The Problem with Crowd Sourced Reviews

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On September 23rd, the New York State Attorney General’s office busted almost two dozen New York businesses as a result of its intricately planned sting investigation “Operation Clean Turf”. The companies in question weren’t dodging taxes, selling drugs, or cooking the books–they were posting fake reviews on on sites like YelpGoogle, and CitySearch.com.

You’ve been there before, scrolling through page after page of Yelp reviews, and you keep coming across plugs that are so painfully enthusiastic you’re sure someone paid for it to be there. Well, you’re right–a lot of them have been paid for.

Having positive online reviews for your business has become so vital that entire consulting firms have emerged specializing only in producing fake ones to inflate that precious star rating. The practice has been dubbed “astroturfing”–as in the opposite of “grassroots” and the source of the name, “Operation Clean Turf”.

The Attorney General’s office hired one of these astroturfing firms while pretending to be a “yogurt shop in Brooklyn”. The firm, in turn, hired freelance writers in the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Eastern Europe and paid them around a dollar per review on the targeted companies. Investigating these channels led the AG to no less than 19 New York businesses that had also hired the firm to pump up their image. It’s illegal to lie to consumers, and these businesses will pay anywhere from $2,500 to $100,000 for a collective total of $350,000 in total fines for all 19 companies.

Yelp has lauded the crackdown and thanked the office for helping keep their site clean, but Attorney General Eric Schneiderman believes that the problem is much bigger than just one sting, “This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution.”

This isn’t the first time Yelp has struggled with fake reviews and it most likely won’t be the last. The system that sites like Yelp have imposed on small businesses has created an environment where even a half star rating difference can equate to 30%-49% more sales. It forced businesses to keep the numbers up by any means necessary, and that desperation created review fakers. A recent study on all the reviews in Boston determined that as many as 16 percent of all the submitted reviews were fakes.

Online reviews are here to stay, and any system where you can’t confirm the identity of the critic is going to be exploited. Using the wisdom of the crowd can be an invaluable tool when exploring and discovering in a new area, but be aware, the crowd might be using you…

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About deshuck

Startup founder, filmmaker, jean blogger, typewriter enthusiast.

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