In an era where online reviews make or break a business, there’s plenty of reasons why a business would want high ratings and good reviews. A few solid, 4 or 5 star reviews on Google or Yelp are often enough to sway a potential customer.
Since the dawn of online customer reviews, businesses have sought ways to paint a favorable view of themselves. It should come as no surprise that some businesses have opted to hire users to post favorable reviews about their services.
Of course, this skews public perception of a business — something not everyone’s happy about. Enter New York regulators, who recently enacted a law to cut down on deceptive online reviews.
An Army of Yelp Users to the Rescue
If your businesses has less than favorable reviews on Yelp or similar sites, there’s a good chance you won’t get many customers via online references. Rather than address user complaints, some businesses have opted to hire users to counter negative reviews with positive reviews.
When New York regulators caught wind of this, they weren’t having any of it. In response to deceptive fake online reviews, new regulations were enacted that forced companies to pay the price.
The New York Times reports that regulators and businesses have reached an agreement on misleading reviews:
“Agreements have been reached with 19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in penalties.”
The regulation is in response to a yearlong investigation by authorities. Among the 19 companies cited during the investigation were a charter bus operator, teeth-whitening services, and an adult entertainment club.
Reputation management firms, which were among the companies penalized by the state, posted fraudulent reviews on Google, Yelp, Citysearch, and Yahoo.
The companies gathered users from Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe to get some good reviews to drown out the negative ones.
Fake Online Reviews Akin to False Advertising
The real issue with deceptive online reviews should be obvious. It’s essentially false advertising, albeit on a digital scale. While a fake review of a restaurant may lead to a bad meal, fake reviews of other businesses could be much worse for customers. Imagine going to the dentist or a law firm that did this. Who knows what could happen?
Eric T. Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, chimes in to the New York Times:
“What we’ve found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising…When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement — but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving.”
Deceptive online reviews undermine the credibility of the internet. After all, who can be trusted when services like Yelp or Google are flooded with fake reviews? Reviews are essential to everything from book sales to finding the best doctor.
New York’s crackdown on the practice could send ripples through the country. Eric Schur, senior litigation counselor for Yelp, says that this shows that fake reviews are a legitimate target of law enforcement.
Until authorities crack down even further, the best advice is to take everything you read online with a grain of salt.
What Do You Think?
Are you shocked by this business practice? Were you ever mislead from online reviews? Let us know in the comments section!