New York's attorney general, trying to take a bite out of the fake online review business, has signed agreements with 19 sources of bogus reviews on sites like Yelp and CitySearch.
These groups, which include search-engine-optimization firms and individual businesses, must now pay fines ranging from $2500 to just under $100,000, and must discontinue the practice of posting fake reviews. The total penalties come to more than $350,000, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced Monday.
Schneiderman's office had been investigating the fake online review business for a year, including some undercover work. The office posed as a yogurt shop in Brooklyn, and discovered that it could purchase fake reviews for anywhere from $1 to $10 per post. SEO firms would outsource the reviewing work to freelancers in foreign countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh.
In the past, users could look for signs that a review was faked, such as the review history of someone who posted effusive praise for a product or service. But as the investigation shows, fake reviews have come more sophisticated, working around automated filters as well as users' own sniff tests.
One SEO company, for instance, required its Yelp reviewers to have accounts that were at least three months old, with more than 15 reviews and 10 Yelp friends. Reviewers would post across multiple Websites, and used IP spoofing to mask their identities.
In some cases, businesses would even enlist regular customers in the deceit. For example, US Coachways, a national bus charter company, offered $50 gift certificates to customers in exchange for positive reviews, with no disclosure of the gift required. Laser Cosmetica, a laser hair-removal service, also offered discounts to its customers in exchange for online reviews. (The same sketchy practices have been exposed on Amazon as well.)
Even if users have a knack for spotting some fake reviews, the net effect of review scores could still influence buying decisions. Shneiderman's office cites a pair of studies that found when ratings increase by one star, restaurants enjoy a 5 percent to 9 percent revenue increase, and hotels can get an 11 percent boost in room rates.
Cracking down on a handful of companies isn't going to bring an end to fake reviews--especially when there's so much incentive to beat the system--but the more deterrents there are, the better.
In addition to the crackdown by Schneiderman, Yelp has launched a name-and-shame program for fake reviews, and universityresearchers have developed algorithms that tech companies can use to recognize bogus write-ups.
Users, meanwhile, can look to reviews by "verified" or "elite" reviewers on sites like Amazon or Yelp, or give less credence to the most positive and negative reviews on a site, to get a better sense of where to spend their money.