One of my favorite topics when it comes to review sites is astroturfing.*
What is Astroturfing?
If you’re not familiar, astroturfing is when you write fake reviews for a company – either positive reviews for your own, or negative ones for a competitor. The term came about because you’re faking a grass roots effort. It can expand to beyond just review sites, such as with this old, but classic example of Wal-marting Across America.
* And it’s not just because when I was single I made an astroturf table that proudly centerpieced in our bachelor pad. As you can guess, this table did not make the trip with me upon moving in with my wife. While I accept that it was tacky and that many people – particularly of the female persuasion who have “taste” – did not like it, man, I still miss that thing.
How do Review Sites Detect Astroturfing?
So, we can all agree astroturfing is bad, right? I mean, save for its use on home furnishings. If the reviews aren’t real – and lots of times you can spot fake ones immediately – you lose faith in the reviews for that business on that review site. Happen too often and users will stop trusting and using those sites altogether.
Review sites like Google Places, Yelp, Cars.com, and TripAdvisor all have different systems, but one of the big ways they automatically guard against astroturfing is by checking the ip address the reviewer is using to connect to the internet while leaving the review.
Virtually all of them have their own proprietary formula to detect other patterns of regularity as well. They don’t give this out to anyone. About the worst thing that could happen is that the spammers know exactly how to beat the system, so you don’t want to give them the blueprint for doing so.
And once you get detected – falsely or not – you’ll typically get punished. If you’re lucky, you’ll get notified.
How TripAdvisor Notifies Businesses of Astroturfing Violations
If you run afoul of TripAdvisor, here’s an email you might get from email@example.com:
Subject: Official Notification from TripAdvisor
To Whom It May Concern at [redacted],
TripAdvisor serves as an important source of travel information, which users rely on to be the unbiased opinions of travelers. The reliability of our content is integral to our business, and we take attempts to undermine it very seriously. This letter has been sent due to patterns of activity on your listing which raise our concern. In light of this anomaly in review activity, we are encouraging you to familiarize yourself with our content integrity policies, which can be found here: http://www.tripadvisor.com/help/what_is_considered_fraud
Please note that your property has not been penalized for the activity which prompted this letter, and that our intent is simply to raise your overall awareness about TripAdvisor’s guidelines and policies.In the event that you discover that anyone in your organization— including owners, staff, and third-party vendors (marketing companies, web developers, etc.) — are participating in any of these activities, please see that they discontinue these actions immediately.
If an attempt is made to subvert our system, TripAdvisor may take one or more of the following actions on your property listing:
- Drop it by several pages in the TripAdvisor popularity index
- Post a large red penalty notice, explaining that the reviews are suspicious
- Exclude it from TripAdvisor’s Travelers Choice awards, Top 10 lists, press releases, etc.
We understand that you may have a few questions after receiving this notice, such as:
“I don’t understand why I received this letter. We haven’t submitted reviews for our own property or others.”
We suggest familiarizing yourself with our review moderation and fraud detection policies. Then, speak with your staff, as well as third-party vendors (webmaster, marketing companies, etc.) and remind them of these policies. Subversive activity on TripAdvisor can result in long-lasting penalties for your business.
“What action should I take to rectify this situation?”
For information on how to solicit reviews, manage and promote your listing, please visit your Owners’ Center: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Owners
For more information on review moderation and fraud detection, please visit our Help Center:http://www.tripadvisor.com/help/postingandediting#c0
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
The TripAdvisor Support Team, Content Integrity
They then go on to repeat the same message in Italian and German, or at least did in this one email to a US-based former client.
It’s pretty awesome that they notify you of the potential violations and allow you a direct forum to respond, particularly if you found out that you were doing something wrong. Hey – it happens. A lot of times employees or other stakeholders will see an issue with some negative reviews and take matters into their own hands – not knowing they are likely to cause more harm than good.
And while the potential penalties are harsh, they let you know what they can be and that they might happen to you…unlike certain search engines we won’t mention.