Episode 4 | June 20th, 2023

Google Business Profile & Google Local Service Review Spam

A2O Digital explains the different categories in review spam affecting Google Business Profile and Google Local Services. We share with our listeners how to identify the spam and how to best combat it.

Tim 0:03

We'll talk a little about combating review spam, we'll get into what are kind of the main types of spam categories? And, you know, how are folks kind of getting through this stuff? So let's, let's just start actually, let's just talk about what avenues we have to combat review spam, and kind of how effective are they?

Ashley 0:47

Not that many avenues to combat it and I feels like they've been relatively ineffective is like the quick answer, but definitely depends on where the reviews are being received. So we talked a lot about GBP. Google business profile, we talked to quite a bit about local service ads. And I think that's where a lot of the focus today will be on. So GBP reviews have give you the ability to like flag them right through the GBP listing, go to review. And you can flag it as inappropriate for a variety of different reasons. I think some of those are very straightforward, and we see come down often if it's like a super clean review spam example. So I'll just give the example of someone leaves a review, like a former employee leaves a review, because they're angry, they no longer work there, it's very clear in the review, that's who they are. That's why they're they're leaving that review. That's strictly against Google's guidelines. So that's obvious. And we've had one or two of these, you flag it, those kinds of things typically come down pretty quickly. So if it's a clean, clear example, I think flagging and Gbps, usually fairly effective, that may change over time, sometimes more effective, sometimes less. But that's typically pretty easy. I think where it gets trickier is when you get into more of like the gray area where the business seeing the reviews knows that they're fake, what they're saying isn't maybe what they do in their business, there aren't a customer they can find in their database. There's a pattern of reviews going off, that's just not legitimate things like that. And those tend to be harder to get removed from a GBP perspective. So I think we're going to dive into those in quite a bit more detail, the different types, but on the other side, LSA, so local service ads, the GBP reviews are going to import into local service ads. So any spam reviews you get on GBP are going to end up in LSA. So that's a little frustrating, because you can get kind of hit twice, if you can't get that kind of spam removed. And then you have the reviews that come through LSA from a like a verified job review, they're called or Google claims that they can verify that that review was left by someone who called the business. For local services, booked the job through local services, and receive service and then there's reviews, people can just leave leave from your link in your local service that's listing. So they may not get marked as verified jobs, but they are truly a GBP review, and they aren't a verified job review. They're kind of in between those reviews and getting the like strictly LSA reviews taken down. And Nat definitely jump in and tell me if there's anything I'm missing here. But those are almost impossible to get taken down. I don't know if we have any evidence of a single one of these honestly being taken down. There's no straightforward, easy way to fly them like in GBP. There's a new form that's recently come out that says you can flag them or submit them. We've seen nothing happen with those,and so the LSA side fields right now almost hopeless, as far as like getting the reviews, and we'll talk about some of the things we're doing that are above and beyond traditional reporting. But we have seen really no success there so far.

Natalie 3:52

I do want to add that for Google business profile. Google has been good in some cases, removing negative reviews that have been uploaded all at once, like within minutes apart. So they have proactively removed those from GBP listings.

Ashley 4:09

Yeah, and then even maybe more frustrating, I don't know, more or less frustrating than the negative reviews that go up and don't get removed are reviews you get from real customers that don't ever post on the listing. And that's kind of its own thing, it's not truly review spam that's related to Google's filtering of reviews. So on top of the fact that sometimes they won't take down one that you know, is truly fake. Sometimes they won't let the ones that you know are truly real through to post on your GBP and then to filter through to your LSA listing which makes it even kind of more infuriating I think for business owners and getting customers to customers get frustrated when they leave the review and it's it doesn't go on the listing and they feel like what's going on with my review.

Tim 4:48

Yeah, we've seen a lot more of that in the last six months or so too let's get into the to the categories different types of review spam, I think, I think the first one is the obvious one, the one that we see most often, right? And those are when folks are posting fake reviews to benefit, how they appear online. What are some of the characteristics that we see in these kinds of reviews?

Natalie 5:15

I'm going to present an example that basically, the user name, we've noticed looks funky, there could be like an iteration of a bunch of letters or repeating names, like four first names in one user name, and it just looks very spammy. I'm going to just share my screen and this is an example of a multiple first name. It kind of seems like they're using a system that obviously is not working properly.

