Are These Reviews Authentic? You Be The Judge.

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!

are these reviews real

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.

odd looking reviews
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!

22 Responses to “Are These Reviews Authentic? You Be The Judge.”

  1. on 05 Aug 2010 at 6:20 pm Don Campbell

    Wow. It’s pretty clear what’s going on here. While I’m glad that Google’s review filter algo is not as aggressive as Yelp’s (which filters out pretty much everything) this seems like a very clear case of someone buying reviews.

    Thanks for documenting this Miriam. Let’s hope that Google notices and takes action against this kind of behavior!

  2. on 05 Aug 2010 at 6:31 pm Mary Bowling

    Miriam – as usual, you’ve written a very thorough and insightful article about a issue that should concern all of us.

    I heard a Google rep at a conference say that Google was confident that readers could decide for themselves whether reviews were legitimate or not. However, all review sites need to resolutely protect the integrity of their reviews or no one will put any stock in them and users will stop using the website.

    I suspect that one of the biggest reasons Google may have lusted after owning Yelp was for their review algorithm. As you know, it is complex, but mainly based on the status, history and activity of the reviewer.I think Google very much wants to be able to have a similar review algo and I think that they will gradually begin implementing one as they try to figure it out.

    It will probably be based on similar things, like how old is the reviewer’s Google account, how many other Google “things” (like gmail and adsense) are associated with the account, how much information has the account owner given in their profile, how many reviews have they made in the past, etc.

    Review spam is rampant and it can at first seem pretty harmless to throw a few up. But anyone who participates runs the risk of being exposed – and hopefully, completely embarrassed – at some point in the future. Fake reviews are also illegal in some places. Just search for “fake reviews” and you’ll find some examples – things like “Fake reviews prompt Belkin apology”, “Historian Orlando Figes agrees to pay damages for fake reviews”, “New York settles with firm posting fake reviews” and so on. Just don’t go there and trust in karma!

  3. on 05 Aug 2010 at 6:46 pm Tim Coleman

    This is an excellent analysis Miriam. Hopefully Google can find a way to algorithmically do what must’ve taken some time for you to do.

    To me when a business does this it is very short term thinking. We spend a lot of time trying to encourage legitimate reviews to the sites we manage and it becomes obvious that they’re real after you get more than just a few.

    There is an old saying. “You can’t please everyone”
    If you find a company who has build ‘em a statue or assume they’re fake.

    You are probably right that many customers are getting “suckered” into doing business with this company. It’s too bad, but we’re all learning in a world that is changing very quickly.

    Incidentally, when I look at click-through data (very limited data set) 5 star reviews are clicked on the least. So, we can assume the masses are moving along the leaning curve pretty quickly. Which tends to happen when money is involved.

  4. on 05 Aug 2010 at 7:24 pm David Mihm

    As Matt McGee says, “We don’t live in a five-star world.” It is unfortunate to see legitimate small business owners pursuing these tactics…one wonders how much they are aware of what their SEO company is doing (or if it someone in-house)…

    I do think this is currently a vulnerability for Google but with the new emphasis on reviews demonstrated by their roll-out yesterday, I would be they’ll be looking at it extremely closely in the near-term.

  5. on 05 Aug 2010 at 8:47 pm Paul Sherland

    These 15 jet-setting, power-reviewing, eternally happy people are also extraordinarily caring because almost every review, across North America, singles out specific employees for praise. How nice that these reviewers remember the names of all the hard-working sales people and service managers, despite the demands of such busy buying schedules!

    Thanks for highlighting these issues Miriam!

  6. on 06 Aug 2010 at 5:33 am Earlpearl

    Excellent article and investigative work. Kudo’s to you and Paul.

    In that auto sales are a major element of retail, thereby a significant element in google maps, and is of major concern to consumers, it is an area that is of utmost concern with regard to enforcing those guidelines; both by the FTC and Google.

    If neither entity enforces their respective guidelines in this category, when will they ever be enforced.

