Deep Dive Into Local series from April 17th, 2017. In our Deep Dive series, Mike and Mary look at review spamming which is one thing in local that caught our attention this week and deserves a longer discussion.
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Mike: Hi, welcome to Deep Dive into Local with Mike and Mary. This week we’re going to be talking about review spamming. Reviews have an interesting history at Google. , they started in 2008. Prior to that, there were no filters on what spam got through and somewhere around the time of 2010, they wrote some filters and everybody was shocked because reviews started getting taken down and Google got very aggressive with taking reviews down, although they never were like Yelp transparent about which reviews were taken down nor why. Although people did ultimately figure out a number of rules as to why they were taken down and those rules are still largely in effect. , if you leave a review…multi reviews from the same IP address or on the same network, or if you’re associated with a business, if you use an URL in reviews, those are still in effect. But we’ve seen somewhat of a loosening or perhaps unsophisticated developments in the review spam filter, and we’re now back to a point where a lot of reviews at Google are fake.
Mary: yes, it’s kind of weird because a few years ago, they seemed to be making a really big effort. They even teamed up with some university to come up with an algo to catch review spam and gave us characteristics of review spam, and then it kind of all just faded away. It’s very hard these days, just like every other kind of map spam to get review spam taken down unless the spamming reviewer is really, really sloppy in what they’re doing. And sometimes even when they are kind of sloppy in what they’re doing, like reviewing a car dealer in California, and a car dealer in Chicago, and a car dealer in New York on the same day, you report it and nothing gets done. What do you think is the best thing to do when you suspect review spam? Is it worth wasting your time even trying to report it?
Mike: Well, there’s three levels of reporting. There’s flagging, which goes to human curation although it takes a number of weeks. And then there’s the forum where if you can get the attention of a top contributor, it can get escalated to be reviewed. The issue is multiple fold, though. If a single business is doing the occasional fake review, either positive or negative, it’s unlikely it will be taken down unless it violates the terms of service, right? The terms of service are more about whether it’s racist or misogynist, those kinds of things and less about whether or not it is factually true, and Google doesn’t wanna get involved in those that are…, disputes about what’s true and what isn’t. And typically, those kind of one-offs aren’t going to be taken down.
When you run into a spam review network, then Google is more interested in those because you can demonstrate scale. So it’s important if you’re going to bring them to the forum, that you do a little bit of research and you find multiple instances against multiple businesses that show a pattern. But even there, I spent months documenting what I determined to be one of the largest review spam networks ever and showed it to Google multiple times. And , I didn’t wanna do all the work it was going to take to show all of the patterns, but it was quite clear to me as an educated human observer that it was spam and they didn’t take it down. So finally, , I get… It was so complex of a review spam network that I couldn’t even figure out how to tell the story in an article.
I did finally in an article titled, “The Largest Review Spam Network or Who Is Shazedur Rahman and Why Should You Care?” I finally figured out a way to tell the story, but when you look at the spam, it is very sophisticated. Literally, hundreds if not thousands of reviewers leaving 10s, 20s, 30s of reviews on hundreds if not thousands of businesses, and no reviewer has more than 2 or 3 reviews in the same as in any other reviewer in this network. So I calculated that it’s tens of thousands of fake reviews and maybe hundreds of thousands of fake reviews, and it’s a very sophisticated network. Perhaps part of an SEO network, I’m not sure.
Mary: Does it seem to be global or are most of the fake reviews coming from India?
Mike: Well, I don’t have access to the location of the reviewers. The reviewers, though, mostly review in the United States, they do some reviewing in England, some in Europe, and some in Australia. But a typical reviewer like this Shazedur Rahman, you will see when you go in and you click to see where she’s reviewed, you will see reviews around the whole United States. You’ll see reviews in England and Australia, right? You’ll see that she has reviewed house services in multiple cities, like pest control in New York City and Texas. She will have reviewed auto transport going from Portland to New York and from other cities, Seattle to other cities, right? So she reviews the same types of services multiple times.
She will, of course, be educated at the mortuary school in Illinois and will have visited a dentist in Austin after having reviewed four other dentists, and she will have done all of this… Oh, and then she will bought her engagement ring in Israel, and then searched out a private investigator in Kuru, Philippines eight months later to find her missing husband. And all of this has taken place in the period of a year, right? So on its face, this reviewer is a fake reviewer.
