Fake reviews can give your company a quick short-lived boost, but steer clear from this sketchy and illegal practice that can ultimately leave your company bust.
Reading online reviews of a restaurant before going out to dinner, checking user comments for a new gadget before clicking to buy it online, scanning a company's website for testimonials before signing up for a service... online business reviews are a major way that consumers decide where to spend their green.
And while most small business owners see positive comments, five gold stars, and glowing testimonials as goals to work towards, others have tried to short-circuit the online evaluation process by posting dummy reviews to draw in new customers. In fact, the term "astroturfing" has been coined to describe this practice of artificially creating a positive online buzz about products and services.
But as a cosmetic surgery practice in New York recently found out, astroturfing is not only considered shady by the general public, it is illegal. While they are opting to pay the state of New York $300,000 to settle pending claims, they could have faced charges of false advertising, deceptive commercial practices, and fraudulent conduct under state and federal consumer protection laws.
Another recent incident of fake reviews involved the mega travel website, TripAdvisor, which begun posting disclaimers to alert users to the practice of hotels posting generous reviews of their own venues. Though a TripAdvisor spokesperson assured its broad base of users that only a small fraction of the 23 million business reviews and opinions posted to the site are astroturfed entries, the threat of negative impact to the travel website has not been taken lightly.
Beyond legal action and penalties, a real danger in engaging in astroturfing is compromising a company's integrity. Just as a false buzz lift a company in the eyes of potential consumers, the fall down can be equally hard and fast. No one likes to be duped and chatty online communities can drown out a company with negative feedback on multiple sites and forums, which could detrimentally impact new and continuing business.
Savvy online consumers know that all business reviews can't be glowing; and they may even seek out less-than stellar reviews so they get a more realistic picture of what they are signing up for. And for the company, there may be constructive use for critical reviews because it can cue them on points for improvement, and in the best case scenario, can allow satisfied users to respond directly to comments by their less-satisfied counterparts. Keep it real, keep it organic... and watch it grow.