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Fake Review Fraud: What is Google Doing to Protect & Support Small Businesses?

An online reputation can make or break a business. It’s also the reason why a seedy industry has surfaced, allowing businesses to buy reviews to boost their rating or suppress the rating of a competitor. Read on to learn more about the black market of google reviews, and the steps you can take if your business is a victim of fake reviews.

The Influence of Google Reviews on a Business

It’s the quality and quantity of online reviews that can determine the success of your business. Google surpassed TripAdvisor, Facebook, and Yelp as the top review site in 2018. Both local businesses and multinational corporations rely on Google reviews to bolster trust and improve their search rankings.

A 2019 Bright Local study confirmed that Google reviews have become a deciding factor whether a potential customer buys your product or service.

Below are the highlights of the study:

  • Nearly 91% of respondents used positive reviews to make a purchasing decision with a local business
  • Almost 82% of people came across a fake review in 2018.

The challenge surrounding false Google reviews is that they aren’t easy to spot as a consumer, but can be detrimental to a business, driving away potential business. This has led to the emergence of a thriving industry of buying and selling fake reviews, as well as a much seedier black market of google review scam-artists who threaten a bombardment of bad reviews in return for money.

Why Purchasing Google Reviews is a Bad Idea

After learning that a boost in your rankings is only one click away, purchasing positive Google reviews to boost your business up by another star may seem tempting. But this raises the question:

Why do customers read online reviews at all?

When a consumer reads a review (positive or negative), they trust that those are genuine experiences of real people. This lays the foundation of the trust economy. Potential customers may even recommend a business to their friends and family based solely on positive ratings and reviews.

When a trust economy is compromised due to fake Google reviews, it discredits the power of an authentic positive review, as well as an authentic negative review for that matter!

Authentic bad reviews are equally important for consumers, as they:

  • Allow businesses to improve their offerings or their level of service.
  • Provide a platform to address customer complaints.

As well as eroding the trust of your consumers, buying fake reviews to inflate the reputation of your business is a violation of Canada’s Competition Act. This act states that “anyone who produces, sells or distributes fake endorsements or reviews could be liable under the Competition Act.” If evidence is uncovered proving that your business has violated this act, you may be investigated and potentially prosecuted in criminal court by the Attorney General of Canada.

As consumers become increasingly savvier with identifying false reviews from authentic ones, purchasing fake reviews is a gamble that could potentially do more harm than good. In the long-term, it compromises customer relationships, and ultimately the success of your business.

The Impact of Fake Negative Reviews & What Google is Doing About It.

Google reviews act as social proof for customers. While existing clients may remain unaffected by a surge of fake negative reviews, prospective customers may be deterred from making a purchase or choosing your service, opting instead for a highly rated competitor.

Further, reviews are closely tied to a business’s ranking within Google. A highly rated business may appear closer to the top of the list of results in response to a search query. In the same vein, a wave of fraudulent negative reviews that leads to a significant drop in your average rating as a business may mean that you show up lower down the list, reducing your chances of being seen by prospective customers!

“Google receives an astronomical number of complaints against inauthentic reviews each day, and it can take sometimes more than a week before flagged reviews are removed. For a small business relying on reviews for credibility, this is enough time to cause some serious damage, and scam artists are well aware of this! The fake review back market is definitely a persistent issue for small businesses in particular, and there’s a need for stronger protections for consumers and businesses alike.”

Adrianne F. | Director, Star Quality Private Investigations Toronto

So, what is the tech giant currently doing to protect businesses from the impacts of fake negative reviews, and to protect consumers from a trust economy tainted by fake positive reviews? Not enough.  

Google does lay out specific guidelines pertaining to the authenticity of business reviews:

“Contributions to Google Maps should accurately represent the location in question. Where contributions distort the truth, we will remove content. This includes reviews, photos, or videos not related to the location or business where they are tagged…We may take down reviews that are flagged in order to comply with Google policies or legal obligations.”

Google’s capacity to uphold these guidelines, however, has been limited, much to the detriment of small business owners. The systems in place to check reviews are purely algorithm-based, designed to detect specific words, phrases, and other suspicious content patterns. These machines are ineffective at catching the vast majority of fraudulent review accounts, and accordingly, this problem is spiraling out of control.

Many are pleading for the tech giant to increase their human investment in order to more effectively monitor and tightly control the Google My Business platform. At present, Google’s complacency in fighting back against this fraudulent digital behavior is hurting honest businesses and consumers.

How to Report and Remove Fake Negative Google Reviews

If your Google My Business page has been plagued by fake negative reviews, you can take some measures to remove them:

  • Read the guidelines: Fake reviews are difficult to pinpoint. Hence, make sure you go through Google’s guidelines to determine if there has been a violation.
  • Flag the review: Once you have studied the guidelines and confirmed that the review is indeed inauthentic, flag the suspicious review as a next step. You can do this on both the Google My Business page and Google Maps by clicking the small red flag next to the review. After this, Google will confirm that they have received your request. Flagging through Google My Business will often increase the response time to your request.
  • Get support from Google: You will need to prepare documentation stating why the negative review needs to be removed, along with your business name, Google Maps link, website URL, phone number, address, policies violated, and case ID. If there’s no response for 3 days, you can try Google Online Chat, or try reporting the review to Google Small Business Support.

For many of our clients, simply flagging and removing each false review is not enough to stop the issue. While Google is still grappling with how to more effectively deal with this fraudulent activity and protect vulnerable businesses, SQPI is working closely with our clients to find other solutions to fight back against the culprits of review fraud.

How Can Private Investigators Help?

Many of our clients lack the luxury of time and expertise when it comes to effectively dealing with Google-review scams or inauthentic reviews that are hurting their reputation and bottom line.

As part of our Corporate Investigations services, our investigators use advanced digital forensic techniques to help you identify the source(s) of false reviews, and gather the necessary evidence of fraudulent activity to help you take legal action, if necessary.

Reach out to our team today to learn more.

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