.

This has of course led to a slew of methods that are purely created to game the review system. Fake review groups are all over Facebook, business owners buy reviews or offer some kind of incentive to rack up the numbers, companies will make deals with each other to swap reviews, or as was shown in an example by fellow Google Top Contributor, Jason Brown, hiring a SEO company to swap reviews between multiple companies. Sometimes reviews are left to harass or defame, and in the most extreme of cases negative reviews are bought (or solicited) en masse to destroy the reputation of a business.

So when you are under attack by fake reviews, what can you do about it?

Red Hen Sarah Sanders Tweet

On June 23rd, The Red Hen Lex started suffering a kind of fake review attack after the restaurant’s owners decided not to serve US Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. This one was politically motivated, but the results for the business are the same.

As soon as her tweet was posted, The Red Hen Lex and another business (The Red Hen DC, which was confused as being the one that Sanders visited) were caught in the crossfire. Google locked down the reviews for both businesses, but take a look at how The Red Hen DC is responding to the reviews on Facebook and what you’ll see is a great example of how to defend yourself.

But for the people at The Red Hen Lex, matters started to spiral out of control.

Red Hen Google My Business

Image courtesy Joy Hawkins (Twitter)

After the now-infamous tweet, The Red Hen Lex received over 1,700 fake Google reviews, and countless reviews were still pouring in on Yelp (Yelp also locked down the reviews) and Facebook.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, when you get attacked by reviews, there are certain things that you can do to combat them. In this scenario, Google was alerted by a Top Contributor and the malicious reviews were removed immediately and any more review activity was locked down to stop the attack.

Yelp was probably contacted by someone and they put up a warning that no more reviews would be allowed.

Red Hen Yelp

How you choose to deal with fake reviews is, in the end, up to you. Some people will go as far as to try legal action, but this is not a great way to go about combating fake reviews.

Let’s go over some ways you can deal with a fake review with Google My Business (as most of the principles apply to other review sites as well).

Briefly, there are different kinds of reviews that can be considered “fake”, so make sure you have read the Google guidelines for reviews and ensure the review or reviews you’ve identified as fake fall into one of the violations.

How to Get Reviews Removed From Google My Business

Step 1: Consider responding to the Review

Before you get into the process of flagging and combating fake reviews, it’s worth considering responding to the review first.

You may not get the review removed, but at least you can show your customers and prospective clients that you care, that you are dedicated to resolving complaints, and that you take reviews seriously.

Be calm. Do not take anything personally. Do some diligence based on the situation you are handling. I know that the process of getting a review removed can be just as frustrating as reading the review itself, but be calm and professional in every step of the process. Google even has some tips on how to properly respond to a review.

Google's Tips on How to Respond to a Review

If you cannot answer in a polite manner, then do not respond. I have seen some owner responses that are more damaging to a business’ reputation than the fake review itself.

Step 2: Flag the review

Once the above has been considered, the next step is to flag the review itself. This can be done on Google Maps, or in a much better case scenario, inside of business.google.com (GMB).

To flag the review on desktop, bring up the review and click on the flag next to the review.

How to flag a Google Review

(By the way, the above review is not intended as an example of a fake review.)

Flagging a review inside of Google My Business is more effective as you’ll have greater chance of Google reviewing your request.

Another benefit of doing this is that you’ll get a response from Google stating they got your request!

How to Flag a Review in Google My Business

Wait at least three days before moving onto the next step.

Step 3: Describe your case

While you are waiting for the review to be removed, put together a clear, concise explanation as to why the review should be removed.

First, document the URL of the review. To do this, click on the name of the user that left the review, then select the review itself, and when you only see your review under the person’s name, copy the URL. You’ll need this in order to get support from Google later.

Prepare the following information:

  1. Your business name, address, phone number, website URL, and Google Maps link. (Pro Tip: Getting your business link is really easy using the Get Five Stars Chrome Extension)
  2. State why the review should be removed (again, be calm and remain professional)
  3. State which of the policies you feel is being violated
  4. State why you feel it is a fake review
  5. Prepare any documentation that supports your claim
  6. Get your Case ID (more on this later)

Anecdote time: I saw a great escalation the other day. It was a competitor claiming that the owner had left a review for his business. I will tell you this much: Google and TC’s will not do the digging for you all the time, so it is best to put on your investigator’s hat. This person proved that the reviewer was indeed the owner by providing his LinkedIn profile, which showed that the name of the owner was on the website that was attached to the GMB Listing.

