Jason Brown of Review Fraud

You can find Jason at:

Review Fraud


** apologies for the echo in the first 30 seconds **

Sebastian: Jason, welcome to the SEO Show!

Jason: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Sebastian: You are the founder of online service called Review Fraud, as well as a columnist at SEMrush — is that right so far?

Jason: Yes, that’s correct. I’m a columnist with SEMrush, and then I dabble in review removal services on the side.

Sebastian: I’m assuming you started in general SEO and then at some point transitioned into local and then somehow you focused on reviews. Is that how it went? Or did you have a different kind of story there?

Jason: Well, yeah, I’ve been working in SEO for 14 years now. But the last three years I’ve tried to help get some fake reviews taken down. Just took a long time for Google to take action took about three and a half months. So a friend said, “Hey, why don’t we put together a list?” And another friend said, “Hey, why don’t you start a website?” And so I just kind of been carving out a little niche here, going after online reviews because it’s just been so prevalent with the amount of spam that we’re seeing in the industry. So it just kind of took off from from there.

Sebastian: And when you say spam, are you including positive reviews for their own sites or negative reviews for their competitors? Or is it both

Jason: All the above so you know, usually you’ll see just a lot more of the fake positive reviews to make companies look a lot better. But there’s a lot of industries that will come in, and they’ll pay people to leave negative reviews on on their competitors listings. And so we’ll see a market where all of a sudden, and a bunch of businesses all got hit with a bunch of negative reviews, and it’s all tied into like one competitor.

Sebastian: And who would you say is your ideal client?

Jason: My ideal ideal client is the end user so anybody that’s gonna be a consumer and look for a business. I’ve tried to come up with a service so that way they can find businesses that have been identified as having fake reviews, or if they’re having issues with the company, they can contact me and say, “Hey, are these reviews legitimate? Having these issues? Can you look into it?” etc.

Sebastian: So it doesn’t matter if it’s a small business, or if it’s a fairly large business, as long as they have some sort of local listing, then they’re a good fit for you guys.

Jason: Correct

Sebastian: How easy or how difficult is it to spot a fake review just by looking it? Would someone like us be able to tell or would someone of your stature be the only one who could really be able to diagnose what’s fake and what’s not?

Jason: Well, it’s pretty hard to spot just off the bat. But once you start becoming familiarized with it and you start knowing some of the obvious patterns, then yes, it is a lot easier for the average person to find it, but most people don’t, you know, they’re going to come across a fake review and not even know unless it’s like blatantly obvious, like if they were using, you know, Donald Trump right as their profile picture, and their name was Donald Trump then Okay, yeah, everybody would know who that is. But a lot of times they, you know, they’ll use stock images or you know, and create, you know, semi-normal looking names. And so, you know, they’ll pass under the radar.

Sebastian: And once you guys have done like a successful audit, let’s say, and you’ve cleaned up all the fake reviews, do you find that they come back after a certain period of time? Do you need to keep monitoring that, or is it just like a once off hit-and-quit and then they move on to the next guy?

Jason: Ah, well, it depends on what they’re doing to get the reviews. So if they’re using an illegal service, or they’re running a contest, then usually Google will come in and send them a warning email and say, Hey, you know, we got you, you know, doing stuff. You know, against our guidelines, you need to stop, or you’re going to get suspended. So when you have those cases, then it usually ends. But we’ve actually seen some times where they’ll go run that same, you know, contest again, you know, offering a discount for reviews, and they’ll do it a second time. And that second time Google you know, comes in and you know, cracks down and pretty severely so that usually will stop it but the people that are buying fake reviews, being identified, being shown, being exposed in the news hasn’t stopped them, they just keep going right back to doing it so until the until the government actually gets involved in actually starts going after these companies and the sellers, nobody’s gonna stop. It’s just there’s going to be a continuing you know, flipping your nose at them, you know, and say, “Hey, you know, you can’t you can’t stop everybody” so I’m going to keep doing it. It’s like, it’s like speeding like, we know you’re not allowed to speed but we all speed right? Because we know that you know, the chances are very low that we’re going to actually get pulled over and get a ticket.

Sebastian: Well, on that note, are you finding that it’s only increasing? And Google’s not able to keep up with the pace of the fake reviews? Or do you think that eventually they’ll catch up to them?

Jason: Oh, it’s definitely increasing. Google is way behind the eight ball there. They’re asleep at the wheel. There’s too many reviews out there for them to actually come in and start policing it. I mean, a friend of mine estimates that it would take them about 10 years, just to index all the reviews and catch up to all the fake reviews from like three years ago.

