The curious case of Google Reviews
Google turned 20 a couples of week ago, and celebrated through the medium of a dedicated Google Doodle to itself. Where else would the company turn to attain such a fanfare? The search giant has long-since become the go-to vehicle for navigating the web, and with the popularity – and integrity – of social media now increasingly being called into question, this stronghold shows no signs of fading any time soon.
Often when people search for a business online, the first thing they see is its Google listing. This boxout provides a sort of Google within a Google, offering business logo, related searches, and importantly, map location. The Google Maps service was originally introduced in 2004, the same year that Facebook was born, and interestingly for the conspiracy theorists out there with a little help from the CIA. The Google Reviews system that we see before us today was added much later, and inspired in-part by the emergence of more conversationally based media platforms such as the afore-mentioned.
Googling “Google London”
The intrinsic link between mapping and reviewing is what has fostered the inherent problem within Google Reviews. Unlike a Facebook or a LinkedIn, which brands can walk away from relatively easily if they wish to, it is much more difficult to sever the connection between physical location and online presence. In short, if you want to appear on the Google Map, then you need to be prepared to put up with Google Reviews.
On the surface of things this might appear to be a fair trade off, in return for greater online visibility and a society that prioritises free speech. But unlike Facebook there is presently no way to remove the review functionality from a listing, and because Google places that listing front row centre within its own rankings, this effectively means that the company controls the reputation of businesses online.
The situation isn’t helped by an undeniable large institution bias. Once a company reaches a certain size (Google Nike) it’s business listing gets replaced by a more general Wikipedia-led blurb listing the accomplishments of said institution. If online marketing was once the great leveller in global business then today, on Google at least, this is not the case.
Where the case becomes curious is in the level of leniency that Google so far appears to have been shown by regulators and government institutions around this content. Social media platforms have increasingly found themselves under greater scrutiny in recent years. FIPP recently reported on a new parliamentary report published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in the UK, that recommends the complete reclassification and regulation of social media as neither publisher nor platform.
“Senator, we run ads” earlier this year became one of the fastest cult phrases in history, as images of Mark Zuckerberg being questioned by US politicians swirled around the press. A lot of this backlash has to do with the swell of fake news and extreme trolling that has taken hold of these platforms in recent years. It’s simply a sad state of affairs that negativity and lies appear to be Trumping positivity and truth online at present. And nowhere is this truer than on the Google Reviews platform, where an anonymous user can create a Gmail address, login to Google, and spew all manner of poison over a business listing, which often can’t be proven to be false and therefore won’t be taken down.
So could regulatory bodies be doing more to curb Google’s monopoly over digital reputation? Certainly, there is precedent at individual level. Earlier this year, a businessman in the UK won legal action to force the removal of search results about a past conviction, thus setting the current legal precedent and building on the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) famous ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ ruling of 2014. Such has been the uptake in requests for Google to remove negative information from its listings, that the company has set up an online form through which users can appeal directly.
More recently still and more closely aligned to the matter at hand, the EU slapped Google parent company Alphabet with an historic €4.3bn in August, relating to “illegal practices regarding Android mobile devices to strengthen dominance of Google’s search engine”.
An easy solution would be to ask Google to follow the precedent that Facebook has now set, in making its reviews tab removable from business pages. Of course, companies themselves can take steps to mitigate the impact of negative reviews, both by building up a positive pool and more generally being a bit nicer to their customers. But such slights remain inevitable, from personal vendettas to industrial sabotage, and flow particularly easily in an era when Russia can leverage Facebook to influence the outcome of a US election.
Google definitely has a problem with Reviews, and against the wider backdrop of increasing digital and technological regulation, it’s definitely a curious case. In reality, this remains a puzzle of current regulation that will likely eventually get solved, but in a world that’s rife with conspiracy theories, don’t rule out that help from the CIA!
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