Last July (2011) when Google made their customer reviews the only listed reviews on the highly visible "Google Places" results it became more important then ever to encourage people to leave positive reviews on their Google accounts about their experience at your dealership.
As a Local SEO specialist, I spend a lot of time monitoring reviews on Google Places and today while doing a little searching before the Giants - Packers game, I began to unravel a rather ugly situation.
My Research Shows Some Car Dealers will go to extreme and risky lengths to get higher Google rankings!
Now, it is no secret that with the rise of importance in getting positive reviews and the handling of negative ones, a cottage industry known as Reputation Management has sprung up. Unfortunately, some of these companies are using Black Hat techniques and putting Dealerships that hire them at risk of getting a major Google slap and a possible call from the FTC.
Here is an example of posting fake reviews using Black Hat Reputation Management:
This fake Google profile bought 4 different cars and got one serviced all on the same day. There were several other dealer reviews on this profile that I cut off the page so I could save this as an image.
I started digging deeper and found a spider web of reviews for this particular group of dealers and they were all coming from the same profiles.
These reviews were even using specific dealership rep names to give credibility. Now, I don't know if the GMs or owners of these dealerships are aware that not only is this against Google policy, it is also illegal!
Here's how it works... First of all, they find dealers with multiple bad reviews on their Google Places page. They then contact you and tell you they can bury your bad reviews, or tell you that having numerous positive reviews will help move you up in Google Places above your competition.
Sounds great, because a higher ranking in Google Places, means more traffic. They may even tell you that it is perfectly legit what they are doing.They may tell you it is within Google's rules and show you other dealers currently using these techniques.
Shame on them for lying to you. Shame on them for putting your dealership in jeopardy of getting banned from Google or worse yet, a call from the FTC.
Trying to game Google is not new. It has gone on for 13 years!
As a 16 year SEO specialist, I know that if I use black hat techniques I am putting my clients in jeopardy and my livelihood in jeopardy. It is short term thinking and it is wrong. The fact is, these black hat Google review companies know it is wrong, but are out to make a quick buck at your expense. Once Google slaps them (and you) they will be gone and you will be left trying to fix your Google ranking.
If your dealership is using one of these fake Google review companies, talk to your GM or owner asap. The boost you may receive from more reviews may look great today, but Google will figure it out and when they do, they will slap you hard!
How To Check Your Google Places Page For Fake Reviews
First of all, it is not hard to spot these phony reviews. Do a local keyword search and look for dealerships with lots of reviews and 4-5 star ratings. Start clicking on each reviewers profile link and you will see a pattern of reviews that are not normal. Start going down the line of reviewers and you will see the same local businesses getting reviews from the same fake profiles. Coincidence? Absolutely not!
Car Dealers buying fake Google reviews is not an isolated event!
I found dozens of car dealers doing this in the short time I did some searches. Google is not stupid and they hate spammers and if I can spot this pattern, I am sure they already have and are taking steps to clean it up. If you are one of the Dealerships caught, you will wake up one morning and find your listing on page 30 or even worse, banned from Google entirely.
Google Doesn't Care How Big You Are!
Don't think that because you spend tens of thousands of dollars a month on Adwords, Google will give you a pass. You see, Google doesn't care who you are or how much you spend. They will slap you without warning.
According to the FTC leaving a Fake Review online is Illegal
Since 2009, the FTC has said that leaving fake reviews is illegal. Businesses (many overseas) have sprung up offering Google Places reviews by “real” Google users, and knowing Google's history of spotting cheaters, they will spot them very soon, as those that sell their reviews abuse their accounts.
Google is also starting to more closely monitor who is creating Google profiles and soon these companies will find it harder to create hundreds of fake profiles with the sole purpose of building fake reviews.
You will start to see Google accounts either getting shut down, or even worse, the businesses that received the reviews may actually be penalized through guilt by association.
Google is NOT Stupid! They will make changes soon!
Don't think for one second that because it seems to be working right now that Google is not on to this and has already assigned a team of engineers the task of shutting it down.
Buying fake Google reviews cannot possibly lead to anything good long term. It is short term thinking and I am sure that these phony review companies are looking to make money right up to the day Google shuts them down and then they will move on to something else.
What should you do?
Unfortunately, many people will only leave a review when they are upset about something. Most people that are happy with their experience will not go out of their way to leave a review because they expect good service.
Ask for reviews and you shall receive!
There’s nothing wrong with asking your customers to leave you a review, but ask them to leave you one somewhere that they already have an account, not just Google.
Sure you want Google places reviews, but you only want them from Google users that will continue to leave reviews at multiple businesses in the future. Google sees these people as legitimate Google users because there is a natural flow to their behavior.
If you have a computer or kiosk in your dealership open to your Google places page, and someone says “I don’t have a Google profile... I have Yelp account” don’t ask them to open a new Google account that they’re never going to use. Simply accept their review at Yelp.
Even though Google has stopped showing reviews from the other review services, they are still indexing and factoring them in for rankings.
If you email your customers asking them for a review, don’t just send them a link to your Google places page. Send them a variety of links to the various places you have a listing and give them choices.
Bottom line... do not fall for these fast talking scam artists promoting Black Hat and illegal techniques. It will come back to hurt you. If you are at a dealership and suspect that the Internet manager is using one of these services, talk to your GM asap. Chances are the GM or owner is unaware of these shady techniques.
In less than 2 hours or searching I found over 25 dealers using these Black Hat services. This is bad for the dealers and bad for the industry. It is only a matter of time before Google makes a major algorithm change and suddenly many businesses will be scrambling wondering why traffic to their site and business has dropped like a rock!
I would love to hear from anyone that is currently using one of these fake review companies and tell me why it is a good long term business decision.
Better yet, if there is a reader that is selling this service, please enlighten me as to how it is legal and within Google's rules. (won't hold my breath waiting).
If you are one of the many Dealers using legitimate Reputation Management companies how does it affect you? Are you considering turning them in to Google?
In closing, as we move into the next generation of Google search we need to make sure that what we do is above board and within Google's guidelines. Buying fake Google reviews from a black hat reputaion management company is not a good way to kick off 2012!