It seems like a great idea, right? You encourage a group of local people to leave reviews for businesses that they use in their local area. The result is that other users of Google's search engine can see at a glance which businesses rate better than others. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a lot in fact. Whilst the idea sounds great, does it live up to the promise of providing unbiased reviews that help internet users sort the wheat from the chaff?... Sure it can, but it's also open to abuse. It's a self-evident fact that more and more people are using reviews to determine how much they trust a local business. According to research conducted by Bright Local, over 8 in 10 people read online reviews to gauge how good a local business is, with 89% of 35-54-year-olds now trusting online reviews just as much as personal recommendations.
A great idea in principle but is it being abused?
Much in the same way that online gamers gain prestige and respect from their peers by rising up the rankings with their favourite video game, Google's "Local Guides" can do the same sort of thing. Points mean prizes, right? Well, according to Google, they actually do. Here's what Google has to say about becoming a Local Guide:
"As a Local Guide, you earn points for sharing reviews, photos and knowledge on Google Maps. Those points lead to higher levels of the programme as well as benefits such as early access to Google features and special perks from partners. At Level 4, you also unlock your first Local Guides badge, which helps your contributions to places get noticed."
As you can see, you 'level-up' by earning more points for leaving more reviews. And, as an added bonus, you'll also get special perks from partners. It's not easy to ascertain what these perks are, as they aren't specified, which has led to a few others asking the question over on Reddit. It appears that the perks range from added storage space on Google Drive, free postcards, discounts on movie tickets to a free pair of socks.
The heart of the problem
As Local Guides are incentivized to leave more reviews in order to gain more rewards, it's possible that they're leaving fake reviews for services they haven't actually used. We've seen this first-hand with a few of our clients. Typically, the user will leave a 'star rating' with no comment and no photos and when we ask the owner of the business, they have no record of the reviewer using their services at all.
Swings and roundabouts
However, in all fairness, this isn't always the case and it does seem that the majority of Local Guides are sticking to the spirit of things and leaving genuine, useful reviews. Some long and some shorter and to the point.
Furthermore, it's equally true that whilst some of the fake reviewers are leaving one-star ratings, it's equally likely that others will leave five-star reviews so I guess it's fair to say that things will even out over time. In other words (according to the law of averages), the good and the bad reviews will eventually cancel each out in the long haul.
It's a great idea that local people are able to help their neighbours out when it comes to reviewing local businesses and it's almost certainly the case that those "bad egg" businesses will eventually land a ton of bad reviews in the end anyway. In theory, this should prompt them to improve their service to get better reviews in the future.
However, the Local Guide system isn't perfect and we hope it will improve over time to weed out the genuinely helpful people who are trying to assist others, as opposed to those that are just trying to get extra points or a free pair of socks!