Fake reviews land SEO companies in hot water

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order

Frozen yoghurt. Image courtesy of ShutterstockI make yogurt, the made-up yogurt maker said, and I run a nice little yogurt shop in Brooklyn.

So what happens? Lousy Yelp reviews!

My reputation - no, the reputation of an entire yogurt-making dynasty! - is at stake.

Please, reputation management company, can you help?

Oh, yes, representatives from some leading New York Search Engine Optimization (SEO) companies told the undercover agent from the office of New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, we sure can!

Did the helpful SEO companies come up with suggestions for better yogurt recipes? Non-stale toppings? No.

Instead, they offered to astroturf consumer review websites like Yelp.com, Google Local, and Citysearch.com, sprinkling bogusly ecstatic, yogurt-themed reviews, if the dragnet hadn't in fact snapped shut just about then.

A.G. Schneiderman announced on Monday that the yogurt ploy snagged 19 companies that have agreed to stop manufacturing puff reviews for businesses and to pay more than $350,000 in penalties.

The year-long undercover operation - codenamed "Operation Clean Turf" - into astroturfing found that companies have "flooded" the internet with fake consumer reviews.

The A.G.'s office found that astroturfing has grown sophisticated: many of the companies use techniques to hide their identities, such as cooking up phony online profiles on review sites and paying freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe $1 to $10 per review.

By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices, the office says.

But just who, exactly, cares about the victimless crime of lying about how great somebody's frogurt shop is?

It may be suffering with a lowercase "S", but victims of less-than-honest consumer reviews get bamboozled, and that's not right.

The said bamboozled consumers do things like get sucked into patronizing, say, a company such as US Coachways, one of the companies snared in Operation Clean Turf.

Theirs is a classic case of astroturfing.

The bus service, based in the New York borough of Staten Island, is not highly rated on Yelp, to put it mildly.

Fake sign. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.So instead of actually, like, improving service, management decided instead to astroturf.

Not only did they solicit freelancers from oDesk.com and Fiverr.com to write fictional reviews, they also urged employees to pose as customers to pump up their one-star status.

According to the A.G., they even offered $50 gift certificates to customers in exchange for positive reviews, without the customers disclosing the gift in their reviews.

Beyond paying for reviews, the investigation found that SEO companies are now using advanced IP spoofing - in other words, using a forged source IP address, they conceal the identity of the sender or impersonate another computing system.

Consumer-review sites, are hip to such tricks, with Yelp being the most aggressive in combating the ruse, the A.G. said.

But whatever Yelp et al. do to filter out astroturfers, astroturfers rise to the challenge.

One SEO company required that its freelancers have an established Yelp account, more than 3 months old, with more than 15 reviews (at least half unfiltered), and 10 Yelp "friends," in order to skirt Yelp's advanced review filter, Schneiderman's statement says.

Here's one example of an SEO company's ad for freelancers that his office uncovered:

We need a person that can post multiple positive reviews on major REVIEW sites. Example: Google Maps, Yelp, CitySearch. Must be from different IP addresses… So you must be able to have multiple IPs. The reviews will be only few sentences long. Need to have some understanding on how Yelp filters works. Previous experience is a plus…just apply --)we are a marketing company.

And here's another one, from a nightclub in New York City that was looking for people to post the reviews "without getting flagged":

Need Review Posters for Yelp, Citysearch, Google

Hello…We need someone to post 1-2 reviews daily on sites like: Yelp, Google reviews, Citysearch and any other similar sites. We will supply the text/review. You must be able to post these without getting flagged. This will be a long term assignment that will last at least 3 months. You are bidding per week. We are offering $1.00 dollar for every post. Thank you

Why go to all this botheration and fraud?

Because it's worth it. Reviews matter, big time.

The A.G.'s office referred to a 2011 Harvard Business School study that estimated that a one-star rating increase on Yelp translated to an increase of 5% to 9% in revenues for a restaurant.

The law also referred to Cornell research that found that a one-star swing in a hotel's online ratings at sites like Travelocity and TripAdvisor is tied, on average, to an 11% sway in room rates.

The A.G.'s office also put a number on the proliferation of puff, pointing to a Gartner projection that holds that by 2014, between 10% and 15% of social media reviews will be utter smoke and mirrors.

Check out the A.G.'s statement for the list of businesses that got caught in this dragnet.

If you have been, are now, or will ever be a patron of shops that purvey wigs, dental care, laser hair removal, medical massage, plastic surgery, teeth whitening, or, well, pretty much anything that's reviewable, one assumes, you might want to sniff around rave reviews a bit more skeptically before shelling out your hard-earning money, thinking you're in for a treat.

But if you want to rave about this or other Naked Security articles in the comments section below, please, be my guest!

I, for one, welcome the enthusiastic ravings of all readers, be they figments of my imagination or legitimate, IP-unique humans.

Images of yoghurt and fake sign courtesy of Shutterstock.

