You may have noticed that in the last month there has been a major shakeup in the Google Places results.   A major algorithm change occurred and the SEO community is still trying to figure it out.   One thing is clear, reviews are playing a much larger part in the local rankings.

It looks like Google is taking a much closer look at Review quality.   One working theory we are investigating is wheather Google is putting more stock in reviews that are posted by active reviewers.    Yelp has done this for years, virtually ignoring one off reviews and only posting reviews from active Yelpers.   In their view, this provides a better user experience as it helps to avoid spam and manipulation.   If you look at most attorneys, their Google review profile is dominated by a reviewers who have only reviewed them and no other business.   Google has been trying to change this for some time now.  In November 2015 Google launched an incentive system for people who contributed to Google Maps.   Local Guide Contributors can get up to 1TB of Google Drive space just for being an active contributor – adding reviews, posting pictures and answering questions about local businesses.

If Google is indeed moving to a places algorithm that rewards reviews from active users, I think one consequence will be a lot more reviews.   Most businesses will now coach happy clients into reviewing them along with other businesses they know.   This may be a good thing as Google has made it easier to review places.   After reviewing a restaurant last week, it gave me a list of businesses (Hotels, Restaurants, etc..) that I visited in the last few weeks and asked if I could review those.   Each time I made a review, it displayed by new point total as a local guide contributor.

Unfortunately this new focus on reviews will predictably lead to some manipulation.  For attorneys, the idea of generating fake reviews is inexcusable.   Unlike participating in a link scheme, which could be the result of technical ignorance or simply being unaware of what your SEO company is doing, presenting an obviously fake review to the public is a serious ethical lapse in my opinion.   For one, these reviews are prominently displayed in your business profile and give a user a false perception of your firm.   Now getting a client to review an attorney is not always an easy task.    There are a couple of reasons for this.  For one its very personal:  For many practice areas like divorce or criminal law, people may be less inclined to share their experience with the world.   Having a great DUI attorney who helped you avoid jail time, may not be something you want the searching public to know about.   Secondly, for many without computer knowledge, setting up Yelp or Google account is often a barrier.  Finally, in a high conflict practice area, like divorce it is very hard to get a review.   Divorce is sadly an area where there is usually no perfect outcome so actually getting a real positive review online is a big deal.

So how can you determine if reviews are fake?   Lets look at the case of Hildebrand Law PC.   When I search “Scottsdale Divorce Attorney” the business listing for Hildebrand Law comes up #2 in the maps.   One factor that is likely contributing to that ranking is his 41 , 5 Star reviews.  Now having 41 perfect reviews in a practice area like family law may raise some eyebrows, it of course is not proof of any wrongdoing.


But lets look at the actual Reviews.   At first glance, the reviews certainly seem legitimate.   They are very specific and mention different attorney names.


But here is when it gets weird.  When you click on the Google user above “S” you find out that it is “Shoxon” a Google reviewer who has reviewed 5 business.   Chandler Handler’s Moving and Storage, Hildebrand, CardinaleWay Mazda, and a Best Western in Albuquerque.   See below.


Now we look at Google User A.   He has made 4 contributions.  Hildebrand, CardnialWay Mazda, and Chandler Handler’s Moving and Storage – oh an Affordable Windows in Chandler.   Hmmm.   What are the chances that two clients of Hildebrand Law also shopped at the same car dealership, used the same moving company in Chandler??   And even more remarkably, were moved to review those businesses?   Perhaps these companies are doing an innovative cross marketing scheme?  Use Hildebrand for your divorce and you get a deal on your move and a new Mazda!


But the weirdness does not end there.   Google user HTahery81. incredibly reviewed the same three businesses!   Google user R. Tompkins also reviewed Hildebrand and the same Mazda dealership.  While Tompkins did not review Chandler Handlers Moving, he did review a Best Western in Albuquerque, NM!    The large majority of this firm’s reviews are clearly fabricated, as almost every reviewer is reviewing the same set of clients.   Besides the companies above, you will also see a Vapor Juice Store in Austin, an Expressway Inn in Bismark ND, and Budget Blinds.   I am frankly surprised Google has not caught this yet but I am confident they will.    Hopefully, Google will punish a phony review network like this, just as harshly Penguin punished organic spammers.

Reporting Review Spam:
So what can you do if a competitor is clearly using fake reviews to get a ranking advantage in Google places?    Google allows you to flag a review, and gives you 4 violation types to select.   While “Fake Review” is not an option, you can select the option “this post contains advertising or spam “.   Outside of that, I do have confidence that the Google’s algorithm will eventually detect review spam – but it can be frustrating.   In the case I highlighted above, Hildebrand has been in the top 3 for the past year.


Moving Forward:
My advice to attorneys is what it has always been – do a great job.   Service your clients and treat them like Gold!   If you do that most people will want to help you by filling out a review.   You can also make it easier for them, by providing resources and instructions to help them fill out a review.   What you should never do, is break Google’s guidelines and post fake reviews.    While they  helping Hildebrand PC today, I doubt that will continue.