Almost exactly three years ago, I published a post here on Search Engine Guide entitled User Reviews As Local Activism. In that piece, I encouraged citizens to make the extra effort to leave good reviews of their favorite locally-owned businesses as a positive form of supporting them in an economy that is often heavily slanted towards corporations and big box stores. Three years ago, reviews were just starting to take on the power that they have today, and at that time, I think I gave only a passing thought to the other side of the coin - the potential for people to leverage negative reviews to promote their personal agendas, both political and otherwise.

Now, having just read articles at Alabama Live and The Huffington Post, I know what the flipside of the coin looks like.

Starting around October 13, small business owner Steve Dubrinsky's Birmingham, Alabama deli became the target of a campaign to inundate his Google Place Page with negative reviews, many of which attack him for allegedly employing illegal immigrants. This must doubtless be considered fallout of Alabama's decision to uphold the strictest immigration laws in the nation. In interviews, Dubrinsky has declared that his workers are legal, but this has not stopped his neighbors from slamming his Google Place Page with hate reviews and threatening his deli with a boycott along these lines:

Within a week of this, there was an onslaught of positive reviews for the deli, most of which simply praise the food and service, but others of which directly speak to the perceived abuse of the review system:

Like many people with even a drop of Indigenous ancestry, I find the specter of relatively recent immigrants making laws about other, newer immigrants to this great land to be darkly ironic. As one Huffington Post commenter put it:

Where'd your people come from? You got legal papers from my Native American people giving you the legal right to be here? Seems that maybe it's you who needs to pack up and head back to the fatherland­, hombre.

I will also make no bones about the fact that, given the United States' bleak history of conquest, enslavement and never-ending civil rights violations, I absolutely loathe any law or language that hinges on race. Sit yourself down and read Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, a book about the enslavement of Hispanic Americans in the ag fields of Florida happening right now, as I type this article, and you will realize that this country has yet to leave its worst ideas behind. Gives me the creeps, to say the least.

But, from a purely Local perspective, I'm writing about this issue today at Search Engine Guide because it calls so strongly into question the role review hubs like Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor and the like will be called upon to play in the online publishing world in which sets of stars and blank fields will be taken for a soapbox by many users. This is what I'm hoping we can discuss in the comments.

Google's Review Posting Guidelines make this statement (italics mine):

Keep it real
People read reviews to learn about real experiences from real people, so be authentic. Keep your reviews to your own, direct experience with a place. Try to describe your experience as accurately as possible, including both positive and negative aspects.

Off-topic reviews
Reviews should describe your personal, first hand experience with a specific place. Please do not post reviews based on someone else's experience, or that are not about the specific place you are reviewing. Reviews are not a forum for personal attacks, rants or crusades. Please also do not use reviews to report incorrect information about a place -- use the Report a problem link for that place instead.

Even without the article in a high level publication like The Huffington Post, some type of flag will likely have gone up in Google's system as a result of a single business gaining pages and pages of reviews over the course of a single week. Let's hope the deli's supporters don't run into a goofy Google spam filter based on review velocity that might actually lead to a penalization of the whole listing. I feel this case is well worth watching because I do believe Google will have to take some sort of steps regarding the very large number of reviews left this month for this business that would most certainly fall under the heading 'personal attacks, rants or crusades'.

For comparison, look at Max's Delicatessen's Yelp Profile and you will absolutely no sign of political controversy. It's an odd day when a small business has only 16 reviews at Yelp, but 182 on Google! Has Yelp, with their sometimes infamously stringent review policy, already kicked in behind the scenes, erasing the aura of controversy? They certainly have the right to do so, given their guidelines, and I am watching to see what Google will do.

And finally, I think this brings up a related issue that is worthy of discussion and debate. Local news sites, local blogs, local review hubs...the unifying quality of all of these is that they strive to paint an accurate picture of local communities.

If, like most communities, yours is unfortunate enough to be inhabited by its measure of certain citizens who are comfortable using racial epithets and who are likewise comfortable making public attacks of a racial nature on local businesses...this is an accurate picture of your community. If a humble delicatessen in the South becomes a political batteground, and online communities delete all references to what is happening there, how informed and true is the online version of our world? How accurate is the index?