Sebastian: And is this only a problem within Google? Or do you find that like Yelp and Trustpilot have these kind of issues as well?

Jason: Every platform is susceptible to it. So like, a Yelp is like the only aggressive ones were trying to stop suspicious or phony reviews. But a lot do slip through the cracks. Facebook does absolutely nothing. There’s no mechanisms because they’re only going to look to see if the users account is legitimate or not — so as long as you know, they’re able to pass their their backgrounds and checks it goes on unchecked. Trustpilot has the issues that are trying to come up with it, but any review platform, it doesn’t really matter what the platform is. People will will try to attack it. Especially like the BBB – Angie’s List. So look, there’s too much money at stake not to try and game the system and businesses that that can do it, make a profit, and they don’t get their hands slapped. So like, Angie’s List would never take a vendor out for creating fake reviews, they would just knock out the fake reviews, but they’re not gonna, you know, warn the public. So there’s like, you know, what’s it gonna matter? you pay $100 bucks to get 7500 reviews and you get to keep maybe 17 of them, you know, you still win.

Sebastian: I don’t know if this is connected to it at all, but I see a lot of review schema incidents where they’re inflating that as well. And then using some sort of code to make it look like their actual search listing has some reviews on there? Do you guys tackle that as well, or is that a completely different thing?

Jason: That’s a completely different thing, because that’s handled by Google Webmaster Tools. And so you know, when they came up with that whole, no longer having the reviews, snippets stars, they were like, “Okay, we think this is going to take care of it. But if it doesn’t, we’re going to come up with ways to do it”. But yeah, there’s no way for me, the only way I can legitimately tackle it is if I can actually see the user data. And so when it’s self reported, first party reviews on a website, I can’t see the data behind it. So I can’t tell what the users are doing, because it’s a one time review. So, if you pay somebody to post, 1200 reviews on your website saying, “This product is great”, I can’t see the user data. So I can’t click on her name and see, well, what else are these users doing? Not like, you know, with the profiles with Google Facebook and Yelp. I can click on a profile and see what their activity looks like.

Sebastian: And would you make a case for businesses who don’t have walk-in clients but they still located in that specific city say like an SEO agency? Should they put up a GMB profile?

Jason: As long as you can meet your clients face to face Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm, 8am to 4pm, as long as you have of office that if your clients needed to come in and see you then yes, definitely do a Google My Business. There’s no harm to that. But if you are completely 100% online only and you’re not going to face customers, in person, then you don’t qualify. So then it doesn’t do you any good at creating a Google My Business listings is only going to stay up for so long before Google comes in and cracks down and takes it out.

Sebastian: Do you find that’s as prevalent as the review fraud or not as much because it doesn’t really matter for those kind of businesses anyway?

Jason: Oh, yeah. No, there’s too many fake listeners out there. I mean, the Wall Street Journal just did that whole expose in June where they showed all the fake lawyer listings and now we’re hearing rumblings you know, from different people saying that the networks are back and look, I mean, people are going to come up with any way they can. It doesn’t matter if it’s plumbers, AC repairman, junk removal services, lawyers — everybody’s gonna come up with any way they can create as many listings as possible to dominate the market. And with Google, putting a heavy emphasis on proximity, and relevance, there’s more of a need to create fake listings, because you only get a three pack in different little areas, you’re not getting the seven packs, you’re not getting the twelve packs. So until you know, until Google puts all the maps right there on the side, you’ve only got three opportunities to get in front of people and so there’s too much at stake to not be in the map pack.

Sebastian: Right and I know I haven’t seen this. But is there any tool out there that could somehow potentially identify these kind of fake reviews? Or do they have to go through a service such as yours?

Jason: No, there’s no tools. Somebody tried to create a tool once but it stopped working. The problem is, is to keep going in and having to update your database. And nobody wants to keep updating their database like every other day or every other hour. So, I’ve talked to different people that have wanted to put tools together, I’ve looked into it. But, I mean, if I put together a tool, then I have to worry about people trying to, hack at the tech to knock it offline. And it’s like, how much energy and time do I want to put into something that spammers are just going to hate and want to knock offline?

Sebastian: Well, on that note, is there any kind of tool that you wish did currently exist but does not?

