Nowadays, there is a review site for almost everything. Doctors, lawyers, schools, and businesses, big or small, all have their services publicly compared and discussed via online reviews.
Twenty years ago, online reviews were not a factor in a company’s sales—now they are front and center in any comparison shopping process. Review sites allow people to evaluate a company’s customer experience, product or service quality, and overall reputation before choosing which company or brand they will be buying from.
The problem with this process is that reviews are becoming harder and harder to trust. The spread of fake and defamatory online reviews, along with their prominence on Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs), has become a growing crisis for businesses around the world.
Google’s Search Quality Raters Guidelines offer a glimpse into how the Google Search ranking algorithm decides the search engine qualifies and ranks pages in the SERPs for relevant queries. Because they’re in demand, often user-friendly, and relevant to users’ lives and finances, many review sites are given high authority. However, users should understand that Google doesn’t (or can’t) determine which reviews are real or fake.
Competitors, or people with no association to a brand, can cause significant harm to a company’s reputation through a review smear campaign, and Google has no policy in place to identify them. Negative reviews can also come from real customers, but the issue may stem from something outside of a company’s control and represent the situation unfairly.
Businesses must take their reviews seriously. Identifying fake reviews and responding to negative ones have become integral practices in maintaining a successful brand. Reputation management companies specialize in helping brands manage their reviews and—contrary to popular belief—can get fake or negative reviews permanently removed.
Why Reviews Rank
When a customer searches for a company’s name in Google, they intend to either reach the company directly or discover what other people think about it.
Google’s algorithm factors in user intent when ranking search results. To satisfy user intent in these cases, the first SERP often features the company websites alongside customer review sites, depending on the query.
Google gives many customer review websites a level of authority that allows them to rank above a company’s own website or near the top of a SERP. Not only do review sites satisfy user intent, but they also fall into a category that Google pays special attention to, called “your money your life” (YMYL).
YMYL sites help people make decisions related to their physical, mental, and financial status. Given the impact these sites can have on a person’s life, Google wants to make sure users can find the information they need without digging through the SERPs.
Google also uses E-A-T (expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness) standards to determine a page’s quality and, in turn, its ranking. Many review sites have established a high degree of E-A-T, partially because of the importance customers place on them when they make buying decisions.
The prevalence of review sites has led customers to perform more comparison shopping before making a purchase, using a service, or eating at a restaurant. Opinions that customers read on review sites determine their view of a company’s reputation. Negative reviews create a bad reputation in customers’ minds, leading directly to sales losses.
Moreover, reputation can heavily influence a company’s search ranking, as Google’s algorithm gives weight to positive reputation signals. Google’s search quality raters, a team of human website reviewers, evaluate reputation based on instructions laid out in these guidelines. Section 2.6 describes how raters should determine whether a company has a positive or negative reputation.
Google instructs its search quality raters to look for specific criteria, for example:
- The number of positive customer reviews
- Recommendations from expert sources
- Positive mentions in news articles, blog posts and forum discussions
With that in mind, a company needs to have reviews and articles online that exceed their competitors’, both quantity and quality. If not, a company’s reputation may suffer and hurt the bottom line.
The Spread of Negative Reviews
Negative reviews can result from legitimate circumstances. Even Google tells its search quality raters to expect at least some negative reviews when evaluating a company’s reputation. Unfortunately, review sites don’t verify whether real customers leave the reviews.
The free-for-all nature of review sites with no policies to weed out fake reviews creates a toxic online environment. For example, competitors can easily write fake, negative reviews in an attempt to damage a company’s reputation. Customers deceived by those reviews may share them with friends or on social media, causing them to spread.
Google awarding review sites with high rankings allows the content to spread even further. This empowers anyone to submit fake or unfair reviews and significantly damage a company’s reputation.
These reviews not only affect sales and impact the business owner’s livelihood; they also hurt other consumers by deceiving them with inaccurate information.
Combating Fake and Negative Reviews
Companies can combat fake and negative reviews with reputation management and monitoring, which has become integral to maintaining brand reputation. The first step to defending oneself against harmful content online involves knowing the difference between fake and negative reviews.
Negative doesn’t always mean fake, and fake doesn’t always mean negative. A review qualifies as fake when written by someone who hasn’t patronized a business.
As previously mentioned, nothing can stop a competitor from submitting negative reviews under a fake name. They can even create multiple accounts with fake names to maximize the damage. Disgruntled customers can do the same if they feel vengeful toward a business after an experience that didn’t meet their expectations.
On the other hand, negative reviews may get submitted by legitimate customers, and business owners shouldn’t disregard them as fake. Upon finding a negative review, a business owner can verify its authenticity by checking the reviewer’s name and seeing if it matches a name in their customer records.
If a reviewer’s name doesn’t show up in the records, that may indicate a fake review. Conversely, if a reviewer’s name does show up in customer records, the review may deserve a reply. Responding to a negative review can help restore a customer’s confidence and encourage them to give the business a second chance.
Businesses can turn a negative review from a real customer into an opportunity to make things right by responding to them. Writing a thoughtful response to a negative review creates a token of goodwill for others to see when comparison shopping.
Responding to reviews, both positive and negative, shows that a business attends to its customers and takes their feedback to heart. Google’s search quality raters also appreciate when a business actively engages with its audience online.
A future blog post will discuss fake reviews in greater detail, but now, business owners need to keep in mind that a clear line exists between negative reviews and fake reviews. Fake reviews have the potential to creep up and tarnish a brand faster than ever before. Information spreads fast online, and businesses may even fall victim to coordinated attacks against their reputation.
Identifying these reviews early, through monitoring services provided by a reputation management company, can help businesses maintain their reputation.
Combating negative reviews requires a two-pronged approach involving review monitoring and review removal. This double-edged strategy ensures negative reviews don’t blindside businesses and creates the opportunity to take action as soon as reviews appear online.
Peace of Mind with Reputation Management
The accuracy and fairness of online review sites have been the center of debate within business and SEO communities for years, and there’s no clear answer or resolution in sight. The best businesses can do is educate themselves and prepare to act on any fake or negative comments that threaten their brand.
Reputation management companies can help shoulder that load. Review management and monitoring services do the grunt work and give brands peace of mind. Business owners can rest assured knowing relevant reviews are supervised, and threatening comments are handled.