The dozens of politically-motivated Occupy Wall Street reviews continue to sit on the Google Place Page of Zuccotti Park in NYC. Despite being an evident violation of Google's guidelines, they occupy most of the Place Page's review space. A creative use of the medium, perhaps, but is it right?

In so many ways, the Internet is a champion of free speech, enabling us to communicate our views and to encounter the views of others in ways never dreamed of before. But when it comes to hate speech - and the advent of this concept of the 'hate review' - where do we stand?

I hope you'll weigh in with your thoughts on this interesting development in the world of online reviews. Should review entities remove reviews that do not center on a customer's actual patronage of a given business, landmark or site? And, if such data is removed, does this make the picture of the business more or less accurate, on the whole? Finally, what should a business owner like Steve Dubrinsky do, finding himself in the middle of this online reputation attack? Respond to the reviews? Hire a lawyer? Sue the portals that are enabling this content to be published about his buisness? What's your take?

October 21, 2011

Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.


Nice article. I know you saw that I referenced this incident in Google+. I don't know if you read the article. I reported that I also engaged in writing reviews that were politically inspired. The process was different.

Keeping this to the "local" aspect though, let me add here that Google did use a filter and removed some but not all of the reviews. My read at the time was that two things "might" have occurred. An auto filter might have been set in place was one guess.

Secondly the politically inspired reviews were written against the individual store locations of a huge business with a national brand. Maybe they "got" to Google and/or maybe Google has a filter in place of some sort to "act" in some cases, as with name brands, and not with others.

I don't know.

I'm going to spend some time checking the time sequence and report back. We placed the reviews in July through two different google gmail account names, one established and one all new with no history at all and additionally no established "google trust"

The ones placed under the established google account stayed up. When I wrote the Google+ piece I checked one of them and it was still up. The ones written under the all new google gmail account name seemed to go down in about 1 weeks time.

I have to check the specifics and check with another person. When I have the details I'll report on this in detail.

It would appear at first blush though that as of this past July or possibly early August there was a filter in place in Google Places that eliminated pure political reviews. It seems now, based on the example of the deli and more specifically with the park in NYC that the filter is not working on the same basis. In the example of the park it appears there have been political reviews up for at least 3 weeks.

I'll report more on this when I've reviewed our time frame.

On the political side, the onslaught of reviews on the single deli appears very ugly to me. The response also appears over the top. To the extent my actions contributed or not to something ugly, I regret it.

Hi, Dave!

Can you please re-send me the + article you wrote? I saw it this morning, but I think I read the Huff Post article you linked to and not your original post. Always interested to get your take on things. I just visited your G+ profile and got a message along the lines of "Dave Hasn't Shared Anything With You". You and I know better than that! :)

I think you may have discovered something important regarding how a large brand may be treated differently than, say, a park or a small business. I definitely would love it if you would keep me posted on this subject as you continue to research. Transparency on Google's part would certainly help, as I think their guidelines are already pretty clear on this...but their actions are not really backing them up.

FYI, I have also left a couple of interested reviews in the past. They weren't exactly politically-motivated...more of a humane thing. I think we may all be experimenting a little in order to understand how the system works. Thanks for stopping by, Dave!

Miriam: Before describing my the specifics of our political reviews, and our experience with a filter that eliminated Political reviews in Google Places Pages, I'd like to express my opinion on what has occurred on the Google Places Page for Max's Delicatessen in Birmingham.

Following the passage of the law in Alabama the operating owner of the deli expressed his view on the law and its ramifications. He specifically addressed how it can affect working people and working businesses; his being one of them. His comments were not theoretical. They were specific. They reviewed the responses of his kitchen employees, all of whom were hispanic, and all of whom are in the US legally, as far as he can tell.

That is called freedom of expression.

Following that, the owner and his business have been threatened and intimidated. The radio threat of a boycott and the attack reviews directed at the business are pure intimidation and a threat that has all the characteristics of a right wing fascist political force that desires to stifle all opposition to the recently enacted law.

Its scary. Its not just that laws may be enacted with which one disagrees. It exemplifies that the supporters of these types of laws want to crush opposition to these laws at the most basic levels...eliminating freedom of expression. They are intimidating the owner and anyone else.

