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Why is it so hard to take down fake Google reviews? 

'Reputation management' companies are cashing in on Google's poor dispute resolution, charging a fee to remove reviews.

illustration of a smartphone with map and reviews one fake
Last updated: 24 June 2024

Need to know

  • A Melbourne doctor requested that Google remove fake negative reviews about her practice, but she got no reply
  • She was then contacted by a 'reputation management' company that offered to take down the fake reviews for a fee
  • The ACCC has called for digital platforms to adopt mandatory dispute resolution standards to so such issues are quickly resolved, but that has yet to happen 

When negative Google reviews started popping up about Helen's* medical practice, she felt that peculiar mix of outrage and helplessness that comes with being targeted by unknown assailants lurking somewhere in the digital world. 

Helen's a busy doctor based in Melbourne, and Google reviews is something she begrudgingly engages with to make sure her practice is on the consumer radar. She's fine with letting prospective patients know how other patients evaluate her and her team's services. 

As long as the reviews are real. 

Since recently activating the service she had received two positive Google reviews from actual patients who used their real names, so everything seemed to be working. 

It's impossible to get any communication with anyone from Google

Melbourne doctor Helen

But the three negative reviews left shortly after this about her reception staff took her by surprise. Posted by nameless avatars, they caused the practice's star rating to plummet. It meant that, at a glance, her medical practice now had low ratings. Google reviews did not seem like such a good idea after all. 

"I didn't know who they were and they weren't even complaining about me," Helen says. 

She was sure the avatar reviews were fake. The obvious course of action was to contact Google and have them removed. She sent an email to a 'contact us' address she found on a Google page. And nothing happened. 

"Google was terrible," Helen says. "They never replied. It's impossible to get any communication with anyone from Google." 

Review removal service to the rescue 

Someone finally did get in touch by email, however, from a business that Helen initially thought must be Google itself. 

"I thought, all right, they're finally getting back to me," Helen says. But what followed seemed odd. 

To Helen's relief, the emailer offered to take down the fake negative reviews, but it would cost her: 

  • $460 for a 'one-time listing refresh', which would wipe out all of Helen's reviews 
  • $170 a month for 'annual refresh protection', where any reviews that dropped the overall star rating below three would be removed for a year 
  • $410 for a 'permanent listing deletion', involving the total removal of Helen's Google reviews business listing. 

Helen couldn't believe the world's reigning tech titan was shaking her down for cash. She got right back to them, saying "I strongly believe that it is Google's responsibility to remove fake reviews and that the owner of the listing should not have to pay to remove people's fake reviews".

two fake reviews being removed

Google says it removed 170 million fake reviews in 2023.

Cashing in on Google users left in the lurch

Shortly after this heated exchange, Helen came to understand she wasn't talking to Google but to a 'reputation management company' called Reviews Solved. Alarm bells rang. She wondered how they had gotten her email address. And the timing of her dispute with Google and the unsolicited contact by Reviews Solved seemed like more than a coincidence. 

In its marketing pitch, the company claimed to be founded on the principle of standing up for people in Helen's situation, telling her "we believe a review platform should not allow non-customers to post reviews. This is the reason many, including us, feel Google is unfair towards business owners".

Reviews Solved explained to Helen that it has systems in place that detect Google listings with low star ratings and multiple negative reviews

Reviews Solved explained to Helen that it has systems in place that detect Google listings with low star ratings and multiple negative reviews, which is why it had contacted her. But the consultation on offer was less high-tech. One of the strategies Reviews Solved recommends, for instance, is to have family and friends post positive reviews in order to lift a business's star ratings. 

Once Helen realised it wasn't Google, she wondered if the business might have posted the negative reviews themselves and then offered to remove them for a fee. 

Reviews Solved kept emailing, trying to get Helen to enlist its services, but she stopped responding. 

We reached out to Reviews Solved for comment, but didn't hear back. 

Fake reviews are a real problem

We asked Google Australia for its position on businesses that claim to be able to take down negative Google reviews. Are such firms necessary or potentially legitimate given the well-known difficulties of getting in touch with Google about such matters?  

The Google spokesperson didn't address this specific question, but confirmed that hundreds of millions of fake Google reviews get posted around the world every year. 

According to the company, 170 million of them were removed in 2023, thanks to new machine learning models as well as "manual techniques". 

That would mean huge numbers of unauthorised reviewers are blithely ignoring Google company policy, which holds that reviews must be based on real experiences. 

The vast majority of reviews on Google are authentic, and when we find policy violations, we take action

Google spokesperson

"We have clear policies that prohibit fake reviews and inappropriate content, and our automated systems and trained operators work around the clock to monitor for suspicious behaviour," the Google spokesperson told us. 

Google also said that "the vast majority of reviews on Google are authentic, and when we find policy violations, we take action – ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation".

ACCC weighs in

Removing genuine reviews violates consumer law

The matter of fake reviews and review removal services is of current interest to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). In a report released in December last year, the agency detailed an enforcement action against 24 businesses that offered to remove negative reviews as well as other review management services. 

The ACCC makes it clear that taking down or offering to remove genuine negative reviews is a violation of consumer law, as is posting fake ones. But fake negative reviews showing up on your business profile is a different problem, one that platforms such as Google reviews are responsible for managing and helping you resolve, the ACCC says. 

These platforms "should ensure they have robust policies in place to prevent the manipulation of reviews", a spokesperson told us, adding that the agency is well aware that consumers and small businesses often find it hard to resolve issues with digital platforms, including trying to get them to remove fake reviews. 

Digital platforms should have "mandatory internal dispute resolution standards"

A 2022 report from the ACCC's five-year Digital Platform Services Inquiry recommended that businesses such as Google have "mandatory internal dispute resolution standards" that would apply to complaints like Helen's, and that consumers have access to external dispute resolution services as well. 

[Online platforms] should ensure they have robust policies in place to prevent the manipulation of reviews

ACCC spokesperson

The financial sector, for instance, has the Australian Financial Complaints Authority. But no such body exists to handle complaints about digital platforms. 

The federal government announced late last year that it expects digital platforms to have voluntary dispute resolution standards in place by July 2024, but it remains to be seen whether the platforms will comply.  

Meanwhile, the trustworthiness of Google reviews has been badly tarnished for Helen. "It's made me a lot more skeptical," she says. "They don't seem to mean anything." 

Helen was still trying to have the fake avatar reviews removed at the time of publication. 

*Names have been changed.

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Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.