Ashley 5:47

If you saw one of these, like, once in a while, right, I saw one of these on a listing once in a blue moon, like maybe, maybe it's legitimate, but you'll see these. Thank you. Can you see, we could go yet. So if they're recent, you can see like, posted 31 minutes ago, posted 29 minutes ago, posted 28 minutes ago, right and the speed at which they come in, and then just like, Nat said like how many there actually are just makes it look like it's not a legitimate kind of pattern, as Nat mentioned, we suspect they're doing something programmatically where they're generating these reviews very quickly using a machine essentially, and perhaps the way the machine is spitting these out isn't exactly what they originally envisioned, and so it just looks kind of obviously spammy.

Natalie 6:17

And then the rate that they're getting these, it's obviously impacting their ratings, and it's helping them with ranking. So they're showing constantly at number one, or number two in Google Local Services, and at the top in GBP. This is just another example of something where someone is referencing in their review content, Thanksgiving, and this review was posted in the middle of July. So things like that, they're very blatant spam examples. And Google has not done much to remove these types of spam review content.

Tim 7:06

Have we pointed out to Google, like the examples you you're sharing with us the long names and Thanksgiving in July? Are so obviously spam? Have we pointed these out to Google and what has been the reaction?

Natalie 7:21

So again, we've been directed to use all these support forms, we've submitted them numerous times. From our team, we went directly to the LSA reps to GBP product experts, and we find that it's just kind of like a whack a mole situation, some of them get removed, if it gets removed, it'll pop up again. Sometimes it doesn't get removed. So it's, it's very frustrating.

Ashley 7:46

Yeah, I think what's gotten consistent is as we report or escalate, and mostly when we get to speak to an actual, like human being involved in, in particular local service ads, because that's where we're actually seeing the Spam was really, really ramped up this past year, there is acknowledgement that there's a problem, I think the tricky thing is, is getting all the information into the right hands. And usually the person that you actually get to speak to like that customer facing, Google representative has to escalate it up the ladder, you know, four or five, six times. And it's tricky to know exactly. who's dealing with what and what's going on. But there has been acknowledgement that this is a problem that this is a concern that this needs to be taken seriously. You know, when local service ads started years ago, it was supposed to be a platform for like local businesses, small and large alike to advertise to potential customers. And it was like, local was key. And like any size, business was key, those were kind of two of the things are really important. And when you talk to representatives on the local service ads side at the beginning, they really highlighted like a small business should have a chance here, just like a large business, right. And this is really turned into like, local has very little to do with it anymore. And we'll talk a little bit about what we see with listings. But you may have a listing from California advertising in Ohio, like that is very far from being local. We're not even talking one metro area over, we're talking like states over and then the larger businesses that are willing to kind of build this spam network and try and you know, push all these guidelines aside and just do whatever they want to anyways, like those are the people at this point that are benefiting so more reviews makes you rank better and local services, better review rating makes you rank better in local services. And yes, reviews are important to consumers. And so I don't think it's something that shouldn't be part of the algorithm but it's been so heavily weighted, it appears at this time that if you can get a large number of reviews in local services with a very good rating, so most of them are 5.0 and a very fast velocity like we'll see 20 come through in 30 minutes. Those people are benefiting and ranking very Well on the SERP, getting a lot of leads through local services. And then what we appears to be happening in many instances is there's basically subcontracting out or selling those leads to other businesses, which is a whole other can of worms when you talk about spam and how they're actually handling the leads. So yeah, Local Services kind of turned into, it looks nothing like what it looks like when we first got started a couple of years ago, essentially, in who's winning that game.

Tim 10:27

And you talk about that the visibility of being able to rank in all of California or rank in multiple states. When you amplify visibility like that you're kind of fueling the business model for this type of spam, aren't you?

