Roads to … nowhere?

Google Maps admits its business listings are riddled with errors and outright fraudulent entries.

The news reports hit fast and furious this week when the media got wind of the millions upon millions of “faux” business listings on Google Maps, thanks to a new Wall Street Journal exposé.

It’s true that there are a ton of map listings displayed by Google on search engine results pages, but the latest estimates are that there are more than 11 million falsely listed businesses that pop up on Google searches on any given business day.

That number may seem eyebrow-raising, but it’s hardly “new news.” Recall the reports that date as far back as a half-decade — to wit:

  • In 2014, cyber-security expert Bryan Seely showed how easy it was to use the Internet’s open architecture to record telephone conversations and create fraudulent Google Maps listings and locations.
  • In 2017, Google released a report titled Pinning Down Abuse on Google Maps, wherein it was estimated that one in ten fake listings belonged to actual real-live businesses such as restaurants and motels, but that nefarious third-parties had claimed ownership of them. Why do this? So that the unscrupulous bad-actors could deceive the targeted businesses into paying search referral fees.

Google is owning up to its continuing challenges, this week issuing a statement as follows:

“We understand the concerns of those people and businesses impacted by local business scammers, and back in 2017 we announced the progress we’d made. There was still work to be done then, and there’s still work to be done now.  We have an entire team dedicated to addressing these issues and taking constant action to remove profiles that violate our policies.”

But is “constant action” enough? Certain business trades are so riddled with fake listings, it’s probably best to steer clear of them altogether.  Electricians, plumbers and other contractors are particularly sketchy categories, where roughly 40% of Google Maps listings are estimated to be fraudulent entries.

The Wall Street Journal‘s recent exposé, published on June 24th, reported on a search its researchers conducted for plumbers in New York City.  Of the top 20 Google search results returned, only two actually exist where they’re reported to be located and accept customers at the addresses listed.  That’s pretty awful performance even if you’re grading on a curve.

A measure of progress has been made; Google reports that in 2018 it removed some 3 million fake business listings. But that still leaves another 11 million of them out there, silently mocking …

More raps for Google on the “fake reviews” front.

Google’s trying to not have its local search initiative devolve into charges and counter-charges of “fake news” à la the most recent U.S. presidential election campaign – but is it trying hard enough?

It’s becoming harder for the reviews that show up on Google’s local search function to be considered anything other than “suspect.”

The latest salvo comes from search expert and author Mike Blumenthal, whose recent blog posts on the subject question Google’s willingness to level with its customers.

Mr. Blumenthal could be considered one of the premiere experts on local search, and he’s been studying the phenomenon of fake information online for nearly a decade.

The gist of Blumenthal’s argument is that Google isn’t taking sufficient action to clean up fake reviews (and related service industry and affiliate spam) that appear on Google Maps search results, which is one of the most important utilities for local businesses and their customers.

Not only that, but Blumenthal also contends that Google is publishing reports which represent “weak research” that “misleads the public” about the extent of the fake reviews problem.

Mike Blumenthal

Google contends that the problem isn’t a large one. Blumenthal feels differently – in fact, he claims the problem as growing worse, not getting better.

In a blog article published this week, Blumenthal outlines how he’s built out spreadsheets of reviewers and the businesses on which they have commented.

From this exercise, he sees a pattern of fake reviews being written for overlapping businesses, and that somehow these telltale signs have been missed by Google’s algorithms.

A case in point: three “reviewers” — “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” — have all “reviewed” three very different businesses in completely different areas of the United States:  Bedoy Brothers Lawn & Maintenance (Nevada), Texas Car Mechanics (Texas), and The Joint Chiropractic (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina).

They’re all 5-star reviews, of course.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” won’t be found in the local telephone directories where these businesses are located. That’s because they’re figments of some spammer-for-hire’s imagination.

The question is, why doesn’t Google develop procedures to figure out the same obvious answers Blumenthal can see plain as day?

And the follow-up question: How soon will Google get serious about banning reviewers who post fake reviews on local search results?  (And not just targeting the “usual suspect” types of businesses, but also professional sites such as physicians and attorneys.)

“If their advanced verification [technology] is what it takes to solve the problem, then stop testing it and start using it,” Blumenthal concludes.

To my mind, it would be in Google’s own interest to get to the bottom of these nefarious practices. If the general public comes to view reviews as “fake, faux and phony,” that’s just one step before ceasing to use local search results at all – which would hurt Google in the pocketbook.

Might it get Google’s attention then?

Online Customer Review Sites: Who’s Yelping Now?

The news this week that social networking and user review web site Yelp® will now de-couple the presentation of reviews from advertising programs comes as a rare victory for businesses that have been feeling more than a little pressured (blackmailed?) by the company’s strong-arm revenue-raising tactics.

The web has long had something of a “Wild West” atmosphere when it comes to reviews of businesses helping or (more likely) hurting the reputation of merchants.

Yelp is arguably the most significant of these sites. Since its inception in 2004 as a local site search resource covering businesses in the San Francisco metro area, Yelp has expanded to include local search and reviews of establishments in nearly 20 major urban markets. With its branding tagline “Real people. Real reviews®,” Yelp is visited by ~25 million people each month, making it one of the most heavily trafficked Internet sites in America.

Yelp solicits and publishes user ratings and reviews of local stores, restaurants, hotels and other merchants (even churches and doctor offices are rated), along with providing basic information on each entry’s location, hours of operation, and so forth – with nearly 3 million reviews submitted at last count.

Predictably, user ratings can have a great deal of influence over the relative popularity of the businesses in question. While most reviews are positive (ratings are on a 5-point scale), Yelp also employs a proprietary algorithm – some would say “secret formula” – to rank reviews based on a selection of factors ostensibly designed to give greater credence to “authentic” user reviews as opposed to “ringers” or “put-up jobs.”

Not surprisingly, Yelp hasn’t disclosed this formula to anyone.

So far, so good. But Yelp began to raise the ire of companies when its eager and aggressive advertising sales team began pitching paid promotional (sponsorship) programs to listed businesses that looked suspiciously like tying advertising expenditures to favorable treatment on reviews as a sort of quid quo pro.

Purchase advertising space on Yelp … and positive reviews miraculously start appearing at the top of the page. Decide against advertising … and watch the tables turn as they drop to the bottom or out of site altogether.

Concerns are so strong that three separate lawsuits have been filed this year already, culminating in a class-action lawsuit filed in February that accuses Yelp of “extortion,” including the claim that Yelp ad sales reps have offered to hide or bury a merchant’s negative customer reviews in exchange for signing them up as Yelp sponsors.

“The conduct is an offer to manipulate content in exchange for payment,” Jared Beck, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, states bluntly.

As for whether Yelp’s announcement of new standards will now curb the rash of lawsuits, it seems clear that this is the intent. But so long as Yelp offers to do any sort of manipulation or reshuffling of reviews in exchange for advertising, the lawsuits will probably continue – even if there’s only the appearance of impropriety.

Oh, and don’t look for Yelp to provide any additional revelations regarding how reviews are sequenced to appear on the page. Too much transparency, and it’ll only make it easier for people to figure out how to “game” the ratings.