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 buyyelpreviews.com. They were apparently successful because that domain name is now up for sale. But alas you can still go to buy-fake-reviews.com. 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 fivrr.com. 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.