If you're the type of person who is perfectly fine faking reviews, there's a good chance Jason Brown has your number. If you need a guy to hunt down the latest fake review scheme, Jason Brown is your man.
He's also an expert at helping his own clients generate and launch great review strategies over at Over the Top Marketing.
Fortunately, he was willing to share some of these insights via an old fashioned phone conversation. Below is the transcript of our discussion, edited for easier reading.
Carmen: You're the SEO manager at Over the Top Marketing, but you also run ReviewFraud.org. What prompted you to start the Review Fraud site?
Jason: That's kind of a funny story. It started off as a dare! I was sitting at work one day and I saw a tweet where someone from a company had shown up at someone's house because they were upset about a negative review [the customer] had left on Yelp. I did some investigating and found out the customer had only left two negative reviews.
Then I investigated the company itself. I saw they had really bad reviews on Yelp, but had a 4.8 rating on Google! That didn't stack up. As I read the Google reviews it became obvious many of them were fake.
As I uncovered more of these cases a friend of mine kept pushing me to start the site. I kept watching and watching, and after several months thought, "You know, maybe something does need to be done."
At the same time, I was trying to get some fake reviews taken down. After 3.5 months I did get the initial reviews that sparked all this taken down.
Then I was talking to Mike Blumenthal from Local U and he said, "We should come up with a project where we just document these."
Well, by then I already had a list. I pinged a reporter friend from Dallas. She wanted me to have a website, so I put one together. But she never ran the story. So instead I started pinging other reporters. They started picking up stories, they loved it. I hit NBC LA and other NBC affiliates.
At one point reporters started emailing me to find out if they had fake-review businesses in their markets. In the course of 3 months, I hit 17 different stations.
Carmen: I notice there's actually a pretty short list on your site compared to what I expected. What's the story there?
Jason: I ran out of room to document everyone, in all honesty.
I've got 3,000 business I've got listed on a spreadsheet, but I could easily bump that number up to 6,000.
I've been so busy helping out as a top contributor on the Google My Business forum, and helping businesses get rid of fake reviews. So I've been really bogged down, and I haven't had time to work on updating the website.
I did a post where I discovered a new stupid review network scheme where they're using 4-star fake reviews as a negative attack to bring a business' rating down from the overall 5-star rating to a 4.7 or a 4.2. At the moment the scheme seems to be targeting photographers.
We now have 9 different photographers in multiple states this is all happening to.
So basically I've been focusing on other projects, including webinars, guest posts, articles, and getting ready for PubCon Vegas, where I spoke this past weekend.
Carmen: Switching gears a little bit, how has local SEO changed over the past 5 years?
Jason: I truly believe local SEO is the Wild West we used to see with link farms.
Google got really good at determining what a great-quality website looked like, which websites were playing by the rules and which links should not be trusted.
The same cannot be said about GMB listings. As we get into the local space, Google is having a really difficult time policing all the junk out there.
They can't police virtual offices. They can't crack down on PO boxes. They rely on users to report competitors using fake listings, or trying to conceal the fact they're doing business out of their house.
Review fraud is so prevalent right now people are doing it to an excessive degree.
Businesses sometimes give out discounts for reviews. One of those we caught doing that ended up losing 1,000 reviews dating back to January of 2017.
They are at it again right now, posting a new review every 3 minutes. Their rating got dropped all the way to a 2-star rating. But a hand-slap hasn't kept them from doing it. They will keep doing it until good businesses force them into suspension.
It's going to take a Penguin or Panda-style penalty to clean up Google My Business.
Carmen: Where does review management and marketing fit into your recommended digital marketing strategy?
Jason: I'm a huge proponent of review monitoring.
I think every business is foolish if they're not paying attention to their online reviews.
We offer online review monitoring services here in-house where we look at all the reviews that come in, we respond to them all to help mitigate the damages for the business owners, and where we allow business owners to focus on what they need to focus on rather than becoming bogged down on reviews.
We can point to many studies and metrics showing consumers are hyper-focused on reviews and check out businesses before using them.
There is no way businesses are going to survive if they're not paying attention. If you're not responding, it's going to be ten times worse, because customers get the impression you don't care about your business so they will look for someone more engaged.
Carmen: How do you explain the importance of online review management to clients?
Jason: We show them comparisons.
So we'll show them Google searches.
"Here's where you are in the Map pack. Here's your competitors. You need to see how your ratings stack up."
We also ask:
"If you were a brand new customer, and you had the choice between Business A and Business B, are you going to go with the business with 30 reviews and a 5-star rating? Or 17 reviews and a 4.2 rating?"
It's obvious, they say they're going to go with the business with the 5-star rating.
And we say,
"Exactly. That's how important your review profile is. That's what people will be judging you by. They're going to see what you're saying. The lower your score, the higher a customer's likelihood of not clicking when the consumer is doing a search for your terms in your market."
Carmen: What advice do you give to clients who have been the victim of negative fake reviews?
Jason: First thing I tell them is,
You want to de-escalate the issue, not escalate it. Don't come out guns blazing. We'll look at it. We'll see if it's a competitor coming in and laying out a bunch of fake reviews. If it is, we'll go to the GMB forum, we'll create a thread, and we'll list out all the issues going on.
We can usually give Google the evidence the bad review is coming from a competitor.
"Here they are leaving 18 1-star reviews for all the competitors in the market."
If it's a disgruntled employee, or someone who was never a customer, we can use that documentation to get all those reviews taken out.
If it is a real customer, we're going to go in, reply, be empathetic and apologetic, and encourage the customer to come back so they can work it out.
Ultimately we're going to try to win that customer back.
Carmen: Do you ever find yourself helping clients who have bought positive fake reviews in the past, have seen the error of their ways, and now want to turn things around?
Jason: I don't really get a lot of customers coming to me that have created fake reviews and who now are asking for help.
They usually try to fly under the radar with their fake reviews.
When I notice this, I try to help them understand how the fake reviews hurt them in the long run. I educate them in the dangers, like loss of consumer confidence.
I explain it only takes one customer to say they bought reviews or are faking reviews to destroy their reputation or even trigger a lawsuit.
Carmen: How can businesses prepare for the future with review management? Do you have any predictions for Google, Facebook, Yelp, and industry-specific review sites in 2019?
Jason: I have a feeling Google is going to finally rise up.
They're going to come up with a way to verify reviews and businesses are going to be in for a big eye-opening experience when all these fake reviews that have been out there forever get taken down.
Or, there's going to be a bunch of GMB profiles suspended for policy violations.
With all the press, the battle between Google, Yelp, and Facebook, someone is ripe to come out with a solution to become the most trusted platform out there. The platform that decides they want to be the one will kill the competition.
Carmen: What piece of advice would you provide to someone who wanted to start selling online review management services to small businesses?
Jason: Help your clients use reviews as a tool to improve the business. See what themes are showing up in your customer's review.
For example, if you see, "nobody's answering the phone," over and over again, then you can say, "Okay, do we need a receptionist? Do we need a call answering service?"
This lets you grow and make your future customers completely happy, and someone selling these services can really help businesses pinpoint where the problems are while teaching them how review monitoring works.
Carmen: What are your thoughts on review management tools?
Jason: There are just countless great tools out there, including Grade.us.
The tools are plentiful. It's just figuring out what's going to work best to suit your needs, what you need in the long run and what price point your customers are going to come in at.
You need to figure out how you can turn around to resell these services so you can make a profit.
Carmen: Awesome! You've given us all a lot to think about. Thanks so much for joining us today, Jason!
Jason: No problem!