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November 29, 2022

No Sweat: How to Handle a Google Reviews PR Micro Disaster // Local Marketing Insider #047

Review spam event? Do these 4 things in the first 72 hours.

Panic sets in. Yesterday, everything was normal. Mostly happy customers leaving reviews, the occasional 1-star review showing up here and there - logical, consistent, normal.

Today, your Google page has a wave of 1-star reviews. 30 new ones. This is out of control. I need to figure out my next move. 

These “spam review events,” are common enough that a basic toolset for how to handle one is something every business owner or reputation manager should have in their back pocket.

The Widewail team has handled many types of spam events. From our experience, we have learned that Google is paying attention and, in the majority of situations, the spam reviews are detected and removed without input from the business. This may seem like the business has limited ability to affect the outcome, but our advice is to be as patient as possible. Google generally offers no direct support to help you resolve these situations. 

A more common spam event you’ll see is one caused by a frustrated former employee and their friends or a competitor. A more serious event may be an extortion scam or a “social justice by reviews” episode. In all cases, the same general rule book applies.

Basic Spam Review Event Playbook

  1. Monitor reviews across all review platforms. Centralizing technology like Widewail helps do this efficiently.
  2. When a spam event occurs, do not respond for 72 hours (we’ll explain below).
  3. Report the reviews yourself.
  4. And finally, respond to the reviews with your side of the story.

If you believe a review is in violation of Google’s policy, i.e. able to be removed, the first step is to NOT respond to the review as this may validate the review from Google’s perspective. 

Wait 72 hours to respond. In the meantime, hit the little flag icon next to the review to report it. 

If not removed after a few days, respond to the reviews, and offer the business’s perspective on the situation.

Extortion via Negative Reviews

The New York Times reported on the recent phenomenon in which 1-star reviews are used as a tool to extort local restaurants.

“Restaurateurs from San Francisco to New York, many from establishments with Michelin stars, said in recent days that they’ve received a blitz of one-star ratings on Google, with no description or photos, from people they said have never eaten at their restaurants. Soon after the reviews, many owners said they received emails from a person claiming responsibility and requesting a $75 Google Play gift card to remove the ratings. If payment is not received, the message says, more bad ratings will follow.”

Google responded directly to this scam in a post. In turn, 3,048 people (and counting) have engaged with the post, all wondering the same thing: why is this happening?

“We’ve recently become aware of a scam targeting businesses on Google with the threat of 1-star reviews unless they send money via gift cards. Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and our teams are working around the clock to thwart these attacks, remove fraudulent reviews, and put protections on business profiles that may have been affected.

If your business is being targeted by these scammers, please do not pay them. Instead, please flag the reviews here or reach out to Google support via our Help Center, so that our team can review and remove policy-violating content. If you haven’t yet claimed your business profile, you can do so here.”  

If your business encounters a scam review event like this, the same basic playbook applies: wait, flag. Due to the severity of this situation, of all the spam events written about in this article, Google is most likely to offer direct support if you reach out via the help center. But again, don’t be surprised if they are radio silent and the reviews just disappear. 

Social Justice via Reviews

We've seen instances of events that could be described as "social justice by reviews."

For example, at the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, activists encouraged others to leave reviews for Russian restaurants as a vehicle to communicate the western narrative of the events in Ukraine.

Clever, but ultimately a violation of Google review policies.

Another scenario we’ve seen play out locally is a problematic situation in which a local business was posted about on social media, went viral, and resulted in a wave of one-star reviews in less than 24 hours. 

This is a tough situation for any business owner. We feel for you. Our advice? Report the reviews. And hang tight. To show you why, let's look at a recent example.

Case Study: Tiktok, a Service Dog, and a Local Restaurant

This summer a small Chinese restaurant in Burlington, VT, Widewail’s hometown, suffered a massive negative review event that was prompted by a viral TikTok. In the video, a couple was turned away from the restaurant by its owner because of their service dog. The manager did not want the dog in the restaurant for fear it would disrupt other guests. The TikTok featured footage of the conversation between the woman with the service dog and the restaurant’s manager in which the manager told the couple she could not seat them because of their dog. 

In just 24 hours, the post had over 1 million views. And in a similar timeframe, the restaurant’s Google review score (once near-perfect with hundreds of reviews) tanked to less than 2 stars with ~1,200 1-star reviews. Many of the reviews were along the lines of "I don't support any restaurant that does not honor the diner's right to a service dog." 

This is surely every business’ nightmare and the obvious first response may be to panic. In short, don't. To be clear, the restaurant owners broke the law by denying the couple and their service dog entry. They made a mistake.

But in the specific context, these reviews weren’t considered valid reviews–they were “off-topic.” A review is "off-topic" and therefore, invalid in Google’s eyes if it is clear from the content of the review that the reviewer has not actually interacted directly with the business. While the supporters of the service dog’s owner had a legitimate frustration with the restaurant, review content detached from the experience of dining at the restaurant is a violation of Google's terms of service.

Since Google deemed these reviews invalid, all of the reviews received related to the viral TikTok were removed automatically within 72 hours.

Now, the restaurant is back to its former rating: 4.5 with 500+ reviews. If you find your business in a similar scenario, we suggest you do not respond to the reviews for at least 72 hours. The spam detection system Google uses is largely automated and an engagement from the business could be seen as a signal of the legitimacy of the reviews, thus having the opposite effect.

Takeaway: The Spam Review Event Playbook

  • Monitor incoming reviews. Google will email GBP managers with new review notifications. Tools like Widewail can help you monitor all incoming review activity in one place.
  • Wait 72 hours to respond for the reviews to be removed.
  • Report them yourself.
  • And finally, if Google rejects your request for removal, respond to the reviews with your side of the story.

 

Tips for Responding to Bad Reviews and 17 Examples. Download the Book

Jake Hughes

I’m Marketing Manager here at Widewail, as well as a husband and new dad outside the office. In Vermont by way of Boston, where I grew the CarGurus YouTube channel from 0-100k subscribers. I love the outdoors and hate to be hot, so I’m doing just fine in the arctic Vermont we call home. Fun fact: I met my wife on the shuttle bus at Baltimore airport. Thanks for reading Widewail’s content!

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