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The Ugly State of Google SERPs: Rich Snippet Abuse
Written by Mike Wilton
Tuesday, 18 September 2012 13:12

With Panda’s and Penguin’s nipping at the tails of SEO’s it seems as though everyone is finally trying to go by the straight and narrow and do their part to generate useful, unique content targeted at their audience and work to generate links naturally. 

rich snippet abuse

But just as many SEO’s let out a sigh of relief as they hope to conquer some of their more spammy competitors I am noticing some new forms of webspam rear their ugly head.

Rich snippets have been evolving rapidly over the last couple years, so much so I feel that Google is unable to really manage them. 

And while elements like authorship, rating aggregates, and other rich snippet data make the Google user experience that much richer, I feel that Google’s inability to filter these elements from displaying when misused has created a new playground for the more overzealous internet marketers.

The rel=”author” Debate

In the beginning rel=”author” was a bit of a beast to implement, but news sites, bloggers, and the like began doing their part to markup their blog posts to display their most prominent authors. 

It took a number of bloggers and authors some time to reap the rewards of their efforts, but eventually we began seeing our happy little mugs in the SERPs right next to our content.

As the practice has become more mainstream rel=”author” has begun turning up on everything from generic home pages, to about pages, and even some product pages.  Clearly not the initial intent of the schema, but obviously since data suggests a higher clickthrough rate webmasters and internet marketers are doing everything they can to get their authorship snippet to display in the SERPs.

As the practice began to become more rampant in the plastic surgery search space I began reaching out to Google pretty frequently to get their take on the matter. 

From a tweet to Matt Cutts, to a webmaster central help thread, to more recently a Google Moderator question and a Google+ discussion aimed at my Googler’s circle, I have practically begged for a stance on the use of rel=”author” for generic website content, but to no avail.

And while more and more websites adopt rel=”author” sitewide I can’t help but wonder what Google will do if/when authorship becomes a ranking factor.  How will it measure the true authority of an author and will generic website content warrant the inclusion of an author photo in the search results?

My Mom Thinks I’m Five Star Worthy...

More recently I stumbled upon a site in the SERPs that was displaying a five star rating in its rich snippet.  But in this particular case it wasn’t Yelp or another review site displaying a five star rating in the snippet.  Instead it was an actual doctor’s website.

serp abuse

At first I thought maybe Google was experimenting with a new local format and reverting back to the star rating system in exchange for their recently rolled out Zagat rating system, but in this particular case there was no local data tied to the listing.

Once I realized something fishy was going on I ran the page through AJKohn’sRichSnippetTestingToolBookmarklet and discovered that there was indeed something afoul.  This page, as well as every other page on the site was using Schema’s aggregate Rating.  Where were these ratings being aggregated from you ask?  The website’s testimonials page...

testimonials

You see, while this doctor has managed to only gain two reviews on Google, his raving testimonials from his patients apparently also warranted nineteen five star reviews built into his website, which in turn are being aggregated and displayed in the SERPs for all to see as part of the rich snippet for nearly every page of his website and for a variety of different queries. 

As it was I was uncertain as to why this rating was appearing, which means potential patients and searchers are probably going to take this rating at face value and think that Google and the web clearly think highly of this doctor, even if his ratings were fabricated by his webmaster or SEO team.

Note: I know nothing about this doctor, he could be a great surgeon, I just don’t think his internet marketing practices are the most ethical.

So now I turn to you fellow search geeks.  What say you on this chaotic state of rich snippets? 

Is rel=”author” sitewide perfectly acceptable until Google makes a clear stance, or is it an area to tread lightly?  Furthermore, do you think Google should be accepting the aggregateRating schema from a website where ratings can be manually generated? 

Share your thoughts in the comments, I’d love to get a discussion going.  Hell maybe even our good friend Matt Cutts will chime in and give us some insight.

Mike Wilton -

Mike Wilton is an Orange County SEO that has been involved with various facets of internet marketing for over five years, most recently as the Internet Marketing Manager for a medical marketing company. Mike specializes in SEO, Social Media, and Local Search Optimization services.

