Astroturfing and the Fake Review Penalty
September 25, 2013
Yesterday, news broke all over the web about the Attorney General of New York , Eric T. Schneirderman, announcing penalties for 19 digital agencies who’ve posted fake reviews for their clients online.
According to the A.G.’s website, “Operation Clean Turf” was a yearlong covert investigation into the techniques employed by marketing agencies vis-Ã -vis online reputation management for their clients. It’s no surprise to anyone within our industry that fake reviews are often posted to get more traffic and more conversions for business.
But what does it say about sites that rely exclusively on user generated content (UGC) to build their own reputation?
A.G. Schneiderman quite rightly says that:
“Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing. This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution.’
It’s true. Consumers rely quite heavily on search results and reviews before they make their purchasing decisions, and let’s be honest, so do people within the digital industry.
Did you know that a 1 star rating increase on Yelp results in a 5-9% increase in revenues for a restaurant?
The A.G.’s office cited a study that reported 90% of consumers saying that online reviews influenced their decisions. The influence these numbers carry is astronomical and what lies underneath is perhaps even more significant, if not equally so.
See, we think that the clean-up being enforced by the A.G. in New York is a good thing; this is exactly the push businesses need to get their act in order, focus on their client servicing and develop high-quality campaigns that make room for true reviews and testimonials from their customer base.
But there are other parties that must share the responsibility here.
What Yelp Didn’t Do
From our perspective, review sites like Yelp haven’t done enough to keep their sites clean and filter out fake or spam reviews. While they’ve publicly acknowledged how critical it is to protect the integrity of their content, their work speaks in different volumes. Take a look at the image below.
We found this meta-review on Yelp’s Facebook page (original post here), and if you scroll through the rest of the comments on the post, it’s hard not to believe that Yelp’s response is reactionary in the face of an imminent threat to their own rankings. The steps they’re taking now should have been taken a long time ago.
Equal Stakes for Clients and Agencies
Sure, the agencies posting the reviews take the hit, but the clients and businesses asking for these fake reviews are equally to blame. Dollar for dollar, it’s a better idea to offer your clients a great product, great service and your communities, great content.
So why isn’t that being done either? We know that Google recognizes UGC, and if soliciting those reviews must happen, then a much better (and ethical!) way to go about it is by incentivizing those reviews. Really, who doesn’t love a good giveaway?
Marketing relies a lot on the way the product is packaged, but in the post Penguin/Panda world, and now in the post legal-penalty world, we all need to remain extremely cognizant of drawing an ethical boundary and enforcing it.
Don’t you think?