Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Internet Sock Puppetry – Is writing fake reviews playing with fire?

Positive reviews or comments on your articles and blogs are extremely helpful as they can boost your online reputation, increase the trust factor for prospective clients and just generally make your business look good. It is unsurprising then that many business owners have found the idea of writing their own under a false identity rather attractive, an action which would earn them the slang title of internet ‘sock puppet’.

In the last couple of years many well respected authors have faced a tremendous backlash after accusations from other writers outed them as sock puppets.  Many authors have had to publicly apologise for writing exceptionally complimentary reviews of their own books on Amazon under false identities. Perhaps even worse, sometimes they have been guilty of using these identities to disparage rival authors. Certainly such immoral behaviour throws an author’s integrity into question but it also ironically undoes the good that genuine, sincere reviews would do, instead crushing an author’s credibility well and truly.  Unfortunately, fake reviews extend well beyond just the literary community and businesses in all spheres are attempting to better their reputation with dodgy testimonials and comments. 

As competition increases to have the highest rating products, businesses are even going one step further and are employing individuals to write the reviews for them. According to the Guardian, usually this work is given to overseas computer science graduates who are capable of making each review appear under a different name, email address, internet provider and appear as though it were posted from within the UK.  

There are a number of dangerous consequences to writing your own reviews the most obvious of which include damaging your brand, reputation and losing the trust of your customers. Furthermore if you do it on a review site and are caught, you may well find yourself banned from the service and therefore unable to compete with any competitors using it. Some review sites such as Yelp even use specially designed computer filters to identify fakes in order to name and shame the companies responsible. 

Clearly, the practice of writing illegitimate reviews or getting others to do the dirty work for you is frowned upon but is it legal?  The Advertising Code as set out by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) strictly prohibits advertisers from implying that they are a consumer and according to the ASA, the act of posting fake reviews is likely to be illegal under consumer protection regulations.  Because of this, perpetrators could well be investigated by Trading Standards, which would certainly be an unwelcome blow to a business’s reputation whether found guilty or not. 

Even though many review websites or consumer sites such as Amazon are taking action against fake reviews, it is still an increasingly common practice. It is however a dangerous one and the damage you could do to your business if caught makes it entirely not worth the risk.

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