New York State Attorney General Eric T. Shneiderman announced in September that 19 search engine optimization firms and private companies agreed to pay fines exceeding $350,000 (in the aggregate) and cease creating fraudulent reviews online. The year long "Operation Clean Turf" was targeted at cleaning up the growing problem of "astroturfing", the practice of hiring ostensibly independent third parties to provide favorable reviews that appear to be unbiased and legitimate. Numerous phony reviews were created by these SEO firms on popular websites such as Yelp.com, Google Places, Yahoo! Local, InsiderPages.com and Citysearch.com.
Reputation Management aka Negative SEO
Representatives from the Attorney General's office posed as owners of a Brooklyn yogurt shop. They called local search engine optimization companies for assistance with altering the effect of negative reviews on consumer oriented websites. "Reputation Management" is a term commonly used in reference to the management of a company's or individual's business reputation. In the online world it usually used as a euphemism to describe the process of influencing organic search results so that undesirable web pages do not appear on the first few search engine results pages. This is frequently accomplished by the manufacturing and introduction of a solid stream of "positive" content (such as articles and reviews) along with good placement on high ranking websites. In some instances, the overall impact of negative search results can be noticeably diminished.
Astroturfing - An Artificial Grass Roots Movement
AstroTurf is the trade name for the artificial grass that was used successfully in the Astrodome, home of the Houston Astros baseball team. Like laying out pieces of AstroTurf on a concrete floor, astroturfing in the online world consists of spreading fake reviews to appear as if a natural and disinterested grass roots movement is growing in favor of a sponsor.
An excellent rating from a "trusted reviewer" on a popular, socially driven e-commerce site such as Amazon.com, creates an appearance of a quality product and injects a credibility factor into other laudatory reviews that may appear. In Operation Clean Turf, companies not only instructed employees to craft and post fake reviews but also hired an army independent contractors. The most popular sources of astroturfing come from India, Bangladesh and the Philippines and writers were paid from $1-10 per review. Search engine optimization (SEO) companies required reviewers to have aged accounts, which increases the credibility factor in the eyes of consumers and aids in defeating website employees who try to identify phony reviewers. One SEO company required contractors have a Yelp account with active reviews spanning at least 3 months with 10 or more Yelp friends. Multiple IP addresses were used in order to avoid detection by website owners.
One in Five Online Reviews are Fake
Companies like eBoxed aka Zamdel, were accused of posting over 1,500 fake reviews on Yelp, Google Places, Yahoo! Local, Citysearch, Judy’s Book and InsiderPages. Gartner predicts that by 2014, at least 10-15% of online reviews will be phony. A Harvard Business School and Boston University study estimates that 20% are fake reviews while the University of Illinois puts the number at 30%. While some of these fines were little more than hand slaps, they probably amounted to just a few months of revenue for some of these unscrupulous SEO firms and did not put them out of business.
Yelp has also entered the fight by filing several astroturfing lawsuits, including a well publicized lawsuit against a law firm, the McMillan Law Group. Yelp determined that reviews to the McMillan Law Group's profile were generated by the same IP addresses located within the law firm. Yelp sued McMillan for allegedly creating false reviews on the law firms own Yelp page and engaging in a quid pro quo agreement with several other local lawyers to provide favorable reviews. Yelp's lawsuit seeks damages for breach of contract as a result of terms of service violations including intentional interference with contract, unfair competition and false advertising.
Truth in Advertising
Several states have made astroturfing illegal. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) anticipated a growing problem and published changes to the FTC Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. The FTC Guides require that ads must be true and cannot be misleading. A person reviewing a product or service must disclose any compensation received in exchange for the review.
- Legal Practice:
- Computers - Computer Fraud
- New York