Digital Deception: Astroturfers

There are times I’ve been traveling and looking for a decent dinner option, so I checked the listed local restaurants that got a five-star rating on Yelp.

The last time I purchased a TV, faced with numerous choices that all seemed pretty much the same to me, I looked at Amazon user reviews to help decide which of the competitors’ products I should opt for.

User or customer reviews seem a terrific way to get beyond the hype of advertising and marketing and get objective opinions from people like yourself. Think again. The world of online reviews is full of what have been dubbed astroturfers. Why that name? Well, what’s more fake than AstroTurf.

Yelp, a company whose business depends on online reviews, estimates that between 20 and 25 percent are fake. Like many of the other underhanded activities I’ve highlighted in Digital Deception, astroturfing is sleazy and unethical. Is it illegal? New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says yes, it violates state laws governing false advertising and deceptive business practices.

In September of last year, Schneiderman’s office announced the results of “Operation Clean Turf.”  Nineteen companies were cited for astorturfing, were fined a total of $350k, and all agreed to stop writing fake online reviews. Among the companies cited were New York marketing firms Zamdel (dba eBoxed) and XVIO and small businesses like Laser Cosmetica and US Coachways. Another was Swan Media Group, which manages Scores ‘gentlemens’ clubs. They hired a freelancer who created 175 fake reviews of their club’s dancers.

Schneiderman’s guys set up a sting. They created a fictitious yogurt shop in Brooklyn and solicited help from some SEO firms. Some of those SEO gurus offered to write fake reviews and use IP spoofing techniques to hide their identity. The Attorney General found that some were creating false online profiles then paying freelance writers in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe between $1 and $10 per review.

Lest you think that astroturfing is merely a black hat tactic used by the purveyors of green coffee beans and lap dances, it is worth noting that last October Samsung got caught red-handed. The Taiwan Fair Trade Commission fined the consumer electronics giant $340k for, among other things, “disinfection of negative reviews of Samsung products” and “paying for false praise and negative comments about competitors.” In other words, Samsung not only hyped its own products online but it also trashed its competitors.

Some of the practices are more subtle. Tech entrepreneur Filip Kesler and Travis Pinch of Cornell did a study of Amazon reviewers (How Aunt Ammy Gets Her Free Lunch ). They noted that 80% of Amazon reviews are positive and that 85% of Amazon’s most prolific reviewers routinely get free stuff to review.

The review sites have made some attempts to kill off astroturfing. About a year ago Yelp filed a suit against They were apparently successful because that domain name is now up for sale. But alas you can still go to The folks behind that operation say they do not sell fake reviews, but they do offer what they call a domination system, a “step by step process to get tons of real and genuine recommendations on Yelp.”

If you go to any search engine and look for fake online reviews you will get page after page of sites that offer this so-called service. But my favorite place to uncover some solicitations for fake reviews is a site called This is a site of purportedly professional services that are offered for $5. It includes things like business cards and logo designs. The top line navigation includes a “writing and translation” category and within that is a section for reviews. This is a virtual marketplace of astroturfers. Here are some of the ‘offers’ I found:

“I will add 15 five star ratings, 40 Google plus 1 to any free android app for $5”

“I will post Amazon review very fast within 2 hour”

“I will 5-star rating, 5 positive reviews on iTunes music”

What do all of these ‘professional service’ bidders have in common? They are all offering writing services but none of them can write correct English.

This entry was posted in Digital Deception, Digital publishing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Digital Deception: Astroturfers

  1. patweber says:

    Wow. I had no idea. I rely on TripAdvisor. But as it turns out, if the writing has a lot of typos, too many misspellings or doesn’t flow naturally in English, I dismiss it as relevant anyway. Still this will guide me to me even more discerning in what I read for any online reviews. Thanks!


  2. jacquiegum says:

    I had no idea that astroturfing was so prolific! The idea of it depresses me, frankly. It would never occur to me to solicit fake reviews for my book and kudos to NY for putting forth some effort to end the practice. I used online reviews recently to find a seamstress in my area for alterations. I based my entire choice on the positive reviews on her site! Yikes! To think we cannot depend on that as a metric is a little depressing.


  3. Does not surprise me at all that there are an abundance of fake reviews and altered information around. What you read in the paper has been editorialized and information that isn’t considered right for the public to read is not published. The advertisers’ interests will always be taken care of however. Need I say more….


  4. It is anonymity that makes them bold to do this. It is sometimes hard to find who or what, put a bad review. I wonder if fake reviews are so prevalent, why are online reviews so important.


