The internet never forgets – is it always true? In some cases, search engines are obliged to grant users permission to delete defamatory search results. If Google displays personal data that is outdated or of no interest to the public, users can request the search engine to delete links to that data from the results pages permanently. But what exactly is the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ act, and when...Deleting personal data with Google
Customer reviews, especially those that turn up in Google searches, have an incredibly big influence on your business – after all, potential customers often look into how other customers rate a business. But what happens when the criticism isn’t justified, and instead, comparatively poor or even malicious Google reviews end up harming a company’s image? You’d probably want to make these disappear as fast as possible. And under certain circumstances, this is even possible.
Why Google reviews matter to your business
Google continues to dominate the US search engine market. No wonder: It’s always been the IT company’s goal to provide users with the most relevant results to their searches. That’s why Google is ever developing its search engine.
A result of this is the so-called “Knowledge Graph,” which was introduced in 2012. When you search for a certain company name, for example, a clear summary containing all essential information on that company will appear on the top right side of the search results, including images, contact details, and opening hours. In addition, you’ll see various Google ratings (1-5 stars) and reviews, which the company has received from customers and business partners. The same information is found when you search for the company in Google Maps – provided the company has been listed here.
And the effect of these reviews shouldn’t be underestimated: According to a recent survey conducted by the digital marketing company Fan & Fuel, 97% of participants said that customer reviews factor into their buying decisions, and 35% even that said one negative review alone can make them decide not to buy. Positive Google reviews are therefore an extremely important factor for the image and revenue of your company.
Business risk: Negative Google ratings
While they can have a positive effect on business, on the other hand, negative reviews can also have a detrimental effect. Not only can they scare off potential customers, they can also affect your ranking on Google.
The risk of negative ratings should also not be underestimated, because, generally speaking, it’s dissatisfied or angry customers that are more likely to share their experiences online. When we read a positive review linked to a dubious service provider, we might even trust it less than a negative review. A single 1-star review can cost you several potential customers, who will opt for your competitors instead.
The biggest problem, though, isn’t even that now and again negative opinions of your products or services are made public – no business is perfect, after all. The real risk is that every user is able to publish a review with their own (free) Google account – whether they’ve had anything to do with your business or not. This opinion can also be publicized entirely anonymously, by using a false name and without a profile picture. Google doesn’t check the identity of its users and can’t say if and to what extent someone has had contact with that business.
The worrying conclusion you can draw from this: Every Google user has the capability to misuse the system and make up negative reviews to willfully harm a business. Even if your business is new to the market and isn’t listed on Google, a disgruntled reviewer can create a profile for your business and fill it with critiques. In the worst case, you’ll only have heard about it when you register at Google My Business – then, many potential customers will perhaps already have seen the negative review.
If your business hasn’t yet been listed on Google, but is still displayed in the Knowledge Graph, you can request ownership of the business listing by clicking on the “Claim this business” button. Next, you have to create a Google My Business account, to manage your business’ information.
Now you’re probably asking yourself whether you can simply deactivate the review function in your business profile. This isn’t possible and also contradicts Google’s mission to inform its users the best way possible. Deleting your Google account will also not prevent bad reviews: Once it’s been created, a business profile continues to appear in search results. By deleting your account you’re only losing control over it.
Your only chance, then, is to change or delete the unfavorable review. In the following paragraphs, we’ll explain what options you have.
Negative Google reviews: What to do
As soon as your business profile is rated, you’ll automatically receive an email notification from Google My Business. If the review is negative, it’s best you screenshot it straight away – in case you need to show evidence. Now the clock is ticking: Every day that the negative review is visible will have a negative impact on your business. So, it’s important to act swiftly.
Respond to the Google review
As a responsible and service-oriented business person, your first step should always be to get in contact with the reviewer. You could, for example, comment directly below the review. This will be publicly visible, so make sure to keep it friendly and factual.
If the reviewer is a customer or a business partner of yours, your goal should ultimately be to help him experience a successful customer journey. Apologize for the mistake and inconsistencies, if it seems appropriate, and propose a shared solution to the presented problem. Express regret, but don’t let yourself be blackmailed.
If the issue is more complex than this, or if sensitive data is involved in the communication, you can suggest that you contact the customer through the messaging function of your My Business account or via the phone. But consider that a dispute that can be publicly resolved probably carries the most marketing weight, signaling a customer-centric mentality. It might even be possible to get the reviewer to reconsider their initial review and change it.
Generally speaking, a Google review can be deleted at any time – but only by its author. To do this, they must only click on the trash can symbol next to the review.
If you can’t get in touch with the reviewer and you get the feeling that the negative review is unfounded or inappropriate, you should try to get in touch with Google directly.