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Comments  

 
+1 #1 josh levenson 2012-09-18 15:01
Mike,

I've had this same conversation at work. IMO its only a matter of time before google drops the hammer down on anyone abusing rel=author. I've seen very nice looking headshots where the SERP byline is different from the page byline. I can't imagine google would roll rich snippets out without some way to manage them.
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0 #2 Paul Gailey 2012-09-18 17:05
There is a page specifically to report this abuse:

http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/request.py?contact_type=rich_snippets_spam

And they do take action on it.
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0 #3 Mike Wilton 2012-09-18 21:12
Thanks for the comment Paul. I'm not one to go out and start reporting sites to Google, but at least other readers will know this option is out there.

I merely wanted to showcase the growing trend in rich snippet abuse and how easily it seems to slip by Google.
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0 #4 Lars Eriksson 2012-09-19 13:36
I even saw an seo company putting fake review schema code on their pages to get the stars in the SERPs....

I guess it works until some someone reports them.
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+3 #5 Yehoshua Coren 2012-09-23 23:12
Personally, I feel that there is a difference between faked ratings / reviews and sitewide rel="author". The fact that ratings can be 'manually generated', as you said, is a real concern. Rel="author", however, is not something that can be falsified in the same way. If someone is indeed the "face" of a company or website, then I believe that it is fair game for them to show up in them SERPs as the person behind the site. Indeed, if someone did take the time to write all of the content of a website, why should rel="author" be off limits to them. Additionally, it is quite easy to look into somebody's reputation nowadays; just because someone's mug shows up in the SERPs doesn't mean that they are exempt from scrutiny. Oftentimes I find myself clicking through to an author's Google Plus page to get a sense about who they are and their authority on a particular subject. Bottom line, rel="author" doesn't seem to have the potential 'dishonest' side to it, imho, as ratings / reviews which can quite easily be fabricated.
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0 #6 Guy E 2012-09-23 23:51
A little off-topic, but still relevant I think: Google has introduced a new meta keywords tag for Google News - is it me, or am I the only one who thinks this is going to create more spam??
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0 #7 Chad 2012-09-24 01:42
For generic content like home pages, I've also been frustrated about competitors getting photos in the serps.

I'm puzzled by why Google isn't giving rich snippets to the rel="publisher" tag?

Seems like a link to the publisher page in G+ is the perfect rich snippet for generic homepage content.
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0 #8 Mike Wilton 2012-09-24 04:24
@Yehoshua I agree that you don't have the dishonesty factor with rel="author" (to an extent), but as you have probably read in the past there is definitely an increase in click through with an author's photo in the rich snippet which is why a lot of this is popping up.

It clutters the SERPs and as a seasoned user, I expect to find blog/news/article content if I click through a result with an author, not generic crap like an about, home, or product page. So that's why the rel="author" abuse kinda irks me.

@Guy, from what little I have picked up on regarding the Google News keyword meta, it is designated and picked up ONLY by sites that are picked up and submitting to Google News. For general web content my understanding is it will ignore the meta.

@Chad rel="publisher" I think makes sense for sites that are actually publishing content (e.g. magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc.) however I think it's ridiculous to say a doctor, dentist, lawyer, whoever is a "publisher" sure, they may be an author to their blog, but they aren't a publisher. That's where I think Google needs to draw the line. If it's blog/article/news content on your site, sure give it the rel="author" treatment, but I don't think your home page or anything else within a site like that really warrants the markup. That's just my two cents though.
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+4 #9 Dino Basaldella 2012-09-24 21:11
Hey Mike, I would like to chime-in here, since I am the SEO that created the material that served as the basis for your "ugly state" post :sigh:

First and foremost, I was not attempting to "deceive" anyone. I have a very close working-relationship with the client and I can personally attest to the fact that these are not "fake" testimonials on the site. They represent unsolicited patient reviews/testimonials received via walk-in, website and recently through our new FB business page.

As this was my first attempt at learning how to implement schema markup, I wasn't sure what the net-effect (if any) would be in the SERPs in terms of the ratings being displayed, so as an extra measure, I place the markup in the footer as well. It's ironic you slammed me on this point for potentially creating a skewed user experience, as I have been toiling over this very issue for a few days now. That is, while the reviews are 100% legit; someone whom has conducted a specific search query (e.g. tummy tucks) may be led to believe the 20 reviews are related to that specific procedure only - they are not - they are cumulative. Therefore, I agree with you, I feel it would be a best practice to remove the site-wide schema markup as related to the reviews in order to provide a better Google search experience. However, I must say, after reading-through the docs at schema and on the Google forums, I couldn't find anything that would indicate this is an unethical practice.
What I may consider doing in lieu of the site-wide schema markup, is tying an individual testimonial (and related schema markup) directly to the specific procedure. What do you think?

