Hello there, business owners!
How’s business going? Pretty good? Are you finding that lots of amazing reviews have landed on your Google, Yelp and Facebook pages? Is your online reputation shiny with lots of gold stars? Or are you wishing on those elusive stars, just hoping that great reviews will magically appear on your business page?
If it’s the latter, you might be tempted to take matters into your own hands. Desperate people do desperate things. We’ve already explained to you that reviewing your own business online is taboo. It’s also a really bad idea to make your employees do the dirty work of writing online reviews, covertly disguising themselves as happy customers.
Now the time has come for us to tell you about something else that is highly frowned upon—paying someone to write reviews for your company or exchanging reviews with another company. Even if other companies are doing it, please don’t follow suit. And we mean suit literally; it could land you in court and tarnish the reputation of your business.
Honesty is Such a Lonely Word
Billy Joel’s been singing about it since 1978 so it’s about time that all of us got on board with the whole honesty thing. The entire point of online reviews is that potential clients get to see an honest and impartial view of your company, as well as how you interact with your current client base.
Unfortunately, fraudulent reviews are on the rise. All the main online players (Google, Yelp, Amazon, etc.) have algorithms designed to flag the rising number of fake reviews and they are working tirelessly to clamp down on bogus reviews.
Yelp’s chief executive, Jeremy Stoppelman, says, “Maintaining the trust of the consumer is critical to our business. We live and breathe only one thing, which is wanting to connect consumers with great local businesses, and I don’t feel we can do that if we don’t have effective ways to prevent gaming of the system.”
Paying For Reviews: Breaking the Law
According to a 2011 Harvard Business School study, restaurants whose Yelp ranking increased by just one star saw their revenues rise by 5 to 9%. This kind of data makes it hard to resist the temptation to pay for online reviews. Companies can’t help but want high-star ratings on their business pages. Many of these companies advertise on websites like Craigslist, offering to pay anyone who is willing to endorse their business.
There are always plenty of people who want to make a quick buck. But Yelp in particular has been coming down hard on businesses who use these tactics.
“The way we have decided to combat that is we have a team that is dedicated to running sting operations. So we pose as review writers who are interested in selling reviews to whoever would like to buy them,” said Stoppelman. “It has been incredibly successful in that we have been able to catch businesses red-handed.”
Yelp has caught 400 companies trying to game the system and if you get caught, you’ll end up wearing a Consumer Alert badge—kind of like the Scarlet Letter—on your business website. Pretty embarrassing and not to mention it’s really bad for your online reputation.
Here’s what Yelp has to say about these Consumer Alerts:
We introduced our Consumer Alerts program back in 2012 to warn people when we see brazen attempts to manipulate ratings and reviews – either by purchasing/incentivizing people for reviews, writing a bunch of reviews from the same IP address (a helpful indicator that they may lack authenticity), or threatening reviewers with legal action. While our recommendation software does a great job weeding out unreliable reviews so you don’t have to, our investigation team is also always on the job.
When we issue an alert, a warning message pops up over the review section of a business page informing the user of the particular action we have learned about, sometimes with a link to view the evidence. The user must manually close the popup to read any of the reviews.
It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t act in haste when issuing these alerts – our team painstakingly gathers evidence and conducts stings. For actions other than legal threats, the Consumer Alert warning will generally be removed from the business page after 90 days if the offending behavior stops. Consumer Alerts based on legal threats are reevaluated on a case-by-case basis. You can read more about Consumer Alerts and other ways Yelp fights to help consumers in the Consumer Protection Initiative section of our blog.
Yelp has taken legal action against companies who solicit reviews so do yourself a huge favor and don’t ever pay someone to write reviews for your business.
As online review sites have become more popular (everyone has an opinion!), the legal system has started cracking down on people who try to manipulate the system to get unearned positive reviews. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the government’s “consumer watchdog.” In short, the FTC’s mission is to rid the marketplace of “unfair and deceptive marketing” — and it has the authority to both fine and shut down operations.
Exchanging Reviews: You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours
During our research, we found a really interesting Facebook page called Review Exchange. The description says:
Exchange business reviews. Get google reviews. Exchange five star reviews. USA members ONLY.
We looked through the posts and the basic gist of this Facebook page is review trading. A member will pose a question like this:
Hi, anyone wants to exchange reviews? I need reviews in South California. I only need yelp reviews, but I can return fb, google, yelp reviews. Thanks all!
Anyone interested can send a private message to the person who posted and then the conversation gets taken offline so that all details of the review exchange happen privately. But even the group members themselves seem to understand that they are on shaky ground:
It goes without saying that we don’t recommend exchanging reviews, either. It’s like playing with fire – you don’t want to watch your business go up in smoke.
The best way to procure online reviews for your business is still the good old-fashioned way; by being a stand-up company who offers great services and products. Let’s help old Billy out by making honesty not such a lonely word.