The Great Google 4-Star Ratings Attack of 2018: The Who, What, Where… but Why?

While many Americans watched Football last weekend, I was watching tons of “fake” ratings pollute Google Reviews with bogus 4-star ratings. If I told you over 2 million ratings were executed by less than 30 profiles, would you be shocked? What if I told you they are still live and didn’t get auto-flagged by Google?

Oddly, after what I saw, today seems very quiet. I don’t see any response from Google, or your typical SEO guru’s leaning in. But, with so many companies affected, I can’t be the only one trying to figure out what is going on, right?

If Google is too busy “fixing it” to respond, that’s fine. However, this virtual wildfire is spreading fast, and Google doesn’t seem to have it fully contained. As it spreads across more local listings, Google risks credibility with people who still trust Google Reviews.

Update: 12-6-2018:

The good news:

For the niche locations we reviewed below, it seems Google has removed the spam. These Google Ratings started to disappear yesterday afternoon and, for the most part, are gone.

The bad news:

This network of Google Reviews Spammers is not stopping. They have changed names on their profiles and are passing out Google Ratings at a high enough volume to maintain their Local Guide points. For example, if you click on my Between Fencing profile I named below (#3). This “Local Guide” has uploaded a new profile photo and changed their name to: “Công Ty TNHH Sắt Mạnh Tuấn“.

More importantly, Google has allowed them to maintain not just an account, but a level 9 Google Local Guide status with 54,583 points. Their profile image changed, yet the 6 reviews they did make are not public. This is a shock to me, let’s hope that this is not enough to stay one step ahead of Google.

Update: 12-5-2018:

Google has completely removed the link to see individual reviews from the knowledge graph on some locations. This fixes their 4x repeats issues from yesterday; however, ratings spammers are still counted and calculated as part of the overall average star rating.

jccc-google-reviews

Update: 12-4-2018:

Google is starting to make some changes to review links in SERPS. For example, the reviews link on the knowledge graph works, but no more “recent” reviews show up when this option is selected.

Example:

However, if you already responded to these new ratings, these ratings now show up 4 times in a row!

What Happened?

Someone’s brilliant network of Google Profiles and highly rated Local Guides blasted tens of thousands of local businesses with 4-star ratings. Let me repeat, not “reviews,” only “ratings.” Also again, not 1-star or 5-stars, just 4-star ratings.

What makes this attack different than many of the other fake and paid Google Review claims of the past is the size and unsolicited nature. Most times, I can typically follow the money or motivation with regards to spam, but this is an effort unlike anything I have seen before.

According to ReviewFraud.org, this issue started in late September. Furthermore, their research uncovered that 27 profiles had executed 2,370,000 ratings. This is an average of 64,000 ratings per profile, and we can see they range from around 50,000 to 100,000 ratings per profile.

Who’s Getting Google Review SPAM?

The “attack” seemed to be geared toward local businesses that already have plenty of reviews. This includes hotels, colleges, movie theaters, jewelry stores, golf courses, and many others I don’t have time to cover in this article.

I live in Kansas City, and as an agency owner, I have more than a few GMB accounts to monitor. Thus, I can say with some confidence it was Kansas City’s weekend to get hit by this group. Perhaps the West Coast is busy putting out real wildfires but locally we have a virtual Google ratings wildfire that is out of control.

12 Examples of 4-Star Google Rating Spam:

Hotel Examples:

1. DoubleTree by Hilton:

2. Hampton Inn Olathe:

3. Hyatt KC – Overland Park Convention Center:

 

4. Kansas City Marriott Downtown

 

5. Holiday Inn KC Airport

Local Community College Examples

6. Metropolitan Community College:

 

7. Kansas City Community College

8. Johnson County Community College – JCCC

Jewelry Stores:

9. Meierotto Jewelers 

(You can see below the owner of this location already responded to these reviews with a boilerplate response.)

10. Noe’s Jewelry

I would love for more people to share their stories in the comments below.

Who Are these Google Review Spammers?

The quick answer is that I don’t really know. This network is smart, and their privacy settings are locked (thanks Google), so no one can see much about these “people.” Trust me, the irony between Google touting their love of privacy and it being the very thing that is killing their Google reviews transparency is not lost on me.

To say that it looks bad on Google when they ask for business owners for trust on their Google Reviews, but then something like this can happen without a quick resolution is an understatement. Furthermore, it begs the question to Google, why have the “Ratings” count and the “Reviews” tab under Local Guide profiles if you are going to allow them to block their reviews from public view?

It seems silly, and it’s been obviously exploited by this group as a loophole for spam tactics while remaining covert about their online review behavior.

