Today, September 23, 2013, a total of 19 companies got slapped with a $350,000 fine for schemy SEO practices. According to reports, this group of businesses from teeth whitening services to attorneys, attempted fraudulent “reputation enhancement” processes. After a year-long investigation conducted by Attorney General of New York Eric Schneiderman, regulators found these schemers fabricating phony online reviews about their own services, and bribing others to take part in this deceitful plan as well.
“Operation Clean Turf” Sweeps the Internet for Astroturfers
Schneiderman initiated “Operation Clean Turf” to unveil companies utilizing unethical marketing methods nearly a year ago. For the investigation, he created a fake yogurt business in Brooklyn to catch the black-hat SEOers in action! Before long, Schneiderman and his fellow detectives linked up with these “reputation management” firms who offered reviews and comments on Google, Yelp, and Yahoo for as low as $1 a pop! Services ran through accounts in Bangladesh, countries in eastern Europe and the Philippines.
Officials found that companies involved in these services often had accrued a mass of negative reviews, and turned to fake comments and ratings to improve their image. This practice has gained recognition over the years under the term “astroturfing“, or, when a grassroots subject posts or publishes an opinion under a false identity to appear as an unbiased participant. Frauds often implement specialized software and programs in order to achieve this and have been doing so for years; even politicians and party members have been caught astroturfing!
The New Face of Word-of-Mouth Marketing
With a large emphasis on word-of-mouth marketing, maintaining a sound reputation built upon these comments, posts, and reviews has become a large focus for many companies. Schneiderman indicates that 9 out of 10 consumers say “online reviews influence their buying decisions.” It’s no wonder companies are going to such great feats to construct their desired online image!
Just hop on Craigslist and you can find strangers pawning off fake reviews in a jiffy. But while it may seem like a harmless act, more serious issues occur when phony reviews divulge in certain industries such as dentistries and even ultrasound clinics. Commissioned 5 star reviews on low-quality services from these sectors can be extremely misleading and dangerous in many cases.
Everything On The Internet is True, Right?
Unfortunately, along with this widespread shift to social media usage, detecting fake reviews and information can get a bit tricky. However, officials greet Schneiderman’s accomplishments in uncovering those involved in astroturfing with much enthusiasm. Schneiderman and his team hope to continue their efforts in penalizing and preventing these fraudulent actions in order to encourage the development of more trustworthy online information.
Until then, this case serves as a reminder that not all SEO is “good” SEO. Be careful who you trust, and be aware of the strategies you or your marketing firm utilize. As the good ole Albert Einstein once said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it“, and in this case, all it takes is the click of a button. There’s no “get out of jail free” card for that one.
Stay tuned for more on how to detect these schemy SEO practices.