Ashley 10:41

Yeah. So Natalie and I have had so many conversations with our Google reps about this, that these people are benefiting and Google is seemingly doing nothing because this this is a conversation that's been going on, like, very heavily for almost a year and like here and there before that the spam really got really bad in the last year. And that's why, this wasn't as much of a conversation. But yeah, they're essentially seem to be doing nothing. Maybe behind the scenes, something's happening, but they're not publishing anything about it. They're not talking about it. They're not taking people down when they're reported. And we reported hundreds of listings doing this type of stuff, right. So it feels like they're doing nothing. And then owners that are following the rules and getting reviews from legitimate customers at a good speed. When you look at like somebody's people have hundreds and 1000s of reviews from real customers. So like they're doing a great job, they're essentially being penalized for not trying to figure out how to game the system. And we've had little issues come up with legitimate listings, where we said, what's the solution there? Google solution is basically something that makes them start over or removes reviews from their listing, the example was like ownership of a business changing, right? The only way right now they're saying for ownership of LSA listing to change is you start a listing from scratch, they can reinforce the GBP reviews when you start a listing from scratch, but your LSA reviews right now and your verified job reviews all that it doesn't transfer over to your new listing. So the solution, if you sell your business is that person has to start over. Usually, when you buy a business, you buy a business, because you want to start here, not here, right? Like if you want to start a business from scratch, like that's one thing, but you're buying an existing business. That's where it's hard to build a reputation and have market share and have a brand presence. And Google's solution for those people trying to follow rules is like you can start over basically. But the spammers that are, you know, getting hundreds of 1000s of reviews that are fake, like they can keep going, we're not doing anything about that. And it's just, it's a very difficult message to deliver to a business because they see what's happening. And they're like, Why do I have to do that, if all these other people are following none of the rules, and they're benefiting from it. And we've seen a loss of lead volume of up to 90%, year over year for some of these businesses being impacted by the review spam in particular, right. So it's like a really big deal to the bottom line until what they're able to do as a business.

Natalie 13:07

And these bad players do enough to pass in one state with all its requirements show a license, they'll provide all of that to pass with Google Local Services. But then they start advertising in like Florida, or Ohio or these other states that don't require a business license. And it's just obviously like, what Ashley was saying. It's not local. And they're getting through.

Ashley 13:30


Tim 13:30

Yeah, this program is sounds like it's far from where we were when it started. 2018 2019 Wow. Alright, let's talk about the next category of reviews. And this is, I feel like this is kind of like the OG of review spam, I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go and leave a review for a competitor that doesn't say a nice thing, right. And we kind of we kind of get exposed, I think, to this type of review, because we're we work we do marketing in an industry where we have a fairly prominent brand in that industry. And the industry is a little bit spammy. So we get to see this. So let's, let's talk about the next type of spammy review.

Natalie 14:16

So these businesses are putting fake reviews on legitimate listings to obviously affect the rating, and make sure that they're helping their rating in return. They're probably paying for these negative reviews to be posted. Similar to the last scenario, it's a lot of reviews all at once. And that's what ultimately impacts the rating. It's not going to be one or two that impact your rating, but it's the fact that they're posting like 20 every hour. So just to show you an example of something like that. One, one of our businesses that we work for, as you can see, it's like one star, one star, one star and it's all within minutes apart of each other. And again, you can see the inconsistency with the names you see, you know, multiple names that just don't make sense. So we know it's one of those situations where it's a bad player attacking a legitimate listing.

Tim 15:14

How does this affect a legitimate listing?

Natalie 15:19

It impacts the overall rating. So if this has a 5.0 rating, eventually that's going to a 4.9 or 4.8. And then that will affect the ranking.