But when you put her in the context of hundreds others exactly like her, some of whom are named, for example, Pippin Sackville right out of Tolkien, you see a pattern of reviews that is so large and so amazing that it takes your breath away, calling into question the integrity of most Google reviews of most good, solid businesses and the integrity of Google itself. , if they are unwilling after this being pointed out to them multiple times over the last three or four months to take it down, what hope is there if they don’t do something, right?
Mary: I know. And when we can see it when it’s so obvious to us, it’s almost astounding that they could be oblivious to it.
Mike: yes. , this one…well, on the surface…, you had to dig into this woman’s review profile to see the idiocy of the story, but then it was complicated showing her relationship to the other reviewers. That was where the information that I provided to Google must have fallen short where they couldn’t see the same pattern I was seeing. I finally spent hours yesterday documenting 10 or 20 of these reviewers to show which businesses they had in common. But it is clearly a very sophisticated review scam, skirting Google’s review limits very successfully.
Mary: And it kind of surprises me because Google knows where I am. If I go to New York, Google asks me things. “Are you at this place? Are you at LaGuardia Airport? Are you at The Eatery in Manhattan?” When I go in somewhere, it asks me am I there and I tell it if I am or not, and at some point, sometimes it’s after I get back home, it asks me if I want to review or share information about it. Now, how can people traveling around the world within one day not be something…, reviewing businesses around the world?
Mike: Well, they were not all on the same day, they were spread out over a year. And I’ve observed when I find a…they’re obviously cultivating lower-density reviewers. You’ll find a reviewer with two or three that will sit for a while, right, and it might be four, six, eight months, a year later before they come back to that profile and add more reviews to that profile. They are very careful about sort of aging their profiles, which is one way. So once Google trusts a profile, it appears that it’s less likely to be triggered. Obviously, they’ve studied what Google does and they are stepping around it very elegantly.
Mary: Yes, they’re outsmarting Google and to me, that’s kind of sad.
Mike: yes. , part of the problem when they did bring down the hammer in 2010, 2012, they caught a lot of good reviews. Part of the problem with big data and particularly not transparent big data is that that is a side effect, where good reviews, and unlike in Yelp where they’re put in a category and you can see them there, these are not, right? So if they’re put in a category in Google, any legitimate business might have an opportunity to dispute that or to recover them or to just understand that some percentage of those is going to happen.
But with Google, they just hide them and then make it hard. So there’s this conflict at Google between offending real businesses because their takedown algorithms are not that good, and catching broad-based review spam networks like this where they kind of look real to the algorithm but are totally bogus. So, I don’t know. I do anticipate that the pendulum will swing hopefully sooner rather than later towards a more restricted review algorithm.
Mary: I think we all do, especially since they make such an impact in the SERPs. , this really is cheating that helps you when you can get fake reviews or get fake negative reviews for your competitors. It has a huge impact on small businesses and their livelihoods.
Mike: Yes. And I would contend that a fake listing that exists in Google for seven days and gets taken down, ultimately those listings are going to lead to real businesses but they aren’t going to have very many fake reviews on them, right? Whereas this is a real business with maybe 100, I saw one with 150 fake reviews, create an impression that is totally deceptive. , which situation harms the consuming public more? I think the fake reviews do, and it not only harms the consuming public but it sullies the name of reviews in general and sullies deeply, I think, Google’s reputation as a sophisticated company capable of delivering this information in an accurate and non-biased way.
Mary: I agree.
Mike: And it sullies you, me, and the bedpost, everybody in between. It is at a level of scale that, I think, if they don’t act quickly, the whole review world will be tainted.
Mary: I know, and it’s kind of sad because when you talk to Googlers, they say it’s all about money. It’s all about resources which basically comes down to money, not putting the resources where they’re needed to combat this.
Mike: Well, hopefully, we’ve as Andrew Shotland said, “I’ve been howling at Skynet.” Hopefully, somebody will notice my howls.
Mary: And again, if you have any suggestions about how we can kind of as a local search community do something about this, please leave comments on this.
Mike: All right, with that, I will say goodbye and have a great vacation. We’ll talk to you when we get back.
Mary: Thanks, Mike.