Fake Looking:

Counter to their profile view, you can see my Local Guides account is very transparent. Google shows my reviews publicly, and my account shows that I add images, answer questions, suggest edits, etc.—basically, I look human! I’m honestly shocked that the Google algorithm is not smart enough to catch something that seems this rigged.

Real Person:

The motivation for someone to do this is also lost on me. Google may invite you out to Mountain View for a Local Guides Summit if you reach a  certain level, but I’m pretty sure they are not sending out iPads or gifts that would make fake Local Guide achievements worth the effort. If I’m wrong, please let me know in the comments section.

Naming Names:

According to my research, I found these 36 profiles consistent with massive amounts of Google Review Spam. Some of these profiles appear more real than others, and I was unable to track anything back to a parent company or brand that could be behind this. Furthermore, the consolidated list makes me think this is not a Mechanical Turk job, and the volume behind their ratings makes me also think this is not a Fiverr or UpWork situation.

1.       Anaka Elisa
2.       Benefits Daggers
3.       Between Fencing
4.       Bùi Văn Nam
5.       Carlos George
6.       Cumulative Derby
7.       Dashing Fencing
8.       Derby Bemusel
9.       Derby Fencing
10.   Đời Chán
11.   Eric Kuhn
12.   Gumbo Derby
13.   Gummy Fencing
14.   Hân Lý Bảo
15.   hieu tran
16.   hieu tran
17.   Khánh Dương Nguyễn
18.   Le Khang
19.   Long Nguyên
20.   Nhà Hàng Tiên Chay
21.   Read Phrygian
22.   Really Debating
23.   Really Grumpy
24.   Really Taught
25.   Saddest Fumble
26.   Sample Demandlak
27.   Sample Tennessee
28.   Seduce General
29.   Setting Geyser
30.   Sigo Việt Nam
31.   thanh son
32.   thao Dao
33.   Truong Dinh Trang
34.   tui chanh
35.   Vehicle Gauge

To me, these feel like someone just created a network of profiles to do this because they could. That might be the scariest thing!

What’s Wrong with the Google Reviews Support and Flag System?

In my escalation to Google Support, their boilerplate response was to flag and identify which review I thought was fake… Yes, pick one at a time.

As you can see above, my research backchanneled an entire network, found several examples,  and yet, Google still wanted me to talk to them in terms of one review at a time. If Google holds the status quo of being the only judge, jury, and police on all matters related to Google Reviews, it’s likely going to die the slow death of community distrust and lack of transparency.

Google should also admit that flagging reviews for feedback is not scalable for them, or business owners. For Google, spam creates an influx in support tickets to solve and creates a growing queue of work for their team to work thru while local businesses suffer and complain. For business owners, flagging each review one at a time when bulk spam hits your listing is frustrating and time-consuming.

Crowdsourcing does not seem to be on the radar for Google Reviews beyond simple feedback. The time I spent researching and documenting all these issues Google missed, I could have been helping them fix online data and making the internet a better place. Unfortunately, they seem scared of anything beyond feedback at this time and continue to insist on their teams and their algorithms.

I’m wondering if a more open “Wikipedia style” of edits and approvals would be better than the status quo. Of course, Google moderators could still oversee and lock things down as needed, but it might be better for all if Google Reviews had a community that could help police itself.

I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this as I’m not able to find much on Moz or SEJ about this topic.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Deborah

    We were hit on Dec 1st and 2nd with 22 of these profiles. An additional profile that wasn’t included on the list was “Authorities Tune”. As of Dec 4th it looks like we only have 1 left that hasn’t been removed.

  2. Jason Brown

    Awesome write up. This affected GMB listings globally too. It does appear these attacks decided to focus in a few major areas. Countless businesses in the Denver area were hammered. Arrowhead stadium was also included in this attack as well as middle and high schools. So far nobody knows why or what the point was, boredom, a dare, looking for fame, revenge on Google, proving a point, a dry run to perfect their service? Will it happen again? Will Google be able to find the person(s) responsible and do anything? There are more questions than answers. I have also helped out a lot of businesses on the GMB forum, but this the first time an issue has impacted several people I personally know. I have also never experienced something to this sheer magnitude before. The GMB product experts were awesome and worked behind the scenes to help out. There were 6 of us in total, either communicating in the public threads, privately shaking our fists at Google and/ or updating the document to help get all of the businesses impacted this nonsense the help they needed. This attack, the emails, notifications, and tweets, wiped me out. I am still exhausted from this entire ordeal and my business wasn’t even impacted by this attack. We PE’s take the forum and businesses needing help personal. When you hurt, we hurt. We fight for the business owners, marketing companies and the users searching for businesses online. Our only hope is for Google to wake and learn from this experience or, “Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed To Repeat It.”

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