Nineteen firms have been fined by New York authorities after writing fake reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch and have been fined a total of $350,000 for their sins.

The local attorney general’s office set up a fake yoghurt shop in Brooklyn and then sought help from firms offering search engine optimisation services to help boost its online presence.

In addition to Search Engine Optimisation services some of the companies approached also offered to post fake reviews of the yoghurt shop online.

They created online profiles and then hired freelance writers to post fake reviews. Some of the writers came from places as far away as the Philippines and Bangladesh, as well as countries in Eastern Europe.

In the digital world, having a good online reputation is now key to business success and this has spawned a whole new industry in review writers and reputation managers, whose task is to enhance the visibility and attractiveness of a company by posting glowing reports and reviews.

Google’s own review system was boosted last year by the acquisition of restaurant review service Zagat; previously all you had to do to post a review was to have a gmail account; now Google has tightened up the process and insists that reviews can only be posted by Google+ account holders, although this system can be bypassed with a little diligent tweaking.

Operation Clean Turf also found that many businesses were producing their own fake online reviews from among staff, to boost their reputations.

The attorney general’s office said Operation Clean Turf had been “a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry, the manipulation of consumer-review websites”, and into what it called “the practice of astroturfing”.

“Astroturfing” refers to the practice of creating fake grass root reviews.

“By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices,” the attorney general’s office said.

As the power of the ‘popular vote’ where the general public gives a thumbs up – or a thumbs down – to local businesses increases, so does the necessity of having a strong online monitoring service to ensure that good comments are reinforced by the recipient while bad reviews or comments are quickly addressed.

This is becoming even more important as the hand-held device be it tablet or smartphone can often lead to a snap decision of which restaurant to choose, which garage provides the best service in the area, which hotel offers the best value and so on – all because of the inbuilt geo-location of the device. Essentially this is because your device knows where you are because of inbuilt GPS and which businesses are within driving – or walking- distance from you, and the various recommendation apps or directories can quickly show you which business in the genre you are looking for you has the best recommendations.

Now more than ever, your reputation is vital to your business and you upset your customers at your peril.

 

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