Your Guide to Google Local Guides

Pegman the Google Local Guide

It started a few months ago, with a simple Google Hangout with my friend and former colleague Chad Russell:

“Are you a local guide yet?”
Which was followed by his prompt reply of:
“Stop what you’re doing and sign up for Local Guides right now: https://www.google.com/local/guides/

Little did I realize that by clicking on that link and signing up that it would influence my perspective on Google and its impact on location-based businesses.  Since that day in May, I have been constantly contributing information to Google and in turn have become a Level 5 Local Guide (the highest level available).

I had had no prior knowledge of Google Local Guides, and when I clicked on the link I discovered its primary focus was to help others discover local businesses while being compensated by Google in return.  As a Local SEO Strategist at my current job, this spiked my interest and I found that I had already been contributing to Google, as I had previously acquired 26 points.  Immediately, I explored the options on how to acquire more points, so that I could reach the benefits of Level 5.

I quickly discovered that Local Guides had five individual categories where I could earn points.  Upon further investigation, I learned that I could earn one point per business per category.  I blindly started contributing, but as time has passed I feel as if I have learned how to become a more effective Local Guide for Google and as a result I have outlined what I have learned about each of the categories and helpful ideas on how to contribute below:

Reviews

Depending on how detailed you wish to be, will depend on how complicated this category is.  I, myself, like to be rather detailed with specifics.  I go as far as to break down my reviews into five categories: Overview, Location, Price, Product/Service, and Employees and give each of these categories a score.  The scores are then averaged from each of the brokendown categories and from there an overall score is given.

Places With Photos

Taking photos is probably one of simplest contributions that can be done to earn a point as a local guide.  Keep in mind that you can take several photos of a business, but in the end it will only count as one whole point per business.  I like to take a few photos as they are reviewing the photos in the Local Knowledge Graph.  I typically try to take a photo of the exterior of the business, because sometimes the Google street view photos don’t always give the businesses the best representation.  I also like to take a few photos inside, so people can know what to expect when they go in.

Places with Answers

Just like the places with photos, places with answers is a rather simple point and just like the photos, only one point is given per business, even if several questions are answered.  There are a variety of questions asked, and they’re typically centered around the type of business.  For example, if you visited a restaurant it may ask if they have good dessert options.  The answers are limited to multiple choice and typically are answered with a yes, no, or not sure.  Other general questions are asked as well such as if the business has restrooms or even handicap access.

Added Places

Adding a place is probably one of the most complicated categories, especially if your community doesn’t frequently produce new businesses.  Another factor to consider is the competition of other Local Guides, if they beat you to the punch, then you will obviously miss out on that point.  Out of all the points I have obtained this category is the most lacking.

Edited Places

Sometimes information isn’t entered accurately into Google.  For this reason, Google gives Local Guides an opportunity to earn a point to ensure that the information is accurate.  Some of the information that can be edited with the Suggest an Edit include the Business Name, Address, Hours, Website, and Category.  Sometimes I make simple changes just for an easy point.  For example, I review the address and if it is missing a minimal detail such as a West or East or something like that, I just throw it in.  I also will sometimes edit the name of the Business Name if it includes a few words that aren’t quite part of the business name.  An example would be Little Caesars Pizza, the actual logo does not include Pizza anywhere in its title.

Conclusion

Ever since that fateful day that my friend Chad introduced me to Google Local Guides, I’ve been actively working at “leveling up” and as of date currently sit at 607 points at the highest level available.  If you think about it, it is actually rather genius of Google to obtain all kinds of information about local businesses through user interaction based on a reward system.  Because of my activeness in my contributions as a Local Guide, I have been able to influence others to contribute and my hope is that this article has both influenced and educated you as well.

#ReviewCloaking

Introduction

The other day at work I was reviewing a client’s Local Knowledge Graph, ensuring that the information was accurate when something immediately caught my eye.  When I discovered it, it was clearly obvious something was off.  See if you notice what I did…

Google Local Knowledge GraphLet’s ignore the intentionally fabricated information (I added the fake images, business name, address, etc to protect the true identity of the business, and an excuse to involve my favorite movie, Planet of the Apes into this article).  Now, did you notice it?  Did you notice what raised the alarm?  It was the 40 reviews with an average of 5.0.  

While this indeed is a real possibility, in this particular case, it was obviously artificial as I dug in deeper.  I’ll just leave out the fact that I did cheat; the client had previously informed me in a phone conversation that he had hired a business to “generate” reviews.  Now if those reviews were organic or artificial, he never divulged, but after going over the reviews I have concluded that they were in all reality artificial.

At first glance it is rather easy to ignore the amount of reviews, the suspicions only start to arise with the discovery of the bright orange star-rating system being a perfect 5.0.  So I decided to put it to the test and ask a colleague of mine, Brannon Brooks (@TheSEOFella).  It took him a moment as well to make the same discovery.  We discussed the technique that was being used.  It was surely being used to help influence the business’s rankings with Google’s algorithm for Map Listings.  I asked him if he knew of any terminology to define this gray-hat technique.  He did not.  We decided we should coin a term, he came up with Review Cloaking, because that was exactly what the fake reviews were doing cloaking themselves with real reviews.  I then decided to add a hashtag to it #ReviewCloaking to make it more trendy.

We all know that a hashtag can’t become trendy unless it is tweeted, so that’s exactly what I did when I got back to my desk, I pulled up my ever-neglected Twitter Account and added a definition with those all-too-fragile 140 characters for my followers:

I ended up defining #ReviewCloaking as the disguising of a positive online review through the creation of a fake account in order to strengthen the reputation of a business on Reputable Websites.

#ReviewCloaking Indicators

The next challenge was to actually prove that some if not all of these reviews were indeed artificial and to give #ReviewCloaking a true meaning.  I took a deeper look at the 40 reviews in front of me.  I quickly noticed a pattern with many of the reviews, as I dug in.

My first observation of the forty reviews, was that 73% of the reviewers only had one review, and that was for Ape Management Central (Once again, name change to protect the real business’s identity).  Granted, that may not necessarily be a bad thing, but considering that 26 out of those 40 reviews were over 5 months old, there should be at least a few of them with more than one review.

Fake Google Profile Image

A good majority of the people leaving reviews didn’t have a profile image, which in my opinion was no big deal, but I did find one “person” with a profile image that was the same profile image used for at least four Google+ profiles.  I found this through a reverse image search.

Another trait I observed were the quality of the reviews.  There was just something a little off with the majority of them.  They were too generalized.  Yes, they did drop the branding of the business as well as the owner’s name several times, but it was too often, too frequent especially when compared to real, organic reviews, rarely do people mention branding in the reviews nor specific names of employees.

In the end, based on my observations, I have concluded out of the forty reviews, only five of them were authentic.  That’s about 13% of them were real!

Consequences of #ReviewCloaking

Surely Google doesn’t tolerate gray-hat methods to boost ratings on their reviews in the disguise of #ReviewColaking.  (Even though it wasn’t talking specifically about Google Reviews), One source stated that with fake or incentivized reviews were pushed down in rankings when discovered on Google Play (http://lifehacker.com/google-plays-new-spam-filters-target-fake-reviews-and-p-1788435983).  So they take their Reviews rather serious.  Other sources state legal action.

In conclusion, #ReviewCloaking is a shady, gray-hat method utilized by businesses in hopes to boost the quantity of scores on Review Websites.  There are several flaws in the creation of these artificial reviews and if discovered there are rather severe consequences to these actions.