fake review sign
847 days ago
 

So where can the industry turn to for a dose of Fake Review Optimisation? Many places

NB: This is a guest article by Robert Cole, founder of hospitality and travel marketing strategy and technology consulting company RockCheetah. He also blogs at Views from a Corner Suite.

Almost a month on since my series of posts on Fake Review Optimization, there is some still scepticism out there about the concept and its impact in travel.

As I’ve previously described, groups and individuals participating in it go to significant lengths to avoid detection – again, it is a very similar to the black-hat SEO and website security hacking specialists.

Here are some further thoughts after reading all the comments against the four original articles.

Are the authorities cracking down on it?

Outside the hospitality industry, the US Federal Trade Commission fined Legacy Learning Systems $250,000 for hiring affiliates to positively review their DVD series on various websites.

Ann Taylor Loft had the first FTC investigation for providing bloggers with $10 gift cards to attend and comment on a fashion show, with the bloggers failing to report the gift. The FTC also forced Reverb Communications to stop planting fake reviews in the iTunes Store.

But, heck, am I over-reacting about the threat of Fake Review Optimization? I have been asked to name names, so here are a few of the brazen ones which have websites professing black-hat tactics under the auspices of Online Reputation Management.

[NB: Disclosure - Stacey Higgins of Hotelnewsnow.com found some of these firms in August when researching a story on the topic that included some of my perspectives]
  • PostingOnlyGoodReviews.com, now shut down, but which stated: “The process of managing an online reputation requires both displacing the negative search result(s) and replacing it with only positive search results. Achieving this mission needs a specialized set of skills: internet promotion and marketing, public relations, search engine optimization”
  • OnlineReputationGroup.com, also shut down, which offered a variety of packages including one at $7,500 per month that included “10 websites with advance on page SEO optimization, 1000 reviews, 2500 backlinks, 5 video submissions on up to 150 video sites and listing research”

If you question the veracity of these citations, I have the screen shots to support them.

Here are a few of my favorites that are still in business:

PaladinRep promotes that clients should “immunize your reputation” by “Posting hundreds of positive articles, blog, journal and forum entries, news items, press releases and other pages on a steady, on-going basis” and “posting positive experiences in other related forums.”

Plussem – Not reviews per se, but targeting a similar objective. It specializes in Google +1s, making the following commitments:

  • All +1′s come from people with a google account that has been verified by phone (Phone Verified Accounts)
  • All +1′s come from real people. No bots are being used!
  • All +1′s are being given by manually going to your website and clicking the +1 button
  • It’s untraceble because the +1′s are being given from different IP’s
  • All +1′s are given dripped over a couple of days so it looks natural

Wow – it looks real, too bad it’s not…

I really like TheReputationProfessional. It is very specific about the process – probably because it charges $49 per review. Here is a description:

“In order to ensure that reviews go up and stay up on the most respected review sites, our process cannot be “automated” and we cannot use overseas labor forces. An actual person, physically located near your business and on a residential or business network will place your review.

“Usually their accounts will be linked with facebook and other social networking sites to give the review more legitimacy. Their accounts will also have placed other, respected reviews and will be taken seriously by the website they are placed on as well as the potential customers using the website to find your business.”

I also especially like the 10% discount offer on the “don’t stop until I tell you” tier of service.

Next is ReputationManagers which promises to “create and find unique positive content about your company” and “we artificially create this popularity to the tens (or hundreds) of sites that we create for you”

True, the descriptions of these services do not specifically mention TripAdvisor, but they do mention Yelp in context of eradicating negative reviews on the first two pages of Google organic search listings.

The solution at least one claims is that may take 4-6 months or longer “depending on how aggressive you want us to be, we will work to promote tens or hundreds of pages to try to push the negative websites into the deep depths of Google’s index and fight to keep them down there.”

Even the segment leader Reputation.com may be toeing a creepy line when it states:

“Our patented technology and patented, proprietary strategies, developed by world-class scientists, engineers and years of R&D, can make good content rank highly in your results, eventually displacing the negative content and bumping it out of your top results.”

That technology, backed by a bevy of A-list VCs, was recently honored as a World Economic Forum 2011 Technology Pioneer. Is Reputation.com breaking the law? Probably not.

