A small business found itself in a battle with Google after the search giant denied repeated requests to remove reviews that included nasty personal attacks on employees and, according to the company, lies.

Google refused to remove the reviews, even though they violated the search giant's own review policy.

Running a business has its challenges, but Steve Kelly, the owner of Securco Services Inc., never expected he'd have to take on Google to protect his company's reputation. The alarm security company has operated in Nanaimo, B.C., for 40 years. 

About a month ago, three reviews popped up on Google within days. They were the company's first online reviews ever — and they were nasty.

Someone calling himself John Bailey said: "Their sales rep, Monte, must have been runner up to be village idiot for the City of Nanaimo. Because that is clearly the level of knowledge and expertise that he brings.

"The office is run by a generally racist woman called Shereen and she has the attention span of a wood bug. The owners Steve and Ian are disconnected from reality to the point of autism…" the review went on.

"I was horrified.… The personal attacks on employees and the comment about autism, I found very distasteful and I didn't want any association with comments like that," Kelly says. 

"We were violated by libellous statements from somebody that we really had no way of identifying."

Against Google's policy

He was also upset when he realized the reviews shouldn't have been allowed under Google's own policy. 

Kelly tried to figure out who was behind the posts by checking Securco's customer database. He says the majority of Securco's customers are local and have contracts — so they're not anonymous walk-ins. 

"I searched our records, I searched in Nanaimo for people with a name like that and came up with a blank."   

Kelly suspects a disgruntled customer using fake names is behind the nasty reviews. Kelly says that customer failed to pay his bills and had his file sent for collection. 

Cherene Shea

Office manager Cherene Shea says Google refused her repeated requests to have the reviews removed. (CBC)

Office manager Cherene Shea says she was angry.

"We were all astonished at the nature of the personal attacks, which had no direct complaints about a specific action or something the company had done," she says.

Google dismisses pleas

On its website, Google says it will "remove reviews that represent personal attacks on others" and won't post reviews of people who misrepresent their identity. 

"My argument to them is that the attacks were personal, didn't address specific issues and that these were fictitious customers.… I even invited Google to look at our database to see if [they] could find these people," Shae told Go Public. 

Google told her it would investigate, but in the end, agreed to remove only one of the problematic reviews that named a Securco competitor.

The company told Shae that Securco should approach other customers to write more favourable reviews to even things out. 

Go Public questions Google

Go Public put all those questions to Google. After our inquiries, Google removed the review that referred to Securco employees as "racist and autistic." 

Google told Go Public, "There is an element of judgment involved in deciding when a comment violates the company's policy." Google also admitted that after Go Public got involved, it took a second look and decided the nasty review should be removed after all.

At the mercy of review sites

Tom Keenan is a cyber-expert and author of Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy. 

He says when it comes to removing slanderous or false reviews online, businesses and individuals are at the mercy of companies like Google, Amazon and Yelp unless they want to take the issue to court, which is often very costly.

Tom Keenan

Cyber author Tom Keenan says online reputations can have a big effect on business. (CBC)

"The reality is, if you're a little business, then you're writing the site where the review is hosted and hoping for the best, and often they'll say that's too bad — that's somebody's opinion," Keenan says. 

He points to a new law in California that kicked in on Jan. 1 dubbed the "Yelp Bill" that could make controversial reviews even harder to remove in the U.S. The law further protects someone's right to post almost anything they want online by fining companies that demand customers sign so-called non-disparagement clauses as part of contracts.  

Reviews hit bottom line 

Harvard Business School assistant professor Michael Luca has studied the effects of online reviews on certain businesses. 

His study found reviews in the virtual world can be influential.  A one-star improvement leads to a roughly nine per cent increase in revenue. He also points to another study that shows certain business can experience a 13 per cent drop in sales after only one bad review.

CBC News Investigates: Stories, videos, photos and more

Submit your story ideas

Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the web.

We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.

We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.

Submit your story ideas at Go Public.

Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter.