Since the dawn of the online age, anonymity has been one of the foundations of Internet communication. People could communicate from behind clever screen names and, for better or worse, say pretty much whatever they felt like saying. From trolling the web to Tahrir Square, the power of anonymity and an absence of physical contact have played a large role in the development of modern Internet culture. Anonymity allows the plugged in world to communicate without fear of repercussions in their real lives. It is a barrier allowing for unrestricted speech, so users feel more comfortable to say criticize a repressive government, report on gang activity or give an unfavorable review of the local bar. While that last example might not seem like it is in the same league as the others (and it is not), anonymity is a key ingredient for its success.
Enter the latest local search update from Google, Google + Local. On May 30, the search giant took a major step towards integrating their social media offering, Google +, also known as Google Plus, with their bread and butter search engine results. Google began an overhaul of its local rankings, replacing various ranking systems with a unified, and more scientific, ranking system acquired from its recent purchase of Zagat. While this helped to refine local results, a major flaw in online rankings still existed. Bogus and spam reviews, the results of lowbrow SEO tactics that flooded local reviews, frustrated business owners and greatly skewed local Search Engine Results Page (SERP).
Google’s solution for this frustrating flaw? To require all reviewers to first be registered with Google Plus, greatly reducing the possibility of fake reviewers and helping to assure more accurate and appropriate review scores. After the May 30th update, all reviews are directly associated to a user’s Google Plus profile. It’s a simple solution to a major problem, but in requiring reviewers to join their social network, Google may be creating several new problems that may serve to alienate a sub-sect of users.
Online and Offline Spaces
The first and most obvious barrier for a new reviewer is the requirement to create a Google Plus profile. However, this tie-in is a great strategy for social media. For example, Facebook has used it with success on the many Facebook Connect websites and has partnered with likes Turntable, Kotaku, and even local newspapers. Twitter also uses this social login feature extensively and Google itself is a major player in this field already. So, what is the difference between being identified on an article commentary and being identified on a local review? The answer is in Google’s new catchphrase: “Local”.
When someone places a review for a local site, they identify themselves as a direct customer of a physical establishment, blending the line between online and offline spaces. The removal of anonymity can greatly alter the customer’s relationship with the store. While most of us would be fine giving our opinion of a local hamburger shop, what about the adult novelty shop in the neighborhood or plastic surgeon? Would you want your circles knowing you frequented such establishments? How about a business knowing your identity after you has placed a negative review? Would you feel comfortable criticizing a new bartender at your local watering hole? How about claiming to see a rat at the corner bakery? These are undoubtedly fair critiques of a business, but the business owner may not see this in the same light. When the business owner logs on to their Google profile and sees a regular customer is complaining about rising prices or reduced quality, how will they react when that customer returns to the store at a later date? They might even approach the reviewer through their publicly available Google Plus profile. On Google’s forum the Google user, Don.a.dio, shares a personal example of this dilemma:
“…users who post negative reviews under their real names could face harassment. I posted a negative review about a club to warn other girls about the staff, but I wouldn’t have posted if I couldn’t remain anonymous in fear I may be targeted in some way by the owners.”
This is a situation most reviewers would likely want to shy away from. If there is one thing Americans have learned from half a century of suburbia, it is how to avoid social confrontations. Whether intentionally or not, Google has begun an interesting social experiment by bringing online confrontations into direct contact with daily lives.
To what extent removing anonymity turns away new reviewers, reduces negative reviews or impacts social media involvement is difficult to measure, but the move has already alienated more than a few Google fans. A similar, recent attempt to bring real names to YouTube also met uproar from the online community, as users feared the loss of anonymity on the popular video sharing site.
Google may claim that removing anonymity is a measure to validate reviews by removing fake profiles and ratings, but validation is something that can be accomplished without revealing user information. The option to anonymously post a Google review after logging in, and being internally verified, would be an easy fix to this problem. Google may need to validate user identities to clean up reviews, but they don’t need to present those same identities publicly. Google has sacrificed anonymity. Why? Because by doing so they add another key ingredient to their all powerful search algorithm. Google has recognized the value of tying reviews to people and plans to use both reviews and the Google profiles of the users who left them as sources for searchable data.
Search and Social Together
As part of an attempt to improve personalized searches, Google has made it known that they will be moving to integrate Google Plus reviews and recommendations made by friends in your personal circles to your local SERPs, creating results that are customized for each user. The end result gives Google a product that no one else can offer, an effective blending of social media and search. Google Plus may have borrowed something from each of its major competitors (professional networking from LinkedIn, social profiles from Facebook, etc.), but now it surpasses them with a brand new offering. Google has a unique product that separates itself from its competitors. But more important than that, it now has access to a treasure trove of personalized data that it can use to upgrade its SERPs. Removing the protective shell of anonymity allows Google to access our consumer habits, the holy grail of advertising. Facebook can only dream of such a feature, which greatly surpasses any personalization they can offer through likes and subscriptions. Google Plus Local is just one step further along Google’s path, and end goal, of making a wholly integrated and searchable world.