You’ve seen it before. You’re looking at reviews for a company, or even your own…and you notice it. Something is off here. Maybe it’s your gut telling you this review seems fake, or perhaps your business just got 20 scathing reviews from people you don’t remember ever being your customer. This isn’t a new problem, and it’s only getting worse. In fact, every year since 2017, an additional 20,000,000 fake reviews are being removed from online review websites. In 2021, that number reached 95,000,000.
That’s why we’re so excited to have Curtis Boyd, Founder of The Transparency Company on To The Point! Curtis is a self-identified “surfer from Manhattan Beach” who was going to school to be a nurse and found himself learning Data Science at MIT, building algorithms to detect fake reviews, and leading the charge in fighting this massive problem on behalf of businesses all over the country.
Like most 20 year-olds, Curtis didn’t have any real idea what he wanted to do with his life. His mother, a nurse, told him that nursing was a great career. So Curtis figured why not? He went to nursing school, and was in his last semester precepting into ER; essentially shadowing people to learn the ins and outs. While precepting, Curtis ran into a doctor that was in a terrible mood. The doctor was yelling and complaining about these fake reviews that were hurting his private practice. Curtis commiserated with the doctor, sharing his own frustrations with his student loans.
Before long, the doctor was making Curtis an offer to pay off his student loans if he could figure out a way to remove these fake reviews. Curtis was shocked. His student loans were $32,000! At the $14/hour he was making, that would have taken years to pay off. His mom assured him this doctor was legit, and would definitely hold to his promise. So, Curtis took the doctor up on the offer and got right to work. 72 hours later, he wa hitting a wall. Emails, calls, and even threats were getting no responses. He was even begging his dad’s lawyer friend to email the review company for him. Curtis wasn’t getting anywhere.
At the time in 2014, Curtis had about $800 in his bank account. After hitting nothing but dead ends trying to contact the review company to get the doctor’s fake reviews pulled down, he decided instead to go directly to the source! He bought a plane ticket to their headquarters in San Francisco, and started just approaching people walking in and out of the building. He was asking them if they could help him, and a lot of them reacted like he was crazy or homeless. Curtis had to convince them no, he wasn’t crazy – he just needed help getting these reviews taken down. He could prove they were fake, but just needed someone to listen to him.
Curtis approached hundreds of people that day. They kept turning him away. Still, he was determined to figure this out. He came back the next day, once again approaching hundreds of people asking for help as they walked in and out of the building. Again, the same result. On the third day, Curtis finally had his breakthrough. A nice young woman agreed to sit down with him! She showed him how to successfully dispute a legitimate negative review using their helpful content link. Within 48 hours, Curtis had his check for $32,000, and the doctor was ecstatic. That doctor, it turns out, was on the board of directors for the entire physician network. Word spread, and at the age of 22 and before graduating from nursing school, Curtis was managing the online reputation of of 700 doctors. Needless to say, he skipped taking his nursing board exam and went straight into being a full-time reputation consultant.
$32,000 may have been a lot for a few days of hard work, but Curtis realized something. To that doctor, it was pennies compared to the lost business that fake negative review was causing him. The doctor charged $10-15,000 per elective surgery, and estimated he was losing 10-15 consultations a week from the review. That’s well over $100,000. There was a real business opportunity here, and Curtis was worked hard. Yet, the process was painstaking. Getting these reviews down was a ton of manual work.
So what did Curtis do? He went back to school and learned how to code in order to automate this whole online review takedown process. He figured he could teach computers how to look at reviews the same he did and get them taken down. As time went on, Curtis started gaining clients in a variety of other industries including the home services industry, the legal industry, and opened up his range of expertise to additional review websites outside of the main handful.
Over the years, a lot of businesses owners approached Curtis wanting to have negative reviews removed. Some of them were legitimate reviews, though! Curtis would recommend that if it’s a real review that owners own up to it and evolve for the better. Oftentimes, the owner would counter and say well alright, then here’s a blank check…can you bury that negative review and post a bunch of positive reviews for me?
Curtis doesn’t roll that way. He’s trying to clean things up, not muddy the waters. These conversations happened enough that he started to get suspicious, even of some of his own clients. Were fake positive reviews a big problem, too? Absolutely they are. In fact, Curtis and his team estimate that only 11-12% of the fake reviews Google removed last year were negative. The rest were fake positive reviews! He realized as he was looking that a lot of these patterns are just as clear as with the fake negative reviews. So Curtis once again went back to school; this time to MIT for Data Science and Machine Learning, and built a tool to detect fake positive reviews for consumer protection.
It’s not just business owners that are suspicious of reviews of their own business and competitors. Everyone has been on the consumer end of things, googling the best Mexican restaurant near them or trying to find a trustworthy mechanic. You look at the reviews, and sometimes see something a bit off. You’re pretty sure it’s not a legitimate review, but how do you know? According to Curtis, there are some telltales signs that a review is not legitimate.
Unless you’ve just started ramping up and changing your strategy to get more reviews, you probably have a “usual” trickle that comes in. Maybe you get a few good reviews a week, and then the occasional unhappy customer. That’s your normal. If you see the occasional review you don’t recognize, that’s not necessarily cause for alarm. But if you start seeing a sharp, unexpected jump in reviews – or can’t recognize 50 or even 100 of them, you really need to audit yourself. Remember, these big tech companies and review websites aren’t held liable for your reviews. It’s the business owner. So make sure your reviews are accounted for!
