A year-long investigation by the New York State Attorney General's office has uncovered the dirty little secret of the SEO and "Reputation Management" business: they will write fake online consumer reviews for you on Yelp, Google Local, CitySearch and other such sites. The AG's office secured agreements from 19 of these companies to stop writing such reviews and collected $350,000 in fines from them.
Fake online user content is known as "astroturfing," alluding to fake "grass roots" of the opinions.
The companies cited by the AG hired freelancers from around the world to write reviews, paying between $1 and $10 each. One had strict requirements for freelancers, "…that freelancers have an established Yelp account, more than 3 months old, with more than 15 reviews (at least half unfiltered), and 10 Yelp "friends," as an attempt to avoid Yelp's advanced review filter".
They also found advertisements for freelancers on sites such as Craigslist, Freelancer.com and oDesk.com, quoting one not very-subtle-ad:
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.
Not all of the 19 companies cited are marketing/SEO/reputation management companies. Several appear to be businesses which wrote or solicited positive reviews on their own, including :
- A&E Wig Fashions, Inc. d/b/a A&E and NYS Surgery Center
- A.H. Dental P.C. d/b/a Platinum Dental
- Body Laser Spa Inc.
- The Block Group, LLC, d/b/a Laser Cosmetica and LC MedSpa, LLC
- Bread and Butter NY, LLC d/b/a La Pomme Nightclub and Events Space
The penalties ranged from $2500 to just under $100,000.
Hat tip to Reason, which questions the worthiness of dedicating meaningful resources to this sort of crime when both violent and property crimes are ticking up over the last year or two (although down quite a bit over the last decade).