Get in touch with Google
Following several data protection scandals and at the latest with the entry of the European data regulation the internet giant Google seems to have realized that the interests of its users must be taken seriously to avoid complaints and legal disputes. If you’re not happy with a Google review, the service provider has got various options for you:
One is the “Flag” directly beside the given review, with which you can report anything that’s “inappropriate.” What exactly can be regarded as inappropriate is explained in the Google guidelines. Reviews that contain this kind of content are not allowed:
- Obscene, vulgar, or insulting language
- Hate towards employees
- Identical content that’s posted several times
- Creating several Google accounts for the same purpose
- Writing reviews solely to manipulate the overall rating
- Writing untruthful reviews
The last two points are especially difficult to prove, making the deletion of a review based on these rather unlikely. It’s also very unlikely to have 1-star reviews deleted that don’t contain any text, because they don’t contradict the guidelines.
A further point of contact is Google Support, which you can reach by phone or by chat. While the service representative isn’t authorized to delete the review, they can look into your request and forward it to “the relevant division” – if there is an identifiable breach of the Google guidelines.
The final and most promising point of contact, though, is Google’s legal department, as it’s not only in charge of protecting internal guidelines, but for all other legal affairs. To attract their attention, you must first fill in a relatively lengthy online form. In addition, Google asks that you name the applicable law as best as possible that would justify the deletion of the faulty review. For the highest chance of success, it’s worth first looking into the legal situation at hand.
Understanding the legal situation
In the United States, the reviewer’s opinions are protected by the First Amendment, the right to freedom of speech. This means, you can’t stop people from rating your business online and making these public. By the same token, you have no right to simply delete an unfavorable critique.
This changes, though, when the Google review in question meets one of these offences, among others:
- Spam and fake content: Your content should reflect your genuine experience at the location.
- Offensive content: Google will remove content that contains obscene, profane, or offensive language or gestures.
- Dangerous and derogatory content: This is content that threatens, advocates harm, harasses, intimidates, bullies, or incites hatred.
Reviews that fall under these categories are not protected by the First Amendment, and can be taken down when flagged in order to comply with Google policies or legal obligations. Google only gets involved when merchants and customers agree on facts, as otherwise there is no reliable way to discern who’s right about the customer experience. That’s why, when it comes to negative reviews, it’s always important to determine whether the reviewer was at all a customer or a business partner. So: Check your transactions and other business records to see if you can determine whether or not the negative review is fake.
Often, the problem is determining between a false allegation or offensive comment and a legitimate critique that’s protected by freedom of speech. A subjective review, for example, that states “The atmosphere in the restaurant wasn’t comfortable, because of the red lighting” could be regarded as fake, if there are no lamps with red lighting installed in the establishment. On the other hand, a polemic and exaggerated review that states “Service was useless and incompetent” could be inadmissible as long as the reviewer justifies this, for example by adding “He had no knowledge of technical terms and wasn’t capable of providing a clear answer to my question even after repeated attempts.”
While Germany’s Federal Supreme Court even decided in March 2016 that one-star ratings without reviews undercut the rights of the reviewed business – as these don’t prove any kind of contact between the author and the business – in the US it is not so cut and dry as to whether one-star ratings violate Google’s guidelines. Because Google doesn’t know who your customers are, arguing that the reviewer wasn’t a customer isn’t an acceptable reason, since Google allows anonymous usernames. The other reason why it’s difficult to have Google delete a negative rating is because you don’t have to be a customer to leave a review; reviewers need to have had a “customer experience” which could entail a phone conversation or just an email that didn’t receive a fast enough reply.
Involving a lawyer
If the legal lingo is getting too complex or you’re not familiar with the legal details, it might be worth involving a lawyer who’s specialized in the field. The same applies if Google hasn’t gotten back to you within 14 days of your request being registered with Google Support or the legal department. The lawyer’s title alone will significantly increase your chances of getting in touch with the correct representative at Google, and one step closer to asserting your rights.
If you react to the negative review within a month (via email or through your Google My Business Account) then it’s possible for your case to go to a judge much faster. If a judge rules in your favor, the chance is very high that Google with delete your review.
You can identify very quickly whether you’ve consulted the right lawyer, by looking at how they react when you explain you want the negative Google review to be deleted: A negative or skeptical reaction signals to you that the lawyer is not familiar enough with the applicable US law.
Summary: Deleting a Google review – not easy, but possible
As you can see, deleting an inappropriate or even fake Google review can be a true challenge, but isn’t impossible. Prevention will always be better than treatment: By offering helpful customer service and by setting up an efficient complaint management system, the number of negative reviews can be kept to a minimum.