    Consumer protections go down the drain, the Google index becomes worthless and the whole process gets twisted.

    Why bother shopping for cars and thinking you may get a reasonable deal when the process of outrageous lying is enabled and encouraged.

    Nice catch and article, Miriam. Hopefully this article is caught by bigger sources and provokes more serious actions.

  7. on 06 Aug 2010 at 8:19 am Chris

    It’s sad to see these reviews showing up (they seem clearly fake) – and I have to agree with David in wondering whether the business owners know what’s going on. If they don’t, it will be a shock someday when a bunch of reviews disappear and their listing possibly gets penalized.

    In the meantime, it’s frustrating having to compete with companies gaming the system like this.

    Looking to the future – I wonder how well Google will be able to eliminate spam reviews? These would look legit if they weren’t all five stars and scattered across the country. My feeling is that in the long run, a tie-in with the social graph, bringing in reviews within a couple connections of you will be the real solution.

  8. on 06 Aug 2010 at 2:11 pm admin

    Hi Don!
    Agreed, a more aggressive Yelp-like filtering could produce a better review index for Google. Thanks for stopping by.

    Hi Mary!
    What an insightful hypothesis regarding Google’s desire to acquire Yelp. I had never thought of that. I bet you are right. Thank you so much taking the time to comment on this.

    Hello, Tim!
    What you’ve noticed about clickthroughs on 5 star reviews is really fascinating. I haven’t heard that before. Have you published data about this anywhere? If so, I missed it. Considering my own behavior in regard to reviews, this makes sense to me. I will read a few good reviews, but I also always read any less-than-good ones. Neat observation!

    Hey, Paul!
    Thank you again for pointing out this situation to me, and yes, that is a distinctive feature of these questionable reviews: all of the names of service people mentioned in them. Quite odd, and very noticeable. I’m glad you enjoyed my coverage of this issue!

    Hi, Dave!
    I’m of the same mind as you. How and when will such guidelines be enforced by either Google or the FTC? What is either entity actually doing to investigate and curb such behavior? Thanks for stating your views.

    Hi Chris!

    Wouldn’t the worst possible outcome of this type of marketing be that Google decides to shut down auto sales vertical in Maps, as they’ve done in the past with other overly spammy categories? Then, all of the legitimate business owners would suffer, as well as the ones who are paying (whether unwittingly or not) for this type of review gathering service. This is a genuine concern, and as Tim says above, it’s hard to do business in a world where such shortsighted tactics are being employed by competitors, not only sucking up business, but also possibly incurring punitive action for the whole industry. Yikes! Thanks for coming by!

  9. on 09 Aug 2010 at 6:23 am Jim Rudnick

    great piece, Miriam! and kudos to Paul too for noticing same. While I doubt that anyone who reads this piece would think anything else but what I got from same, these “phony” reviews are IMHO, the way that things “work” now for firms with the budget to buy same! I remember Mike’s piece on the review business offers and thought at the time – as I do now too – that such phony reviews will lower the credability ratings for ALL reviews…folks just wont trust what they read to any great degree. Course, I’m also pretty sure that this will “twig” with other review biz startups and we’ll see new firms buying same but with a “sprinkling” of 2 and 3 star inserts as well to try to modify the biz model to seem more real, eh!

    …sigh….

    Jim

  10. on 09 Aug 2010 at 12:36 pm admin

    Hi Jim!
    Nice to see you here. Yes, far be it from us to help out spammers in their methods, but neither the profiles of the reviewers nor the all 5 stars look credible. Obviously, I’ve written this article as a question rather than an accusation, but it’s odd to think that a smart marketer could create a review gathering program that would escape detection and that, if these reviews are spam, the marketers creating them aren’t smart enough to create such a program. This harms everyone, as I see it, and one has to feel very sorry for any company that would hire such a shortsighted marketer. Thanks so much for coming by!


