New York State Attorney General Eric T. Shneiderman announced this week that 19 search engine optimization firms and private companies agreed to pay fines exceeding $350,000 (in the aggregate) and cease writing fake 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 fake reviews were created on popular websites such as Yelp.com, Google Local, InsiderPages.com and Citysearch.com.
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 the 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.
SEO and Reputation Management Companies Caught
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) anticipated a growing problem concerning truth in advertising. As a result, the FTC published changes to the FTC Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. A significant change to the 1980 version of the Guides was the removal of a “safe harbor” provision that allowed a significant amount of puffing in paid advertising, provided that the advertiser also discloses the actual results that a consumer should generally expect.
Reputation Management and Negative SEO
This type of fraud is rampant and for good reason. SLAPP