back to article Firms fined $350,000 after yogurt sting uncovers review rigging

A year-long investigation by New York prosecutors has found 19 local businesses guilty of faking reviews on sites such as Google and Yelp, a practice that has now earned them over $350,000 in fines and penalties. As part of "Operation Clean Turf," investigators from the office of the New York Attorney General posed as yogurt …

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Pirate

Just a drop in the ocean

It's a start, but they really are up against an ocean of these practices.

There is no lack of poor people looking to make some money from home and more than willing to take 1p a word for writing something. No lack of business owners looking to get ahead even it means breaking the law.

And no lack of sleazy bastards offering both.

I've personally seen it all.

SEO, as generally practiced, is the biggest scam ever perpetuated.

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Re: Just a drop in the ocean

I get on average 25 emails a week proporting to offer SEO all promising a first place. It is a plague and no I have not succumbed to it.

The problem is businesses that play fair don't succeed.......

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Oh, SEO has its uses

I have very successfully recovered money owing to me and some friends by promising the directors of the company involved that I would use SEO to ensure that their and their fellow directors' names, their company name, and the names of a list of other companies they ran would be linked to a number of factual but damning weblogs detailing how they had taken our money under false pretences.

I recommend it whole-heartedly as a useful and effective remedy when dealing with sharks.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Just a drop in the ocean

"... they really are up against an ocean of these practices."

If only law enforcement had access to an organisation that could hack into all these review and forum websites and trace who posted the defamatory 'anonymous' postings.

Maybe we could turn this modern sword into a ploughshare.

(Posted as Anon, obviously)

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Re: Just a drop in the ocean

Drop in the ocean, but a start. SEO sharks don't exist in a vacuum, they prey on usually small businesses. If those small businesses know there are ramifications, they may be less likely to participate. If the slap on the wrist comes with a name and shame (not hyperlinked, of course) and/or having to wear a link to anti-SEO sites on their website for a month or two, the value proposition isn't so great as the risk free spamfest it currently is.

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Re: Just a drop in the ocean

I looked at doing some work over the summer via services like Textbroker.

However not only does it only pay a derisory 1p per word, some of the assignments were inviting you to write blog posts praising products you'd never used or, even worse, saying how you'd made loads of dosh through a Make Money Fast scheme!

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Re: Just a drop in the ocean

You are 100% correct!

I used to make competitors websites totally fall off search engines results by SEOing them to death.

This angers the search engine protocols and one of the old tricks that used to work back in the old infoseek days was to copy your competitors sites and have that site be live on the internet as well then within 2 days the site would be dead.

Ahh the easy good ole days.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Just a drop in the ocean

Yeah, if only law enforcement could sidestep the law and everyone's rights then they could get stuff done. Just don't let them do that when it comes to pursuing Anonymous. That would be wrong...

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Pirate

I think firms like Reputation.com fall under this same category of manipulating impressions through questionable practices. Bad reviews and shit slinging are part of having a business, any business.

You could give every customer a free blowjob and a bar of solid gold with each purchase and some would still bitch. Even if some reviews are slanderous; if it isn't true your quality service will easily overcome them. You've got quality service don't you?

Stand on your own merits you lot of cankerous swindlers.

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In fact you will get a negative view of pretty well every business because you only get motivated enough to say something if you're pissed off. If everything is perfect then that's the way your day *should* be and so you carry on without mentioning it.

You're welcome, marketing people. Now get your adverts off my fucking lawn.

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As a addendum to the above, people will go a little out of their way to post nice things about companies if the goods/service/thing really surpassed expectations; but usually in response to a question. If asked about domains, for example, I'd have no problems recommending Namecheap; or Vidahost if asked about hosting because both companies have spectacularly good customer support and have helped me out in the past; but if you post the information without being asked, it makes you look like a shill.

Sad, really, that if you see somebody writing nice things it's almost the default position to assume that they're shilling...and you'll quite often be right in that assumption.

People will go much further if they're angry. I've never joined a service to say nice things; but I have joined a service specifically to post a negative review of a company I was particularly infuriated with.

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You make a really good point. I wonder what the thoughts are on rewards systems for 'Verified Purchasers'? I buy some things from a site and later get an email for each thing asking me to write a review and in return I'll get (x) points for future purchases or some such nonsense.

Other than being mildly annoying, is this sort of thing the same as shilling?