Would someone armed with similar technological capabilities easily be able to break the law? Probably yes.

That decision depends solely on the ethical pedigree of the group’s management. For firms lacking the sound financial backing of Reputation.com, it might be more difficult to stay on the right side of the creepy line, let alone ignore it.

Perhaps some are still unsure given that I haven’t provided a specific hotel example? Therefore, please meet a repuation management company solely (at least on first look) for the hospitality sector.

Now, it may be completely legit, but some suspicion might be reasonable because:

  • As a .org, it does not fit the profile of a typical non-commercial entity.
  • Its co-founder is a PR Consultant specializing in SEO, it is remarkably low key as there do not appear to be any profiles on LinkedIn or any websites referencing him or his previous company that represented the likes of a major US retail brand. He did apparently teach an SEO class for a law course last year.
  • Two of its offices are all located in virtual office facilities in Washington, DC and nearby. A third is an apartment complex. The 100s of professionals they claim as a staff are obviously virtual and I would guess, not full time employees.
  • The hotel reputation management site looks remarkably similar (and have the same domain URL structure) to review sites for attorneys, franchises, dentists, doctors and restaurants, all of which share the same addresses and telephone numbers.
  • In the 1990s, a person of a similar name to the founder was then at a Baltimore company was convicted of securities fraud in the US. The prospectus for the shares in the adult entertainment company claimed he previously worked in an advisory capacity with the same major US retail brand.
  • The company claims: “We Move And Force Negative Search Results And False Online Reviews About Your Hotel Off Of Page One, Page Two, Page Three, Page Four and Page Five…” and “The more content we create, the more we feed the monster and thus we bury the negative results deeper and deeper.”

That last point is somewhat unambiguous and possibly into black-hat territory in my book.

Of course, if you prefer to avoid the above firms, you can always go the low cost route by using Fiverr to find people willing to write reviews.

Or, if you have a bit more initiative, you can solicit review writers on Elance.com. For example, as I write this, the current listing was posted and had received 11 proposals:

“We require someone to write reviews for our products. They will need to be 2 – 3 sentences each, in informal english. Each product will require about 5 – 8 reviews, with unique content. There are about 20 products initially and this will goto about 200 if the work is of a high enough standard.”

These are only examples of organizations brazen enough to broach the subject on public websites. The covert black-hat folks are not prone to such visibility.

However, if you question the methods I describe to support a covert, black-hat online reputation management business, here’s an example of a fairly specific solicitation for a relatively sophisticated astroturfing/sockpuppet platform.

No, it was not targeting the hotel industry, but the US Air Force wanted it for some serious reputation management challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were six components:

0001 – Online Persona Management Service. 50 User Licenses, 10 Personas per user

Software will allow 10 personas per user, replete with background , history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent.

Individual applications will enable an operator to exercise a number of different online persons from the same workstation and without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries.

Personas must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and can interact through conventional online services and social media platforms. The service includes a user friendly application environment to maximize the user’s situational awareness by displaying real-time local information.

0002- Secure Virtual Private Network (VPN). 1 each

VPN provides the ability for users to daily and automatically obtain randomly selected IP addresses through which they can access the internet.

The daily rotation of the user’s IP address prevents compromise during observation of likely or targeted web sites or services, while hiding the existence of the operation. In addition, may provide traffic mixing, blending the user s traffic with traffic from multitudes of users from outside the organization.

This traffic blending provides excellent cover and powerful deniability. Anonymizer Enterprise Chameleon or equal

0003- Static IP Address Management. 50 each

Licence protects the identity of government agencies and enterprise organizations. Enables organizations to manage their persistent online personas by assigning static IP addresses to each persona.

Individuals can perform static impersonations, which allow them to look like the same person over time. Also allows organizations that frequent same site/service often to easily switch IP addresses to look like ordinary users as opposed to one organization. Anonymizer IP Mapper License or equal

0004- Virtual Private Servers, CONUS. 1 each

Provides CONUS or OCONUS points of presence locations that are setup for each customer based on the geographic area of operations the customer is operating within and which allow a customer’s online persona(s) to appear to originate from.

