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A new case study from SEO researcher Joy Hawkins at Sterling Sky seems to finally debunk a myth that has lingered around Google reviews – that keyword-rich reviews could help a site’s ranking in search results.

The idea does make a certain amount of sense. Reviews can help spotlight specialties or unique services that companies offer and could provide a valuable signal to determine the most relevant results for specific searches.

Based on their findings, however, Sterling Sky says having customers put] keywords into local reviews on a business listing “does not improve rankings.”

It is important to note that the test is definitely limited. 

For the study, the team gradually added product ratings including the phrases “fresh cut Christmas trees” and “Christmas trees” for a small Christmas tree seller with minimal online presence, rankings, or SEO efforts.

The Results

Sterling Sky says that the new keyword-rich reviews did not improve the company’s keyword rankings, even after six months.

The graphics below illustrate that the rankings did not improve for either keyword. In the case of the first phrase, rankings actually got worse by the end of the study, while rankings for the second keyword phrase remained approximately the same.

Hawkins concludes that there is no need for brands “to include certain words in their reviews.”

“First of all, this is hard to do and you often come across as weird or odd. And secondly, and most importantly, this case study shows that it does not improve rankings!

At the end of the day, Google probably focuses more on contextual information within reviews to help rank local businesses, rather than looking for exact keyword matches. Not only is this harder to abuse, it provides a more rich and more detailed understanding of a local business listing than a single keyword.

Google Maps reviews have long been an important tool for both consumers and brands – allowing shoppers to share their experiences with other potential customers and letting brands showcase their great services where shoppers are most likely to be. 

Now, the company is finally explaining how this system works, including how Google Maps moderates reviews and automatically spots fraudulent, misleading, or inappropriate reviews among the millions of legitimate reviews posted every day.

In a recently published overview, the company says it relies on 5 key strategies to consistently ensure reviews on Google Maps are authentic, useful, and relevant for other consumers.

1. Strict, Up-to-Date Content Guidelines

The first line of defense against malicious or inappropriate Google Maps reviews is a strict set of guidelines dictating what sorts of content are appropriate on the platform. 

As the guide says:

“We’ve created strict content policies to make sure reviews are based on real-world experiences and to keep irrelevant and offensive comments off of Google Business Profiles.”

Additionally, Google points to its regular updates to these policies to stay ahead of bad actors. For example, the company points to the quick steps it took to prevent reviews criticizing health policies following the spread of COVID-19.

“We put extra protections in place to remove Google reviews that criticize a business for its health and safety policies or for complying with a vaccine mandate.”

2. Integrating Content Policies Into Google’s Algorithms

Once a policy is set, it is disseminated to every relevant area of Google Maps. That means it not only goes into training material for human moderators but also goes into Google’s own machine learning algorithms.

Broadly, this allows Google’s algorithms to evaluate new reviews for a variety of red flags, including:

  • Does it contain offensive or off-topic content?
  • Does the Google account have any history of suspicious behavior?
  • Has there been uncharacteristic activity – such as an abundance of reviews over a short period of time? Has it recently gotten attention in the news or on social media that would motivate people to leave fraudulent reviews?

3. Using Human Moderators To Understand Nuance In Reviews

Of course, automated systems do not always understand the subtleties necessary to tell the difference between legitimate and illegitimate reviews or criticism. This is why Google Maps reviews also rely on a robust team of human moderators to review content and guide algorithms.

As the blog post explains:

“Training a machine on the difference between acceptable and policy-violating content is a delicate balance. For example, sometimes the word “gay” is used as a derogatory term, and that’s not something we tolerate in Google reviews. But if we teach our machine learning models that it’s only used in hate speech, we might erroneously remove reviews that promote a gay business owner or an LGBTQ+ safe space. Our human operators regularly run quality tests and complete additional training to remove bias from the machine learning models.”

4. Encouraging Community Moderation

Google doesn’t believe moderation ends once a review or comment gets posted. Once visible to the public, Google strongly encourages businesses or other users to report fake or inappropriate reviews. 

“Like any platform that welcomes contributions from users, we also have to stay vigilant in our efforts to prevent fraud and abuse from appearing on Maps. Part of that is making it easy for people using Google Maps to flag any policy-violating reviews.”

5. Predicting Where Fake Reviews Will Happen

Lastly, Google works to stay ahead of users by identifying listings in Google Maps which are most likely to be the targets for malicious activity. For example, Google may increase protections for a listing if it is involved in a political event or has recently been in the news.

As the guide explains:

“In addition to reviewing flagged content, our team proactively works to identify potential abuse risks, which reduces the likelihood of successful abuse attacks. For instance, when there’s an upcoming event with a significant following — such as an election — we implement elevated protections to the places associated with the event and other nearby businesses that people might look for on Maps.”

Modern consumers rely on online reviews more and more, and Google Maps is one of the biggest places for shoppers to turn before doing business with someone. Though bad actors may manage to slip through the cracks from time to time, it is good to know that Google is always striving to ensure consumers and businesses can rely on these reviews to give an honest assessment of local businesses.

Earlier this week we reported on a recent study highlighting the growing influence of online reviews, and there is no service as closely associated with online reviews as Yelp. Of course, Yelp agrees and they’ve commissioned a new study from Nielsen survey data to show it is the most frequently used, most trusted, and even the highest quality local reviews site. But, many are skeptical of their findings.

The study used a sample of just over 1,000 US users of review sites, including competitors such as Angie’s List, Citysearch, OpenTable, TripAdvisor, YP, and Zagat. The survey consisted of 22 questions in all and the sample was weighted for age and gender to be representative of Nielsen’s NetView audience. In a blow to the credibility of the survey however, it seems only a few of the results were released – presumably the results which favored Yelp.

Out of what was released, the survey showed that 78 percent of consumers use review sites to find local businesses and help make purchase decisions, with Yelp taking the lead in several categories such as “most influential,” “most trustworthy,” and “best quality reviews.”

Another source of apprehension for this study was the decision not to include Google or Facebook. When asked, Yelp told Greg Sterling:

Our findings specifically around review sites came after we included Google and Facebook in a question on what sites people use to find local businesses, but those sites aren’t solely focused on local business discovery. We dug deeper into those sites that are.

That led Sterling to the conclusion that Google and Facebook likely exceed Yelp as a source for local business information, but it isn’t dishonest to exclude them from a study focusing specifically on “local business discovery” because both platforms have such broad usage.

The study isn’t completely invalid because of these inconsistencies. It goes without question that Yelp is at the forefront of local business discovery and reviewing and several other studies show that Yelp is in fact influential in local purchasing decisions. This study reinforces the fact that Yelp is a major player in these categories, but obviously it should be taken with some skepticism.

You can see the graphic displaying Yelp’s findings below:

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