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…
Let’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:
— Nate Somsen (@somsenater) January 27, 2017
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.
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.
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.