The attack reviews are an expression of the worst tendencies of humankind. Its a disgrace.

As to the attack reviews, the response reviews and my experience:

In July this year one other person and I wrote about 7-9 political reviews against a national chain. We placed one negative review on each of the 7-9 locations around the nation. I placed 3 of them. My friend probably placed 4-6 (she doesn't recall specifically).

My reviews remain up. The others were all removed.

The difference in how the reviews were treated probably stems from the fact that my google email account had both significant usage and had made a number of other reviews. The other person's gmail account was either totally new or one that she had scarcely if ever used for any purpose.

We think that the other reviews were removed anywhere from 2 days to 1 week following their being placed. We didn't record the events and can't recall the specifics.

I believe there are google filters in place, or were in place as of mid July. It could be that they have been eased or removed. It seems to me, in accordance with how Google Places has made it easy to report errors in businesses they may have removed filters that were more stringent. They could have done this sometime in July this year. That would coincide with the period when businesses found that attack reviewers were effectively getting "this business is closed" messages within Google Places, which started to show as early as late July this year.

I also suspect there could be a filter in place within Google Places that draws attention to mention of NAME and Large Brand businesses.

Of the 3 reviews I wrote they all remain in place: one review per location for 3 different locations. They have now been up over 3 months in each case.

Unlike the situation in Birmingham there has been almost no response to the reviews. Since then I saw an aggregate number of 14 responses to the reviews. 5 people liked the reviews. That must have meant that 9 people didn't like the reviews. In fact they might have reported the reviews as inappropriate.

Regardless, they are still up.

If there was a review filter in place in early July, its not in place or working in the same way now. I checked the Max's delicatessen Google Places Page late yesterday and all the negative attack reviews were still up, let alone all the response reviews.

They are all political.

Once again it appears that Google Places isn't putting personnel into the Places Pages to enforce its own rules or maintain an even reasonable amount of civility.

Currently it appears that Google Places is supporting the efforts to intimidate people who express their own political views.

Hi Again Dave,
Thanks so much for providing a detailed summary of your experiment with politically-oriented reviews. I'm sure readers here will be as interested to read what you have written as was I. As of this morning, it looks like the reviews at Max's Deli remain. So yes, if there is some type of filter in place, it isn't working or isn't be implemented.

Totally agree with you about the odious spirit of this activity against the business owner. I am sincerely bothered by it and wish there was something we could do to help him, but I believe he needs to hire a lawyer.

Many thanks, again, Dave, for sharing what you've learned. You are a font of good information!

I have noticed a lot of reviews that even company websites have seem to be done by bots because they make comments like GREAT ITEM! and don't give valid reviews on them and just give a high rating for them while you can see other people are clearly not happy because the item or service wasn't good.

This was in interesting article, and I especially liked the whole section on the Alabama Deli. I set up google places for businesses in and around New York so I've dealt with less severe yet similar problems.

To address your speculation on why there are fewer yelp comments, I would bet that yes, they are deleting them either automatically or intentionally. I was talking to a small business owner the other day who had told a very pleased customer to go write a review of him on yelp. So he did. It was all praise, he talked about the great service and product he had received, etc. The comment was swiftly deleted. The owner called up yelp and asked them what was up. They told him that the review was "too good to be true" and so it was automatically deleted.

It just seemed ridiculous... I myself never saw the comment, but I doubt it was unrealistically positive. Yelp also said they couldn't get the review back up because they have thousands of claims all the time and can't deal with each one. Lame...

Two and a half weeks later Max's Delicatessen now has 331 reviews on his Google Places page, most of them positive, but certainly the reputation of his restaurant has been damaged from these initial negative, unfounded, comments.

Makes me wonder if Max's attorneys will bring a lawsuit against the big G for defamation of character, because certainly the initial negative reviews that were published did not adhere to their posting guidelines. If so, I wonder if G will begin to moderate comments rather than instantly publishing them. Either way, it's a lose-lose situation for both parties involved.

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Search Engine Guide > Miriam Ellis > Google Reviews As Political Battleground