By 2014, one out of every ten online product reviews will be "fake," posted by people who have been secretly paid to write them, says market research firm Gartner.
It's called "astroturfing" and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has just busted 19 companies for doing it. Such fake reviews show up on sites like Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch.com.
These 19 companies will pay combined fines of more than $350,000 ($2500 to $100,000 apiece) and all have signed agreements to stop.
To smoke these companies out, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) set up a sting operation called "Operation Clean Turf."
An OAG staffer posed as the owner of a yogurt shop and then answered ads posted on Craigslist.com, Freelancer.com, oDesk.com from Search Engine Optimization (SEO) companies offering to write reviews.
These SEO companies hired freelancers in places like the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe, paying them $1 to $10 per review, the OAG said.
And the setup at some of these companies was more sophisticated than you might think.
For instance, one company only hired reviewers that had an established Yelp account that was more than three months old and had a least 15 legit reviews on it. This helped it fly under the radar of Yelp's fake review detection filters.
Another required the freelancer to be able to post from multiple IP addresses, which would require posting from different locations and/or with multiple Internet service providers. They also wanted their freelancers to have "some understanding on how Yelp filters works" so they could game the system.
You probably shouldn't need to be told this, but Operation Clean Turf is a reminder to take all online reviews with a grain of salt.
Meanwhile, Schneiderman has this warning for those still out there gaming the system:
“Astroturfing” is the 21st century’s version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it," he said in a press release.
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