Regarding authorship: The client has written all of the material on the site. The client is extremely pro-active and willing to provide content for the site - a true pleasure to work with! That being said; the rel=author markup is not site-wide - only on pages where the client actually wrote quality/informative content regarding procedures, techniques or materials being used - not simply generic junk filler text.

@Yehoshua Coren I would like to thank you for taking a bit more of an objective perspective regarding authorship usage.

@Paul Gailey it is unfortunate that you felt compelled to post abuse links without first attempting to engage in discussion and/or fact gathering. Again, these are legit, unsolicited testimonials.

Sidebar: Yelp has "filtered" more than a dozen legitimate and positive reviews for my client. Clearly (as we all know) there is something amiss in their filtering algorithms! Should reviews appearing in the SERPs from YELP, City Search and niche-specific review sites carry any more validity than reviews received directly by the business owner? I realize some review sites attempt to substantiate the validity of the reviews - a good thing - while others (Yelp) are making grave mistakes resulting in negative impact upon the business. Where is my link to report this? Can't seem to find one on Yelp...

I look forward to your constructive input.
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0 #10 Mike Wilton 2012-09-25 01:43
@Dino, for some reason most of my response got cut off above. This is just the last paragraph. I will repost shortly.
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-2 #11 Mike Wilton 2012-09-25 01:45
@Dino, first let me say I am amazed that you came out like that and admitted to being the example. That being said, you're not the sole inspiration for this post you just happened to be the final inspiration for the post before I wrote it.

The skewed user experience for me is more than just the five star reviews site wide, it's that a site with no review process or system in place is displaying stars at all. Just because a patient provides a positive testimonial doesn't mean they are leaving a five star review for the doctor. Testimonials are a core element of most doctor, and specifically, plastic surgeon websites and if a positive testimonial = five star reviews then the entire niche should probably start plastering them on their testimonials pages.

In terms of rel="author" again, you weren't the one I was specifically calling out on this, and as an SEO in the plastic surgery space I am sure you are seeing it just as much as the rest of us. This point in particular is still a grey area IMO. Google doesn't seem to want to make a stance, and therefore I don't know that anyone could be held to a proper standard just yet, however I do feel the documentation definitely alludes to the idea that it should be used predominantly for published works that aren't a home page, about page, or product page (I've seen this in other niches). So to this point I am more pointing out Google's faults than yours or anyone else using rel="author" sitewide.

For the final point about Yelp, should reviews from Yelp, CitySearch, and the like carry more validity? Yes, but only because they are going to be far less biased (in most cases) and allow users to see a balance of positive and negative reviews instead of a slew of positive reviews hand picked by a surgeon who decided to place them on his or her site. Do sites like Yelp screw up from time to time, definitely, as does Google. But at least it gives a variety of responses for a consumer to sort through and decide for themselves. Again, this is my personal opinion, but even as an internet marketer I tend to side more with the consumer.

Thank you again for reaching out, and I'll reiterate this wasn't directed at you specifically or your client, which is why SNC did its part to edit out client information. The goal of the post was to a) express how unclear Google has been about the use of rich snippet markup on sites and b) show how easily the SERPs can be manipulated. It wasn't until Catalyst Local picked up the post that the doctor's full name and identity was revealed following some detective work from Linda Buquet.
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+4 #12 Dino Basaldella 2012-09-25 03:15
I bet you were "amazed" - seems no one is willing to own-up to anything now a days. For the record; my approach has always been above-the-board, and in view of the fact I had no intent of manipulating or distorting what I knew to be factual - I have no reason to fly under the radar.

No worries, Mike. I didn't feel as if you were singling me out, nor that I was the sole inspiration for your post. By reading your post, it's obvious that you have been monitoring the topic and contributed a good deal of time and effort composing the post and your opinions are appreciated.

Five Star reviews: I hadn't planned on the star rating being picked-up for so many search terms when I implemented the markup. As I monitored the results and saw more and more stars showing-up, I began to get the sense it didn't "feel" right - even though there was no documentation that I could find indicating it was not a permissible practice. In no way, shape or form did I wish to make my valued client's site or image appear "spammy" to searchers. However, I do I understand your point regarding the reviews being biased.