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Technically it is shilling because you're being paid -however minimally- for the review. They are assuming, of course, that the review will be a positive one. I pretty well always ignore those emails; the one exception being the one I mentioned earlier where I specifically joined a site or two specifically to slam the service:

It was a webhosting company, and I'd just moved a client's cluster of sites there....it quickly became apparent that they didn't have the faintest idea of what they were doing; and buggered the DNS up to the point that the websites flickered on and off like Spanish wiring. When I pointed out the problem they accused me of making the website that did the DNS analysis specifically to fake them out. After several days of this, I used the word "bloody" in a support email. They said I was "discourteous" and deleted all my client's sites...no chance to back up or anything. Particularly ironic because the name of the hosts was DamnX (they're not trading now...good riddance).

Anyway, a week went past; the client's sites were relocated again and I got an automatic email asking me to rate the service. That incensed me so much I spent the evening doing exactly that. I also bought damnxsucks.com, with the intention of seeing how far up Google I could get it; but never bothered in the end. (On a related note, you'd be amazed how investing $10 on $NAMEdoesn'tpayhisbills.com can speed up payment from tight-fisted clients).

Back to the subject in hand, the rewarded review emails strike me as doubly dishonest....firstly they're essentially bribing you to shill; plus there's also the sense of "Let's get a good review in quickly while the customer is still happy and before it breaks".

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I tend to agree, it is dishonest. I wonder how moderated those 'paid' reviews are? Like if you have something '5-Stars' but in the comments slammed the product. Would it be moderated out? If they are moderating the paid reviews at all it definitely seems wrong.

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If you're paying -however little- for reviews then you can pretty well guarantee it's moderated. From the point of view of the business owner, it's sensible to moderate anyway, if you can, because you're going to get negative reviews even if your product and service is impeccable. I've been reading http://notalwaysright.com and people are amazing...not in a good way. There's a lot of "give me free stuff or I'm going to do $This_thing to your company" about.

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On the plus side..

I'm now really looking forward to speaking with the next muppet offering me SEO services.

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Anonymous Coward

They should also checkout Wikipedia ..

Most of the BIG articles read like self-written marketing fluff ..

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Anonymous Coward

Re: They should also checkout Wikipedia ..

One of my favourites used to be the page on Valentine Strasser, who became the worlds youngest head of state at 25 when he mounted a coup in Sierra Leone in the 90s. Booted out about 10 minutes later by another coup put together by his deputy, he was clearly left with a lot of time on his hands and a tattered reputation to massage. His wiki entry read like the output of a embittered man with a bruised ego availing themselves of the facilities at a south London public library, waging something of an edit war with rival-coup astroturfers over his astoundingly heroic history and legacy. The current entry has lost a little of its brash 'boys own' shine and suggests he's either found a better use of his time or lost access to the interwebs at his "run-down house" east of Freetown.

Doubtless our various former 'failed bank' bosses outsource the whitewash for a bit less swaggering verve and a bit more polish.

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Re: They should also checkout Wikipedia ..

But Wikipedia isn't directly promoting the sale of anything. I think that's the difference. When loaded information is used to seperate people from their money. Self promotion really isn't bad in and of itself.

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Go

Does anyone want to believe (online reviews)

From people they've never heard of?

Has the reviewer been paid? Did they get a free meal? A free sample of said product? Are they mates with the owner of the company they're reviewing? Are they some crazy person who writes positive/negative reviews cause amanfrommars 'told' them to?

Who knows? And why would you believe a word they say?

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Re: Does anyone want to believe (online reviews)

I do. If certain conditions are met:

1. The review has been associated with a purchase. Amazon reviews can be reasonably informative. So are reviews on Google Play. The best example is probably booking.com.

2. There is a statistically signifcant number of verified reviews and/or ratings. Once again - "size matters". It is difficult to compete with Amazon or booking.com here.

3. If there is not enough reviews/ratings to form a statistically significant sample it is still possible to get some information by scraping different models of the same product. Same goes for properly written technical reviews. If the review contains technical info on the product and you happen to know what you are buying you can decide based on a smaller sample.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Does anyone want to believe (online reviews)

Initially look at the proportion of good/bad reviews before you look at the content. That will give you a better idea.