  11. [...] As evidence, she points out that “reviewers” of several car dealerships have created multiple reviews for dealerships across the country on a single day, lending doubt to the authenticity of such reviews.    Here’s her post: “Are these Reviews Authentic?  You Be The Judge.” [...]

  12. on 31 Aug 2010 at 2:06 pm Melanie VanSlyke

    I agree it doesn’t look right. I don’t read reviews that often. I’m new to all this and I am trying to start up a business. After reading all this stuff about Google I am wondering why would we want to use them as a paid advertiser? I don’t understand.


  13. [...] Miriam Ellis/SEO Igloo: Are These Reviews Authentic? You Be The Judge. [...]

  14. on 10 Sep 2010 at 8:52 am Google’s Confusing Change on Reviews

    [...] considering how poor Google is at acting on reviews that violate its guidelines, you could just not worry about it at all and carry on as you were. Can’t say I’d blame [...]

  15. on 12 Sep 2010 at 6:36 am Mike Blumenthal

    Miriam

    The question of what would the FTC would do now appears to be mostly settled.

    It will be very interesting when they start looking at examples like yours. They are likely to pick a case to go after as an “example” to others. Not sure I would want to be that “example”….the FTC has an unlimited amount of time, personnel and power…

  16. on 12 Sep 2010 at 12:32 pm Dennis

    Take a look at the places page, down to 60 reviews, humm???

    –Dennis

  17. on 13 Sep 2010 at 12:41 pm admin

    Greetings, Dennis,
    I’m currently seeing 59 reviews. This is not so much less than the original 65 I saw when I wrote the above – so it may just be a fluctuation not uncommon in Maps. Now, if it suddenly drops down by half or more, I’ll think something is going on. But, thanks for stopping by and reading this and noting you were seeing less reviews. Much appreciated!
    Miriam

  18. on 14 Oct 2010 at 4:32 am MrSmith

    Funny article, as an aspiring technology marketer … I am of course reading until my eyeballs fall out. Which brought me to this topic.

    Just think its a pretty lame practice on the part of people who fake reviews for themselves.

    I like the people who use a lot of exclamation points !!! How many times have you reviewed something and were so excited about whatever it was that you used a bunch of these !!!!?? Obvious spam.

    If they’d put a little effort into the process. They could get legit and better quality reviews, without tempting the fierce wrath of the mighty internet overlords.

    Or even worse, people who would actually sabotage competitors listings, rather than concentrating on developing their own, or their clients … whichever.

    Again, seems like if they’d devote as much energy to doing something positive in terms of their own interests … they’d be farther ahead than all the cloak and dagger, hit and run junk.

    Always been a policy of mine. When there are legit ways to produce results … why bother trashing the rulebook ?

    Dont really know what to make of it all. More I study local internet marketing, more there seems to be to learn … been at this for months ! <– That's a sincere exclamation point. :)Where does it end ?


  19. [...] reviews themselves, work with services that filter out bad reviews, trade reviews with peers or engage sock puppets to increase their volume. I am not a big believer in faking reviews, filtering them or [...]


  20. [...] review site should be shining the light of transparency on reviewers. This change not only makes thorough investigation of review abuses impossible, it makes reviewers less accountable for their [...]


  21. [...] seemed suspect; me in Do Positive Only Review Services have a place? and Miriam in her great piece Are These Reviews Authentic? You Be The Judge. Serendipitously both pieces had identifiable screen shots of obviously faked reviews as a basis [...]


  22. I uncovered this same practice at the Larry H. Miller auto group recently. They too use ReviewBoost. The gray area is that the agency is gathering ONLY the positive reviews and posting them to aged Google accounts. In my opinion they are not authentic, because the customer is not posting his/her review on their own account. While the words in the review might be actual words of the customer, when you submit only the 5 star reviews, you end up manipulating the actual rating of the company. There are better ways of gathering reviews and having them actually posted by your customer. HINT: make it easy for them to do it while in your store or place of business.

Trackback this Post | Feed on comments to this Post

Leave a Reply