How Google and Yelp handle fake reviews and policy violations

How Google and Yelp handle fake reviews and policy violations

A side-by-side analysis of Google and Yelp’s respective approaches, policies and punitive measures.

Review platforms, like Google and Yelp, enable local businesses to expand their online visibility and establish credibility through customer reviews — two important aspects of marketing that SMBs may otherwise struggle with.

Over the last few years, maintaining an accurate online presence has gone from being an important marketing tool to being a lifeline for local businesses. In fact, platforms like Google and Yelp churned out a slew of new features last year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, enabling businesses to rapidly communicate business hours or service changes to their customers.

Unfortunately, bad actors may seek to harm a business’s online reputation through fake reviews or by crowding them out with fake listings. While Yelp and Google both have extensive systems and policies to fight bad actors, there are important distinctions that every local marketer should be aware of, and knowing them can help frame your expectations for each platform as well as enable you to make more informed decisions about where to spend your time and resources.

In addition to a side-by-side analysis of Google and Yelp’s respective detection systems and ramifications for violators, we’ve also featured insights from experienced local search marketing experts on the efficacy of each platform; you can read their insights towards the end of this article.

How Google and Yelp detect fake reviews and listings

Both Google and Yelp have implemented automated systems as their first line of defense against fake reviews and bad actors. And, they both use human moderators for tasks that the technology isn’t suitable for. However, their respective policies and approaches, which inform the deployment of their technology and human staff, are the most important distinctions to keep in mind as you establish your online presence.

Google’s approach seems to emphasize prevention at scale via machine learning algorithms that help to tackle fake reviews and listings. Yelp focuses heavily on the integrity of its reviews and seems to have more robust punitive measures in place for violators. 

Google’s automated detection system. Google’s automated systems “use hundreds of cues to detect abusive behavior, such as a shift of review patterns on a business and implausible behavior patterns by reviewers,” a company spokesperson told Search Engine Land. Typical user pattern data (for example, users tend to leave reviews, ratings and photos at places they’ve already been) is one of Google’s most important resources when it comes to identifying illegitimate review content and implementing solutions to combat them.

Google’s machine learning-first approach, which has also become a prominent aspect of its paid and organic search systems, is designed to prevent policy-violating content at scale. “For example, we have focused efforts on detecting content coming from click farms where fake reviews and ratings are being generated,” the company said in a February 2021 blog post, “Through better detection of click farm activity we are making it harder to post fake content cheaply, which ultimately makes it harder for a click farm to sell reviews and make money.”

Machine learning models are also used in the Google My Business verification process to catch fake profiles before they appear on Maps. Ideally, Google’s systems will remove the policy-violating content or flag it for further review, along with the associated user account, before the content gets in front of users. But, some fake reviews and profiles are bound to slip through the cracks, as they do with all platforms, which is why the company also deploys thousands of human analysts.

Google’s human content moderators. Teams of human operators and analysts complement Google’s automated detection systems. These analysts help with content evaluations that algorithms may not be able to analyze, such as understanding local slang within a review.

The company has yet to disclose more information about the role of its human analysts, such as whether they help to improve Google’s systems (the way search quality raters do), stating that, “Staying a step ahead of scammers is a constant battle, so we don’t share specific details about our processes.”

Yelp’s automated detection system. Yelp’s automated recommendation software analyzes data points from all reviews, reviewers and businesses in order to recommend reviews to users, but it also looks for solicited reviews and unfairly biased reviews (like reviews that may be written about a competitor or someone’s own business). This software takes the relevance of the review and the reliability of the reviewer (how often the user is active) into account as well.

Yelp’s human content moderators. Yelp has been relatively open about how it uses both technology and its human content moderators to combat policy-violating content: “When a community member, a business owner or our automated system alerts our team about potential issues, a real human reviews the issue every single time,” Noorie Malik, Yelp’s VP of user operations, told Search Engine Land.

Yelp’s user operations team investigates fraudulent activity, validates new businesses when they sign up with Yelp and works to identify activity that might warrant a Consumer Alert.

Consumer Alerts. When Yelp detects abnormal activity on a business profile, which may be an attempt to manipulate a business’s reviews or ratings, it conducts an investigation that may lead to the application of one of its Consumer Alerts.