  5. Arleen says:

    I never really thought about fake reviews. I use TripAdvisor before I pan a trip. On my website, someone can leave a review. I do not alter them unless there is profanity and then I will delete it. I don’t want to say something is good and then another person buys it and thinks it is horrible. I am picky with the suppliers I use in the first place as my reputation is on the line.


  6. Tim says:

    Like your other comments I had no idea. I use Yelp all the time to sort out the good from the not so good. I do find myself looking at the reviewers to make sure they are not just disgruntled with life but I guess I will have to make a further discount of 25% on good reviews. Thanks for the information; I really appreciate your posts.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      A couple weeks ago I was at a beach town with a number of pretty good restaurants. I looked at Yelp and the only 5-star place in town was the late night pizza joint. All I could do was scratch my head.


  7. jankedonna says:

    Sometimes it feels as if the more information we have access to online, the less we can trust it. So sad that so much is fake.


  8. Beth Niebuhr says:

    There are people who trash otherwise well reviewed restaurants. Have you looked into that? I find reviews interesting and always discount those that are wildly out of line with the others, those with poor grammer and those that don’t give details peculiar to the reviewed entity. doesn’t sell fake reviews? Nice URL then, way to go.


  9. thetraveloguer says:

    These fake reviewers are a real disappointment. I love being able to read reviews to gain an idea of the service I am going to buy. When we were in India, my boyfriend booked a hotel in Goa and we then went to Tripadvisor to check out the reviews. To our horror, there was a stream of negative reviews, and we were really disappointed with our booking. However, when we went there, we found the place to be really nice, with a huge, clean room and quiet surroundings. It turned out that the reviews were unrealistic, and very petty. One person wrote a huge comment slating the staff for being rude, but in reality, they were perfectly polite! If we had read the reviews before booking the hotel, we would never have gone for it. It just shows how much power lies in reviews, and how they can be abused!


    • Ken Dowell says:

      Seems like people are more inclined to write a review if they have a problem or incident with the place they’re reviewing or product that they bought. It may be that these negative reviews drive one business owners into buying positive ones.


  10. michelelobosco says:

    Such a nutty world we live in. Everyone needs a platform, and so it becomes easier to buy a platform than it is to build one. Very eye opening article!


  11. WOW, like many have already said, I never thought about where a reviews might be fake. Before I planning a trip, I use many sources that have reviews. The good news is I haven’t had any issue… yet. I have always been a bit picky when it comes to who I buy from or recommend. How I see it is, it’s my reputation that’s at stake if what I recommend isn’t credible.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      Unfortunately if you’re a freelance writer in the Philippines churning out reviews that get posted with phony profiles, you don’t worry about your reputation.


  12. Duke Stewart says:

    I try to go for places who’ve been reviewed quite a few times. Even the ones with bad reviews are worth a visit, in my opinion. At least the reviewers were honest in that case. One-review places bring up red flags for me.


  13. TheRecipeHunter says:

    I too seek out reviews and use Yelp for restaurants as well. While I realize there are fake reviews out there, I feel like sites like Yelp, where you can upload your own pictures of the place you’re reviewing, help keep some of those authentic. I disregard obviously negative reviews or those that don’t seem to make sense (spelling/grammar) but I didn’t realize how much opportunity there was to BUY fake reviews out there. I guess I was kind of blind to all of that until I started my own blog and started to researching. We, as consumers, must be diligent in our own decisions to eat/stay/visit somewhere. Great article.


  14. Erica says:

    You address a really valid point. More and more, I’ve been dubious whether I can trust the feedback I see online. I feel I can more easily spot fake bad reviews. I see a lot of negative reviews where the feedback is so out of line with anything else that is being said that I often wonder if it is a competitor. When my business was brand new, I put out a small google ad which gave me temporarily, a high level of visibility. Well, one night I could see that someone had clicked on my Yelp page. I didn’t have any reviews so I imagine that dissuaded that person from putting out a random fake review. Next thing I know, someone clicks on my Facebook fan page and gives me one star. Again, I had a brand new business so I personally new all my clients at the time. I imagine it was a competitor. Needless to say, that 1 star review has luckily since gone away on its own, but it taught me that you can’t protect yourself from fake bad reviews.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      There was a court case in Virginia in which a guy who owned a carpet cleaning company claimed his competitors were trashing his business on Yelp. He sued Yelp to find their identities. Court ruled against him which is probably a good thing.


  15. I read reviews and many of them seem fake. I really want to get an honest opinion of service or products but for the most part I can’t trust what I’m reading. Reading your post solidified what I thought was true. It is a shame what companies will do to make a dollar.


  16. Pingback: When Big Data Comes Up Small | off the leash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.