Yelp received a lot of attention in the online world last week for suing a bankruptcy lawyer (who had previously sued them and won) for leaving fake reviews. Suing a single practitioner may have some value in terms of the publicity and alerting businesses to the risks of creating fake reviews. But given the scale of this particular fake review problem it must largely be seen as a symbolic move on Yelp’s part if not retribution.
However the recent less publicized fake review suit and settlement by Edmunds seems to be more substantial and significantly more interesting. It was brought to my attention on Twitter by Ellen Edmands, a content manager for a car dealership marketing company in New York:
— Matkacita (@Matkacita) September 9, 2013
According to the lawsuit Edmunds accused Texas-based Humankind Design Ltd. of “registering nearly 2,200 fake member accounts on Edmunds’ website to post positive but bogus ratings and reviews about 25 dealerships in an attempt to influence consumers’ opinions”. Edmunds in their press release noted that Humankind, as operator of Glowingreviews.com blatantly identified “15 review sites on which it is prepared to post fake reviews; the list includes Google+, Yelp, Foursquare, Citysearch and local.yahoo.com. Edmunds.com is proactively providing each of the listed sites with a copy of its filing to further support online consumers who might otherwise encounter such fraud”.
Humankind claimed that they did not post fake reviews via GlowingReviews.co, but transcribed and posted reviews left on comment cards at dealerships. In the GlowingReviews.com FAQ recovered from the Web Archive they note that “Every business plays in this grey area and this service just lets you do it much more efficiently”. Regardless, as part of the settlement it appears that GlowingReviews has been shut down.
At Blackhatworld, many bemoaned GlowingReviews downfall. I particularly liked this comment:
The site is gone?! What the fuck?
I AM SO ANGRY RIGHT NOW ITS NOT EVEN FUNNY.
It took me a long time to find this place, and for the last half a year I’ve been using
them they have made it SO EASY to build my online reputation. I can’t even say
how angry I am right now that they’re gone. They are part of the reason I got into
local lead gen and started making good money.
If glowingreviews does not come back, someone really NEEDS to fill this gap.And they need to provide this service in a way that is 100% anonymous. To avoid lawsuits.
Comments and rationalizations like those above make it clear that these sorts of actions will do little more than slow things down and perhaps educate a few businesses that were on the fence about their practices given the perceived economic value that positive reviews contribute to a business.
But the problem with reviews is not just around greed. Many businesses feel that review sites have ignored even their most basic of concerns like preventing competitor, ex-employee & non customer spam and they use that resentment to rationalize pursuit of these sorts of practices. Google’s & Yelp’s handling of these issues via algo has done little to provide any comfort as all too many legitimate reviews seem to get the ax while the nasty ex-employee or competitor reviews seem to remain.
In France (thanks to Mohammed Alami) they have recently put in place a public, voluntary standard for sites that accept reviews that provides some of these protections in requiring some sort of proof that the product or service has actually been bought and used while simultaneously preventing businesses from removing or tampering any of the reviews. It is hoped that adherence to these standards by businesses might also increase consumer trust in the review process.
More aggressive state and federal enforcement of rules regarding these sorts of review practices has been sporadic at best. The FTC has had only one high profile enforcement in 2010 and NY State extracted fines from a plastic surgeon in 2009 for posting fake reviews. I know of no other significant enforcement on this front at either the state or national level. I obviously think that enforcement might offer some additional educational and preventative value.
But long haul lawsuits will make but a small contribution to stem the tide of fake reviews. Perhaps in conjunction with public standards that all parties agree to, more legal enforcement and better algorithms we can preserve the value that reviews bring to the public, businesses and the sites that display them.
Perhaps though the solution will have to wait for a technological solution that verifies both the identity and the purchases of the reviewer. Let’s hope that in the meantime the review environment does not become so polluted that it loses its incredible power to both inform consumers and to market businesses.
Reviews And Lawsuits - Is There a Better Way? by Mike Blumenthal