Google needs to clamp down on ‘bad review’ extortionists that are killing small businesses

COVID 19 created an economy of extremes. Google got 166 per cent richer over the course of the pandemic, while many small businesses were being financially battered and barely clinging to life.

One bad Google review can break a small business. The current trend of digital extortion, where scammers post bad reviews and demand payment for removal, is posing a serious danger for many businesses that rely on customer trust.

It’s a problem with a painfully obvious, technological solution; only allow people to post a review if they have demonstrably used the service.

Negative reviews from genuinely unhappy customers are a legitimate part of doing business. They’re in the best interests of consumers, and indeed, freedom of speech. However, too often bad reviews do not reflect a genuine marketplace interaction. They are posted by an unscrupulous competitor, a disgruntled former employee or partner, or some other third party with malicious intent to exact revenge or to settle a personal grudge against the business owner.

Then there is the band of “bad review” extortionists that have spawned a new industry on the back of this tech loophole. These manipulative criminals post fake reviews and offer to remove them in exchange for cash from frantic businesses. They may post as multiple people and post multiple reviews; leave a one-star review with no text; or post statements that are blatantly false, describing interactions that never actually happened.

Fake reviews have the potential to adversely impact a business in more ways than one: reduced foot traffic; a loss of clients or customers; reputational damage; a loss of advertising revenue and sponsorships; lower employee morale and retention; reduced ability to attract quality employees and talent; a decreased bottom line and in extreme cases, even closure.

The hucksters who prey on small businesses are keenly aware that reviews are a commodity in a world where nearly everyone consults reviews before using a business, roughly 90 per cent of worldwide consumers prefer to read reviews before buying a product, and 79 per cent of consumers trust an online review as much as a personal recommendation.

In this trust economy, Google reviews are king. It is the most-used review platform, with 59 per cent of consumers using it to read reviews. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility — and Google has a great deal of power over the fate of small businesses. It must therefore shoulder the significant responsibility that comes with this power by ramping up its efforts to put a stop to fake reviews.

In Google’s own advertising, they claim to support small businesses. However, they are clearly allowing scammers to circumvent their rules and extort small businesses with impunity. Their system is set up to make it easy for people to complain about a business but much more difficult for business owners to deal with false or misleading reviews. A growing number of those businesses are resorting to defamation lawsuits against the reviewer or Google itself.

As the tech titan has become increasingly embroiled in legal action, it argued that the fight should be between the person who left the allegedly defamatory review and the business itself and that Google should not be expected to be the arbiter of what is, or is not, defamatory. The company is adamant that “to legislate takedowns in the absence of judicial review would require Google LLC to act as a court, reaching a verdict on whether particular content is defamatory and whether valid defences (such as truth) apply. Google LLC is not well placed to do this.”

I agree with Google. It would be entirely inappropriate — and actually quite alarming — were a tech giant to be given the authority to adjudicate on matters such as free speech against defamation, consumer rights versus business rights. I’m not arguing that Google needs to turn into a court of law.

Rather, Google should fix this loophole with a technological solution. Yet the obvious reason for them not doing so is that it could harm their bread and butter metric; engagement. After all, Google’s raison d’être is to find technological solutions for problems; this should be an easy one to fix. It’s not that Google can’t stop it, it’s that they don’t want to.

After all, the pandemic has made the tech giants incomprehensibly wealthy, with Apple, Microsoft and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, now valued at a combined $6.4 trillion — more than double their collective value when the COVID-19 pandemic started. In stark contrast are the ongoing struggles of small businesses everywhere. In the U.S., a Federal Reserve report found that about 120,000 additional small businesses had closed in the first year of the pandemic while more than 17,500 chain store outlets disappeared from high streets, shopping centres and retail parks across Great Britain.

I hope Google will prioritize an ethical decision over a commercial one. If they don’t, then small businesses will continue to fall victim to malicious reviews and scammers, the same small businesses that Google claims to be championing. Google needs to take its responsibility seriously. If they don’t, they’ll continue to provide income streams for criminals, fraudsters and extorters. That’s hardly consistent with their virtuous battle cry ‘do no evil’.

Shaz Memon is the founder of Digimax Dental and founder of the charity Wells on Wheels.

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