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Fake Listings, Fake Reviews: Is This the New Normal?

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the prevalence of fake local business listings on Google. This is a known problem that local SEOs have talked about for years and that Google says it has been addressing, in an ongoing game of whack-a-mole.

The article suggests, however, the problem is intensifying. It goes into considerable detail, but here’s the essence of the critique:

Google’s ubiquitous internet platform shapes what’s real and what isn’t for more than two billion monthly users. Yet Google Maps, triggered by such Google queries as the one Ms. Carter made, is overrun with millions of false business addresses and fake names, according to advertisers, search experts and current and former Google employees.

The ruse lures the unsuspecting to what appear to be Google-suggested local businesses, a costly and dangerous deception.

Google responded to the article with a blog post about how the company deals with fake listings and cites progress it has made. However, this paragraph sums up Google’s challenge (emphasis added):

These scammers use a wide range of deceptive techniques to try to game our system—as we shut them down, they change their techniques, and the cycle continues. Although it’s important that we make it easy for legitimate businesses to get their business profiles on Google, we’ve also implemented strict policies and created tools that enable people to flag these issues so we can take action. It’s a constant balancing act and we’re continually working on new and better ways to fight these scams using a variety of ever-evolving manual and automated systems. But we can’t share too many details about these efforts without running the risk of actually helping scammers find new ways to beat our systems—which defeats the purpose of all the work we do.

The WSJ piece doesn’t discuss it but there’s also a fairly significant fake reviews problem on Google. It exists on Amazon as well.

Yelp also sees some fake reviews but my sense is that they’re less common for a couple of reasons. Yelp has lower review volume than Google and its controversial “review filter” (now “not recommended”) keeps most of the fraudulent reviews (as well as some legitimate ones) out of view. Facebook also has a fake reviews problem.

There used to be a sense that it was just a question of effort on the part of the platforms; if they just applied more attention and resources, they could dramatically minimize or even eliminate the problem. But the attention and resources ebb and flow and the problem persists.

The WSJ article also implies Google is unmotivated to fully address its fake listings problem because it compels businesses to buy ads to rank above the spam. Google strongly disputes this but it’s nonetheless a widely held view among a vocal subset of the local SEO community.

The review fraud and fake listings problems exist because the stakes are high, and because of the massive scale of the internet. The involved companies also have a preference for not using humans (or enough humans) to address problems — largely because of cost, but it’s a cultural bias too. Ad fraud, fake news and all of these online deception issues are broadly similar.

Most of the big platforms, when asked, say that there’s a human + algorithmic approach in place and that it’s working. That may partly be true. But, ultimately, consumers will need to become a lot more discriminating. Agencies working with SMBs will need to get involved in reporting spam, and regulatory agencies will need to become more deeply involved too. Perhaps with such a multi-pronged effort online ___ fraud can be better contained.

Having said that, unfortunately, I believe this is the new normal. Fake reviews, fake listings, fake news aren’t going away.

4 Responses to “Fake Listings, Fake Reviews: Is This the New Normal?”

  1. From the beginning and more so now there should be outside monitoring of google’s volume and breakdowns on different types of search. Even more so its advertising. How much of google’s advertising revenues are connected to local search? 10%, 20,30-70%. Nobody outside of key people at Google have the foggiest idea. They never have. Meanwhile ad costs for various local keywords have soared…and G advertising revenues ALWAYS increase year after year. Why isn’t this monitored. It is critical for monitoring the extent of the monopoly and would be revealing to investors. Magazines and newspapers used to have their “readership” audited. Why isn’t Google’s advertising monitored.

    In a decade Google’s advertising revenues have increased by almost $100 billion, an extraordinary amount. In that decade, nobody outside of a select few know where it is coming from.

    It would be revealing if say 60% of G’s advertising revenues were connected to local ads; say about $65 billion/in the most current year.

    Clearly that would be sufficient to fight spam. Shouldn’t we know?

  2. Lee Hancock says:

    I couldn’t agree more, and although it may be blasphemy at this point akin to pointing out that the Emperor doesn’t have any clothes on, but I think you can add Fake search results as well. The paid search paradigm has gone too far, and it’s clearly impacting organic search results, furthering Google’s dynasty and leverage to drive egregious paid search spend. The true utility value of the Internet has been shoved aside in favor of paid search, advertising, invasive targeting and privacy intrusion, biased search results, and all of the tomfoolery required to try to game the system to help consumers find what they are looking for. It’s time for some major changes with a more direct search paradigm!

  3. Greg Sterling says:

    This is the challenge of being a public company: they’re forced to show continuous growth, which is pushing more and more data mining and monetization.

  4. Greg Sterling says:

    I would love to figure that out. I suspect that a large % are brands that sell locally and SMBs and wouldn’t be surprised if it were more than 50% of all paid-search revenue tied to local.

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