Ability to provide virtual private servers that are procured using commercial hosting centers around the world and which are established anonymously. Once procured, the geosite is incorporated into the network and integrated within the customers environment and ready for use by the customer.

Unless specifically designated as shared, locations are dedicated for use by each customer and never shared among other customers. Anonymizer Annual Dedicated CONUS Light Geosite or equal

0005- Virtual Private Servers, OCONUS. 8 Each

Provides CONUS or OCONUS points of presence locations that are setup for each customer based on the geographic area of operations the customer is operating within and which allow a customer’s online persona(s) to appear to originate from.

Ability to provide virtual private servers that are procured using commercial hosting centers around the world and which are established anonymously. Once procured, the geosite is incorporated into the network and integrated within the customers environment and ready for use by the customer.

Unless specifically designated as shared, locations are dedicated for use by each customer and never shared among other customers. Anonymizer Annual Dedicated OCONUS Light Geosite or equal

0006- Remote Access Secure Virtual Private Network. 1 each

Secure Operating Environment provides a reliable and protected computing environment from which to stage and conduct operations. Every session uses a clean Virtual Machine (VM) image.

The solution is accessed through sets of Virtual Private Network (VPN) devices located at each Customer facility. The fully-managed VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) is an environment that allows users remote access from their desktop into a VM.

Upon session termination, the VM is deleted and any virus, worm, or malicious software that the user inadvertently downloaded is destroyed. Anonymizer Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) Solution or equal.

Solutions?

It does not take a lot of money or a government contract to build and deploy such a platform… One can argue that based on the financial benefit resulting from higher placements on hotel-related review sites, demand for such a product exists.

I look at any potentially disruptive technology or business model with a healthy dose of skepticism. However, just because one can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

In this case, this is not a witch hunt – it is a growing problem facing not only the hotel industry, but all lines of businesses that benefit from consumer generated reviews.

My four part series of posts appropriately lays out the stakes, the tactics being employed and the methods to combat the problem.

I also hope that TripAdvisor and the global hospitality industry take the threat seriously. As I mention in the articles, fighting Fake Review Optimization is potentially a lot more challenging than fighting web spam.

NB: This is a guest article by Robert Cole, founder of hospitality and travel marketing strategy and technology consulting company RockCheetah. He also blogs at Views from a Corner Suite.

NB2: Image via Shutterstock.

 
 
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  1. Why the old “negative review” trick is destined to fail…

    [...] [H/T to my friend Robert Cole for his excellent "Fake Review Optimization" series on Tnooz.com (parts 2, 3, 4 and 5)] [...]

     
  2. Frank

    there has been some research into fake positives on trip advisor in the sense of how to spot them by language .

    http://www.cs.cornell.edu/~myleott/op_spamACL2011.pdf

    the same group from cornell are about to release another paper soon which will be very interesting titled Estimating the Prevalence of Deception in Online Review Communities
    Myle Ott, Claire Cardie, Jeffrey T. Hancock.

    i think it will be out in a couple of months

    Basically as i see it a few review sites grew very big and very fast. That made them a big player in the decision marketplace and therefore an influence on businesses profitability. once that happens gaming will follow as night follows day. unfortunately many review systems had no or little verification built in when they started up so gaming was relatively easy.

     
  3. Brand Monitoring

    This is a double edged sword. It is unfair for consumers to be mislead by false reviews. But it is just as bad for former employees, and competitors to complain about a company online and the company can do nothing about it. Great read either way! Thanks…

     
  4. CDW Recognized as Cisco TelePresence Video Master Authorized Technology … | Remote Desktop Manager

    [...] and all viruses, worms, or malicious software that the user inadvertently … Read more on Tnooz VN:F [1.9.10_1130]please wait…Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes [...]

     
  5. Pamela

    There’s another one, based in the UK it seems, called http://www.brandcurrency.co.uk/

    A quote from their site: “The key to managing negative campaigns is to essentially push down negative complaints in the results (off the first page and as far away as possible) and replace these with positive and satisfied testimonials as well as other information which can deal directly with any legitimate complaints or smear tactics.

