Great online reviews of products by real people can do wonders for a company. The grassroots swelling of support by fans can't be bought. Well, actually it can be bought. Companies claiming to help improve online reputations have actually made fake positive reviews of their clients' products — a practice called "astroturfing."
This probably isn't shocking for people who read online reviews — but New York just clamped down on 19 companies that were flooding the Internet with fake reviews.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that 19 companies had "agreed to cease their practice of writing fake online reviews for businesses and to pay more than $350,000 in penalties."
The sting was called "Operation Clean Turf" and looked for a year at the "reputation management industry."
The press release from Schneiderman's office says: "In the course of the investigation, the Attorney General's office found that many of these companies used techniques to hide their identities, such as creating fake online profiles on consumer review websites and paying freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review. By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices."
"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing," Schneiderman says in the release. "This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution."
But do people take online reviews with caution?
According to Bargaineering, people rely on reviews of products. "A 2012 Nielsen survey found that 70 percent of global consumers surveyed online trust online reviews, second only to recommendations from friends and family," Bargaineering reports. "Maybe that's why there's a cottage industry built around falsifying online reviews to sucker consumers into buying products and services that can't get good reviews on their own."
BBC says one online review website, yelp.com, admits that a quarter of reviews submitted to its site could be fake — although it tries to filter them out.
Review gamesmanship can get brutal. BBC looked at a report by Michael Luca from Harvard Business School and Georgios Zervas from Boston University. They examined the reviews of Boston restaurants on yelp.com: "After analyzing more than 310,000 reviews of 3,625 restaurants, they found that negative fake reviews occurred in response to increased competition, while positive fake reviews were used to strengthen a weak reputation or to counteract unflattering reviews.
"Fake reviews tend to be extremely positive or negative, they found."
The Los Angeles Times gave tips for people on how to interpret online reviews such as those on Yelp:
- Don't rely on the overall star rating.
- Don't just look at the first reviews, the order may be manipulated.
- Search within the reviews for the things that are important to you.
- Check out the reviewers' reputations (do they write a lot of reviews, for example)