From Google My Business map listings to other well known online review sites, fake reviews are starting to blight the lives of local business owners.

What is a fake review?

We’re not talking about a bad review, where the feedback can be accepted constructively and some changes to processes made. With a fake review, the business personnel don’t recognise the name of the customer leaving the comment and are unable to get a response from any outreach to manage the situation.

As a result, specialist agencies like mine are receiving more and more requests for help because businesses believe their good reputations are being targeted by their competitors.

Fake reviews by amateurs

One of our clients – a local handyman – experienced an “attack by review” a couple of years ago. A one star review appeared on his map listing but he didn’t recognise the name.

We investigated the reviewer and discovered that this individual had left 10 contributions that day. Nine one star comments and one for five stars had gone on the map listings of other local competing handymen. Curiously, Googling the name of the reviewer showed that he was the owner of the 5* business.

We flagged it up to Google and, because it was pretty easy for everyone to work out what had happened here, all ten reviews disappeared.

Tumisu / Pixabay

Fake reviews and negative reputation management

Fast forward to 2017 and I was trying to help another local business owner who had received some one star reviews. He was distraught about the tarnish on his otherwise glowing reputation in reviews.

However, the problem seems to have taken a rather more professional turn – as evidenced by this 14+ page thread on the GMB Support Forum.

Just like our client, everyone on the thread is complaining about a one-star review from a customer that they don’t recognize. In all cases, the reviewer has only one review in his account.

Because they have only ever left that one review, there is no trail to follow. And no response to any request by the business to get more information.

The account seems to have been set up purely to leave this one poor review. The business owner feels that there is the possibility that a competitor might be involved in some negative reputation management.

Why Google can’t remove fake reviews

This is where it becomes really difficult for review sites, including Google.

The goal of review sites is to highlight the good… AND the bad. If someone has had a less than happy experience, other potential customers have the right to be made aware.

The site can’t just take down the bad feedback because a business complains that the reviewer never visited their establishment – well, if it were that easy, of course, everyone would raise that concern.

There is one obvious reason why the review might not be in a name that the business recognizes. Many people are not brave enough to leave a bad review in their own name, especially when they live in a small town.

If a person creates an account with a false name and reviews a listed business, there is no way for the review site to easily ascertain that the contribution is NOT genuine. The burden of proof is on the business.

Even if your business has thousands of good reviews from known customers and just that one bad comment from someone you don’t recognize, it’s not sufficient to support your removal request.

What can you do if Google won’t remove your fake review?

All is not lost because businesses do have the right to respond.

And you should always do so – to both good and bad reviews!

With bad reviews, it’s the perfect opportunity to put your side of the story.

What we advise our customers in this situation is to think LAER – Listen, Acknowledge, Explore, Respond. Just as you would for any other complaint.

If you receive a one-star review from a customer that you do not recognize, acknowledge the reviewer’s pain by thanking them for leaving their feedback. Explore the fact that you take complaints very seriously and want to investigate, but you cannot find their name in your records. Ask for more details about their visit so that you can respond properly.

Whether you receive a reply or not, you have highlighted some areas of concern about the review for any reader who might otherwise have been influenced.

Your next step is to talk to your regulars.

Explain the situation and ask them if they would be happy to leave you a good review on Maps (or whichever online platform is the source of the problem). But, remember, Google’s Terms of Service say you cannot incentivize your customers to do this!

The more good reviews you get, the better – but your goal is to get enough to push the bad one down the list where it will be seen by fewer readers!

So, there you have it. Google and the review sites can’t remove reviews just because you don’t agree with them. If you can’t prove that there is a deliberate attempt at negative reputation management, you have to get your happy customers to vote with their fingers and add a positive counter-balance.

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