    There are numerous tactics for such but a skilled hand is essential. There are no quick fixes such as claimed by some companies in this sector. Unless of course they have control over the said negative comments, because the Google algorithm is highly sophisticated to ensure against manipulation, results do naturally take some time”

    I’m very shocked by the lengths people will go to to try to fool consumers. This article was very helpful. Thanks.

     
  6. Ophir Ben-Yitschak

    Robert – In depth, fascinating and educational as always. Thank you.

    I wonder if a study has ever been conducted about the correlation between the number of Facebook “Likes” or Google +1′s displayed on a site and the psychological effect this number has on the site’s visitors.

    Should the number of Likes or +1′s on a site be equated with written reviews?

    Best wishes to everyone for a peaceful, happy, healthy and successful New Year.

     
  7. Fake review optimization | Novojustice

    [...] Robert Cole on tnooz.com: [...]

     
  8. Graeme Evans

    Great article and interesting debate. Not sure if there is any long term solution but it must be frustrating for those industry suppliers that work hard to create a positive experience for their customers when these tactics are used by less authentic competitors.

    I note comments above where suppliers use techniques to ‘certify’ reviews – but I’m not sure this is the best way to ensure honest comments from customers who in some instances will want to remain anonymous – also can we be sure that all negative reviews are published.

     
  9. hhotelconsult

    I actually got into an argument on that blip of a second of a darling “Quora”. I don’t really use the site… it is so bloody uppity. But a conversation about “do you trust yelp reviews” came up. Interesting conversation… no one mentioned black hat gaming at all.

    http://www.quora.com/Yelp/Should-you-trust-the-average-Yelp-review-rating-for-restaurants-Why-or-why-not

     
  10. Marketing Day: December 22, 2011

    [...] So where can the industry turn to for a dose of Fake Review Optimisation? Many places, http://www.tnooz.com [...]

     
  11. Daniel Edward Craig

    Wow, this series has been a fascinating and informative read, Robert. One way of reducing this type of behavior is to name and shame the perpetrators, as you’ve done – I see that TheReputationProfessional.com site has already been taken down (though the blog is still up, at least for now: http://thereputationprofessional.blogspot.com/). I still maintain that while many do game the system the instances of outright fraud are rare in the great scheme of things and the wisdom of crowds prevails over the folly of the few.

     
  12. hhotelconsult

    Phenomenal stuff. This has been so enlightening. Thanks sir! Glad my skepticism spurred you to post this stuff. I am sharing it far and wide. =) Thanks.

     
  13. Nadav Gur

    Great research Robert. The phenomenon indeed seems to be widespread. But to truly qualify it we need numbers – what % of recent reviews on TRIP or its competitors are fake?

    Wondering whether now that TRIP is a public company, proper disclosure about their approach to this problem is not mandatory.

     
    • RobertKCole

      Excellent question and I don’t believe anybody has an answer for it.

      For my part, I firmly believe the vast majority of current TripAdvisor reviews are legitimate.

      The problem is that for some destinations and certain properties, the results can be easily gamed.

      What I would like to see are preventative measures (no, I do NOT mean forcing TripAdvisor to validate the identity and product usage of every review) to curtail the spread of the problem.

      I ultimately see the solution as an industry platform that can provide positive validation through suppliers and transactional sites, yet maintain reviewer anonymity, so there needs to be an isolation of back-end and front-end processes.

      Sounds like a potential start-up that could work well across a variety of industries, but not a simple task with lots of moving parts & lots of constituencies to satisfy.

       
      • Nadav Gur

        Well to be honest some aspects of what we’re working on at TripBoard are very much related to this problem. But it looks like the most relevant parties – TRIP and Yelp, are the last people on earth who want to touch it, cause for now the vast majority of their consumer audiences are not aware of it.

         
        • RobertKCole

          Agreed – I believe that this has been a constant within the travel industry for decades – the industry leaders are very much interested in maintaining the status quo as that would structurally continue to secure their position as industry leaders.

          Thereby introducing an opportunity for disruption.

          One would think TripAdvisor would want to be highly focused on this with the likes of Google, Apple & Facebook taking interest in the space. Plus, who knows what Amazon might be thinking about travel… All are focused on user personalization and the integration of Social / Local / Mobile commerce with their existing platforms. Reliable reviews & ratings are central to that integration.