Ashley 15:31

Yeah, and so we're the first case was boost your own ranking with volume of reviews that are 5.0 stars really fast. This is kind of like the inverse. So like, knock down your competitors rating really fast with a lot of negative reviews, you know, quickly coming in and put their rating down. So and then when Nat shared that screen, you'll notice, like, these reviews aren't being marked as verified job reviews, they were never customers, like Google's never going to be able to go back through their system and verify that they called through LSA, because they never called through LSA. When people are doing the fake review, and LSA for positive reviews, we suspect they're actually having people like call in book a fake appointment, and then leave the reviews thing. And get it marked as verified, but in this case, it's just someone deciding to leave a negative review. So they still get posted, but they don't get marked as verified. They often don't contain content, some do when they do contain content, you'll read it and be like, that's as a business. Like, we don't do that, or we don't have a tech name that or whatever it is that's in there, you can kind of pick out like, how could this be real, this isn't anything that like we do or say or or an employee we have as a business. And we tend to see them come in spurts these ones so like, we may not see them happen 20 every hour every day, but you'll see like 20 everyday for a couple of days. And then it may stop for a little bit and then kind of start up again. And so these tend to be a little spurtier, but especially if listings have less reviews, let's say you're like a small business, and you have 400 reviews, which is a lot is still a lot of reviews, but you can knock someone's rating down with 400 Reviews faster than someone that has 10,000 reviews with a rating of 4.9 or something like that. So the example that Natalie had shown us, they are one of the smaller businesses that we work with, and they don't have as many reviews as some of the larger ones. And so being able to knock them down is I think, an easier job for this spammer to kind of do so. And then we even see, you'll see some reviews to where like it won't, you don't even know what they're trying to say like it's kind of like nonsensical English to which seems easy to pick out. Just in general, like, it's not a cohesive sentence about anything, whether it's real or not, it's just not even a cohesive sentence, you'll see stuff like that, and there to

Natalie 17:50

So again, very, very strong cases, that is spam, it's just not getting taken down at this point.

Tim 17:58

But it really has a negative impact on the business, right, you're going to lower conversion, you're going to lower rankings, you're going to lower visibility, it's like, it's all fun. And I guess the way to combat this is the way to do everything is just get more reviews, and then try to alert Google to the spam.

Ashley 18:17

Yeah, we had a similar scenario with GBP. So we had, we work with a franchise. So basically, a network of the franchise locations got hit with two to five each negative reviews to star one star all around the same time, like within a day or two of each other, you just saw these go up, we actually had more success in GBP getting these pulled down, because you could kind of prove it was a network across listings and want to timing similar patterns. And GBP has a little more of a way right now to escalate stuff like this. And so we're not always successful in getting that removed. But after numerous steps, flagging, and then actually escalating through the forum and communicating directly with like a GBP product expert about what was going on. And what we were seeing those actually did, I think every single one except for one or two, and there were probably a couple 100 between all the locations, those are able to get pulled down. So that was kind of a success story in the in the area of getting reviews spam addressed that we don't commonly see. But it was nice to see that that was taken seriously and addressed.

Tim 19:23

So if there's proof of a spam network, I feel like that's true in everything with Google. If you can prove it to network, they're going to take much faster action. I feel like link spam and other forms of spam. That was true as well. Blog spam.

Ashley 19:36

Yeah, the one offs are very hard to get addressed. If it's not obvious, like I said, the obvious examples I think we do see success in GBP. If it's a one off in GBP, that's like hard to tell if it's real or fake or hard to get like solid proof. You just kind of know based on being the business owner and what people are doing or saying those are hard. Those are hard for sure to get.

Natalie 20:00

Also, the amount of evidence. If you could collect all this evidence you have a better or stronger case with Google too.

Tim 20:08

Got it. Yeah. So now, I feel like the point of LSA local service ads was that the business had to pass go through all these hoops and hurdles to be able to advertise in this program. How are these spammers getting through that?

Natalie 20:28

They're finding ways to game the system, I think that they do enough to pass the initial checks to at least get verified with Google and go through the advanced verification, to go live in the product. But once that's all done, kind of like the revert back to their old ways, and they're sending out, for example, technicians on jobs with unmarked trucks, or they're not uniformed. So those are definitely all things that you need to have in place for Google Local Services. And they're finding ways to kind of just game the system.

Ashley 21:02

Yeah, we're starting maybe in like, Natalie mentioned this earlier, like you start with one Metro, and maybe you truly do have all the appropriate documentation, and maybe that that group of technicians and that area passes background checks, so that one's legit, but then they like, branch out and cover other metro areas, or cover other states, or stop renewing their licenses, or start subcontracting out some of the jobs. So like, initially, they'll do it cleanly. And then I think one of the issues Google has is they don't appear to be doing any follow ups once you pass. So they say they reserve the right to do so their documentation says that you may have to do it every one to two years, I think, like a reverification of possibly background checks. Advanced verification, or AV is something specific to only a couple of verticals, Garage Doors and Locksmiths. So if you're in those verticals, it's another layer of tracks that they're going through initially to pass not everyone wants to do that. So yeah, they're doing enough at the beginning. And then kind of either not paying for things moving forward, like a license or something like that, or just expanding their network. So they're, they're really breaking the laws kind of in other places, subcontracting out employees, if they're not background checks, you're not supposed to be doing that with the local service leads, period. So we have seen businesses show up in a customer's house. So let's say you called like, ABC garage door company, you book a job with them, someone comes out from and you say, sorry, who Where are you from? And they'll be like, I'm not sure let me check. Like they don't even know the name of the company they're supposed to say they're coming out to represent. So that right there says a consumer suffer from anything Google's requiring as a consumer is a little unnerving, right? Like you don't know who you work for, or why you're here, like, what's going on? Right? So yeah, but they're definitely doing enough at the beginning. And then Google's not seeming to follow up on.

