Thursday 05 Aug 2010
SEOigloo blog reader and professional reputation consultant, Paul Sherland got in touch with me recently because he’d stumbled across something that seemed a little odd to him when looking at the Google Place Page of a local business, Goodson Honda West of Houston, Texas. I thought what Paul noticed was worthy of sharing with you, and I want to ask you, as a favor, to please comment on this post and give your personal opinion as to whether these reviews are authentic or not.
The Low Down
Goodson Honda West has more than 65 reviews for their business in Google Maps/Places. A glance at the top 5 prominently displayed on their Place Page bespeaks a glowingly satisfied customer base. All 5 stars!
It’s great to see any business get such positive reviews, and I’m sure such results have a strong influence on whether new customers walk in the door, not to mention volume of reviews affecting rankings within Maps and the Google 7 Pack. But, something seems a little funny here.
When I clicked into the profiles of the five reviewers (Salsa, Gloomy, RickyBobby, Gamma and Fo) whose reviews were being shown in the featured area of this company’s Place Page, I observed a somewhat odd pattern. What you see running along the left side of this article is my screenshot of the profile of Salsa – the reviewer in the top spot on Goodson Honda’s Place Page. This screenshot shows the activity on this profile on a single date – August 2nd, 2010. In red, you will note my highlighting of the various cities and states within which Salsa has left reviews. On August 2nd, Salsa left 65 reviews in regions spanning from British Columbia, to Washington DC to California. The types of businesses are diverse, but there seems to be a strong emphasis on car dealerships across the country and August 2nd happens also to be the day on which this reviewer left a review of Goodson Honda. All reviews left by Salsa are 5 stars.
Now, if you visit the Place Page I’ve linked to in the opening paragraph of this piece, and you take a look at the profiles of the other 4 reviewers I’ve mentioned (Gloomy, RickyBobby, Gamma and Fo), I believe that you, too, will see this same pattern of large numbers of reviews being left for businesses all over N. America within a small number of days by these reviewers.
In fact, if you look at the profiles of the top 15 reviewers on Goodson Honda’s Place Page, you will see that all of them follow the pattern. This is as far down the list as I had time to look, but perhaps this pattern repeats throughout more of the list of reviewers who have left reviews for this business.
Could These Reviewers Be Authentic?
Let’s imagine some scenarios in which the top 15 reviewers of Goodson Honda would coincidentally share such similar characteristics, and yet be legitimate reviewers:
1. Each of the top 15 is a jet set traveler. Salsa, for example, appears to have bought numerous cars all over the country, rented an apartment in Chicago, bought a bike in DC, and enjoyed a great night’s sleep at hotels in Texas, California, N. Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all on August 2nd. I’ve never lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous, but perhaps the top 15 reviewers are people of tremendous wealth and energy, who crisscross the country nonstop with speed and luxury, and then stop to buy a little Honda in Houston.
2. These are true power reviewers, capable of turning out 65 legitimate reviews in a single day of places they remember doing business with in the past. The most reviews I have ever managed to write in a day are 3 or 4, but these people are truly dedicated to improving Google’s index and the user experience by creating vast quantities of helpful copy for the public good.
3. Not only are these 15 reviewers disinterested public benefactors, but they are also eternally happy souls. Nothing less than a 5 star experience has ever entered their charmed lives. They are always 100% satisfied.
4. Yelp has been accused of having paid people to populate their index with reviews in the early days of their business. Perhaps Salsa, Gamma, BobbyRickey et al. are Google employees, trying to beef up their review index with paid reviews of their own? Google has, after all, recently added 300 employees and they are doing all kinds of new things with Local.
These are the scenarios I have been able to imagine. Perhaps you can think of others.
What Do I Really Think Is Going On Here?
Far be it from me to point fingers, name names or make exciting accusations, but I will point the way back to an article my honored colleague, Mike Blumenthal, wrote last spring, highlighting a service called ReviewBoost. This article fostered considerable discussion regarding this interesting form of paid service in which businesses can hire a firm to publish only positive reviews of them across the web. Re-reading Mike’s piece and looking at the profiles to which Paul drew my attention, I feel I may understand what is going on here. Do you?
WWTFTCD? – or – What Would The FTC Do?
At the end of 2009, the Federal Trade Commission rewrote their guidelines governing endorsements and testimonials. Whether you are a wise marketer or a wary consumer, I advise you to read the guidelines in full, but their key point is that all relationships in advertising, endorsements and testimonials must be publicly disclosed. As I understand it, if money, goods or other forms or benefits are part of the scenario, you are legally obligated to make that clear to the public. So, for example, if reviews were the result of a paid service that was making it look like a specific person had done business with a company when, in fact, they didn’t…well, the FTC might now have a big problem with this.
We already know that Google has a big problem with inauthentic reviews. Their review guidelines read like this (emphasis mine):
* Don’t spam or post fake reviews intended to boost or lower ratings.
* Don’t post or link to content that is sexually explicit or contains profanity.
* Don’t post or link to content that is abusive or hateful or threatens or harasses others.
* Don’t post or or link to any file that contains viruses, corrupted files, “Trojan Horses,” or any other contaminating or destructive features that may damage someone else’s computer.
* Don’t post any material that violates the copyrights or other intellectual property rights of others.
* Don’t impersonate any person, or falsely state or otherwise misrepresent your affiliation with a person or entity.
* Don’t violate any other applicable law or regulation.
* Don’t use comments as a forum for advertisement.
That’s pretty clear, but I think some grey areas may remain and these demand discussion. Are reviews fake if they are gathered by a marketer, say, via telephone, from a database of a company’s customers? Do you think this violates the FTC and Google’s guidelines? How could disclosure occur in the review scenario, and should it have to? Who suffers from paid review gathering – the marketer whose reputation is at stake, the marketer’s employee whose Google Maps account could get banned, the client whose whole profile may be banned, the consumer who may be fooled? Will consumers scent something fishy if they see nothing but 5 star reviews; will any of them actually look deeper into the reviewers’ profiles, as Paul and I have done? Do business owners have any idea of what they may be getting themselves into if they hire a marketer who sells them a review gathering service? What are the risks, benefits and long term consequences of this relatively new but definitely newsworthy form of Internet marketing?
And, for my final question, which I asked at the outset of this piece but will repeat here:
What about the example I’ve cited? Are these reviews authentic? What’s your take? I want to know!