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Re: Does anyone want to believe (online reviews)

There's a number of factors I take into account when reading an online review:

1. How many reviews has the author written?

2. What type of username does the author use.

3. Is the author American?

So if you have a low number or this is the only review; have a username of xxxdsfskfjdsh123; and/or are an entitled American who does not know how to behave in a civilised society, then I'm going to ignore the review.

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Re: Does anyone want to believe (online reviews)

"So are reviews on Google Play".

Like all the recommendations for fake BBM!!!!

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FAIL

Re: Does anyone want to believe (online reviews)

In what civilized society is it considered proper behavior to malign an entire nationality? Here in 'America' we try not to paint with so broad of a brush. We tried it, as most of the West has, but such behavior is no longer considered civil.

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Re: Does anyone want to believe (online reviews)

Of course I believe them - I just don't give a hoot whether there are any positive ones. As someone already mentioned, "good" is supposed to be "business as usual". What I care about is whether there are multiple reports of similar *problems* - if yes, it's probably a problem indeed; if nothing particular is being complained about systematically, it's probably a safe purchase.

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Anonymous Coward

@ Don Jefe

The comment doesn't malign an entire nationality, merely the portion of it that considers itself "entitled"; a loud and florid sub species most of us who live in London will have encountered in the raw at some point or other in restaurants and bars, museums, public transport, airports and railway station ticket queues.

The last in particular seems to encourage the Entitled American give throat to the fullest sense of outrage to which he believes his passport (and God, naturally!) entitles him - and its almost always a 'him' wherever he is. While the ones that only shatter glass and curdle milk with their bellicose rhetoric are merely irritating (like "a buzzsaw cutting through wet teak" as a New Zealander described it to me), those that break the understood rules of civilised queueing in the UK and head for the front waving their Amex card and train timetable tend to discover very quickly from those they've queue-jumped that we're always not so meek and mild after all in the face of uncouth and uncivilised behaviour.

And if you think we have a short fuse in the face of the Entitled American, try the Dutch.

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Thumb Up

Re: @ Don Jefe

Ah. I misunderestimated the depth of your comment. Reading it again I see now. Thanks for the clarification!

If it makes you feel any better we don't like those people here either. But we can't get anybody to take them off our hands.

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Re: Does anyone want to believe (online reviews)

I buy a lot online, so I rely on online reviews heavily ... but you have to read them carefully.

1 - Is the reported problem apparently "user error" or the product's fault?

2 - What is the proportion of bad, middling, excellent reviews?

3 - If there were problems, does the reviewer explain how they were resolved?

4 - Is there a pattern of product flaws?

5 - Does this reviewer have a pattern of all-glowing or all-horrible reviews?

6 - If negative, is the delivery spittle-flecked ranting or a sincere attempt to explain a bad product.

7 - Is this a "dogpile" because of some online news about the place or product? (Amy's Bakery, etc.)

I also write reviews, trying to review everything significant I buy online ... with the good, the bad and the ugly about whatever it was.

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Anonymous Coward

"The analyst house forecast that by 2014 between 10 and 15 per cent of reviews on sites like Yelp will be corporate-sponsored fakes..."

I do believe that there is much more than that already. It's quite frankly a common practice especially in countries that do not have legislation against such behaviours.

I would know, since I worked in the past in a 4A advertising agency and hiring freelance writers not only to write fake reviews but to "participate" in discussion forums is a known practice in the agencies for many years now. Let's just say any big companies would've done something like that over the past decade if they have ever asked a 4A to do a digital campaign or create promo sites (though AFAIK only in countries that don't have legislations that bans fake reviews and writers). The small SEO guys are often the ones feeding off the large ad agencies so I'm not surprised so many do so.

The only way to tackle this problem is only allow/trust reviews with proof-of-purchase but this is really up to service providers to implement. They've already started doing so on a few big online shopping sites and I hope this will expand. Though mind you I personally don't see how the discussion forum side will "end", since it's often not writing about reviews but writing fake recommendations and trying to generate postive talk around certain products/brand, including sponsored blogging as well as news stories (disguised).

Knowing what I know I don't bother with discussing anything online, just write your piece and move on and basically you always have to be cynical about what you read even on large reputable sites. The internet today is full of lies and deceit, the only time when things were in good faith is in the 90s before spam even existed (while I'm at it, sites that uses "Real ID" only gives a false sense of security - because they can easily be "Real Fake ID" or sponsored in some way behind the scenes).

