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Astroturfing: Online Reputation Management Can Solve the Problem

By Jason Mudd

Somebody’s got some explaining to do.


They’re calling it “operation clean turf,” and it’s all about cleaning up the online reputation of companies that previously used fake online reviews to help promote their brands.


Online reputation management is an area that has exploded along with companies that are using the Internet to promote their businesses. Today, every company should have some concern about how its online reputation is managed. Drawing more traffic to websites through a process called search engine optimization (SEO) writing is something that many online reputation management companies offer.


However, through a practice known as “astroturfing,” sites like CitySearch and Yelp have been flooded with fake consumer reviews. While these fake reviews were executed by the companies they sought to promote, the companies did everything they could to avoid being detected as the catalysts for these reviews, according to a report from the U.S. Attorney General’s office after a year-long undercover investigation.


The reputation management industry that used these fake reviews was actually violating state laws that regulate false advertising. A representative from the AG’s office said consumers had come to rely on reviews from peers to help them make decisions about what they should buy, which included everything from rooms at vacation resorts to food. The intentional deceit carried out by the reputation management industry violated consumer trust and prosecuting attorneys now have a variety of means to bring these cases to court.


Unfortunately, instead of bringing in writers to offer useful and informative data regarding the company’s products or services, some companies were paying writers to create false reviews in their SEO articles. The companies responsible for such practices were using IP spoofing techniques to hide who they were and then set up hundreds upon hundreds of fake online profiles to post the misleading reviews.


The pay for creating these reviews ranges from $1 to $10, with writers coming from multiple countries. The ads seeking writers mentioned that they need to have multiple IP addresses in order to secure work with the company.

Given the perks that companies see when online reviews are positive, it’s not surprising that the astroturfing practice took off as quickly as it did. One survey said that getting a ratings increase of just one star on Yelp helped the company to secure upward of 10 percent more revenue. Hotels were able to increase their room rates by more than 10 percent when they got the same type of boost.


With more than 100 million consumers jumping on Yelp.com every month to look at what their peers were saying, the astroturfing practice proved hugely misleading to them. Yelp has defended itself by saying that it does everything it can, including using filtering software, to keep the fake accounts from popping up. It also reached out to its users to red-flag possible fake accounts that post misleading reviews.


To help clean up the industry, nearly 20 SEO companies and other small businesses signed an agreement called an Assurance of Discontinuance. Penalties for violating the agreement range from $2,500 to $100,000. The fines will be a big deterrent against publishing deceptive reviews that boost a company’s online profile.


Smart, experienced PR agencies like Axia Public Relations have been growing their lists of genuine client success stories in the area of online reputation management for years, without relying on false consumer reviews or any similar tools. Instead, solid strategies based on true product attributes and well-planned, timely responsiveness to audience feedback are generating this success – fair and square.


If your organization is in need of help in boosting its online reputation or managing problem areas, contact Axia PR today. We’re all about straightforward PR tools, leveraged for success, with no strings attached.


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By Jason Mudd, APR


Jason Mudd, APR, is the CEO of Axia Public Relations and an Emmy-Award-winning accredited public relations practitioner, speaker, author and entrepreneur. His public relations portfolio includes work for established national brands such as American Airlines, Dave & Buster’s, Florida Blue, H&R Block, Hilton, HP, Miller Lite, New York Life, Pizza Hut, Ray Charles and Verizon, as well as emerging brands like Brightway Insurance, Pragmatic Works and It Works! Global.


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Topics: SEO, reputation management, crisis communications, online reputation management, shared media

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