My Google Home Assistant has heard me ask many things, from “Hey, Google…play Fleetwood Macs’ greatest hits,” to “Hey, Google…add red curry paste to my shopping list.” And, often, she gets me and complies.
Recently, I asked “Hey, Google…which pizzerias have the best ratings?” to which it provided a list of many within a 16 KM radius.
And then, just like an instant Google-sponsored advertisement in my social stream, I received a call from a Toronto CBC News reporter doing a story on a local restaurant that was being called out for buying fake 5-star reviews.
The subsequent interview on influence marketing best practices and the perils of buying Google reviews reminded me of “Shazedur Rahmen,” a person who seemingly hops around the globe partaking in the offering of local businesses and reviews their inevitable excellent quality – all on the same day or within days of each other. Her airline points must be off the charts.
As reported by Mike Blumenthal, based on her online Google Local reviews, she purchased a wedding ring in Israel, hired a PI to track her husband down in Cebu Pacific, then had her cell phone fixed in both Toronto and Vancouver at the same time, soon before hiring a pest control company at homes in both New York City and San Antonio, Texas. Oh, and she must have been travelling with her kids since she positively reviewed a dentist who cleaned her child’s teeth while in Austin.
Her global exploits reviewing businesses around the globe go much further than this and, of course, they’re all fake. But does Google know? Probably. Do they remove these obvious fake reviews? More than often, no.
The problem is that it’s hard to detect fake reviews and reviewers as there’s no verification of the purchase or – often – that it’s a real person. While Google did introduce Verified Customer Reviews in 2017, following the lead of other review apps such as TripAdvisor, it’s only for online purchases and only for those businesses who go through the less than simple process of setting up the valid merchant accounts.
WHY DO BUSINESSES BUY FAKE REVIEWS?
The business of online customer reviews is, well, big business. It’s an important influence marketing tactic for many, especially local businesses. That said, with the potential for social media backlash from the growing problem of fake reviews, is it really worth the trouble?
Well, 80% of customers, as identified in a BrightLocal study, were found to trust online review sites as much as a one-to-one personal recommendation from friends. In that same study, 75% of consumers reported making purchase decisions based on the number of positive reviews found on review sites. Similarly, according to Maritz Research, three-quarters of consumers interviewed believed online reviews to be “fair.”
And, given that Google’s search algorithms give priority to businesses who have positive reviews online, the answer is an obvious “yes.” But Google needs to step up its game.
With each passing year, more reports surface about businesses buying fake reviews from cyber shills, which have factories of people armed with hundreds of manufactured online profiles, ready to give your business hundreds of 5-star reviews for $50 or less. That, buoyed by the growing controversy of “fake news” in today’s hyper-connected world, means more people are starting to question the validity of online reviews and online review website.
Check out my article on cyber shills, social media’s dirty little secret here.
This is bad news for businesses that make money from aggregating online reviews, such as TripAdvisor, which has become more aggressive at verifying online reviews.
Case in point, I’ve only used TripAdvisor to leave a review once, and that was because I was asked to do so by the resort I stayed at on a trip to Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Since I was asked for my feedback, I left a 5-star rating for the resort with no comment and a mediocre review for an attraction I visited while in the cab on route to the airport. Their software flagged me as a potential bot, and when I returned home, I received an email asking me to verify my stay by sharing a copy of a time-stamped hotel receipt. Only after complying did my review appear online.
DETECTING FAKE REVIEWS
A now famous study by Cornell University discovered that software could effectively detect fake reviews online, which it used to develop a website that helps consumers detect fake reviews of hotel properties. Harvard Business School did some additional research into the subject, which identified the following five elements as common characteristics of fake reviews.
- There’s little or no information about the reviewer in his/her profile.
- The commentary in the review is extreme – positive or negative.
- The business has received a slew of recommendations in an uncharacteristically short period of time.
- The commentary of the review is sparse, providing little to no detail.
- The commentator uses short, simple words. Apparently, when we’re lying, scientists have discovered our vocabulary and grammar are limited as some of our brainpower is used up fabricating the lie.
HOW CAN GOOGLE PREVENT FAKE REVIEWS
Online product and service reviewing is an excellent influence marketing strategy for businesses to develop, which – when done authentically – provides a valuable service to consumers. And not to take anything away from the TripAdvisors of the world, having authentic Google reviews seems to be of utmost importance for both businesses and consumers.
Google has done and said little – at least publicly – to combat the problem. The standard response often cited when a comment IS made is: “we don’t tend to reveal the algorithms used in or service.” They secret sauce, if you will, isn’t shared.
Something needs to be done for trust to be regained among online reviews and influence marketing practices. And so, without further ado, here are two strategies for Google to regain that authority.
1. Use Your Power for Good
Focus more of your black magic-style algorithm (the kind that knows to alert me via my Android phone that, based on the current local traffic, I should leave for the airport in 10 minutes to catch a plane for a trip I only referenced once, while whispering, to a friend in an underground parking lot 3 months before), to detect, flag, and request verification from those deemed “suspicious.”
It’s not difficult to detect new reviewers, reviewers who post many reviews across the globe in a short period of time, or those whose patterns match known spammers. Further, when caught, immediately prevent those profiles from ever leaving a review and, where further investigation proves a business purchased reviews, downgrade the business in local search for a period of time.
2. Google Business Review App
Use a little more of that programming alchemy to offer an API for businesses to integrate their accounting software or POS systems with Google Reviews. This API would allow registered businesses the option to immediately create/print a time-limited QR code or personal URL on invoices or cash receipts, which, in turn, would allow the customer the option to leave a verified Google Local Review.
It’s that simple. Integrating software such as that developed by LifeWIRE, for a business to text time-limited requests to customers for authenticated reviews.
While certainly not without their challenges, these are effective and doable solutions to help Google better authenticate online customer reviews and help their audience regain a little trust in the wisdom of crowds.
In the meantime, I wonder where on earth is Shazedur Rahmen is – and who she’s fake reviewing – today?