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19 companies fined $350,000 for fake online reviews

After a lengthy investigation, one state has cracked down on fake online reviews, particularly on Yelp, fining nearly 20 companies a total of $350,000. It just got real.

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Fake Yelp reviews cost brands big time

Yelp recently filed a lawsuit against a lone law firm, alleging fake reviews, getting the ball rolling on their taking legal action against companies seeking to boost their profile by faking reviews or buying fake reviews. They’ve been policing the site for some time now and businesses are known for suing each other over defamatory comments, but news out of New York has just made it even costlier for businesses faking reviews.

New York’s Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has announced that after a year-long investigation (“Operation Clean Turf”), 19 companies have agreed to pay fines for writing fake reviews on Yelp, totaling $350,000 in penalties.

Because fake reviews are considered astroturfing, wherein a commenter on a website, be it Yelp, a blog, or otherwise, posts commentary acting as a disinterested third party, hiding (aka lying about) their affiliation with the company being defended or positively reviewed. Review sites like Yelp have been tainted with this behavior, by companies themselves and by freelancers hired to write positive reviews and make them look legitimate.

Aside from Yelp cracking down, New York has begun what could become a trend of other states investigating and fining companies that pad their reviews online, not just on Yelp but on Citysearch, Google Local, and others, according to Schneiderman.

In a statement, the AG said, ” In the course of the investigation, the Attorney General’s office found that many of these companies used techniques to hide their identities, such as creating fake online profiles on consumer review websites and paying freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review. By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.”

Astroturfing is referred to as false advertising by AG

“Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing,” Schneiderman noted. “This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution. And companies that continue to engage in these practices should take note: ‘Astroturfing’ is the 21st century’s version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it.”

As a result of the investigation, the following 19 companies involved have agreed to stop astroturfing and will cough up anywhere from $2,500 to $100,000 each:

  1. A&E Wig Fashions, Inc. d/b/a A&E and NYS Surgery Center
  2. A.H. Dental P.C. d/b/a Platinum Dental
  3. Body Laser Spa Inc.
  4. The Block Group, LLC, d/b/a Laser Cosmetica and LC MedSpa, LLC
  5. Bread and Butter NY, LLC d/b/a La Pomme Nightclub and Events Space
  6. Envision MT Corp.
  7. iSEOiSEO
  8. Medical Message Clinic and HerballYours.com
  9. Metamorphosis Day Spa, Inc.
  10. Outer Beauty, P.C., Lite Touch Plastic Surgery, P.C., Staten Island Special Surgery, P.C., Sans Pareil Surgical, PLLC
  11. Stillwater Media Group
  12. Swan Media Group, Inc. and Scores Media Group, LLC
  13. US Coachways Limousine, Inc. and US Coachways, Inc.
  14. Utilities International, Inc. d/b/a Main Street Host
  15. The Web Empire, LLC
  16. Webtools, LLC and Webtools Internet Solutions Ltd.
  17. West Village Teeth Whitening Service, LLC; Magic Smile, Inc., aka Magic Smile
  18. XVIO, Inc.
  19. Zamdel, Inc. d/b/a eBoxed

How did these companies get away with it in the first place?

These companies didn’t just fool the Yelp system, they manipulated Google Places, Yahoo! Local, Citysearch, Judy’s Book, InsiderPages.com and more. One company posted over 1,500 fake reviews online by masking their IP address so there were no red flags on the review sites’ end.

Another company offered free or discounted services in exchange for positive reviews, while another hired an SEO company to post fake reviews. Another company blatantly solicited freelance writers from Fiverr.com and oDesk.com to write fake reviews, and asked employees to pose as customers and write positive reviews. That same company offered $50 gift certificates to customers willing to write positive reviews without disclosing the gift in the review.

There are many ways to cheat the system, but after years of these abuses, the review sites and law enforcement are getting involved and wising up, costing businesses big time. We hope in the future to see punishments of the very people and review mills generating these fake reviews in mass.

Marti Trewe reports on business and technology news, chasing his passion for helping entrepreneurs and small businesses to stay well informed in the fast paced 140-character world. Marti rarely sleeps and thrives on reader news tips, especially about startups and big moves in leadership.

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Social Media

Why Trump’s lawsuit against social media still matters

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Former President Trump snagged headlines for suing every large social media platform, and it has gone quiet, but it still deeply matters.

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It was splashed across headlines everywhere in July: Former President Trump filed a lawsuit against social media platforms that he claims unrightfully banned him during and after the fallout of the January 6th capitol riots. The headlines ran for about a week or so and then fell off the radar as other, fresher, just-as-juicy news headlines captured the media’s eye.

Many of us were left wondering what that was all about and if anything ever became of it. For even more of us, it probably passed out of our minds completely. Lack of public awareness for these things is common after the initial media blitz fades.

Lawsuits like these in the US can take months, if not years between newsworthy milestones. The most recent news I could find as of this publishing is from August 24, 2021, on Yahoo! News from the Washington Examiner discussing the Trump camp’s request for a preliminary injunction in the lawsuit.

This particular suit shouldn’t be left to fade from memory in the shadows though, and here’s why:

In the past few years, world powers have been reigning in regulations on social media and internet commerce. The US is actually a little behind the curve. Trump may have unwittingly given us a source of momentum to get with the times.

