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The Dangers of Fake Yelp Reviews
Written by Scott Russell on April 2, 2012
Let’s face it, Yelp can be maddening for businesses, and it can seem incredibly unfair too. Bad reviews appear to have a way of rising to the top, while many of the good reviews your customers leave seem to be filtered out, leaving you with that dreaded low rating. The whole process of managing your reviews can get so frustrating and bad reviews can hurt your business so much that you might be tempted to resort to desperate measures. This can leave you very susceptible to the sales pitches of reputation repair firms.
This isn’t to say that reputation management is a bad idea. In fact, when done ethically and correctly, it can radically improve your business. The problem is that many firms out there engage in practices that are not just shady and unethical but that are in fact utterly and incontrovertibly illegal. In fact, hiring a firm to perform such services for your company can get you in deep, deep trouble with the FTC, leading to fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and even to jail time.
So just what are these dangerous practices? Most commonly they involve posting fake reviews on Yelp and other similar sites like Google Places and CitySearch. And while it might be self-evident that posting these fake reviews is unethical, many business owners seem to be unaware that doing so is also quite illegal.
This problem of fake reviews has been growing steadily over the past few years as Yelp and similar sites have exploded in popularity with consumers. The New York Times documented the problem of businesses seeking to get better Yelp and Amazon reviews in an article last August. In that article, they touched upon the progress being made to spot and remove fake reviews algorithmically. Of all the review sites, Yelp is the most aggressive in filtering out possibly illegitimate reviews. The problem is, their algorithm, while successful in filtering out many of the worst offenders, currently also removes many legitimate reviews too, and this is making things very frustrating for many businesses stuck with just a handful or negative reviews.
This aggressive filtering on the part of Yelp does not stop many businesses from continuing to hire unethical reputation management firms to crank out the fake reviews. In fact, while doing competition research for clients of our Los Angeles-based marketing firm, I have come across a surprisingly large volume of obviously fake reviews in a number of different niches both locally and in other cities. In most cases, even when the seemingly fake reviews stuck on CitySearch and even Google, Yelp managed to filter them out. This leaves an easily recognizable footprint in the Google search results, showing a large volume of near perfect 5-star ratings on Google Places, CitySearch, etc., while showing only a handful of reviews and a far lower rating in Yelp. The screen shot below shows one such set of results. I have blurred all identifying information for the business to protect their anonymity.
The wrong way to get more Yelp reviews
As you can see in the screen shot, this company currently has five-star ratings in both Google Places and CitySearch and around 50 reviews on each site. In stark contrast, they only have 5 reviews showing on Yelp and a 2-star average rating. Further probing shows 29 filtered results on Yelp, many coming from accounts with just a couple reviews or less (this being one of the markers Yelp seems to look for when devaluing or filtering out ratings).
Further probing reveals that, of the ten most recent reviews on their Google Places page, 9 were five star, and seven were from accounts with one review, two on accounts with just 2 reviews. Almost all were just one line long, saying things like “great job,” and (most suspiciously), two of these short reviews even contained the same 13 word phrase! The one seemingly real review of these ten came from an account with 7 reviews, was rather scathing, and gave them just one star.
Those of us with experience in SEO know that Google is becoming exceptionally adept at spotting any type of footprint, so it is clearly only a matter of time before they too manage to filter out such apparently obvious fake reviews. And we have every reason to believe that being flagged for fake reviews might affect not only Google Places star ratings but also Google’s search rankings too. Google takes such gaming of their system quite personally. Their prime objective is to maintain the quality and integrity of their results, and to serve up only the most correct and up to date information possible. Therefore, when they find people they believe are gaming them, they don’t take it very well.
As a result, any business going down this road and hiring unethical reputation management firms could possibly see their sites dropping in the organic search results or even being de-indexed (banned) from Google altogether as a result of either algorithmic changes or manual reviews. When you consider this risk on top of the already scary legal implications of fake reviews, it really does not make sense to even consider such an approach.
But then what is the honest and ethical business owner to do to get better ratings in Yelp, Google, and the rest of the review sites? Well that’s a topic for another post. But we have been researching and testing many great methods to get more reviews for our clients, and all these methods start with assessing and improving customer service. Use reviews as a tool to take a fresh the quality of your service. Once you are confident you have your house in order, you must ask customers to leave you reviews on specific sites. Knowing exactly when and how to make such requests will determine whether you are successful in improving your ratings or not, and I will cover these topics in upcoming posts.
Visit our page on Reputation Management and find out how we can help your business get fair representation online.