How Google undermined my business ethics and led me to write a fake online review

Steve Davis on how Google undermined my business ethics and led me to write a fake online review

Business ethics is a term that stirs passions in the hearts of some business people while leaving others staring blankly.

And, sadly, business ethics is a topic that has become an endangered species in some quarters of the business community, even here in my home town of Adelaide.

So this is why I have become profoundly disturbed by the awkward situation that Google put me in last week, on behalf a client dealing with two fake, malicious reviews.

For the first time in my marketing career, my hand was forced by a strong social justice imperative to leave my first ever fake online review. I've had success getting such reviews removed in the past, but not this time. And I cannot think of any way I could have avoided taking this drastic action, in my quest to right a wrong. I want to undo this ASAP but I need Google to play ball.

Let me explain.

What does business ethics mean?

Business ethics should be as simple as working out how to apply the golden rule to your daily, quarterly, and annual business dealings.

How would you like others to act and behave if they were you?

And yet, according to the Journal of Business Ethics, "managing ethical behavior is one of the most pervasive and complex problems facing business organisations today." (Stead, W.E., Worrell, D.L. and Stead, J.G., 1990. An integrative model for understanding and managing ethical behavior in business organizations. Journal of Business Ethics, 9(3), pp.233-242.)

How can this be so?

Business ethics is simply the identification and application of norms and values to create ethical frameworks that guide the decisions we make as leaders and workers in businesses. Sometimes the law of the land sets these governing principles while at other times businesses or individuals within businesses aim higher than just honouring the letter of the law in their dealings and strive to honour the spirit of the law.

To me, it's just common sense. Business ethics simply requires that you act fairly and honestly.

But here's the thing. If you are like me and you believe people should act with honour and virtue, we risk being blindsided by people who are deceitful and greedy and would happily earn money off your labour and then apply legal tricks to keep that money for their family at the expense of yours. As I've discovered this year in many conversations, we are not orphans. The Adelaide and Australian business world has a sickness running through it of a practice called Phoenixing, especially in the building sector.

Here's how it works. An operator gets contractors to do a lot of work, then closes that business and magically reappears with an almost identical business that now, legally, doesn't owe those workers their rightfully-earned money. If such operators actually were decent human beings, they would carry a heavy, psychological weight for their deception but I am hearing that often such players are narcissists and they just don't feel a thing.

As a side note, I am planning to do a full episode on this topic later this year, for The Adelaide Show Podcast and if you know any experts in the field or people who've been taken advantage of (I'd even like to talk to someone who actually has performed a Phoenix maneuver so I can learn to understand how they think and justify their actions), please send me their contact details via [email protected].

But I digress. That aside was simply to give you the context for this article in which I had to be a little bit like those creepy, deceptive people I detest.

Ethical responsibilities of Google and other online review operators

I argue that if you are to establish an online review system in which commentary can be openly published in a way that can affect the reputations of others, you have an ethical obligation to make sure fake and/or malicious content is policed and removed.

There should be no wriggle room on this point. You have created a platform and you will be promoting it as the place where people can come and judge the trustworthiness or otherwise of others, so I believe you need to make sure your platform is either manually curated within a set of rules, or you make it very easy for users to reply to comments about them AND provide a simple method for having fake and/or malicious online reviews removed.

To not close the loop with such procedures is to be a disingenuous player in the space and one who deserves their reputation to be challenged.

While this article focusses on Google, other operators like Facebook, TripAdvisor, LinkedIn, Yelp, and many others should take heed.

Where Google Business Reviews fell foul of my grasp of business ethics this week was when it became clear that an earnest and upright client had exhausted all avenues to have a fake, malicious review about them removed from their Google Business Listing.

For the record, the processes followed took many many months and involved one of Australia's top Google Ads firms with their direct access to people inside Google. As reputation service provider, Brad Shaw, says, "Here’s the bad news: There is no guarantee that Google will remove the review promptly, or ever, no matter how many of these hoops you jump through."

As a result, this fake review was rendering my client with a star rating around 3 instead of close to 5 where they should be.

This, in turn, impacted on how my client's website was listed in the Google Search Results, as well has how my client was being perceived by potential clients.

It's not easy going against your own business ethics

After much discussion and conferring with other erstwhile workers in this sector, I took the unprecedented decision of using a largely unused email account to leave a 5-star review for my client to temporarily neutralise the poison that Google was not interested in removing.

It was a terrible experience and should Google remove the fake review I will be deleting my fake review in an instant.

Google, you can and must do better than this.

I know there are shady operators out there who think nothing of leaving fake reviews for their clients and who probably buy fake social media follows and likes, and typically try to game any system where they can make money.

I am repulsed by such people and am feeling a moderate degree of self-loathing for not having been able to see a way to avoid being like them.

My final thoughts for Google and the other online review operators is, please take this seriously.

We know the research says having honest reviews that include some less than perfect ones ACTUALLY leads to users trusting an entity more. Whereas, only seeing a totally manicured, "Walt Disney" collection of reviews actually can lead to suspicion.

Google, your inability or disinterest in removing fake, vitriolic reviews hurts everybody, including yourself. If only that mythical Google mantra of "do no evil" was actually a thing, now would be a good time to invoke it because standing by and doing nothing on this issue IS just as bad as enabling fake reviews in the first place.

And here's some source material to start with. This link to search business ethics in Google will yield 298,000,000 search results. #NoExcuse

PS Why did I risk bringing shame upon myself by publishing this article? It's because I hate that I had to do this and I'd hate you to find out that I did it indirectly. Now that I am holding the reins of my own business, I want to always model openness so we get build a trusting relationship together. I also would welcome an approach from someone at Google who can earnestly pledge they'd be able to remove the offending review and who could trust that I will then do the same. Come on, people, life is short. Be good to each other.

Photo: This was me in costume for a stand up comedy set about "bosses". It was part of me trying to work this topic out of my system.

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