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June 17, 2014

The Legal Risks of Writing Positive Fake Reviews: Don’t Astroturf Your Online Business Reputation

The pressure to yield results for small to medium-sized brick-and-mortar businesses is often overwhelming, and can easily lead to less than scrupulous behavior. Competition for wallet share is often intense in the segments most commonly reviewed by consumers, such as restaurants, hotels, and trades.

For many, the slippery slope begins by asking friends and relatives who have indeed tried the products or services to provide a slightly biased and highly rated review. From that point, if the volume of reviews or the quality of the ranking is not sufficient to push a business to the top, management is often tempted to resort to extreme and less-than-honest measures. One of the most common approaches to increase review velocity and ranking is to engage in what is known as “astroturfing.”

What is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is the practice of preparing or disseminating a false or deceptive review that a reasonable consumer would believe to be a neutral, third-party testimonial. For most businesses, enlisting employees and relatives and tasking them with providing a less-than-truthful review is the main avenue to astroturf their online reputation.

On the surface, this practice is simply unethical but not necessarily damaging for those reading the review, and certainly not illegal. But before you start cranking out the fake reviews, don’t assume you will be able to escape scot-free. Writing fake reviews can land a business in a great deal of trouble, resulting in penalties and fines beyond any amount of revenue the business might have generated by increasing their online leads as a direct result of their sham reviews.

(Check out: “Giving Yourself 5 Stars? The Cons of Faking Your Online Reviews”)

Astroturfing can be prosecuted under several variations of consumer protection laws designed to protect the end user from false and deceitful advertising. In addition to state laws, consumers are also afforded protection at the national level from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  In fact, in 2013, after a year-long investigation by the Attorney General, 19 local businesses were fined over $350,000 collectively when they were found guilty of generating false reviews on review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon, OpenTable and others.

While this type of punishment appears harsh given the nature of the crime, consider a similar scenario with other industries that use online reviews as a means of building credibility and managing their reputation. Examples of businesses where a false review could be impactful, if not dangerous, are medical practitioners, attorneys, and accountants. A false perception of their qualifications could place consumers in highly dangerous or extremely costly situations.

If a fine and a huge blemish to their business reputation are not sufficient to deter a business from astroturfing, consider the following risks:

Astroturfing is not sustainable

If you can’t deliver the goods, generating new leads by placing fake highly-rated reviews results in dissatisfied customers that will only visit once. Businesses with a high percentage of one-time-visitors and a low percentage of loyal customers generally struggle to grow, and are forced to continuously increase their marketing spend.

Astroturfing is easy to catch

Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your potential customers. If your review profile contains a mix of reviews instead of a trend that shows stability in service, your potential customers will notice.

Generally speaking, new customers are not likely to select a business with mixed reviews. Instead, a savvy consumer will pick a business that demonstrates consistent performance, high review velocity, and upward review trends.

Astroturfing can mean a PR disaster

Should a business become embroiled in a legal battle for astroturfing, a spot in the local news is 100 percent guaranteed. While a business might have gone unnoticed with an average or less-than-average online reputation, an online scandal will certainly remain stamped in the mind of the local community for a very long time. Do not risk a public relations blemish. The scar to your reputation may never disappear.

If your business needs new gleaming reviews, there are many honest ways to secure positive, business-conducive reviews. With a little effort and a commitment to proactive online engagement, a business can generate review volumes higher than businesses engaged in less than ethical practices.

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