There is no denying the importance of online reviews to a company’s credibility and brand recognition; according to a recent study, 79% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. With so many users relying upon reviews, some businesses saw an opportunity to game the system by publishing false positive reviews of themselves – and deceptive negative write-ups of their competitors. The battle to stamp out fake reviews has been a long one; Yelp has introduced Consumer Alerts to advise customers of businesses that have incentivized the review process, and the FTC considers illegitimate evaluations illegal. Now, the state of New York has joined the fight; its recent year-long investigation into reputation enhancement has yielded 19 companies and 7 reputation-centric agencies that are involved in the illicit practice. The culprits have been fined a total of $350,000 for their missteps.
“Operation Clean Turf” had regulators pose as business owners whose companies were victims of unfairly negative online reviews, and were shopping for agencies that would produce false positive reviews to clean up their online reputations. A total of 7 such “agencies” took the bait, and revealed not only themselves but several of the clients to which they provided these types of services. A full list of companies that were named in the investigation and fined is available on Search Engine Watch.
What is so interesting about Operation Clean Turf is that it is the first instance of a state government actively involved in the legality of online content marketing tactics. Online reviews are important for search engine marketing, brand reputation, and to increase sales; restaurants that are able to elevate their Yelp ratings by a single star report a 5% to 9%, which is why so many businesses have resorted to posting false reviews, a process known as “astroturfing”. This undercover sting demonstrates a commitment of New York’s to support legitimate business in the state, and to protect consumers. It will be interesting to note if other states will try to step up and investigate claims of astroturfing for their own businesses, or if the online nature of these reviews will keep them from acting.
Increasing your brand reputation online is important, but astroturfing isn’t the way to do it. Real branding efforts require strategy and planning, but can yield sustainable, long term results that won’t result in a hefty fine or a public relations nightmare. Need help getting started? Call inSegment; our Creative & Branding team uses an integrated platform to ensure that your name and campaigns are in front of the largest number of targeted consumers possible, maximizing the chances of conversion – and conversation about your company.