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Got Bad Reviews Online? Don’t Even Think About Astroturfing

If you haven’t heard of astroturfing, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, this spammy web technique is gaining popularity among business owners and shady marketers branding their service as “reputation management.”

But astroturfing isn’t reputation management. It’s cheating. And it could get you banned, fined and lambasted in the media.

What is astroturfing?

Say your business has received a few bad reviews on a public forum or review site like Yelp, CitySearch or TripAdvisor. It can happen to anyone, and it’s definitely not fun. You think you run a pretty good operation, and you don’t think it’s fair a few disgruntled customers could potentially derail your online reputation.

So, you turn to a service offering “reputation management,” who claim they can help push those reviews out of sight, or dilute the ratio of bad reviews simply by outnumbering them. When you pay this company for their service, you’re purchasing fake positive reviews. That’s astroturfing.

Why is astroturfing so bad?

The name is a play on the idea of grassroots, user-generated movements, content, and activism. However, where grassroots implies real, organic support for a movement, product or service, astroturfing is just the opposite.

It’s creating false profiles to write false reviews to falsely prop up a product or service – and in the eyes of the internet gods, it’s totally not okay. Astroturfing destroys your credibility both on the site you’re gaming, and with the public should your shady techniques come to light.

Even if you’re not actively paying someone to write fake reviews, offering incentives (ie. 20% off for a positive review) counts as astroturfing and could get you busted. And don’t even think about asking employees to create profiles and leave reviews.

Some cases of astroturfing (like those described above) are decidedly blatant and, to steal a word from the SEO community, très “black hat.”

Not quite astroturfing, but not quite right either

Sometimes business owners commit review-site no-no’s that they may not even know are wrong. Yelp, for example, does not recommend businesses even ask their customers for a positive review.

Here’s why: it’s likely business owners will only solicit reviews from highly-satisfied customers. Yet asking only your most pleased customers to publicly review your business doesn’t give an accurate representation of the majority of your customers’ experience.

If you made the same suggestion to all customers, it would be different. But if you’re just asking for reviews from the happiest of happy clients, you could be gaming the system.

Yelp filters good and bad reviews to help prevent astroturfing

According to a post on their official blog, Yelp’s algorithm is designed to filter out potentially solicited reviews in favor of those posted organically by users with higher authority and trustworthiness.

So how can I get good reviews online?

Don’t worry. There are things you can do to help improve your score on review sites and forums. Yelp suggests you add their badge to your website and/or a link to your Yelp business page in your email signature. If you run a storefront, you could even feature a “find us on Yelp” sign.

This subtle reminder is a long way from actively soliciting positive reviews and makes for a more authentic assessment of the client’s experience. The caveat is that it may also encourage customers who were not as satisfied with your service to leave a review. But there’s a silver lining here too.

Customer comments = the best market research

While they may not be fun to read, customer reviews are the best business insights you can get. Some companies pay piles of money for consultants to assess their business and offer criticism on how to make improvements. Organic customer reviews offer that same insight for free.

Take those complaints and learn from them. Work with (or replace) that crotchety assistant. Upgrade amenities at your facility. Or improve your response rate to customer queries.

Bad reviews can improve your business

Learning what your customers dislike about your product or service is, arguably, even more important than hearing what they love about it. Because the truth is, the best way to get great online reviews is to run a great business. And that’s not always easy. But the best way to run an awesome organization is to learn from your mistakes and to constantly work to improve.

Look for an upcoming post about how to publicly handle negative reviews; and for now, use those comments as market research and work on making your business the best it can be.

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