Google Local Guides is a platform to help Google boost user contributions for Google Maps. It enables users to leave reviews, add photos of locations, help answer questions or add unverified locations. In return, Google rewards them with Guide Points. As the points add up you can improve your guide level and rankings amongst the Google Local Guide community. Interestingly, 99.9% of guides make these contributions for the greater good of all Google Maps users but by gamifying the process leads to the remaining 0.1% of guides to not play by the “rules”.
For every business, creating and optimizing, Google My Business profile is an important step in your overall SEO strategy which helps with the success of your business – especially if you are a local business with real bricks and mortar location. When your business works hard to offer its customers/clients good service, using Google My Business is a fantastic way to stand out from the competition on a map search.
With Google Local Guides, your businesses can benefit from clearly unbiased crowd-sourced material, like photos and reviews which are added to their profile which will ultimately help new customers/client make an informed decision on whether to use your business. However, something that we’re seeing more and more is the phenomenon of fake Local Guide review – even our own reviews have been infected with them.
What do you get from becoming a Google Local Guide?
Google encourages participants in the program to leave reviews etc and increase their ‘rank’ with perks/rewards for their efforts. Anyone can sign up to become a guide – even I myself have done so whilst researching the platform.
As a Local Guide, you get points for various activities such as: leaving a review, leaving a star rating, uploading a photo or video, answering a question, adding locations, adding a missing road, and so on. And as your point increase your guide level increases, slowing working your way up to becoming a Level 10 Guide once you hit the 100,000 points level.
In the past, Google has offered perks, although at the time of writing this piece they didn’t seem to be offering anything. Past perks have included:
- 1TB of Google Drive storage for free for two years (by reaching Level 4 (250 points))
- 3 months of Google Play Music (by reaching Level 4 (250 points))
- 75% off a Google play movie rental (by reaching Level 4 (250 points))
- Early access to new Google products and features
- Access to groups & meetups
- Even all-expense-paid trips to Google conferences
However, in recent year it does seem like Google have been cutting back on their perks. Most of the time the perks are inconsequential (like access to newsletters or access to workshop and hangouts), and most people join because they (like me) enjoy being part of it – eating out, trying new places and feeling good as they help improve Google maps for everyone.
Getting reviews and ratings
“Contributions must be based on real experiences and information” as is stated in the Google’s Maps User Contributed Content Policy which all seems fair and proper. But the real problem here is how can anyone or Google prove/disprove that any said review/rating was based on real customer interaction. If you are a Local Guide are just interested in climbing through the guide levels, what is there to stop you from randomly leaving reviews/ratings with a business you have never interacted with or is even ‘local’ to you just in order to get more points?
We as a business have had two ratings from Local Guides. The first of which is a 15-minute session had rated 20 business all with 3 stars and left no rating. The second Local Guide was based in India and their review history remains local to them but for some unknown reason one they decided to review a bunch of businesses 6,000 miles away from them – again just ratings and no reviews. We as a business know all our clients by name so know for fact that we have never done business with either of these reviewers which is why they piqued our interest and lead us down learning more about Google Local Guides.
The problem with the current Local Guides review system two-fold. Firstly the incentive to leave a review is too strong as there is absolutely no verification. A Local Guide can leave reviews whether they are good or bad, true or false, in order to just build up their points. There seems to be no thought for the related business and there seems to be apparently little or no oversight from Google – as we have found out whilst trying to get these fake reviews removed.
Secondly, by gaining these local guide badges will give the guide an ‘authoritative’ look which carries more weight to their reviews. Anyone looking through a bunch of reviews for a business may give these reviews more weight they should be given. You could say Amazon has the same problem with their product reviews which allow anyone to review a product without actually purchasing them – although Amazon at least solves this problem by having the ‘verified purchase’ badge.
Additionally, as these reviews appear to have “official status”, a business owner may think that there is little action they can take. This last point is backed up by the difficulty to report these fake reviews.
Getting a Fake Review Removed
As mentioned previously, Google does have guidelines when it comes to leaving reviews which if broken will result in the reviews being removed. But the catch 22 is if the fake review is only a star rating then no guidelines have been broken as nothing has been written. And if they did actually leave a review, how could Google even tell if a reviewer did or didn’t actually do business with a local business or not – it’s just your word against theirs.
As we have found the process for getting a fake review removed is completely broken. Google recommends flagging inappropriate reviews, but this very often does nothing. And even this simple task doesn’t seem to be built for dealing with fake/spam reviews. Flagging different reviews also sends you down different paths. When flagging our oldest fake rating we are taken to a “Report a policy violation” page and the options we are given are:
- This post contains hateful, violent, or inappropriate content
- This post contains advertising or spam
- This post contains conflicts of interest
None of which really deals with fake reviews/ratings, the closest would be the second option of marking it as Spam. But it’s not really spam as there is no text. When flagging the most recent fake rating we get taken to a different page (when we get taken to two different pages for clicking the same button who knows?). Here the options we are given are:
- Offensive or sexually explicit
- Legal issues
- Privacy concern
- This review is not relevant to this place
- Conflict of interest
Again, no help us to in reporting a fake review/rating.
We have taken the above steps with our two fake reviews but nothing has happened to date and I’d wager nothing will happen. Are Googling the issue the general advice seems to be to post on the this thread on the Local Guides Forum in the ‘How to’ section and title the post “I’d like to Report a Local Guide”. Ironically to do so means that you yourself have to become a Google Local Guide.
The response from the moderator was to just use the build-in “Flag as inappropriate” mechanism we had already done. And if you see a Local Guide that is doing this as a standard behaviour, it is ok to report them here.
Other suggestions are to post on the Google my Business forum; DM @GoogleMyBiz (ironically by using a competitors platform); and ask for support and sent them the following information.
Prepare the following information:
- Your business name, address, phone number, website URL, and Google Maps link.
- State why the review should be removed (be calm and remain professional)
- State which of the policies you feel is being violated
- State why you feel it is a fake review
- Prepare any documentation that supports your claim
Finally, in February 2019 Google released the Business Redressal Form, this will allow you to report spam on Google My Business.
You can also view other experiences with spam and fake Google reviews using #stopcraponthemap.
Until this whole process is reviewed (pardon the pun) by Google themselves, local businesses will suffer. They can’t flag fake reviews without having to jump through many hoops with no understanding if anything they do will be successful. Surely if I can spot when a reviewer is leaving a spate of fake reviews with the naked eye, surely the might of Google can have sophisticated algorithms do it?
Just to reiterate, we know that 99.9% of Google Local Guide is leaving valid and useful reviews that help other people. As always it’s a small minority of the 0.1% that ruin the system for everyone else.