Late last month, the New York Attorney General’s office announced the findings of an investigation it conducted into the business of creating fallacious online reviews for various businesses. Although it isn’t a ubiquitous practice for Internet marketing firms, some companies did perform these tasks.
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman confirmed that 19 enterprises signed agreements to refrain from posting fake online reviews and paid fines ranging from $2,500 to as high as $100,000. Essentially, the purpose of the fake online reviews, mostly on Yelp, Google and Yahoo, is to raise the company’s awareness, improve its appearance and even increase revenues.
“What we’ve found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising,” said the New York attorney general in a statement. “When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement – but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice buy reviews on Yelp more deceiving. This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution.”
What New York State investigators also found was that companies reached out to seasoned Yelp users and attempted to remunerate them with gift certificates and other types of offers in order to get them to post positive reviews. If that failed then they used freelance websites such as Craig’s List, oDesk.com and Freelancer.com to find writers and paid them between $1 and $10 for reviews.
Schneiderman also cited a 2011 Harvard Business School study, which examined Yelp reviews that were listed as fraudulent by the company. Its four primary findings were chain restaurants were less likely to participate in the scheme, restaurants with intense competition were more likely to post fake reviews of their competitors, restaurants with bad reviews or little reviews were more likely to take part in fake reviews and 16 percent of restaurant reviews labeled as fake were more likely to leave extremely positive or extremely negative reviews than regular reviews.
The Internet marketing, or search engine optimization, industry is quite competitive and businesses try to innovate their products and services as much as they can to draw in more clients. Essentially, it is suggested that clients looking to hire an online marketing firm must perform their due diligence and do a great amount of research on the company.
In the end, as any Internet marketing or SEO professional will say, it takes time to appear on the first page of Google, to increase PageRank and to improve domain authority. The best practice is to follow the guidelines posted by search engines, review websites and other Internet venues. Indeed, there is certainly a difference between sending out a press release and falsifying reviews.
Furthermore, it appears that law enforcement is continuing its efforts in catching companies offering these services. Schneiderman confirmed it will still try to cease business from lying to customers.
“This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution,” added the attorney general.