Maybe you’re looking at your closest competitor. You notice online that they suddenly went from a handful of reviews to suddenly hundreds. Did they just become everyone’s favorite overnight? No, probably not. Just like with your own business, a really sharp uptick in positive reviews is one of the most common signs that something isn’t quite right.
So this “review velocity” is the most common telltale sign. Reviews are generally a pretty slow buildup. But there are other things you can look at, too! Investigate the profiles of the users leaving the comments. If they are anonymous and you can’t see their other reviews, that’s a big red flag. When people sell fake reviews, they almost always use anonymous profiles.
Another thing to understand is these overseas companies or black hat freelancers selling fake reviews are usually pretty cheap amateurs. They’re probably reviewing a bunch of businesses that don’t make sense. For example, how likely is it that a single user is reviewing an HVAC company in Detroit today after just reviewing one in Los Angeles yesterday? They might be leaving reviews on 10 roofers in different states at the same time.
In 2021, Google removed 95 million fake reviews from its platform. That’s 280,000 fake reviews a day. Every single day, Curtis and his team are talking to business owners who have just been attacked by a fake negative review campaign for the first time, or for the 10th. It’s easy to point the finger at your closest competitor and start to get angry. Curtis recommends to take a deep breath, and avoid that temptation to take immediate legal action or drive over there to give them a piece of your mind.
There are a lot of reasons these fake reviews might be happening. Lots of business owners get blindsided by hiring the wrong agency that’s using some shady tactics instead of what your marketing company should be doing. Some of these overseas SEO companies will do things under the table and not ever tell you. Owners start to see new reviews and never second-guess it; just thinking it’s great that they’re seeing results. Or, it could be that friend’s son you just hired fresh out of college with a marketing degree making some dumb decisions. Things can happen. Really, though, it’s the result of a booming market for these black-hat review campaigns to try and trick consumers and take down competitors. And it’s not slowing down…it’s ramping up.
In 2021, Google removed 95 million fake reviews from its platform. That’s 280,000 fake reviews a day
If you have been attacked with fake negative reviews from your competitors, understand that it’s usually the result of an upsell. Businesses get solicited or reach out to these companies, only really looking to add fake positive reviews for their own company. What Curtis and his team do often is look for local businesses within 40 miles that purchased fake positive reviews for themselves recently. A lot of times, they can actually pinpoint who did it.
There are also oftentimes “hostage situations” that occur. A growing trend is one of these overseas bad actors poting a bunch of fake negative reviews for a business and then calling them up. They’ll say hey, you gotta pay me $1,000 to make all this go away. Most businesses pay up because they either don’t want to deal with it or simply don’t know how. It’s a really profitable operation, unfortunately. All that to say, if no one is contacting you and you’ve just noticed a bunch of fake negative reviews, it’s probably coming from a competitor. Just remember, it doesn’t always mean they are out for you. Most of the time, a simple phone call telling them to have their marketing team cut it out is enough to nip it in the bud.
You might be wondering okay, but is it really that big of a deal? I mean sure, you don’t want fake negative reviews about your company, but a few positive ones? What’s the harm? For starters, Curtis points out that when they audit a company and find fake reviews, you’re usually inside what he calls a “bad review network”. If you know anything about public blog networks (PBNs), it’s very similar. PBNs can often be really low-quality backlinks and lump you in with a whole mess of other businesses that may or may not be on the up-and-up. Well if you’re in a bad review network, you’re going to be linked together with dozens or hundreds of other clients. If just one of those other clients get audited, you’re on that list now.
While the repercussions for the black hat sellers of these fake reviews may be nonexistent, businesses can still be liable. The Transparency Company actually has contracts with the Arizona Attorney General’s office and has started working with other Attorney Generals as well. The AG purchases their data to go after businesses with fake positive reviews. In fact, they just recently sued a company in Phoenix for bad reviews. Nine weeks later, there was a settlement for $150,000. Not only is that a big hit to a smaller business, it’s a reputational nightmare. Now your company name brings up negative articles online, you’re in the local news, and all that bad press is not easy or cheap to clean up.
If your heart is pounding because you know you’ve got some fake reviews, don’t panic. You can still get audited and have things cleaned up! Some business owners might try and fix things themselves, but it’s tough. It’s also very time consuming, and probably not the way you want to be spending your day. Fortunately, Curtis has the answer! The Transparency Company can help you get your reviews cleaned up and all above water with certainty.
All it takes is leaving a message on AskForTransparency.com! Curtis and his team of Gold and Platinum level Google product experts can perform a quick audit for you if you just want a report to see what’s happening, or you can put them to task cleaning things up. It’s fast, simple, and extremely affordable, too! Plus, The Transparency Company and RYNO Strategic Solutions have partneded to give our clients an extra discount, and To The Point listeners can get an additional 15% off using promo code POINT15!
Your reputation is at stake! If you’d like to reach out to Curtis, he loves talking about reviews and best practices for handling them. You can connect with him through his twitter handle, @DataBoyd