Review Spam: Will It Be Fixed? (And How To Deal With It Today)

This post was prompted by discussions at Catalyst eMarketing and Blumenthals.com regarding spam reviews of moving companies.

It’s a nightmare. You go to your Google Places Page, and see it covered with reviews saying that your business is overpriced, has horrible service, and is pretty much a scam.

Sure, not every one of your customers loves you – but there certainly aren’t this many that hate you.

Spam Reviews on a  Google Places Page

Spam Reviews on a Google Places Page - half of these don't even get the company name right

Spam Reviews Come in Many Forms

Positive Reviews

The most benign (although still underhanded) version of review spam is fake positive reviews of one’s own business. Sometimes these are obvious, although if done well it’s awfully hard to figure out if reviews are fake or the business just does a good job of encouraging online reviews.

Negative Reviews

The more malicious type of review spam involves writing negative reviews on competitors’ pages. This has been going on for years, and is sadly common in Google Maps.

Protection Money

Moving into the even more unethical realm, there are businesses that not only write fake negative reviews, but then contact companies with an offer to help remove the reviews for cash.

Will It Be Fixed?

There are a variety of ideas as to what review sites could do to discourage all this spam. It will never be completely eliminated (look at the years of effort Google has put in to the search results, and the continual presence of spam), but some ways things may improve include:

Manual Filtering

People are pretty good at spotting many types of spam reviews, and teams could certainly be employed to watch the reviews as they come in. This, however, is going to be expensive at the scale required – and seems to be in direct conflict with the overall ethos of automation at many tech companies, particularly Google (although they do employ a substantial number of search spam raters, raters review just a small sample of the results).

Most review sites also allow users to manually mark reviews as spam. This doesn’t stop spam before it happens, but at least provides a recourse – if, of course, the review sites actually respond to these notices.

Algorithmic Filtering

Algorithms could be (and are) used to help deter spam. It’s currently surprising how lax these filters are. I have no idea why a single user is allowed to write even 10’s of negative reviews at one time without having these reviews flagged, or why 10’s of identical reviews can be written of different companies without an automated system taking notice.

Social/Trust Based

My feeling, as I’ve said before, is that reviews will increasingly take into account a social component. This is likely part of the motivation behind launching Google+, as it will help Google highlight reviews from people you know. Additionally, Google+ should provide the search giant with better insight into connections between people (the social graph), which will make it easier to determine who is trustworthy and who is not.

Your competitor probably wouldn’t write a negative review of you if his friends could see he wrote it. And with enough relationship data, fake accounts could more easily have their reviews tossed out.

The FTC

A final way to deal with reviews is the FTC. They have pursued some for spam reviews – but the odds of the agency pursuing small fish on the scale required to make a difference are probably low. They might, however, take care of some of the larger-scale extortionists.

Dealing With Spam Reviews Now

For now, if you’re the victim of spam reviews, most sites allow you to report the reviews. For instance, on your Google Places Page, click “Flag as inappropriate”:

Reporting Google Places Spam Reviews

Reporting Google Places Spam Reviews

This is trickier with reviews Google has pulled in from other sites, as you will have to visit the third party site to mark the review as spam (and there are some that have no vehicle for doing this). In either case, it’s anyone’s guess when or if action will actually be taken against the review.

The other thing you can do, which helps tremendously with a handful of spam reviews, is to get lots of legitimate reviews. This will keep your star rating high, despite the spam – and most consumers can figure it out if 50 people like you and a handful say terrible things.

Conclusion

Review spam is a huge headache for businesses – and one that is unlikely to go away soon. Review sites have a handful of methods to fight spam, and their ability to do so will certainly grow over the next few years, but the dedicated spammers always get more creative. The best advice is to deal with it as you can – and then run a good enough business that swamping the spam with positive reviews is no problem.

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