The resolution? Google removed 2 days later.

Step 4: Get support from Google

Okay, so you waited three days and no response? Now what? Time to head to Twitter and ask for support from Google. Send them a direct message, including the above information and wait a few days to get a response (usually 5-7 days).

You can also use Google Online Chat or a make a phone call and have a live conversation with a representative. They will normally email you back within 2-3 days.

Either way, you will get an email with a Case ID in the subject line. Write this down!

Step 5: Ask the Google My Business community for help

So let’s assume that your problem is not a single review, or you have not yet received a desired response from Google. The next step you can take is to ask the community for help. A Top Contributor may be able to look at the problem and escalate it to Google directly if it is appropriate.

Head to the Spam & Policy section of the Google My Business community forum and create a post. Then wait for a reply. There are a lot of threads in the community and it may take time to get a response. The case you created for Google earlier, along with any escalation ID’s from previous attempts, will help greatly with your success in this step.

I recommend reading this post from Joy Hawkins on how to properly format a request, as it will greatly enhance your chance of getting a resolution.

Step 6: Take a chill pill

Sit back, take a deep breath, do not stress. I know you feel like this is putting you out of business, and you’re thinking, “How dare someone do this to me? I’m losing millions per day!”

Relax. There is not much more you can do at this point and getting frustrated will only lead you to make some bad decisions which can cause the situation to get much worse.

As an example, someone posted on the forums and did not get a resolution in 24 hours. They updated the thread that they had permanently closed the listing since they did not want any more bad reviews.

This not only removed the capability of responding to the reviews, but Google came back and said they could not help them since the listing was closed.

At the end of the day, a negative review is not the end of the world. No business is perfect and consumers expect to see some negative reviews.

So take the time to get positive reviews. Respond to negative reviews, get reviews removed if they are indeed fake, but always remember it’s not the end of the world.

I’d love to hear what you think

If you have some stories about your experience in combating fake reviews, please share them in the comments.

Ben Fisher is a Google My Business Top Contributor, and an experienced veteran in SEO and social since 1994. He’s the co-founder of Steady Demand which works with agencies and businesses to maximize outsourced Local SEO and Social Media. He can be reached on Twitter at @TheSocialDude or @SteadyDemand.

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13 thoughts on “Fake Reviews: What’s the Impact and How Can We Combat Them?”

    1. Hi Nikki, thanks for your comment. Really happy to hear our content can help educate local businesses!

      Thanks

      Jamie

  1. I have a fake or untruthful Review that has been posted on at least 20 review sites. All the same person. Even on google… she tells the world i did a no show to clean their house and the truth is I never told her i was coming in the first place.Because I never heard back from her. But google and yelp all of them let this 1 star remain and it is so far from the truth. You can see she just wanted to drop my ranking because she pasted the review every where. People who do that just have a control problem. but I cant get it removed. And that is so unfair.. Reviews are supposed to inform the public how a business performs, when they paste a lie and leave a 1 star in 20 spots, thats just someone out to get you a bum ranking score.

    1. Hi Vickie, thanks for sharing your story.

      It’s a dreadful situation to be in, to feel so helpless when someone is trying to damage your reputation. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common scenario. We’re very much of the view that, if consumers are going to continue to use review sites, they need to be able to trust them, and review sites need to put in place stricter guidelines around fake reviews and enforce them.

      Here’s hoping that day comes sooner rather than later!

      Jamie

    2. Hi Vickie, it is hurtful emotionally to see that happen. Unfortunately the sites will more than likely keep the review. Focus on getting great reviews, don’t let one person bum you out.

  2. I have seen more businesses hurt themselves by replying to negative reviews in anger or by attacking the reviewer. Until this past month, Google users never received notification of the owner’s reply. However potential clients will see the replies. While they may be inclined to over a look a negative review, they will be more inclined to pass on a business with a rude or nasty employee lashing out. Take all emotion out of your reply. Your goal is to demonstrate what responsible and level-headed business you are and to attempt to mediate and work out the issue that caused the negative review in the first place. Most negative reviewers just want to be heard. Change your perspective of needing to defend yourself and focus on rectifying the situation. More flies with honey than with vinegar.

    1. A negative review is not the same as a fake review though. I received two fake reviews from some kid in the USA. He commented on a YouTube video of mine to tell me what he had done. Little shit!

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