In the European Union, they have the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), widely acknowledged to be one of the toughest and most thorough privacy laws in the world, a bold title. China just passed its own pair of laws in the past four months: The Data Security Law, which took effect on Sept. 1, and The Personal Information Law, set to take effect November 1st. The pair is poised to give the GDPR a run for its money for that title.

Meanwhile, in the US, Congress has been occupied with other things and, while there are five bills that took aim at tech monopoly currently on the table and a few CEOs had to answer some questions, little actual movement or progress has been made on making similar privacy protections a thing in the United States.

Trump’s lawsuit, while labeled by many as a toothless public relations move, may actually create momentum needed to push regulation of tech and social media forward in the US. The merits of the case are weak and ultimately the legislation that would give it teeth doesn’t exist yet.

You can’t hold tech companies accountable to a standard that doesn’t properly exist in law.

However, high profile attention and someone willing to continue to make noise and bring attention back to the subject, one of Trump’s strongest talents, could be “just what the doctor ordered” to inspire Congress to make internet user rights and data privacy a priority in the US, finally.

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Even solopreneurs are doing live commerce online – it’s not just QVC’s game anymore

(SOCIAL MEDIA) When you think of watching a show and buying things in real time, it invokes thoughts of QVC, but social media video has changed all that.

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After the year everyone has had, one wouldn’t be remiss in thinking that humanity wants a break from live streaming. They would, however, be wrong: Live online commerce – a method of conversion first normalized in China – is the next evolution of the ubiquitous e-commerce experience, which means it’s something you’ll want on your radar.

Chinese company, Alibaba first live streamed on an e-commerce site in 2016, allowing buyers to watch, interact with, and buy from sellers from the comfort of their homes. In 2020, that same strategy netted Alibaba $7.5 billion in presale revenue – and it only took 30 minutes, according to McKinsey Digital.

But, though western audiences have proven a desire to be just as involved with sellers during the buying process, live commerce hasn’t taken off here the way it has elsewhere. If e-commerce merchants want to maximize their returns in the next few years, that needs to change.

McKinsey Digital points out a couple of different benefits for organizations using live commerce, the main one being an influx in traffic. Live streaming events break the buying experience mold, and consumers love being surprised. You can expect that prospective buyers who wouldn’t necessarily visit your store under normal circumstances would find value in attending a live event.

Live events also keep people on your site for longer, resulting in richer conversion opportunities.

The sense of urgency inherent in in-person shopping doesn’t always translate to online markets, but having a stream showing decreasing inventory or limited-availability items being sold inspires people to act expeditiously rather than sitting on a loaded cart–something that can kill an e-commerce conversion as quickly as it starts one.

There are a ton of different ways to incorporate live events into your e-commerce campaigns. Virtual auctions are popular, as are markets in which individual sellers take buyers through inventory. However, the live event could be tangentially related–or even just something impressive running in parallel with the sale–and still bring in a swell of revenue.

Screen fatigue is real, and there isn’t a true substitute for a brick-and-mortar experience when done correctly. But if you have an e-commerce shop that isn’t utilizing some form of live entertainment–even just to bring in new buyers–you’re going to want to try this strategy soon.

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LinkedIn is nixing Stories this month (LinkedIn had Stories!?)

(SOCIAL MEDIA) LinkedIn tried to be like the cool kids and launched “Stories,” but the video feature is being shelved and “reimagined.” Ok.

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Creating the next big thing is essential for social networks to stay relevant, continue growing, and avoid shutting down. Sometimes, this leads to businesses trying to ride along with the success of another app’s latest feature and creating their cloned version. While the logic of recreating something already working makes sense, the results aren’t universal.

This time around, LinkedIn is saying goodbye to its short-lived Snapchat-like video product, Stories. In a company post, LinkedIn says it’s removing its Stories experience by the end of September.

Why is LinkedIn retiring Stories?

According to a post by Senior Director of Product at LinkedIn Liz Li, “[LinkedIn] introduced Stories last year as a fun and casual way to share quick video updates.”

After some testing and feedback, they learned this is not what users wanted. Seems like they could have beta tested with users and heard the same thing, but I digress.

“In developing Stories, we assumed people wouldn’t want informal videos attached to their profile, and that ephemerality would reduce barriers that people feel about posting. Turns out, you want to create lasting videos that tell your professional story in a more personal way and that showcase both your personality and expertise,” said Li.

What does this mean for users?

Starting on September 30, 2021, users will no longer be able to create Stories for Pages. If you’ve already planned to have an image or video ads run in-between Stories, they will now appear on the LinkedIn feed instead. For those who used Campaign Manager to promote or sponsor a Story directly from your Page, the company says “these paid Stories will not appear in the LinkedIn feed”, and the user will need to recreate the ad in Campaign Manager.

What’s next for LinkedIn?

According to Li, LinkedIn is taking what it learned from its finding to “evolve the Stories format into a reimagined video experience across LinkedIn that’s even richer and more conversational.” It plans on doing so by using mixed media and the creative tools of Stories.

“As we reimagine what is next, we’re focusing on how we can provide you with a short-form, rich interactive video format that is unique to our platform and that better helps you reach and engage your audiences on LinkedIn. We’re always excited to try out new things and learn as we go, and will continue to share updates along the way,” the company said.

Although Stories didn’t work well for LinkedIn as they hoped, one thing is for sure. LinkedIn isn’t giving up on some form of interactive video, and we can only hope they “reimagine” something unique that keeps users coming back for more.

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