An analysis of Google and Yelp's respective detection systems, policies and penalties.
A Yelp Consumer Alert. Image: Yelp.

These notices appear as a pop-up over the business’s review section and may contain a link to any evidence Yelp has gathered. The platform may also temporarily disable the ability to post reviews when it applies a Consumer Alert. There are currently six types of Consumer Alerts:

  • Compensated Activity Alert: This may be applied when Yelp has evidence that someone has offered an incentive (such as a discount) in exchange for a review.
  • Public Attention Alert: This alert was created in response to the rise of social activism surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. When someone associated with a business is accused of, or the target of, racist behavior, Yelp applies this alert to warn users that the business may be experiencing a spike in reviews due to the increased public attention.
  • Questionable Legal Threats Alert: Yelp applies this alert when it has evidence that a business is abusing the legal system to intimidate a reviewer.
  • Racist Behavior Alert: Yelp applies this alert when a business attracts media attention over the use of racist symbols, slurs or other acts of racism.
  • Suspicious Review Activity Alert: This may be applied when Yelp’s systems detect questionable review activity, such as when a large quantity of reviews originates from a single IP address.
  • Unusual Activity Alert: Sudden media attention may cause an unusual spike in activity on a business profile — for example, instead of basing their review on firsthand experience, users might leave reviews as a form of social commentary. In such cases, Yelp applies this alert and temporarily disables content until activity returns to normal and its moderators clean up the page.

Consequences for violating Google and Yelp’s content policies

If you get caught, running afoul of Google and Yelp’s respective content policies can result in a range of consequences for your business.

Both platforms can remove illegitimate reviews. “Reviews are automatically processed to detect inappropriate content like fake reviews and spam,” Google states in its prohibited and restricted content page, “We may take down reviews that are flagged in order to comply with Google policies or legal obligations.”

In fact, in 2020 alone, Google removed 55 million policy-violating reviews and almost three million fake business profiles. However, these figures, which the company publishes annually, tell an incomplete story because it does not disclose the total number of reviews submitted, active business profiles, reviews and profiles flagged by users and so on.

And, as some of the local search professionals who spoke to Search Engine Land for this article have highlighted in the section below, “the success rate is very tiny” when it comes to getting Google to remove fake reviews once they’re live.

On Yelp, “Reviews that the software determines to be less reliable are moved to a separate ‘not currently recommended’ section of a business’s Yelp page and are not factored into the business’s overall Yelp rating,” said Sudheer Someshwara, Yelp’s head of trust and safety product. The “not currently recommended” section is still accessible to users via the link below the recommended reviews, and reviews may move back and forth between the two sections over time, as the recommendation software continues to learn and evaluate signals.

When content is flagged on Yelp, either by its technology or users, the platform’s team of human moderators manually investigates the complaint, which may result in the removal of fake or purchased reviews, whether those reviews are “recommended” or not.

Yelp applies ranking penalties; Google declined to comment. When businesses violate Google’s policies, the company removes the misleading content and additional penalties may be applied, depending on the specific case. Google declined to comment when asked whether it specifically applies ranking penalties to businesses that violate its policies.

Yelp was more transparent about ranking penalties: “When we find evidence of extreme attempts to manipulate a business’s reputation and inflate their search ranking, we may issue a search ranking penalty,” Someshwara said. These penalties are lifted once the offending behavior has stopped. In particular, search ranking penalties can be applied against businesses that solicit reviews; “If we find indicators of systematic review solicitation, we will apply a search ranking penalty to affected Yelp business pages,” the company said in a support center post.

Yelp may remove business listings; Google may revoke profile ownership. Yelp reserves the right to remove from its platform businesses that seek to artificially manipulate its systems or mislead users.

“If we determine that a business is buying fake reviews or violating any other Google My Business policies, we take swift action ranging from removing content to account suspension and revoking Business Profile ownership,” a Google spokesperson told Search Engine Land.

Violators can still advertise on Google, but not on Yelp. In addition to managing their business profiles and organic presence on Google and Yelp, business owners can take advantage of each platform’s paid products to boost their visibility.