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19 Responses to Fake reviews land SEO companies in hot water

  1. Mark VP · 743 days ago

    Is it not common sense journalistic practice to spell out the name of any acronyms at least once in an article? Many readers (including me) don't know what "SEO" translates to. To assume all readers do is more than a little presumptuous and borderline smarmy.

    • markstockley · 743 days ago

      Thanks for the correction, I have fixed the article.

    • Gary · 743 days ago

      Yet you are reading this article, which has 'SEO' in the title. Common sense might also dictate that you research a subject before reading an article about it.

      • Ali · 742 days ago

        How do you research a subject? By reading articles. Plus, I thought the research was the author's job, not the reader's.

        • Gary · 742 days ago

          On the contrary, you should read a published book. Reading an article about a subject you know nothing about, while admirable, is not going to make you any more informed on that subject.

  2. Naked Security, you are the best!

  3. Guest 13 · 743 days ago

    Interesting article. It confirms my suspicions. Now if there was a way to filter out paid, political trolls. Note I said 'paid'. They work across the political spectrum.

  4. Sarah · 743 days ago

    I've read a lot about this issue as the company I work for has been affected by unscrupulous (and definitely not US-based) SEO companies in a different way: a competitor paid them to write negative reviews about us over a period of about 6 months and they were posted all over the most popular review forums, subsequently appearing on the top page of all Google searches for our company.

    Fortunately, thanks to help from cyber investigators, one of the more reputable reputation-enhancing companies (the ones that don't create fake content to redress the issue), and a lot of pleading to Google, Trip Advisor, and other website administrators, we've eventually succeeded in getting most of the fake reviews taken down (and lost a significant amount of business in the meantime).

    From what we can tell, this type of fraud is a huge problem, especially for small businesses like ours that often don't have enough money, time, or influence to fix it.

    Potential clients are often, rightly, wary of positive reviews, but rarely have any trouble believing the negative ones.

  5. mark · 743 days ago

    I recently posted negative feedback on ebay. I was surprised that, when I refused an invitation to withdraw it from the person concerned, they then offered me a financial incentive to do so.

  6. teri · 742 days ago

    this is the very reason I am no longer active on tripadvisor and barely active on yelp. I posted a well-deserved scorching review for a hotel in Miami and within 2 days, there were 6 new reviews all glowing and with the same grammatical errors, all new users. After pointing this out to TA, a few of the reviews disappeared, only to be replaced with more. The hotel then offered a "free" stay, as long as I rewrote my review. (no)
    yelp at least uses a filtering system that flags a huge number of fake reviews. it's not perfect either, but it's a step in the right direction. but soon no one will trust review sites at all, and they will quickly disappear.

  7. joe · 742 days ago

    Happy to see this article and the investigation. I rely on Yelp. I recently reported a restaurant owner to Yelp who solicited readers in a Craig's List post, offering free food in exchange for glowing Yelp reviews.

  8. Linda · 742 days ago

    That's why it is unwise to trust any 'customer reviews' as some may be valid, some will not be. Example is a small UK hotel that got a bad review from someone but there is no record of them ever having stayed there! It was either a different hotel they stayed at or else totally made up for some reason, possibly with a vindictive element if they are/were competitors.

  9. Jack Wilborn · 742 days ago

    How about prosecuting the people that wrote the stuff? Seems like there is no way to stop it if they don't secure the whole group. They should require all these companies to report whom they employed and then prosecute them, they are as guilty or more so than the company, without them it wouldn't work.


    • Deramin · 742 days ago

      Prosecuting people for seriously harmful crimes across international borders is hard enough. Prosecuting them for reputation tampering would be prohibitively hard and expensive.

  10. An even bigger issue here is these so-called rep management companies are ripping off businesses with promises they cannot keep. Any 'real' reputation management company wouldn't base their strategy on fake Yelp reviews.

  11. SEO To Top Rank · 668 days ago

    Bad news :(. Fortunately, my company is not in this list.

  12. Mr Focus · 638 days ago

    $1.00 for every post, but created with an identity that passes muster as real.

    Sounds like a lot of work for very little reward.

  13. Dewbert · 388 days ago

    Yelp is being overly aggressive. For instance, a dentist I went to overcharged me by over $4,000. Yelp thought my review was fake, as well as several others that mentioned they were overcharged. Yelp’s automated filtering counted only 34 out of 109 reviews as legitimate. I read the other reviews. Most sounded legitimate, although there were some obvious fake ones that sounded like advertisements. This resulted in a 2 star overall rating, rather than a 1 star rating, if they had counted the other legitimate reviews. The amount of filtered reviews far outweighed the number of counted reviews. The US Coachways Yelp reviews, that you refer to, have a rating of 1.5 stars based on only 20 reviews. 143 reviews were not counted. Hardly accurate. In effect, Yelp is artificially raising both of those businesses ratings because the filtered ones are mostly negative and mention similar reasons for the negative reviews. Similar reasons in Yelp’s mind means they are bogus reviews. I tend to think that the reasons are similar because the business makes a habit of doing the same bad things over and over again.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.