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Why Is Google Allowing Rich Snippet Spam?

2012 April 13
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April 12, 2012

A couple months ago, I read a great article on how to get an 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.

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 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?

Related posts:

  1. Rich Snippets, Semantic web, Linked Data and SEO
  2. What Does Blekko’s Spam Clock Really Say About Google Spam?
  3. Google Yahoo, Greg Grothaus Priyank Garg – What is Spam
  4. Yahoo! and the Spam Guard
  5. Google in Europe, Misleading Spam Studies and SMX Buzz

About the Author

Bob Meinke, an associate SEO analyst, is thrilled to be a member of the team at Bruce Clay, Inc. He recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s in English and a minor in creative writing. Aside from his beautiful wife Katie, Bob’s favorite things are unintentional irony and purposeful ambiguity.

5 responses to “Why Is Google Allowing Rich Snippet Spam?”

  1. Aaron Bradley writes:

    Good article, Bob, but just to correct one point for your readers. You say:

    “One of the new microformats for the in-progress Semantic Web, hReview….”

    I had to check the date on your post to make sure it had indeed been published today. hReview was introduced in April, 2005 – nearly seven years ago – so I would not call this “new.”

    While you don’t quite say it directly it is indeed microdata (and in particular AggregateRating) that’s been identified as the main culprit where ratings spam has been recently been detected.

    Given the noise made over faux reviews of late, I do expect to see action taken by Google fairly soon to fine-tune how review snippets are granted. However, your suggestion that “Google should stop showing starred reviews on the SERPs” is unlikely to be followed, and indeed this sort of all-or-nothing approach to rich snippet spam is not required (according to this stricture we would, for example, no longer see ratings attached to well-established and sites with trusted reivews like Amazon).

    I agree to an extent that “some sort of verification system” will need to be put in place, but my “to some extent” qualification is because
    Google doesn’t simply take review rich markup on face value at present. It’s clear from what’s been said (see the Inside Search blog posting in Jan. 2012 on “30 search quality highlights”) that Google is enabling review rich snippets on a site-by-site basis, so there is something like a “verification system” in place, albeit an inadequate one. In all likelihood we can expect to see further trust and proof mechanisms put in place for reviews, probably as another algorithmic layer specifically for review content, on top of simple site trust.

    @ April 12th, 2012 at 10:28

  2. Bob Meinke writes:

    Ah, thanks for the correction. I didn’t realize hReview had been around so long.

    My understanding is that Google was originally whitelisting sites for rich snippets on an individual basis, but now they’ll display rich snippets for any old site. did a good post on it.

    Well, OK, maybe I’m a little hasty to advocate an all-or-nothing approach, but I think it’ll be a huge problem until they reinstate a whitelist or find some other verification system.

    Thanks again for the great comment.

    @ April 12th, 2012 at 10:51

  3. Richard Falconer writes:

    I think it’s great that a consensus seems to be forming in both the UK and US that this spam is a bit out of control. I posted yesterday with some similar points about UK SERPs:

    Well done Bob Meinke /BruceClay for also speaking out

    @ April 12th, 2012 at 15:08

  4. Andy Kuiper writes:

    Interesting article Bob

    @ April 12th, 2012 at 15:08

  5. Bob Meinke writes:

    Richard –
    Thanks for commenting. Looks like our posts are hammering on the same nail – it’s so bizarre that Google is allowing this to happen. But I really like your Admiral Ackbar “It’s a trap!” theory. Just crazy enough that it might be true. . . .

    @ April 12th, 2012 at 15:59

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