Brand and reputation management is considered a key element of social media marketing. But what happens when forums, blogs, tweets and “likes” are sabotaged by hackers, competitors and other villains intent on destroying a company's reputation? As many as 15% of online reviews will be fake by 2014, according to research company Gartner Inc., which can destroy a company's reputation.
“Customers are getting more comfortable with these reviews and feel that anything that is fake will already have been exposed,” said Jenny Sussin, senior research analyst-social CRM at Gartner. “But we know that even if a lot of people are getting caught, they'll just find different ways to do it.”
And then there's the reverse of fraudulent negative reviews. Increasingly, review sites are being laden with praise by companies themselves, extolling the virtues of their own products and services while pretending to be unbiased users.
Gartner's report, “The Consequences of Fake Fans, "Likes' and Reviews on Social Networks,” issued in July, found a significant number of marketers have turned to paying for positive reviews with cash, coupons and promotions. They might also pay to increase video views on YouTube to make a video go viral and increase their exposure and reputation. Some even go so far as to pay bloggers to praise their products and services, a practice embraced by financial software company Intuit Inc. last year.
“I was just talking to a large digital agency the other day, and they said they have a client who wanted to pay them $5,000 to get them 100,000 YouTube views,” Sussin said. She said that when the agency turned down the assignment, the client said, “ "We'll just do it ourselves.' ”
Negative reviews can come from competitors or their operatives who want to trash a company's reputation with an overwhelming volume of criticism.
“As reviews become more and more influential, there is an inevitability that review fraud would also increase exponentially,” said Chris Emmins, co-founder of KwikChex, an online reputation management company that monitors review sites for fraudulent comments and provides a star rating system for review sites that screen for fake reviews.
Beyond overall statistics, Emmins cited particular practices that are contributing to the problem:
- Some formerly honest businesses that have had their reputations damaged by what they believe to be fake, malicious or excessive attacks defend themselves by placing fake positive reviews on such sites as Amazon.com and Yelp.
- There are “hot spots” of review fraud, most occurring in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, parts of Africa and India. In the U.S., KwikChex has seen particularly high levels of fraudulent activity in Arizona, Florida and Nevada.
- Some companies have set up covert review sites that masquerade as unbiased sources. They seed them with positive reviews to boost their own reputation, and may also add negative reviews about rivals.
“The current situation is very sad since customer feedback is fundamentally such a good thing,” Emmins said. “People would far rather get honest opinion from their peers than believe what they see in advertising.”
Facebook Inc., which just saw its user count pass the 1 billion mark, last month announced that it will remove counterfeit “likes.” Facebook said the automated changes will remove those “likes” generated by malware, compromised accounts, deceived users or bulk purchases, to assure users they are dealing with real people and businesses.
The Federal Trade Commission has also become involved. Last year it fined a Tennessee educational DVD company for hiring affiliate resellers to positively review its products without divulging its financial arrangements. In another case, the FTC reached a settlement with an online games manufacturer to stop posting bogus reviews about its products using such terms as “Amazing new game” and “One of the best.”
Managing their social media reputations is more important than ever for companies, Emmins said. That includes the need to understand legal remedies and publishing accurate information to rebut distortions—but without contributing distortions of their own.
“All businesses need to take appropriate steps to both protect and promote their reputations,” Emmins said. “Small businesses in particular need to address the issue, as they are much more vulnerable to attacks and to the effects of rogue competitors using fake "good' reviews.”