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.
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?.
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.
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