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Paul Jahn at Search Engine Guide writes today about how fraudulent user reviews can be particularly damning to local search sites. Users are smart, he contends, and can sniff out a fake message from a business owner or constituent. This is consistent with past TKG findings and presents an important challenge for the growing majority of local search sites that have begun to integrate and grow their user-generated content features. This will be an important challenge as social media becomes a necessary component of local search sites, to remain competitive, boost user appeal and deepen content for SEO benefits.


User-generated content has gained a great deal of attention and investment from IYPs and local search sites including, recently,,, and continued development from Google and Yahoo!.

Meanwhile, social search pure-plays such as Yelp continue to show that it’s possible to motivate users to participate in content generation, partly by focusing on the twenty- and thirty-something urban dweller demographic (Yelp’s success metrics provided today by Greg Sterling).

But there are still lots of challenges involved in doing this. Chief among them are motivating a critical mass of reviews across categories to create a comprehensive experience. Reviews might be weighted heavily toward some categories (restaurants) and lacking in others (plumbers), creating an inconsistent overall experience.

Equally difficult is policing fraudulent reviews. Paul Jahn’s Search Engine Guide column today asserts how such reviews can hurt a site’s credibility and, ultimately, traffic. The bottom line is that users are smart and can sniff out an overly effusive review written by a business owner. He gives a few examples, to which I would add a review we’ve blogged in the past, which I’ve always remembered in this context (business name removed).

Excellent San Diego plumbers
[NAME REMOVED] has excellent San Diego plumbers. Their service was exceptional and their plumbing technicians were very accommodating and friendly. Need a plumber on an evening or weekend? No problem — it’s the same low price! Need a plumbing estimate? They will gladly give you a low, up-front price that covers your specific plumbing job! Problems with your plumbing system can be scary, stressful, expensive, and even dangerous, but most plumbing problems can be avoided with the right team on your side. [NAME REMOVED] is on your side. Their plumber’s are required to complete many courses and assist many months of rigorous training before they are allowed to “solo” on any plumbing & water heater repair or installation. They are truly an elite plumbing group of whom we are very proud to have work for us. Call them today — or simply fill out their 30 second online plumbing service request form and a San Diego plumber will be at your door in minutes!

The marketing-speak and overuse of adjectives and punctuation lend to the transparency of this so-called user review and make it so that most consumers will see through it. However, sometimes it will be more subtle, and it’s not always fraudulently positive. Positive or negative, this can have a significant effect when there is a small sample of reviews in a given listing, asserted AdMission CEO Sarah Pate during last September’s DDC conference.

“If you have 20 reviews, negative or illegitimate reviews will get flushed out by others and you will overall get a true sense of the business,” she said. “But this isn’t always the case.”

Another issue here is the balancing act between serving the user with genuine, trusted and value-added content, and serving advertisers. When you risk having paid advertisers be subject to the whims of anyone who feels like writing a review, negative reviews can clearly be at odds with advertiser retention. This is a particularly sensitive issue for IYPs whose advertisers also have larger investments in print.

“I would not want to be the sales manager that has to tell a sales rep that we’ve just lost his $30,000 account because of a negative consumer review,” said Gordon Henry, chief marketing officer of Yellow Book, following Sarah Pate’s comments at DDC.

The Power of Social Media

Nonetheless, it’s important to not let this challenge stand in the way of building the social media elements that are slowly becoming table stakes in local search.

TKG data show that user preference for ratings, reviews and peer-generated content is on the rise. In the most recent User View survey (Wave IV), 40 percent of respondents (n=501) indicated that ratings and reviews content is important to them in deciding where to look first for products and services locally. This is compared with to 30 percent in Wave III.

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Building social media features, in other words, is worthwhile, despite these challenges. They will remain a necessary evil and can be dealt with to a certain degree. The payoff is not only to remain competitive with what is becoming a standard in local search, but also to deepen content for greater SEO benefits, which will gain importance in local search, as we’ve pointed out many times.

Tapping the power of the user base to police and improve UGC is one strategy, illustrated by explosively popular social bookmarking site Digg, which enables users to “bury” articles and submissions that are fraudulent, duplicative or against a quality standard. The power of the Digg community (see previous post) in fact should be looked at as an indicator, and to some degree a model, for what can be possible at the intersection of social media local search.


Related: Check out Sebastien Provencher’s Praized blog, which specifically covers the interplay between social media and local.

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