Fake ratings put good doctors at great risk

Unless you were under a rock, you saw the recent story about Amazon taking legal action against over 1000 individuals who wrote fake reviews on their site.

This bad behavior is not limited to Amazon products. Right now in aesthetic medicine, a handful of website and SEO companies are including fake ratings on doctors’ websites. This puts their clients at risk, potentially damages their reputations, and opens the website and/or the practice up to punitive action by Google or worse. 

How do you know if your ratings are fake?

Example of fake ratings placed on a practice’s website.

If you have a star rating on your website, try clicking on any part of the ratings. Typically, it will not be linked to a source where you can read reviews. There will be no supporting documentation to represent the rating or explain how it was calculated. The number does not automatically increase with new reviews and can be plainly seen by Google or anyone reviewing the source code.

When faked, the number of total ratings shown is typically very large – often 400+ total ratings.  We have rarely seen a plastic surgeon with this many ratings from any legitimate source, other than RealPatientRatings itself which generates ratings in a closed system by including every patient without exception.

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How are they doing this?

By including schema tags for aggregate rating and review count, typically in the footer on every page. It is often placed unobtrusively alongside social media items as in the example shown here:

Five reasons why faking your ratings is too risky:

1. Breaking trust with consumers: Nothing makes a potential patient angrier more than being lied to. If someone uses a Google search result and clicks through to your website, they expect to see reviews or ratings. When they discover that there’s really nothing there, this not only frustrates them, but diminishes their trust. If they are looking for real ratings and reviews, they will move on to a practice who meets their needs, and this relationship begins online.

2. Signaling distrust to Google: Google rewards the most trusted sites with higher rankings. Google hates anything fake. Over the years we have seen this pattern repeatedly: fake keywords, fake article sites, fake press releases, fake links, and so on.

Successful and ethical SEO tactics mean behaving like a true brand. Why would you take such a risk and include fake ratings on your site? A quality brand wouldn’t dream of doing this. Google has the smartest engineers in the universe writing algorithms to detect and devalue low quality content and fake backlinks. How could fake ratings not be equally or even more hated by Google? I am already seeing evidence of Google beginning to detect and eliminate these fakes.

3. Ethics: Is it ethical to misrepresent your ratings to get patients to come to your website? Imagine your website being reviewed by your society’s ethics committee…how would that go? Having fake ratings sends a negative message to every colleague in your market that you’re either willing to cheat or have no idea what your SEO provider is doing?

4. FTC’s Truth in Advertising Guidelines: Would the FTC agree with you having phony ratings? Since 2010, they have had a division solely devoted to cracking down on deceptive internet advertising. 

The Federal Trade Commission’s Truth In Advertising rules provide some useful guidelines: reviews must be “truthful and substantiated,” non-deceptive, and any material connection between the reviewer and the business being reviewed must be disclosed.

5. Fraud: While talking with our members at the recent ASPS meeting in Boston, a RPR member with several hundred legitimate ratings showed me how two other surgeons in his market were displaying phony ratings. This doctor is also a lawyer and suggested that misrepresenting one’s rating could be construed as fraud and result in civil action if the patient believed the statistics and was wronged somehow.

Fix it now before the damage is permanent

I expect the fake ratings trend to continue, and that we’ll see a future algorithm update address it. I also expect those websites with fakes to be “dinged” or punished by Google. If you have a fraudulent aggregate rating on your website, we recommend taking it down immediately. If you weren’t aware it was there, you may also rethink your relationship with your web company.

If this is happening to you, whether you’re aware of it or not, it is still your responsibility to manage and monitor the behavior of the website companies or SEO professionals managing your presence. 

My suspicion is that if most the doctors knew what they were risking by having fake ratings on their websites and understood how damaging it was to the patient relationship, they would be very unhappy about it.