           
          • Nadav Gur

            Personally I wouldn’t be surprised if this is GoGoBot’s strategy and what landed them the big bucks – TA is going to lose credibility, and then an alternative platform with true cred can emerge. Maybe Travis should chime in (assuming he’s landed from cloud nine, that is).

             
  14. RobertKCole

    Thanks @Daniel,

    For example 1, the research indicates that reviews with confirmed identities are much more likely to be positive than anonymous reviews. Also, OTA’s, due to their transaction-based relationships with the hotels, may be more willing to strike negative reviews – especially if hotels complain and accuse the reviewers of false accusations. That process can wipe out some legitimate negative reviews in the interest of maintaining happy supplier relations.

    I won’t comment on the factors at play for hotel brands hosting their own reviews…

    For example 2, Expedia, Hotels.com, Hotwire & TripAdvisor keep their reviews compartmentalized. While I believe they all share the same TripAdvisor-based review platform, it would seem that they are keeping the reviews separate so if they spin off organizations (Like Trip Advisor’s IPO today) they don’t have to pull out a bunch of content. that said, sometimes one property (like Hotwire) will reference TripAdvisor ratings)

     
    • Daniel

      Thanks for your thoughts on this matter.

      On Tripadvisor IPO: I hope this opens the gate for a competitve ad market place for OTA s within Tripadvisor.

      Also I doubt Expedia.com or group related booking engines will ever be charged the same click price as non Expedia properties, my hopes are high that the api will become read/write and free to use.

       
  15. mmccormick

    Great series of articles and information. Thanks for posting. I find it fascinating that the industry itself would have to support this kind of behaviour for a business to flourish. I’m thinking we should attempt to invite “J Preston” to speak at a tourism conference and see what kind of response we get. Appropriate his image is a character….

     
    • RobertKCole

      @mmccormick, good idea. I would be happy to debate Mr. Preston (or anyone else for that matter) at any tourism conference.

       
  16. Scott McNeely

    There’s also another way companies can fight this problem. But most companies and brands don’t want to hear about it, because it forces them to lose the SEO edge.

    Here’s the most simple solution possible: Only allow confirmed customers to submit reviews. As in, you are 100% certain the customer has purchased your product or service.

    If every brand took this approach, it would instantly lift the quality and authenticity of user-generated reviews on the web. This is the approach we take at Viator, and we’ve avoided the problem of fake reviews and spam reviews since we launched reviews back in 2005.

    Of course, an approach like this won’t work for Tripadvisor or Yelp. They don’t own a transactable service or product. But sites like these could (and should) then take an ‘authenticated’ feed of reviews from the service / property / product owners and display them more prominently on their sites. They could still accept ‘open source’ reviews from people who may – or may not – have actually experienced the service or product in question. But at least, by displaying and elevating ‘authenticated’ reviews from the confirmed service/product owner, everybody benefits.

    I know. I dreaming. This will never happen. But it is Christmastime, right? The whole miracles might happen time of year??

    -Scott

     
    • jeremy cooker

      Could not agree more with Scott’s points. Any site offering reviews under the guise of helpful content has a responsibility to verify and authenticate those reviews.

      they should make whatever efforts necessary to ensure that the reviews that people submit to their site and that they, themselves as site publishers are leveraging as “value” are in fact, truly valuable to consumers. otherwise, they’re doing themselves and their audiences a huge disservice.

       
  17. Pierre TOURISTIC

    Thank you for your article,

    we work in France with Gîtes de France (South West) and I can explain our project (in bad english :) .

    We collect customer reviews from Gîtes de France directly and exclusively by email from real customers who have booked their stay through the central reservation Gîtes de France. Then we can prove and show that they are certified customer reviews. That’s why on Vinivi.com, you can find the words “certified notice” or “avis certifié” because we are able to prove that it’s a real customer who has left this opinion. If the web sites that specialize in customer reviews are to continue to exist, they will have no choice but to focus on the display, Reviews “certified”.

    Thank you for your article

     
  18. Doug Kennedy

    You may want to check your facts as Reverb was not hit by the FTC for “fake reviews” – Fake reviews are bad, shotty journalism is worse…..

