Google Places Updates Policy For Reviews

by Chris Silver Smith

Google announced last week that they updated their guidelines and policies for writing reviews on organizations found in Google Maps / Places.

Consumer Reviews & Ratings Stars

Google’s reviews update may not be all that significant beyond needing to add mention of their newly-introduced protocol allowing business owners to respond to reviews. They probably took the opportunity to clarify the text while they were at it.

However, there are reasons to suspect that there could have been additional motives behind Google’s alteration of the guidelines.

First of all, quite a number of us believe that reviews and ratings have some impact upon rankings within Google Maps. While Google engineers who speak with me at conferences have insisted time and again that they do not use ratings as a ranking factor, most of us have seen some evidence of correlation. (I note that it’s possible that this is accurate, but Google patents show that they definitely have considered using these as part of their factors. It’s also very hard to differentiate for certain, since businesses which have more reviews and better ratings also tend to be more popular and perform in other methods used to measure relative popularity.)

Even if Google Maps doesn’t use reviews/ratings for ranking purposes, marketers are aware that consumer reviews can still affect conversion rates. So, either way, marketers cannot help but be interested in them. Due to this, there’s a constant “arms race” between services which provide business review platforms and marketers who seek to manipulate them.

Beyond the problem of marketing agencies who may attempt to seed fake reviews into the system, I suspect an even bigger problem is now hitting Google Maps — there are probably a whole lot more naive business owners who are posting positive reviews of their companies and negative reviews of their competitors.

Google and other companies like Yelp have a multitude of methods for detecting and removing false reviews. These range from seeing if the geolocation of a user posting a review coincides with a business address, to checking review text against other reviews posted online for the same business, and to behavioral profiling of the ways reviews are posted. So, most fake reviews by business owners may risk getting detected, and could actually negatively impact the rankings for a period of time.

Irritatingly, I’ve seen bona fide reviews become incorrectly profiled as false, and get removed on a few different sites. Such events are also concerning for Google Maps, because it only takes a couple of instances for a consumer to see his or her contributions get revoked before they simply won’t participate in a site any more.

So, Google’s Review Posting Guideline and Policy is partly intended to coach people who write reviews into submitting ones which will be useful to the community, and which hopefully wouldn’t be prone to getting deleted.

I think that Google’s somewhat mixed motives behind the policy will unfortunately do little to actually help participants avoid deletion/suppression, and might even result in frustrating average reviewers even more if they came into the section seeking answers as to why their reviews might’ve disappeared.

“Be informative and insightful” and “Keep it real” are such no-brainers that most users would think they ought to go without saying — and they unfortunately tend to beat about the bush and not state specifically what users should or should not do. For “Be informative…”, I perceive that Google wants reviews that have more specifics and description than “This business sucks” or “I hate them”. However, hardly any consumer who wishes to post a review is going to understand why they should not be able to post brief statements if they wished.

This is one of the areas where Google’s opacity in attempting to safeguard secretive methods may actually work counter to their aims of encouraging average users to post reviews. Most of these vague guidelines would be of little use to real users who would want to post reviews. In fact, I’d suspect that most of their existing users probably don’t really read the guidelines anyway.

The whole issue of online user reviews and ratings has been heating-up lately, and we’re in the midst of having legal precedents set which may affect the entire playing ground for years to come. Lawsuits are happening when business owners freak out over what people say about them, and the FTC just settled a case over fake iTunes reviews that an agency posted on behalf of its clients.

Update 9/10/2010: Matt McGee posts about this same subject, and he very cogently outlines Google’s policy about encouraging reviews while simultaneously making incentivized reviews against the rules. See: Google’s Confusing Change On Reviews.


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