Tim 22:57

So they get through, they get a location, they get a license, they take a picture of a truck, they get the documentation together, and they submit it to Google and learn maybe a state that doesn't require a license, then they pay to get reviews for jobs that didn't really take place. And then they expand the service area. And show up massive visibility across maybe a state is largest California, maybe multiple states. Is that kind of how they're doing it.

Natalie 23:27

Yeah. And then they're competing with actual local companies that are physically located there. So these people that are passing in California, they're ranking number one and number two in states like Florida, Ohio, and competing with legit companies that are actually located in those states.

Ashley 23:45

Yeah, I think the we see common patterns with the spam that we like talked about, but there's also like, there's all different versions and variations on that too, right. So some people might be abusing the service area. Some people might be abusing subcontracting. Some people might be doing both. Some people are getting hundreds of fake, like, you'll see all different versions, but there's definitely some common themes that have started to pop up. And I think that's what makes it so frustrating to when you talk to Google or for business owners that we talk to, like, how is Google not just taking this down? Like it's so obvious, it's in front of your face? Even for a consumer looking at these businesses reading the reviews? It starts to seem suspicious. We've seen some reviews where someone says these reviews must not be real because I had a terrible experience with this company like this isn't this is what happened right or and so it seems like consumers are picking out that maybe they were misled after the fact right so they have a job done and like that was not my experience and coming back and be like something doesn't line up here. So like something suspicious. They don't necessarily know that when they're initially hiring. So it's definitely it's I think it's what's going on right now is negative for like everybody involved, right? The consumer, it's not good. They're hiring. They don't even know who they're hiring. They don't know what kind of experience are actually you're going to be getting that's a little dangerous. It's bad for, like the businesses that are losing the leads legitimate businesses that are losing leads that are actually gonna come out and service your door properly. And honestly, that's bad. Honestly, it's bad for Google, like, this whole Google guaranteed badge just sounds like a total Sham, like they're going out of their way to say, Don't worry, we've done all these checks, and you're safe. And like, in some industries, there couldn't be something further from the truth based on what's running there, and what type of abuse has occurred. So the way it's happening right now, really the only person who benefits is the business that's gaming the system and not currently being penalized for doing so. But everyone else, all people that I think Google, or Google stakeholders that Google can't should care about does care about it, like to believe are suffering here.

Tim 25:51

And these spammers could be making big money right now. Right? Because again, because of how they've able to scale it through how much visibility they can get, and how large swath of geography, one, local listing can show up it.

Ashley 26:10

That's hard to tell businesses, being the agency working with these businesses that are watching this happen, and we're just as frustrated as they are, I know, no one ever believes the agencies feels frustrated. But the reality is, is the team's gets very frustrated. But it's hard to tell them they're like, well, we need to figure out how they're doing the spam and then do it ourselves, right. And we're advising them like, don't, don't do what they're doing that's not legitimate, that you know, isn't good for your brand. And ultimately, the hope is that Google does sort this out. And when they do, it'll probably be in a big way. But it's getting harder and harder to tell people like don't do that. You don't want to do that, like, you've never done something like this before. That's not how you run your business. When people see 90% of their leads 70% of the lead 65% of their leads in a year from local service as disappear. And those leads are often very cost effective and very high quality and like the types of jobs they want to be running. It's very hard for them to think clearly. And be able to say like, yeah, you're right, we shouldn't even be thinking these thoughts about doing these bad things. But they are and I definitely understand it, don't necessarily think it's a good idea to do it for the long term viability of the business, but it definitely understand why people feel and think that way. And it's just, it's getting hard to convince them otherwise.