    Doug Kennedy
    President and CEO
    Reverb Communications

     
    • RobertKCole

      Hi Doug,

      Thanks for suggesting that we check our facts – It’s always nice to receive suggestion that reinforce our existing practices. The facts were checked before the article was written, which is why Reverb was selected as an example.

      Let’s see where to start… Perhaps by quoting the opening paragraph of the press release regarding the FTC administrative complaint concerning the activities of Reverb Communications, Inc.

      “A public relations agency hired by video game developers will settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it engaged in deceptive advertising by having employees pose as ordinary consumers posting game reviews at the online iTunes store, and not disclosing that the reviews came from paid employees working on behalf of the developers.”

      So exactly how do you describe the nature of Reverb’s interaction with the FTC on this topic?

      - There was an administrative complaint.
      - There was a settlement.
      - The endorsements were removed
      - Reverb & Tracie Snitker were prohibited from repeating the activity in the future.

      To the layman, I’m not too sure how much closer one can get to describing the FTC action as causing one to cease & desist publishing fake reviews.

      Of course, you might be continuing to argue that the reviews created by Reverb and its associates were not fake because the authors are humans who actually used the games or that the FTC did not use the exact term “fake reviews” in its complaint.

      Unfortunately, that argument falls short based on the FTC guides governing endorsements and testimonials: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm. The FTC complaint specifically called out Reverb for failing to disclose a material connection between the reviewer and the seller of the product or service. The FTC was also unanimous in its decision with a 5-0 vote on the issue concerning Reverb.

      In short, in the eyes of the FTC, or any reasonable person, if that if a potential conflict of interest is not disclosed, that review should not be considered legitimate. Based on the context of my four-part Tnooz series on the topic, that type of review gets categorized into my “fake” pile.

      The FTC rules are an extremely important development that address a very serious issue that undermines digital communications and ultimately, e-commerce. I blogged about it a couple years ago: http://www.rockcheetah.com/blog/social-media/new-ftc-rule-helps-improve-social-media-travel-reviews/

      You will be pleased to know for clarity and the convenience of Tnooz readers, we have modified the reference to Reverb in the article and now provide a direct link to the FTC release.

      Regarding your reference to “shotty journalism,” I am wondering if you would apply the same characterization to the articles authored by the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/27/technology/27ftc.html and CNET http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-20014887-38.html that exclusively focused on the subject of the FTC complaint against Reverb.

      However, what gives me the greatest pause is your response to Gagan Biryani’s TechCrunch article http://techcrunch.com/2009/08/22/cheating-the-app-store-pr-firm-has-interns-post-positive-reviews-for-clients/ where you stated “Our interns and employees write their reviews based on their own game play experience, after having purchased the game by themselves, a practice not uncommon by anyone selling games or apps and hardly unethical.”

      So, let’s get this straight, since I have been focusing on illegitimate hotel reviews, what if Marriott’s 150,000 employees all paid their own money to stay in a Marriott property and wrote glowing reviews without disclosing their relationship with Marriott? It would seem that you clearly feel that such a practice is not unethical.

      I submit for your consideration that this is exactly the kind of behavior that the FTC rules intended to eradicate.

      Doug, you are 100% correct, fake reviews are bad. Shotty journalism may indeed be worse. But I will argue that neither is as bad as engaging in deceptive advertising by having employees pose as ordinary consumers posting reviews.

      However, even worse are the PR firms that stand behind such practices, falsely accusing others of getting facts wrong or ejaculating undeserved accusations of shotty journalism.

      Those organizations and the individuals leading them represent an existence within an ethical void that if characterized as a life form, would fall somewhere below decaying pond-scum.

       
    • Joe Payton

      Ask Doug Kennedy about his relationship with Apple! Now there is a story!

       
  19. Daniel

    Very nice research you did there.

    I am missing one very important instance here: OTA websites and hotel websites.
    Example 1:

    I always wondered how some OTA websites only have positive reviews about hotels on their websites, but TA or Google shows mixed reviews for the same property. Until I booked and reviewed a bad experience through an OTA, where I experienced that my review and rating would never be published.

    Example 2:

    Why are the ratings on Expedia.com different to Tripadvisor.com reviews. If it is the same group?

     
 
 

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