There’s no question that the Internet is infested with all sorts of unsavory creatures. Every once in a while an exterminator tries to clear the home of certain pests. We’re most familiar with Google trying to rid the world of black hat practices with their penguin and panda updates, but the state of New York is also donning a hazmat suit and entering the home. What particular bug are they after? Fake online reviews.
New York regulators are fining businesses for posting fake reviews to beef up ratings and hide bad ones. More than $350,000 in fines will be distributed to 19 companies – businesses that have either posted fake reviews themselves or outsourced another company to do it for them.
The practice of faking online reviews corrupts one of the most relied upon and trusted sources of information on the Internet. The New York Times explains that consumers expect to be lied to on TV ads or on billboards, but trust messages on sites like Google, Yelp, and Foursquare.
Of course businesses are going to say that they’re the best in their promotional materials! But online reviews are supposed to come from objective third parties.
According to New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, there were two common forms of online review deceit. The first type is cheap outsourced reviews.
Schneiderman’s staff posed as owners of poorly-rated yogurt shop looking for a reputation management firm to write positive reviews. Think of it as To Catch A Predator: Yelp Edition. Multiple firms that pay writers in Bangladesh and the Philippines offered their services.
The second method to boost reviews was traditional bribery of current customers. Local businesses were offering $50 gift cards in exchange for a fabulous review. Marketplace.org explained that this method is harder to track, as so many of the gifts are off the books and under the table. It’s easier to hit a reputation management company at the source than to find small businesses giving away a couple freebies.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quantified exactly how much a star is worth. A one-star increase in rankings can boost sales by 10 percent.
The rise on online reviews came as a result of increased distrust of traditional and online advertising. According to a report by Nielsen in 2012, 92% of consumers trust word of mouth advertising and 70% said they trust online consumer reviews. Only 47% of global consumers trust paid TV and prints ads.
Online reviews also have a more active audience who is looking to convert. George Mathis who wrote the AJC article referenced above said he always checks Amazon before making a major purchase. Users who look up your product or business online already have a need for what you’re offering, as opposed to TV ads that target mass audiences. Joe Fortunato explained the benefits of targeting a niche audience as opposed to paying for billboards and other mass media in his last article.
Review sites like Yelp should be actively seeking out ways to prevent fake reviews in the same manner that Google has to constantly fight new black hat SEO techniques. When consumers feel like an online review site shouldn’t be trusted, they’ll move on to competitors or turn to social media.
The Internet is a seedy place, and the fines administered by the state of New York are online equivalent of checking under the welcome mat for pests. Yes, it’s a start, but there’s still an entire house that needs to be tented.