Tim 27:28

Yeah, and you and I have been doing this for a long time. We've been doing this for 15 years. And we always felt like when there was spam, Google would rather than play whack a mole, try and gather the information and then solve the problem algorithmically. And I certainly hope that's what's happening here, I have to admit, I'm losing the faith a little bit, as I read the news about layoffs and other things that are happening internally at Google, it makes me worried for this situation, because in the past, I would have had some confidence that this was coming. But this is a large magnitude for a long period of time. And in what really feels like an absence of any attention.

Natalie 28:13

It comes down to a capacity issue with Google, like they don't have the people in place to continue to do these checks after these people go live. I know like in the beginning, like to Ashley's point, they would re verify after one to two years, and go through the checks again, and make sure that the business is still compliant. And I think when it was a smaller product, they had the manpower to do it. And now that it's become bigger than they expected, they just can't.

Tim 28:42

I read about the layoffs. And I say like, it seems like they could use those people I don't know. Seems like they got a lot to do to me.

Ashley 28:52

I've been following we've learned through conversations with Google. And I don't I'm not sure that I'm still not 100% clear on how the reviews like what department the reviews go to. But the team that manages like the local service listings, actually doesn't manage like the reviews portion of those listings. And it sounds like the reviews fall somewhere between LSA and GBP for even the local service as reviews. So I'm still not totally sure like, what department it is, but it's like you can never get to the right. You don't know what department to talk to you about what matter like that, oh, we don't do that. Okay, can you get me in touch with someone who can? Well, we don't have a contact there, or we were trying, you know, like you can never get to the right place to try and share the information. I think, for us as an agency, we're trying to proactively share what we see so that they can hopefully learn faster, like the patterns of the spam, and how people are abusing the system and hopefully, like do something about it faster. Like we're truly trying to approach it from like, this shouldn't be happening anywhere to anybody and not even just the businesses that we work with which of course are priority, but like this is a problem. It's going to continue to spread you just can never get to the person who can help.

Tim 30:02

Well, Google as we all know is so siloed, if you can’t find the right silo you’re really in trouble in getting anything done with Google. Maybe this silo doesn’t exist yet, maybe that’s the issue.

Ashley 30:17

I think it does, I think it’s just hard to talk to the right person, to get in touch with them. That’s what were trying to gather through and why we have these conversations every week.

Tim 30:28

Alright, so where do we go from here?

Natalie 30:32

I mean I think the main take away is just to, we can’t stress enough it’s important to get reviews to your listings, try to get them at a fast velocity, because that’s all going to impact your rating overall. And if we are going to compete that’s the only way we can advise our customers to compete, just to keep getting those reviews, and making sure they are good reviews.

Ashley 30:59

We actually were working with a client a couple of weeks ago and he said “right now I have more reviews than anyone in my service area, we have a really good rating, my employees are doing a great job because we have very satisfied customers, but we have to keep going because right now, because maybe right now I have 1000 and the next guy has 100 but you never know when someone is coming along legitimate or illegitimate that’s just going to end up with a lot of reviews with a great rating. So you never want to take the foot off the gas with this.” Like keep going, like Natalie said make sure you are training your employees and working with them to make sure your customers are happy. Keep asking those customers to leave you feedback once you work with them. Also, work with people like your agency if you are seeing things that aren’t legitimate to try to build data in cases that can be brought to Google, hopefully in the long term they address it. In the short term with stuff like this it is hard to get Google to do anything. It takes awhile to build a case, so you have to try and be as far ahead as your competition that you possibly can on a regular basis so you have a little bit of a buffer to be able to figure this kind of stuff out. That is frustrating to say but that is kind of the reality.

Tim 32:14

Yeah, that never ends. That advice never ends, it’s good advice. Have a system in place to get reviews from your customers. When you do a great job, ask them to review your business. That’s what we got to do and it is frustrating to say that is the best advice we can give right now but I feel like it’s kind of the truth.

Natalie 32:37

Yeah, and it’s in their control.

Tim 32:40

That’s true. Alright any final words for today’s episode.

Ashley 32:48

I don’t think so but Google if you’re listening, we’d love to chat.

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