Jason: I do, I wish there was a tool that if you did a search, and a business listing came up that a little warning would pop up over it — there’s that tool where it can say if a website’s been hacked, or if it’s not trustworthy, if you can come up with that, where no matter what platform you run, if you went on Facebook, on Yelp, or just the regular Google or Yahoo search, and it said, “Hey, this business has been identified as having suspicious reviews. Buyer beware”, that would be the tool that I think needs to be created. So that way, you know, consumers just, click on that, see that and go elsewhere. Especially if you went to like, their website too, went directly to their website, and then that little warning popped up. I mean, that would be great. I had a lady contact me, she’s working with a company. And she was like, “Hey, I think something suspicious with their reviews because I didn’t get the left that same level of service”. And sure enough, I find out. Yeah, they’re doing, review schemes and review gating and so she was like, “I wish I would have known that they’re preventing all this negative feedback, because now I just got taken advantage of and my house is destroyed because of it”.

Sebastian: Yeah, I was watching this documentary ‘Billion Dollar Bully’ I think it’s about Yelp. And they mentioned how Yelp somehow does that. But I think they were doing it illegitimately on businesses that weren’t paying for their advertising. So-

Jason: You know, well, I did a whole write up on ‘Billion Dollar Bully’. So unfortunately, some of their resources and companies that came forward I found with suspicious looking reviews. And also, I mean, it looked like a lot of those companies were the reasons for their negative reviews. Like if you look at that, the piano guy. I mean, he was really rude and nasty to people. And then a lot of people said, “Hey, he’s out there buying fake reviews”. So, he kind of got called out so, it’s the internet right? We have to take everything with a grain of salt. Like we can’t take everything as word any longer. So one man’s truth is not the other man’s truth. I mean, you gotta you gotta do your, like your research and homework and really look at what’s going on. I mean, yes, Yelp has gone after people. Last October, they had the ghost algorithm where they started removing a bunch of reviews. They also went after did a whole campaign where they started flagging businesses that were caught buying or soliciting reviews. So, Yelp is trying to become that trusted platform. Their users don’t like it because of that. And by users I mean, the business owners don’t like the fact that means so heavy handed. And then on the other side of the coin, you’ve got Google where people are like, “Man, I wish they would do that”. But I’m like, “Well, if Google really did crack down on their platform, other users would be upset just like they are with with Yelp”. So it’s a very convoluted process and nobody’s gonna be happy. No matter how it shakes out.

Sebastian: One thing that Amazon does, which I like is that they have that little badge of ‘Verified Purchase’. Do you think something like that would have been helpful for Google to implement?

Jason: Uh, well, the problem with that is you can’t completely verify any business that you go to. So if I walk in off the street, and I go and use a business and I leave them a review, well, there’s no way for my transaction to be pulled into their system. A couple weeks ago, I was driving home and and this guy from this roofing repair company was driving like a like a jerk, and he was cutting people off and he went flying by me and cut me off and almost caused an accident. Because of that interaction, I can go and leave a review saying, “Hey, your driver was driving like a maniac”. I don’t have to be a customer to leave a review. So, yeah, I mean, so you’re not going to get that verified, unless you’re going with Google LSAs where now they can actually track you going to that website, you calling and you gain those services, but it’s not going to work for restaurants.

Sebastian: Jason, do you follow any digital marketing blogs or books or podcasts?

Jason: I do, I follow so many. So, I’m heavily involved with a LocalU organization. I am a member of the local search forum. I follow the BrightLocal blogs, Local Marketing Institute, I love-I geek out on anything SEO related. I think it’s just like one of the greatest industries that we can be in, you know, taking a website with no traffic, no rankings, and watching them rank and watch the clicks and the calls, just start flowing in.

Sebastian: Yeah, and obviously, we’re both on Twitter and that’s got a pretty good SEO community there. Are there any other social channels that you think are pretty good for like a local SEO group or channel?

Jason: Ah, yeah, it has to be Twitter for me. I mean, I love Twitter. I love the fact that I can just engage with everybody. I mean, a lot of the people I’ve met in the industry was all through Twitter. I mean, I was pretty much, in a little island, I jumped on Twitter, I started talking to people and engaging and it’s just been really great for learning stuff. Facebook is really convoluted with their algorithms, so I don’t always see stuff so someone always asks me “Hey, did you see so-and-so’s update?” And I was like, “No, I don’t” — there’s too many people there, but with but with Twitter if I miss something the day before somebody else will like it, retweet it, comment on it, and it’ll show up in my newsfeed. I’m like, “Oh, hey, I missed that”.

Sebastian: Finally, Jason, if digital marketing went away tomorrow, what would you find yourself doing instead?

Jason: If digital marketing went away tomorrow, I would probably still trying to be fighting for justice, trying to make a difference in the world helping out my fellow man.

Sebastian: Hey Jason, thanks so much for your time, bro. Really appreciate it.

Jason: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be on here anytime you want to talk again. I’m all ears, Sebastian.

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