Beware of buzz marketing. Writing fake online reviews can land your business in serious trouble and cost you more than you gained in reputation or sales, as evidenced recently by a host of SEO companies caught up in New York’s “Operation Clean Turf”.
A year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry caught 19 small businesses engaging in astroturfing, flooding the internet with bogus consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch.
Astroturfing is the practice whereby a business pretends to be an ordinary customer, writing glowing reviews about the business’ own products or services, or negative reviews slamming their competitors’.
In a crackdown last month, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued penalties in excess of $350,000 between the offending companies.
Schneiderman’s office discovered that many of the businesses probed had used techniques to conceal their identities, manipulating advanced IP spoofing techniques, setting up fake online profiles on consumer review websites and paying writers in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe to mock up false reviews. In the process, these companies had engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices, violating multiple state laws against false advertising.
“Astroturfing is the 21st century’s version of false advertising – and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it,” Schneiderman warned.
The law in the EU under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 is stricter than the USA, so that “falsely representing oneself as a consumer” in the context of promoting a product to consumers is a criminal offence, for which the maximum penalty is 2 years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The Regulations are policed by the Office of Fair Trading and Trading Standards, which may also direct complainants to the Advertising Standards Authority.
There are plans to further strengthen the law so British consumers have the right to take direct action against traders for misleading or aggressive practices. The proposed law, when implemented, will empower consumers to make direct claims against traders with whom they have entered a contract or made a payment to as a result of misleading advertising.
Given the anonymity of the web and accessibility to a growing range of social media channels, it’s easy to see how so many businesses succumb to such underhand tactics. However, while astroturfing is unethical – and in most cases illegal – it should be remembered that the ultimate penalty is the PR own-goal scored when caught. Businesses build their brands, above all else, on trust. Being exposed for falsifying reviews and manipulating online discussions could therefore cause irreparable reputational damage, shattering consumer and client relationships which are the lifeblood of any business.
Reputation is critical to any successful business, no matter its size. Astroturfing is an unauthentic and foolish path to follow in a digital age where connection and sharing is just a click away.
The damage to reputation for any company caught trying to steer public commentary around their products and services could prove fatal for your brand.
To find out about the risks online and how to best promote and manage your brand, why not come along to this Own It event at which Shireen Smith will be speaking on 29 January 2014 at 18.30pm. For more information please visit www.own-it.org/events.