In 2018 Google dropped their famous ‘Don’t be evil’ policy and replaced it with a much weaker ‘do the right thing’ policy. Why would they do that? Perhaps they thought the original sentiment was not expressed formally enough. Maybe they reckoned it was too restrictive of their activities. Possibly Google has just got too big to not be evil any more. Anyway, after my recent experience with Google, trying to help a client of mine to remove a completely undeserved one-star review from her ‘Google My Business’ listing, I can’t help thinking that Google are now willing to give evil a helping hand, even if they’re not being evil themselves. Google certainly don’t seem to be concerned about the reputational damage that can be done to a small business by people anonymously posting vitriolic reviews from fake accounts.
After finding the awful review, the first thing we did was report it using Google’s online ‘flagging’ mechanism. During this process we were asked to categorise the review, and decided to flag it as ‘inappropriate’. Within seconds we received an automated acknowledgement e-mail stating that we had flagged the review as ‘hate’. We hadn’t of course, but were just glad that someone would soon be looking at our report. Little did we realise that all we had done was take the first step onto Google’s confusing and dysfunctional road to nowhere.
After waiting for many days, nothing happened. To be honest, I would have been quite surprised if it had. The next thing we tried was telephoning Google UK Limited’s head office, but all we got was an automated menu system. We tried just about every available option, but each one simply referred us to an online complaint form then hung up. This was extremely frustrating, so we decided that the best way to get somebody to take our complaint seriously would be to serve Google UK Limited with a formal ‘Notice of Complaint Pursuant to the Defamation Act 2013’, which we did.
We knew that Google UK Limited received the notice soon after we sent it, because it was signed for by a person in the reception area of their registered office. However, after waiting for a couple of weeks and receiving no reply, we started telephoning lots of different Google support telephone numbers and eventually managed to speak to someone who asked us to flag the review again, just as we had done in the first place. We had no hope that this would work, but she sent us an e-mail and assured us that if nobody took any action within three days, we could reply to her e-mail and she would make sure that somebody did something.
About a week after that we finally received a response from the legal department of Google UK Limited, but it simply said that the ‘Google My Business’ service was not their responsibility and was actually run by Google Ireland Limited. Shortly after that, we sent a reply to the support worker who had previously told us to reply to her e-mail if no action was forthcoming, and then we served a formal ‘Notice of Complaint Pursuant to the Defamation Act 2013’ on Google Ireland Limited. We then waited to see what would happen, but after a really long time had passed with no reply of any kind, we decided to write to Google in America. After another terrifically long wait, we eventually received an e-mail from Google UK Limited saying once again that it was nothing to do with them. Google in America had simply passed the buck back to Google UK Limited without taking a blind bit of notice of the letter in which we plainly stated that we had already been in touch with them to no avail. The e-mail even asked us not to write letters to them again, but to use e-mail or a form on their website instead. That is the point at which we decided to give up.
While waiting for a reply from Google Ireland Limited, which never came, we decided to give them a taste of their own medicine and see how they liked receiving a one-star review. We admitted who we were, wrote a civilised, if scathing, review, and felt a little better afterwards. The funny thing is, a few days later they sent us an e-mail thanking us for reviewing them and asking if we would like to tell them our full opinions in a survey! Obviously they hadn’t read a word that we’d written, and this was just another piece of automated corporate stupidity. There’s a lot of it about these days. The temptation to reply was strong, but I was reluctant to waste any more time trying to communicate with people who were acting as judge, jury, and executioner, despite being unqualified to assess the merits of even the simplest of cases.
The long and the short of it is that anyone can post an anonymous review of your business from a fake Google account, say whatever derogatory comments they like, and Google probably won’t do anything about it, however much damage it does to your reputation. Google might eventually ‘do the right thing’, but they certainly make it extremely difficult for business owners who are simply trying to report unwarranted, damaging remarks, and get them removed. While on the telephone to a Google support worker I asked what was Google’s policy regarding fake accounts, but support staff in large companies are good at not answering simple questions, so I never got an answer. When I asked in writing if fake accounts were allowed, they said that they didn’t promote them. When I wrote again, reiterating that my question was not whether fake accounts were PROMOTED, but whether they were ALLOWED, I didn’t get a reply. When things get awkward for the support people, and the conflicts between their policies and their actions are pointed out, they just refuse to communicate with you any more.
Setting up a ‘Google My Business’ account can get you better known on the Internet, but it can also be very damaging to your business. All it takes is one troll, competitor, or genuine customer who’s taken a dislike to you for no good reason, and you can be in big trouble. If you think the staff at Google are going to help you if that ever happens, think again. You might as well hit your head against a brick wall. Unfortunately Google has turned into just another giant corporation that doesn’t really care. Like a lot of huge businesses, Google was started by a couple of clever ‘techies’, but now employs a large number of not-so-smart people who are obstructive rather than helpful. Google provides plenty of online forms to fill in, and telephone numbers to call, but they all lead nowhere. Google wants to make money, but doesn’t want to deal with any of the consequences of the way they do it. So my advice is never to set up a ‘Google My Business’ page, as the potential for it to end up working against you is too great.
You might reasonably think that you can always open a ‘Google My Business’ account then close it down if a malicious person tries to damage your online reputation with a fake or anonymous review, but the system doesn‘t work like that. If you try to close a ‘Google My Business’ account, you are actually just reliquishing control of it. All the reviews that have been posted to the account will remain online indefinitely for all the world to see. You could always try getting in touch with Google and asking for the reviews to be removed in accordance with the ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation, but they probably won’t lift a finger to help you. If you’ve managed to read this far, it will already be clear how useless and obstructuve Google are when it comes to sticking to their own professed policies. Better to avoid the risk altogether and never open a ‘Google My Business’ account in the first place. Given my opinion, you might wonder why I have a ‘Google My Business’ account. The answer is simple: I set mine up before I knew what Google were really like. It’s too late for me, but you might be able to save yourself a whole lot of heartache.
If you’re listening Google, and I doubt that you are, it’s time to start doing the right thing. Not just for yourselves, but for the people whose small businesses are suffering every day because of your failure to act. Some customers might post legitimately poor reviews highlighting genuine problems where businesses have fallen down on the job, but when trolls anonymously post deliberately damaging reviews from fake accounts, you really ought to make it a lot easier for the affected businesses to get those reviews removed, and the fake accounts themselves taken down. If you let the trolls keep their fake accounts, they can simply post more damaging reviews the next day.