Fake Google Reviews: What’s the Impact and How Can We Combat Them?
[UPDATE MARCH 17th, 2021: Google has released a free tool specifically for escalating review removal requests and managing and tracking those escalations. It’s not particularly suited to agencies that manage multiple businesses but it’s certainly worth trying as a first port of call when you need a review removed.]
As online reputation becomes more and more business critical, false reviews aiming to discredit competitors’ businesses are seeing a surge. Want to know how to get a fake review removed from your business listing? Read on to learn contributor Ben Fisher’s steps to flag Google 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 2019 BrightLocal did a study with local consumers and discovered some great statistics on how reviews are perceived. Some of the highlights are:
- 82% of consumers read reviews for local businesses
- Positive reviews make 91% of consumers more likely to use a local business
- 82% of consumers have read a fake review in the last year, though these weren’t always easy to spot
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 Google My Business 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.
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 SEOs 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 an 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?
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.
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.
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 guidelines for Google reviews and ensure the review or reviews you’ve identified as fake fall into one of the violations.
How to Get Fake Reviews Removed From Google My Business
Step 1: Consider responding to the Review
Before you get into the process of flagging and combating fake Google 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.
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 to Google
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.
(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 a 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!
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 Google should remove the review.
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:
- Your business name, address, phone number, website URL, and Google Maps link. [Editor’s note – you can easily access your Google links with our Google Review Link and Place ID Generator.]
- State why the review should be removed (again, be calm and remain professional)
- State which of the policies you feel is being violated
- State why you feel it is a fake review
- Prepare any documentation that supports your claim
- 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 Top Contributors 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 the review 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 the 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, or, you can report this yourself.
Before February 2019, you could head to the Spam & Policy section of the Google My Business community forum and create a post with details of your fake reviews. In February, Google released the Business Redressal Form, which allows businesses and marketers to report spam on GMB. You can find out more on tackling spam here.
You can also view other local marketers’ experiences with spam and fake Google reviews using #stopcraponthemap.
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.