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If you’re going to do Something Wrong; At Least do it Right: Fake Reviews

Local SEO | 11 Jun 2012

fake reviews
Disclaimer: I do not condone fake reviews. I love Google. I love Matt Cutts. Google, Google, Google.

Until they no longer are a ranking factor (and probably after), fake reviews are everyone’s reality.

If you’re desperate and looking for a way to get your search engine rankings higher, fake reviews are going to seem like an attractive solution. Faked reviews are not something new in marketing; they’ve actually been used since the days before the internet even existed. Now however, they offer much more potent benefits. They can be used to trick people into thinking that a service is more popular while increasing keyword density on your web property of choice.

Those are not even the only benefits that fake reviews can offer. Many people have used them for other purposes. Fake reviews are a powerful way to drown out negative reviews (reputation management) that you don’t want people to see. They also allow you to control your message and make sure that you are only showing the side of your business that you want people to see the most.

Some people even used faked reviews as a way to attack their competitors by flooding “enemy” pages with negative reviews until it seems like everyone hates the rival business.

Fake reviews can seem like a very effective way to get ahead, but there are dangers. What many of these fake reviewers don’t seem to realize is that they are putting themselves and their businesses (or clients) in jeopardy.

The Danger

Fake reviews are a risky tactic. Most profile sites such as Google Places, Yelp, Angie’s list and others make a serious effort to weed out fake reviews. Profiles that are taking too much advantage from suspicious reviews may be penalized or even deleted. People caught posting libelous reviews on a competitors profile could be targeted with legal action.

Since the risks are so great, you might think that people would take fake reviews very seriously—but it often seems that they don’t. Many fake reviews scattered throughout the web are so obvious that a child could see through them.

There are many mistakes that fake reviewers make. The reviews sound too much like ads, or they all sound exactly the same, or they all have a suspicious familiarity with the business. While it’s probably preferable to avoid fake reviews altogether, there is a right way to do them. In the face of so many obvious fakes, we’d like to make a public service announcement on some of the ways that you can make reviews work better for you—or at the very least, not sound so embarrassing.

You Can’t Please Everyone

Nothing looks more suspicious (or easier to track with an algorithm) than a wall full of PERFECT reviews. It is an unfortunate truth that most people who take the time to post reviews are angry about something. Barely anyone will post a review for just decent service. Very few people ever get “five-star treatment” and fewer still will leave a review about it.

Reviews are mostly for venting about some tiny offense, and you should recognize that. If you want to make reviews that seem real, then the majority of them need to be just over the middle of the road: Many 3/5, several 4/5, and maybe one or two real 5/5. You may think that a wall of perfect reviews reflects better on your business, but most people aren’t gullible enough to buy it. They’ll know that you are responsible for the reviews, and they’ll wonder what you’re hiding.

Of course, striking a better balance with 3/5 star reviews can make it tough to establish why the person in question would leave a review in the first place, which is the subject of our second point.

Selective Memory

If someone is leaving a moderate review, or anything less than 5/5, there was clearly something that wasn’t quite up to snuff. When a review says 3/5, but expresses a general satisfaction with the entire service or product, it immediately looks faked. The best solution to this problem is to focus on one specific feature that the customer appreciated more than the others.

Most businesses will have many different features. For an offline business, the size and cleanliness of their stores can be a feature. The behavior of their staff and the quality of their products is also something a customer would notice. The most realistic reviews will focus on only one of these features at any given time, and no two reviews will see the same feature in the same way.

Reviews can safely focus on a second feature as well, but you are getting into the deeper end of the swimming pool when you start trying to mention a third feature in the same review. If you want to mention as many features as possible though, you’ll have to make sure you balance out the good with some bad.

Constructive Criticism

If you are creating moderate reviews, and the “customers” are focusing on a feature that they liked the most, there should also be something that they didn’t enjoy. Many people are frightened of putting criticisms into their own reviews, but like the reviews themselves, there is a right way to do it. You can make reviews littered with criticisms without putting your business in danger.

One solution is to make the criticisms very mild, but that won’t fly for all of them. A much more effective method is to make the criticism sound like it’s the fault of the reviewer instead of the fault of the business. That way, you can take advantage of the positive aspects of the review, while making readers dismiss the negative aspects because they don’t apply to most people.

We’ll use some examples to illustrate what we mean here.

  • Someone who complains about too many kids at a family restaurant
  • Someone who complains about too many people at a Night Club
  • Someone who complains that you have to book very early to get a reservation at a destination
  • All of these are criticisms, but they are criticisms that should appeal to the core audience of your business. Families want to know that kids are welcome at restaurants; young people want to know that night clubs are popular; and complaints about early booking could drive people reading your profile to book early.

    If you’re careful and imaginative, you can make almost all criticism work in your favour.

    The World is not made of English Professors

    This review problem is less common than some of the others, but it bears mentioning. Many people know that Google favours good quality, well written content when it comes to ranking content on websites, so some mistakenly assume that applies to the reviews as well. Some people are also under the impression that no one will take a review seriously unless it is written by someone using proper spelling and grammar.

    Neither of these assumptions is true though. Google does not penalize reviews for bad spelling (Obvious TIP: keywords should be at least spelled right) and most REAL reviews are made up of one run-on sentence that never ends in a period. While you obviously don’t want all of your reviews to look like they were written by someone with a third grade education, you do want a few scattered in to make everything look real and natural.

    Fake Reviews in a Post Google+ Local World

    Some time ago I wrote a very technical blog post, where I address the use of proxies/ips, seasoned Google accounts, etc. With the recent transition to Google+ Local, very little of this strategy requires change.

    While the review process itself has changed, the only real requirement that has changed is the necessity of a Google+ account. You cannot leave a review without out.

    Going forward, and none of this has been proven (being tested), we suspect Google, like other web properties, will continue to beef up there filter. If we assume these filters aim to be more Yelp-esq, than I strong suggest you look after the following things:

    • login to your the accounts you use for fake reviews often.
    • leave reviews on all kinds of other local businesses, not just your clients.
    • in creating your Google+ page, make sure it looks REAL! Add some friends to your circles, etc.

    Go Make the World a Less Suspicious Place

    We hope you’ll take these tips seriously. Believe us when we say that review pages that read like they were outsourced to the stepford wives aren’t doing your brand or your customers any favors.

    Related posts:

    1. Google Places Cracking Down on Fake Reviews
    2. Know Thy Enemy: Black Hat Google Places
    3. Places Optimization: The Ins and Outs


  • matthew hunt

    Adam you rock! thanks for addressing a topic most local seo’ers are afraid to talk publicly about.

    We all know many SMB’s add fake reviews or post reviews from comment cards they collect, etc.

    As there is great risk with this and usually not the best strategy we all know it’s being done.

    If you are going to do this, at least be smart about it and head Adam’s tips on not being an obvious review spammer.

    • Adam SteeleAdam Steele

      Know thy enemy as they say. Being ignorant to this behavior is not the solution.

      Thanks for stopping by Matt – always appreciate your input : )

  • Jonas

    Thanks a lot Adam. I’m going to implement your tips.

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