Why Is Google Allowing Rich Snippet Spam?
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• One of the new microformats for the semantic Web for reviews is now being abused.
• Google has a Rich Snippets spam reporting form, but the jury is out on if it’s being enforced.
• Should Google stop showing starred reviews in the SERPs until it can get a handle on verification?
A couple months ago, I read a great article on how to get extra rows of stars in Google Places by inserting the new hReview markup code onto a page of your site. One of the new* microformats for the in-progress Semantic Web, hReview lets webmasters markup customer reviews for products and/or services so search engines can understand what product or service is being reviewed, who’s reviewing it (or how many reviews there are if it’s aggregated) and what rating they’ve given. The rating shows up on SERPs as a row of golden stars.
*(Update 4/13: As Aaron Bradley points out in the comments below, hReview dates from 2005 so it’s hardly “new”)
The hReview format just looked too good to be true, especially because it could work for any listing on the SERP, not just local listings. I thought to myself, all you have to do is stick a scrap of code on your site and Google will give you a row of stars beneath your SERP listing?
My immediate reaction was, “I’ve got to tell all my clients!”
Followed by, “Wait . . . what’s keeping anyone from just giving themselves whatever rating they want?”
And finally: “This is going to get abused, so fast.”
Turns out, I was late to the party with that line of thinking; as early as June last year people were predicting Schema.org markup would get spammed.
And they were right.
Obviously Fake Aggregated Ratings
I’d all but forgotten about the hReview markup until last month, when I came across some starred reviews while doing unrelated research. Here’s the entry I found (censored because I don’t want to give the site any undeserved publicity):
Wow! What a great rating! And so many votes! How’d they get more than 8,000 people to rate them?
The answer, of course, is that they didn’t. Well, I can’t say for certain, but my SEO-sense sure is tingling. This isn’t some Fortune 500 company that might have the reach to achieve this; the site in question has almost zero social media presence. And considering how the actual site is crammed with other negative trust indicators, I feel pretty confident in calling shenanigans.
This isn’t some minor issue; a new study shows that most consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. By displaying stars in the SERPs, Google implicitly grants authority and legitimacy to any site containing the hReview markup.
Out of curiosity, I went to Google’s rich snippets spam reporting form and reported the site a few weeks ago. Then this morning I checked to see if it worked. Here’s what I found:
Yup, the starred review is still showing, though for some reason, their rating went down by 0.2 points and they seem to have lost exactly 7,000 votes. Funny.
But has Google slapped them with any kind of penalty? Nope. The site ranks No. 1 for some queries with a not-inconsiderable amount of search activity.
(From what I’ve read, it may take up to five weeks for Google to take action against reported spam, so I’ll keep an eye on it.)
A little further down on the same page we find another recklessly high aggregated rating:
Google Sending Mixed Signals
OK. But so what? The problem isn’t the reviews themselves. The problem is that they don’t have to be tied to anything. There’s no kind of third-party verification required.
What’s worse, Google ads sometimes show a row of stars tied to third-party reviews:
Yes, these two entries actually show up like this. How can users tell which is real and which is fake? How would users even know to suspect one might be fake?
The stars in the PPC ad are actually tied to something outside the site, as you can see by clicking on the anchor text, “113 reviews”:
I suppose these could all be spam too, but that would require a whole lot more effort.
But let’s say you really do have actual customer reviews. Is there any way you can demonstrate their authenticity to a greater degree than the fake reviews?
Well, as David Naylor points out in his article on Google’s crackdown on rich snippet spam, some sites with fake reviews are referencing an internal or external review page.
Customer reviews on your site can be manipulated with ease, so that’s out. One of the sites in Naylor’s article above references an external review site, but there are plenty of sites where you can pay for fake reviews.
So even if you have actual reviews from flesh-and-blood customers, there’s no way to authenticate it that couldn’t simply be spammed.
What Gives, Google?
The bottom line is that Google should stop showing starred reviews on the SERPs, at least until it comes up with some sort of verification system. It’s just too easy to spam, and the potential rewards greatly outweigh whatever risk there may be. And even if your reviews are all on the up-and-up, there’s no way to demonstrate that. By continuing to display rows of stars in the SERPs, Google is implicitly encouraging spammers.
What do you think? Is this really that big an issue, or just much ado about nothing?