New York State Fines ‘Reputation’ Firms in Fake Review Crackdown

Last week a study revealed the importance of making sure that the first review for your client’s product is a good one. But if you’re based in New York State, you’ll have to be careful in soliciting positive feedback: Attorney General/consumer advocate Eric T. Schneiderman just helped enact the “most comprehensive crackdown to date on deceptive reviews on the Internet.”

The state’s yearlong investigation led to agreements (aka fines) with 19 companies including some of the best-known sources for online reviews as well as “reputation-enhancement firms” paid to astroturf for clients on sites like Google, Yahoo!, and Yelp.

Get ready for a fake shock: this practice went well beyond your typical restaurant and book reviews to ensnare doctors, lawyers and even “an ultrasound clinic”. The state conducted its research in classic undercover style, with an investigator posing as a business owner who suffered from negative write-ups and wanted his online reputation managed more aggressively.

Investigators found plenty of parties willing to lie for a price. Reputation firms at home and abroad didn’t just crank out reviews at a dollar-per-post rate—they also paid existing customers for more positive write-ups and even “went on review sites that criticized their own fake-review operations and wrote fake reviews denying they wrote fake reviews.”

Take a moment to read that sentence again.

Sites involved in the case weren’t necessarily at fault: Yelp, for example, has made repeated promises to scrub fake reviews, but as you can see from the comments on this post, its own complex filtering system wins very few plaudits from business owners or PR reps.

Firms paid to solicit fake reviews can find ways to beat systems like Yelp’s, but they’d better be careful unless they want to face fines. Still, the sums lost in the agreement were relatively small, and it feels like a tiny drop of water in an ocean full of fake raves. It’s a bit like the hacker equation: sites will continue toying with their algorithms and firms will continue to find ways to work around them. The agreement named several prime astroturfing offenders, but let’s be honest: how much will a “reputation” firm really suffer for being outed as everything it claims to be?

Unfortunately, the benefits of an ethically bankrupt practice continue to outweigh the risks.

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