Cart before the horse? Apparently so. I added the markup to the testimonials (which I do believe would have been 5 stars) in order to test the effectiveness of the markup and began to search for a viable rating system for the site, which brings up another issue, given that a review process or system is in place on the site - doesn't mean it can't be influenced. I feel this is also the case with 3rd party review sites (i.e. many review sites that are specific to physicians and other professionals). In my estimation, none of these systems (Yelp included) are beyond external manipulation. And I, as yourself and fellow SEO's, search for some benchmark that can convey a user experience with honesty, accuracy and is beyond manipulation. Perhaps by engaging in constructive discussion such as this, we will eventually find an end to a mean.

I am grateful a new potential client, searching for "how to get testimonials in search results" found your post and brought my attention to it - that's how she found me! So for that, I must Thank You and Linda for the unexpected and controversial exposure. Lets hope some good comes from it :-)
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0 #13 Linda Buquet 2012-09-25 04:31
Hey Dino,

Great replies and glad you got a new client.

I didn't see all the replies here until Mike replied to my post at the Local Search Forum.

Even though in my post I asked the question Smart marketing or rich snipped spam - quite honestly my underlying motivation for the post was a little different. I know lots of local marketers that have been trying to get their legit rich snippet stars back so knew my readers would have some interest.
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+1 #14 Dino Basaldella 2012-09-25 05:09
Hi Linda,

While I wouldn't mind explaining "how" I performed the implementation, I would no longer advocate it and have recently removed some of the markup.

I concur with Mike, in that, such implementation of schema rating markup, if not used with extreme discretion and accuracy, can result in a convoluted and cluttered user experience in the SERPs.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I look forward to your response over on your site!
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+1 #15 Prashant 2013-02-17 06:25
Good article on Rich snippets; One of the worry area in rich snippet is spamming . Spamming through fake reviews and ratings. However Google will be soon be able to segregate the spammed content from the genuine. The shops with spammed data will possibly be penalized by Google ranking algorithms
Our company TransPacific Software has been doing lot of research on Rich snippets and its effect on search engine rankings. Seems ranking are unaffected by Rich snippets but has increased click through rate CTR. In some cases increased it by 40-50%. Our company has released two free Rich snippet extension plugins for OpenCart shops . Both extensions have received encouraging reviews and more than 1000 shops have installed them. One of the precautions we took was to have minimum user intervention so no way to spam rich snippet data. We hope this will help shop owner in long term .
More info about plugins is available on http://www.transpacific.in/opencart-ecommerce-extension.php
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0 #16 Derrick 2013-02-20 00:10
So how does one go about doing it the right way? Say I have a review on Yelp that I want to highlight on the a service page.. Is it ok to create a rich snippet for this review and link to it?

If so, do I need to notate somehow in the markup that I am indeed pointing to the origin of the review?
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0 #17 Brian Lowman 2013-02-27 19:38
In my opinion, review sites like Yelp, Angie's List are skewing the results just as much if not more. Yelp's algorithm is not just a little bit, but mostly flawed. Even using rich snippets and tying it to Google can just as easily be toyed with. I understand the desire to create a true user experience but there is no easy or true way to do so. All that being said, I don't see anything wrong with what Dino did as long as the ranking and comments were true.
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+1 #18 Thomas 2013-03-19 11:19
Do you think Google took some measures to deal with websites taking advantage of the 5 stars rich snippet internally implemented?
I used to see a lot of listing like that in the french Serps, and now... not much.
Why Google have to stop this? In Yelp you have good and bad reviews and in your website you do not put the bad reviews... So it is bad for users. though, I think an Seo cannot be blame for maximising one client listing in the SERP, taking advantage of Google rules...
Cheers !
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0 #19 Fortsetzung 2013-07-19 03:14
One of the worst things you can do for your ranking is to provide users with different content than they were expecting. When you place misleading information in your Google snippet, you may earn a click to your website, but if the user is disappointed with what they see on your page they will go right back to the Google results.
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0 #20 论文格式 2013-08-17 10:49
你可以做你的排名的最糟糕的事情 之一是為用戶提供不同的內容比他 們預期。當你在你的Google 片段放置誤導性的信息時,你可以 到你的網站賺取點擊,但如果用戶 是他們所看到的頁面上的失望,他 們會去右後衛的谷歌搜索結果。
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