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Online reviews can be pivotal to a small business’s success, because consumers turn to these reviews to make decisions about where to take their business. From nail salons to legal services providers, potential customers use online reviews as a window into the quality of service they are likely to receive. They are so influential in fact, that for online businesses, having reviews increases conversions by about 9 percent.
But can consumers trust the reviews they’re reading online? One eye-opening study from business school professors at Harvard® and Boston University® found that nearly one in every five restaurant reviews on Yelp® are fake. That could actually understate the problem for consumers of legal services. In recent years, it has been said that the legal sector is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to posting fake reviews in order to attract clients.
Law firms that create fake online reviews are not alone. The temptation to solicit dishonest reviews may come from the competitive nature of the legal profession. A firm competing against others with higher Google™ rankings may feel pressured to do whatever is necessary to boost their own ranking—even if it means buying fake reviews or generating them some other unethical way.
The likelihood that such an impulse exists is confirmed by the Yelp study, which found when restaurants faced increased competition, the incidence of fake reviews increased as well.
Regardless of the motivation, examples abound. One East Coast personal injury firm, which incentivized attorneys to obtain positive online reviews, reached a settlement with a woman who sued over the alleged fake reviews. The woman claimed that the positive reviews duped her into hiring sub-par legal representation, which ended in the firm botching her sexual harassment case.
In another instance, a Southeastern law firm incentivized clients to leave five-star reviews in exchange for the chance to win prizes, including a zoo membership. The firm had around 100 Google reviews—until their methods were reported to Google, which resulted in Google removing all but one of them. Ouch.
The latter example may be a rarity. According to at least one writer who follows such matters closely, Google has not shown a great appetite for policing fake reviews on its site. This lack of enforcement, he says, “calls into question every review that Google has.”
Of course, Google isn’t the only officer on the fake review beat. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission overhauled its guidelines on endorsements, in response to the growing influence of internet marketing tactics. The FTC prohibited “undisclosed paid endorsements,” requiring anyone who endorses a business or its products to disclose their relationship to the seller if they are compensated for it. The guidelines have been interpreted to prohibit fake reviews, and a decade later this FTC is still enforcing them. This year, the agency brought its first case challenging fake reviews posted on an “independent retail website,” in an action involving paid fake reviews on Amazon®.
As the above suggests, there are different ways to solicit less-than-authentic reviews. Some firms directly purchase fake online reviews, known as “astroturfing.” Astroturfing is clearly illegal under the FTC standard, and can run afoul of state law as well. The New York Attorney General’s Office, for instance, busted 19 companies that were astroturfing and hit them with combined fines of $350,000.
In a more subtle form of fake-review generation, a firm may ask colleagues, family members and others to write reviews in exchange for a reciprocal review of their product or business. This is called review-swapping; it clearly violates Google’s guidelines, and the spirit, if not the text, of other review sites. (Avvo® encourages attorneys to review one another, but the difference is that Avvo makes it crystal clear which reviews are client reviews and which are peer reviews, an important distinction to make when potential clients are evaluating their options. In any case, Avvo does not endorse any good-review for good-review quid pro quos.)
More importantly, it likely violates both the law and ethics rules. The FTC examines whether anything of value is given in exchange for a review, and another positive review certainly has value. Similarly, the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct 7.2(b) state that “A lawyer shall not compensate, give or promise anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services...” This means that you cannot exchange any benefits with clients in exchange for reviews—not even zoo memberships.
In summary, firms that post fake reviews risk legal action by state bar authorities, the FTC and from clients who hired a firm based on fake reviews.
Additionally, the reputational risks are enormous. Some time ago, Yelp began labelling businesses that were caught soliciting fake reviews. That online label is bad enough, but the taint within the community and the bar will almost certainly be much worse for any firm caught red-handed. However important having good online reviews may be in the digital age, it simply does no good to obtain them through shortcuts.
Google is a trademark of Google Inc. Harvard is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Boston University is a registered trademark of the Trustees of Boston University. Yelp is a registered trademark of Yelp! Inc. Amazon is a registered trademark of Amazon Technologies, Inc. Avvo is a registered trademark of AVVO, INC.
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