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Depends on the industry

Travel and tourism already run into the 50% +. That is definitely the case in Prague, Paris, Budapest and Barcelona. You are better off just walking down the street and picking a place based on looks and who is in it instead.

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Anonymous Coward

"...prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it."

Perhaps in the USA; in the UK this would pretty much amount to Blackadder's sharpened Guava slice if you're lucky. The chances of anyone getting caught short and mildly inconvenienced while astroturfing this side of the pond are simply depressing, and the situation's unlikely to improve anytime this century with the current laissez-faire mindset welded in place of our non-regulators.

While it's easy enough to bypass the problem by treating the vast majority of utterly illiterate reviews with the derision they deserve, its a shame that what should be one of the few actually useful aspects of "social" internet activity turns into yet another opportunity for the marketing industry to display its utter contempt for humanity in general, while making money that would be far better spent putting them and their kin on a none too luxuriously appointed 'Ark B', with only a looped audio feed of Pink Floyd's "set the controls for the heart of the Sun" for company. It won't learn 'em, but it will satisfy.

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Joke

Unlike the Reg

Which is a fine institution, staffed by fabulous writers with stories from impeccable sources. I for one welcome our illustrious Reg overlords.

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Happy

Re: Unlike the Reg

Indeed. The Register would never do anything so underhand.

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Trollface

Re: Unlike the Reg

Still got me Gold badge too, but the carriage clock stopped working ages ago.

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It must be true.

I read it on teh intra web tubes.

Why anyone believes online anonymous revues is beyond me ...

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Anonymous Coward

Revues?

What has light entertainment got to do with this?

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Pint

Re: It must be true.

Online, anonymous revues?

Sounds a bit risqué, if you ask me.

How very Freudian.

Have a beer and a thumbs-up on me :-D

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Megaphone

Discordian Pentabarf

Commandment #5.

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Colour....

..... has a "U" in it. So does 'neighbour', 'flavour' and 'harbour'.

Oh and 'yoghurt' has an "H" in it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Colour....

Actually, yog(h)urt strictly shouldn't even have a 'g' in it. The word is originally Turkish, where the 'g' is silent. The French 'yaourt' is closer.

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Turkish soft G

Professor, the Turkish word is yoğurt, using the Turkish letter Ğ (“soft G”, which comes between G and H in the Turkish alphabet). Between back vowels, Ğ is silent in casual Turkish speech, but is pronounced with the velar approximant /ɰ/ in older or careful Turkish speech — perhaps somewhat comparable to many examples of English wh being pronounced as /w/ in casual speech, but as /hw/ in older or careful speech.

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Trollface

Not Showing in Web Searches

So how did you find me?

Durr!

Still, while the Internet is full of stupid people who'll believe that they're removing the word 'gullible' from the dictionary, these spammers and scammers will make a fast buck.

Maybe that's a storyline for GTA VI? </finger on the pulse>

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Anonymous Coward

what about big yogurt?

let's not call them names, because their lawyers would drown you in yogurt. But take ANY 1st- league business selling ANYTHING, try to probe, dig a little bit, and I betcha you'll discover their finger, their hand, and probably the whole ass in that "yogurt". Obviously, only the middle management would know and be found guilty, as is (variably) the case.

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WTF?

Brooklyn has yogurt shops?!?

And enough of them to make it credible that someone might want to pay to be top of the search results for 'brooklyn yogurt shop'?!?

Is this frozen yogurt, i.e. second-class ice cream, or the stuff I have for breakfast with fruit and museli?

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Gimp

Re: Brooklyn has yogurt shops?!?

A "Brooklyn yogurt shop" sounds like a slang term for something illegal or a bit dodgy...

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Re: Brooklyn has yogurt shops?!?

Or fun if you know someone who is into the crowd sourced big gulp yogurt thing.

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This is an excellent story

I came to The Register looking for insightful technology reporting, and boy! - did I ever find it! The Register is a leading global online tech publication, with more than seven million unique users worldwide. I look to The Register coverage of the issues I face at work every day – in software, hardware, networking and IT security. With this article, they've delivered yet again. I recommend The Register whole heartedly as your one stop source for IT news and analysis.

***** (5 Stars)

That'll be $50 please

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Thumb Up

Re: This is an excellent story

Would SEO again!

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