Pay to Play? How Manipulating Your Online Reviews Could Cost Your Business

January 18, 2014 10:15 am Leave your thoughts

Pay to Play? How Manipulating Your Online Reviews Could Cost Your Business

The best word of mouth is unsolicited and organic.

Yelp uses analytics to flag online review solicitations. A major offense could result in the removal of your listing, not simply the filtering of the ratings and reviews. When manipulating reviews for the benefit of your reputation management, review-site algorithms could be the least of your worries.

Businesses that choose to pay for fraudulent reviews have faced public outrage, along with monetary fines from government officials. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission determined that paying for reviews without disclosing the reviewer’s compensation is considered a form of deceptive advertisement and would be prosecuted.

In 2013, the New York Attorney General ordered 19 businesses to pay penalties after they were found to be astroturfing. The total amount of penalties was over $350,000. In an initiative titled “Operation Clean Turf,” the New York Attorney General examined firms who were paying for fraudulent reviews on social-media sites.

Online reviews and ratings sites will flag any comments that might come from individuals associated with the business being reviewed. There are numerous companies that will generate fraudulent reviews for a fee, even though the practice is illegal in the U.S., France, Great Britain, Italy, Germany and Ireland. Quite simply, these services should never be considered.

The associated fines of improving a business’s reputation in this manner should be a major deterrent. As the FTC begins to examine those who post fake ratings and reviews, businesses can take a proactive approach. That approach does not involve manipulating your online ratings and reviews.

It’s little surprise that some businesses are trying to deceive the public. On Craigslist and other employment sites, posters are offering to purchase positive reviews for just a few dollars; prospective customers aren’t able to tell the difference. Consumer’s increased reliance on online reviews and ratings means that businesses are scrambling for new ways to solicit more customers. In fact, many businesses have begun paying for positive reviews with promotions, coupons and even cash payments. As a way to increase sales, customer advocacy and customer loyalty, they use dirty, underhanded tactics to establish a glowing presence online.

Non-Disclosure Agreements: The New Norm?

In 2011, a Philadelphia dentist began asking patients to sign a “mutual privacy agreement” as a condition of receiving medical care. Review sites rely heavily on user trust, and that trust is compromised when businesses and service providers manipulate their online reviews. Transparency is an important weapon against review censorship. Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, has publicly stated how the company works hard to prevent manipulation by business owners. Since Angie’s List doesn’t accept anonymous reviews, it’s much harder for businesses to game the system. Meanwhile, has a “Wall of Shame” listing for users who issue so-called “privacy agreements”.

Review-Site Traffic Spikes When Controversy Strikes

Most reviews and rating sites like Yelp are passive participants in this game. Yelp doesn’t have these same policies in place. It does not notify users of attempts to manipulate ratings or penalize these businesses or professionals in search results. When a business owner threatens to sue the writer of a negative review, it’s not just a private argument between two parties. As Yelp grows more influential and successful, businesses are devoting further resources to acquiring reviews. If Yelp hopes to maintain the credibility of its reviews, it will have to fight off the prevalence of fraudulent reviews. Few ratings and reviews sites are as diligent as they should be about protecting the general public.

Man vs. Computer: A Clear Victor

Cornell University researcher Jeff Hancock and his colleagues have developed software that successfully reveals fraudulent online hotel reviews. The researchers began by “training” their algorithm on both fraudulent reviews written for the study and real online reviews. Their software then went head-to-head against real humans and defeated them handily: The computer was 90 percent accurate while the humans were correct about 60 percent.

If your customers are accessing false and inaccurate information about your business, what are your chances of securing their interest? Businesses can help to promote trust by paying close attention to both positive and negative reviews while encouraging satisfied customers with positive service or product experiences to share them on review sites. For businesses that are focused on their clientele, it can be impossible to monitor what’s being said about them on dozens of online reviews and ratings sites. An online reputation management firm can examine the landscape and educate your business about the best strategies for improving your online visibility.

From restaurants to plumbers, everyone selling a product or service these days has an online reputation that is shaped by online reviews and ratings. Consumer sites such as Google Local, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon and others can make or break their chances of sales and client retention.

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Molly Black

Platform Manager at The Review Solution
Molly Morgan Black is the mobile application Platform Manager for Third Coast Interactive, Inc. (TCI), assisting the firm in all efforts related to the company's flagship SaaS-based app service The Review Solution. Molly Morgan Black maintains the accuracy and consistency of data over the entire service life cycle of The Review Situation, and is a senior contributor in the design, implementation and usage of the service. She acts as the liaison between the engineering, development and testing phases.