“Businesses are banned from advertising with Yelp for at least one year if they receive a Compensated Activity Alert or a Suspicious Review Activity Alert (including if our team finds evidence that they participated in a review ring),” Someshwara said, adding that these alerts require concrete evidence before they’re applied. Yelp may also ban businesses from advertising if it identifies egregious attempts to manipulate a business’s search ranking or star rating.

This is one area where Yelp and Google differ dramatically, as Google currently has no advertising penalties for businesses that violate policies on the organic side. All of Google’s standard ads policies still apply.

Yelp continues to monitor listings; Google doesn’t seem to. “Yelp has a system in place that monitors and detects if repeated violations occur,” Someshwara said, adding that it also relies on its base of users to report violations.

Google did not disclose details about if or how it continues to monitor business listings that have a history of policy violations. However, the company did emphasize that “we closely monitor 24/7 for fraudulent content, using a combination of people and technology.”

Google and Yelp, through the eyes of practitioners

A business’s experience with a platform often plays out differently in real life than it does when they’re learning about the platform. The three local marketers who spoke to us for this article have extensive experience with both Google and Yelp and their insights can help to frame your expectations when using those platforms.

“Room for improvement in . . . both platforms.” “I think the strengths Google and Yelp have as local review platforms is their reach and their authority, so to speak,” said Niki Mosier, head of SEO at AgentSync, who spoke more broadly about the pros and cons of these platforms. “I posted a review for a national park less than a week ago with a photo and got a notification yesterday that over 2,000 people have seen that photo,” she provided as an example.

Mosier pointed to the difficulty involved with removing policy-violating reviews as a weak point for both Google and Yelp: “Slanderous or inaccurate reviews can be very harmful to a business,” she said, “I know it’s a slippery slope with letting people get reviews removed but I think there is definitely room for improvement in that area on both platforms.”

Google. Ben Fisher, co-founder of Steady Demand and a Google My Business platinum product expert, and Joy Hawkins, owner of the Local Search Forum, Local U and Sterling Sky, spoke to the respective strengths and weaknesses they’ve experienced across Google and Yelp.

“Google powers local search, and while [reviews] are a conversion factor, they can also be a ranking factor,” Fisher said. People may decide to visit a local business after reading reviews, and reviews are also a ranking factor for Google. “This is a powerful [benefit],” he added. 

“[Google’s] strength would be that it is easier for business owners to collect a high volume of reviews without worrying about them all getting filtered (like Yelp),” said Hawkins.

Fisher and Hawkins both singled out fake reviews as a problem for the search engine: “The most negative con is that reviews can be gamed, they can be bought by competitors and in the worst-case scenario, they can be weaponized in an attack,” Fisher said, “A successful negative attack can easily wipe out your star rating and bring down the ranking of GMB and any Local Service Ads you have connected to GMB.” Google does have workflows for handling negative reviews, “but the success rate is very tiny,” he added.

“For Google, their biggest weakness is combating fake reviews,” Hawkins said, “They are beyond terrible at it and even the most obvious cases that get reported by a human (not automatically caught) get missed (Google deems the reviews fine even though they’re fake).” 

Yelp. “Yelp’s strength is definitely that they combat fake reviews (and filter them) better than any other platform, in my experience,” Hawkins said. Fisher shared a similar opinion: “Yelp has a better way of handling reviews and I hear clients that get very good removal rates; additionally if there are a lot of fake reviews Yelp may put up a warning to consumers.”

Yelp’s more stringent reviews policy seems to be a double-edged sword for marketers: “The negative is that they also filter out a ton of legitimate reviews which makes the overall ratings for many businesses appear to be much lower than what Google shows,” Hawkins said, “Their no-soliciting policy makes it really hard for businesses to combat negative reviews,” she added.

“This is probably the most frustrating part: a user must have a trusted account to leave a review and many users simply do not fall into this criteria,” Fisher said with regards to Yelp’s recommended reviews, “Therefore, a review on Yelp could be a lost opportunity.”

You don’t get to pick and choose

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. As marketers, we must meet our customers wherever they are, and in this case, that means growing your presence on both Google and Yelp. Knowing the policy and capability differences of each platform can help you invest your time and resources more wisely, but ultimately, each site should serve to bolster your business’s overall reputation. This can be especially important if you ever become the victim of a negative review attack on one platform, as your presence on other platforms can continue to bring in customers.

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