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How to Identify Phony Reviews in Google Places

As more and more people rely on the opinions of others online to make decisions about where they’ll eat, who’ll they will hire to fix their roof, or even where they will go for health care the more critical it becomes for them to understand there are devious people out there trying to trick them into choosing them.  This has become an obvious issue with Google Places, which seems to give preference to sites with lots of reviews. The most famous story around this was of a business owner who purposely pissed off customers so they would write bad reviews. His belief was it was better to show up on the map with bad reviews than not show up at all. Others have come up with more elegant ways to trick the system – so it is important to take reviews with a grain of salt, and if you are making a life-altering decision, don’t base it on Google Places reviews without digging a little deeper.

Any time folks figure out that Google is giving an advantage in search results, there are packs of black-hat SEO wolves descending to take advantage.  In the old days it was a lot easier to spot them: keyword stuffing, scraping content, cloaking, and other nefarious methods of tricking the search engines.  As someone who has been working in the behavioral health field for over 10 years, I have seen it all.  Although it takes a lot more work, money, and energy (and time) to get good results in Google by creating a quality site that is regularly updated with original, high-quality content, the benefit over the long run is that you never have to worry about being “hit” by a major algorithm correction.

Now, I call it an algorithm correction because that’s really what it is.  Google discovers there is a problem with their algorithm that is being exploited by lazy website owners, they make an adjustment, lazy website owners disappear from the top results.

So let’s talk about the impact of review spam in Google Places.  It has been singularly frustrating for me because I manage the SEO for what is considered the first Malibu Model of drug rehabs – Promises Treatment Centers. In fact, we have trademarked the term “Malibu Model” because Promises established this type of program almost two decades ago.  Of course, many rehabs have followed, some of dubious quality.

The biggest frustration is to have a Malibu address but never have your rehab show up on the map in Malibu.  For a while, Google Boost helped, but that tool was soon ended by Google.  Then they created “AdWords Express” which is like AdWords without any actual functionality. It’s truly bizarre. You can’t choose your relevant keywords – it does it for you, and not very well I must say.

I continue to examine why lesser rehabs do so well on the Malibu map and I’ve come to the conclusion that many have done so through phony reviews.  To me, this is particularly damaging to Google’s credibility.  I’m telling you that Promises would NEVER ask our clients to review us for a search engine. It’s distasteful at best, and unethical at worst.  We would be happy if some decided to do it on their own, but really, who wants to show up as reviewing a drug rehab?  There is still too much of a stigma associated.

How have other rehabs dealt with this? They have simply asked their SEO folks to create fake accounts and write fake reviews.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the reviews are hogwash – but here are  a few tell-tale signs.

1. The reviewer has only written one review, or if they have written a few reviews they are all associated with the same business type.

2. The reviewer has a remarkable grasp of the value of keywords in their review title.  Instead of writing a headline:   “Truly a wonderful place to get better” which would be a very natural one, they write “Drug Rehab Program Malibu” – right, that sounds like what a normal person would use as a headline in a review.

3. All the reviews are 5 stars.  Really?  Not one thing wrong?  20 people reviewed you as PERFECT?  Heck, even Michelin star restaurants get their share of 2-star reviews.

4. All the reviews are clustered around the same day or week. People generally hire outside SEO for a short time so they have to get those reviews up and done for them.

I never just look at how many stars a business gets. I always read the reviews.  You can spot the phony ones very quickly if you read a lot of reviews. You can also spot the phony reviews by competitors trying to harm a business.  This is another disgusting practice that I have seen friends suffer through on Yelp – haven’t quite seen it yet in Google Places, but you can bet it’s happening.

By reading reviews thoroughly you can generally get a sense of their authenticity and avoid choosing the wrong business – such as a rehab where you are sending a loved one with the hopes that they will find recovery from addiction.

Below this post is an image grab of a great example of phony SEO reviews. This particular rehab used to do very well in regular results by spamming – they would write daily junk press releases – Google did catch onto that and they plummeted in results. They are now doing phony review spam so they at least do well in local searches – and it is working like gangbusters for them (until Google catches on – hopefully soon!)

Clearly, spam has been a problem from the beginning for Google and every other search engine. Those who make money by taking short cuts will always try to stay one step ahead of Google, but in the end I have to believe that quality content will rule the day.


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