“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” wrote Walt Whitman, America’s great bard of self-promotion. As the world goes ever more digital, quite a few businesses are adopting that philosophy — hiring a veritable chorus of touts to sing their nonexistent praises and lure in customers.
New York regulators will announce on Monday the most comprehensive crackdown to date on deceptive reviews on the Internet. Agreements have been reached with 19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in penalties.
The yearlong investigation encompassed companies that create fake reviews as well as the clients that buy them. Among those signing the agreements are a charter bus operator, a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain and an adult entertainment club. Also signing are several reputation-enhancement firms that place fraudulent reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo.
A phony review of a restaurant may lead to a bad meal, which is disappointing. But the investigation uncovered a wide range of services buying fake reviews that could do more permanent damage: dentists, lawyers, even an ultrasound clinic.
“What we’ve found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising,” said Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general. “When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement — but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving.”
Investigators working for Mr. Schneiderman began by posing as the owner of a Brooklyn yogurt shop that was the victim of unfair reviews. Could the reputation management firm gin up some good reviews to drown out the naysayers?
All too often the answer was yes. The investigation revealed a web of deceit in which reviewers in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Eastern Europe produced, for as little as a dollar a rave, buckets of praise for places they had never seen in countries where they had never been.
In some cases, the reputation shops bribed their clients’ customers to write more fake reviews, giving them $50 gift certificates for their trouble. They also went on review sites that criticized their own fake-review operations and wrote fake reviews denying they wrote fake reviews.
The investigation was aimed at companies based in New York, but it will have a wider reach. “This shows that fake reviews are a legitimate target of law enforcement,” said Aaron Schur, senior litigation counsel for Yelp, which has taken an aggressive approach in screening out reviews it believes to be false. Yelp recently sued a California law firm for writing fake reviews of itself.
Within recent memory, reviewing was something professionals did. The Internet changed that, letting anyone with a well-reasoned opinion or a half-baked attitude have his say. Web sites loved this content, because it was free. So consumer reviews became ever more ubiquitous — and influential.
Reviews persuade people to try a new resort or shun an old restaurant. They sell books and the devices the books are read on. They influence the choice of garden tools, plumbers, high fashion and, increasingly, doctors. If you provide a service or sell a product and you are not reviewed, you might as well not exist.
Fake reviews undermine the credibility of the Internet. Olivia Roat, a marketing consultant for Main Street Host, a Buffalo digital marketing agency, discussed her growing realization that fake reviews are omnipresent on the company’s blog last year. “Say it ain’t so!” she wrote. Who, she wondered, could be trusted?