astroturfingPeople will sometimes say, “I read it on the Internet, it must be true.” These people have probably never heard of astroturfing.

“Astroturfing” is the (now illegal) attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists. Like its football namesake, “AstroTurf,” the term refers to something synthetic intended to look natural.

Originally used as a political tactic, astroturfing is now widely used on the internet as a way to boost one’s image through fake comments, paid-for reviews, made-up claims, and testimonials. These “marketing” efforts typically include the use of blogs, message boards, and social media sites to build artificial hype.

Astroturfers use different personas to avoid detection and to create the impression of wide-spread support for their arguments, products, or services.

Some disreputable companies use “persona management software” which multiplies the efforts of each astroturfer. It fabricates the information a real person would possess: name, email accounts, web pages and social media. These fake accounts can be kept updated by automatically reposting or linking content generated on other sites, giving the impression that they are real and active.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York announced that 19 companies had agreed to cease their astroturfing practices and pay more than $350,000 in penalties. This was the culmination of “Operation Clean Turf”, a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry. It was proven that companies had posted fake consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local, and City Search.

Posing as the owner of a yogurt shop in Brooklyn, New York, representatives from Attorney General Schneiderman’s office called the leading SEO companies in New York to request assistance in helping with their reputation on consumer-reviewed websites. During these calls, representatives from some of these companies offered to write fake reviews of the yogurt shop and post them on the aforementioned websites.

Besides using their own companies, it was found that SEO companies were posting solicitations on such websites as Craigslist.com, Freelancer.com and oDesk.com to help write fake reviews. Freelance writers were hired from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review.

Why do companies do this?

As a business in the age of the internet, online reviews can make or break you. About 90% of consumers say that online reviews influence their buying decision.

A Harvard Business School study from 2011 estimated that a one-star rating increase on Yelp lead to an increase of 5% to 9% in revenues from a restaurant, while a Cornell study found that that same increase was tied to an 11% sway in room rates. Those are significant findings.

Spotting Fake Reviews

With the proliferation of fake reviews on the web, how can you tell what you’re looking at is legit? Here are a few things to look for.

An abundance of personal pronouns – Since fake reviewers are trying to convince people of something that didn’t happen, they overcompensate by using first-person pronouns. For example, normal people don’t say things like “I ate the ravioli”. They’ll say “the ravioli was awesome.”

Being over-the-top – Fake reviews tend to be highly dramatized. Look for descriptions that exclaim the product is the best in the entire universe ever! Beware of hyperbole.

Strange use of figurative language – A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people tend to use figurative language when reviewing products purchased for pleasure, and more straightforward language when reviewing stuff that they actually need. If someone were to say that a certain brand of chocolate was “to die for,” it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. If someone were to say the same thing about a vacuum cleaner, that’s a little weird.

Use these tips the next time you’re tempted to read about a product or a service on the internet. “Operation Clean Turf” may not have stopped all false marketing activities, but hopefully it’s a step in a more positive direction for online marketing.