Google fake review ‘attack’ lands SMB blow

Tens of thousands of Google-listed businesses have been hit by a 'fake review attack', leading to questions around the rating system's integrity.
11 December 2018

Google faces its third major lawsuit of the year. Source: AFP

It’s difficult to over-exaggerate the impact Google has had on small businesses in the last decade or so. The tech giant’s search power is such that a company’s visibility in the SERPs (search engine results pages) can truly make or break or their standing against the competition. Google’s crowdsourced review feature— which lets customers leave a business a public five-star rating— can be a boon to new customer acquisition if products and services are meeting patrons’ expectations. Of course, the system relies on the integrity of the reviewer. When that system fails, the damage can be long-lasting, and a recent slew of fake reviews on a large chunk of US businesses, and others the world over, demonstrates just how delicate Google’s rating system can be.

As reported by Search Engine Land and reported across multiple SEO industry forums, businesses were subject to over 3 million fake 4 star-ratings by a collection of 37 profiles. Each of those profiles left an average of 81,000 fake reviews over roughly five days before Google eventually removed them.

While of less importance to larger companies with big marketing budgets and access to multiple channels to advertise on, the fake reviews would have had far-reaching implications for smaller organizations reliant on organic traffic flowing from Google.

“It does scare me the amount of control Google has over our businesses success and failure,” said one business owner speaking to Search Engine Land; “Gone are the days of the local yellow pages and directories to find a service. When you’re a small business, a week of no visibility can drastically affect our business and sales.”

It’s yet to be determined who left the reviews or why they left them. The majority of usernames were Vietnamese in origin, while ratings were mostly left on the pages of small businesses in North America. Efforts to determine other businesses affected were meanwhile hampered since most of the profiles responsible had hidden their reviews.

“We received 22 reviews yesterday within one hour time with no single comment,” said another. “All the names are strange and not normal and it seems that someone is trying to damage our name.”

Others impacted were reportedly “lost, confused and frustrated” by the event, which raises questions about the ease of which ‘customers’, which may have never visited or had contact with a business, can leave unsubstantiated and potentially damaging reviews on a leading public platform.

Dealing with fake reviews

Whether left from questionable profiles, such as those in the recent attack, or able to be traced back to a disgruntled former employee or dishonest customer, fake Google reviews are a growing problem. Knowing how to deal with them will help to maintain a business’s well-earned reputation and alleviate unnecessary angst from the stressful day-to-day work of running a company.

Google lists strict policies for users of its review service, however, it’s “terrible at automatically catching violations of these policies,” according to Joy Hawkins, a local SEO expert, on Moz.

“The good news is that if you’re diligent at tracking them and can make a good enough case for why the reviews are against the guidelines, you can get them removed by contacting Google on Twitter, Facebook, or reporting via the forum.”

While reviews left without a name or text can be incredibly hard to trace, and Google won’t just accept your plea that ‘it wasn’t a real customer’, Hawkins suggests sharing the fake review with your network of loyal customers, who may rally to provide support, such as leaving positive reviews to counter some of the damage.

“My plan B was to post a response to the reviews offering these “customers” a 100% refund. After all, 100% of zero is still zero — I had nothing to lose,” said Hawkins. “This would also ensure that future prospects see that I’m willing to address people that have a negative experience since even the best businesses in the world aren’t perfect.”

If your ratings aren’t all 5-star, though, don’t worry. According to research by Power Reviews, purchase likelihood peaks when the average star rating of a product is between 4.2 and 4.5 stars and starts to drop as the star rating approaches a perfect 5.