Astroturfing and Online reviews with Yelp and TrueLocal

Online reviews and AstroTurfing – Can you Trust them?

AstroTurfing - fake reviews

AstroTurfing on Yelp and TrueLocal – Never!

So what is AstroTurfing, I hear you say! Reviews on anything are all about getting back to the basics or the grass roots of a product/service. It’s an opportunity for real people to have a say on the quality of a product/service. So AstroTurfing is fake reviews provided by people who are either paid or a competitor undertaking negative marketing. Yes even a PR firm making positive reviews on a service/product – it happens!

It could be a fake review on products, policies, events and even Politics! You name it, it can be done. Give me 5 bucks and I could do it easily on! It could be to give my website more Google +’s or more Facebook Likes. But it could be to give negative ratings on Yelp, Urbanespoon or even True Local.


Generally the policy on these sites is they can review, modify or even reject any reviews at their discretion. But you as business owner have little rights to be able to have a negative review removed. So isn’t this feeding the astroturf cycle?

I attended a session with Yelp a couple of months ago and I must say it was interesting to hear firsthand on their approach to reviewing every review. (What a job.)  And reviews from the Yelp  mobile app can only be written and put into draft mode and can only be submitted via the website.

So, yes you could log into the website on your phone and submit the review. However it would be considerably more difficult.  Sort of defeats the point of a mobile app doesn’t it? Just my opinion.

But are these people really going to be AstroTurfers? I wouldn’t think so.

fake online reviews AstroTurfing

Anyone hear of a place called “Ornwall, Ireland”?

Isn’t it someone who is trying to game the system and get a leg up on their competitor. It may be going onto and purchasing a positive review for your new menu or your law firm! It could be anything – yes I mean anything. Trust me I think it happened in the US Presidential election – big call but I bet it occurs in the Australian Federal Election in September 2013.

There are all sorts of figures stating 73 – 88% of people use review sites before making purchases. I know I do and I buy everything online that I can – mountain bike a few weeks ago and a car a number of years ago. Ok I didn’t buy it via PayPal but I completed a form stating that I wanted to by X car and how much – never even went to the car yard, they delivered.

According to Econsultancy they state that 2 in 3 people worry about the legitimacy of a review. But we still use them.

Image from Flickr (eoghan1973)


Could AstroTurfing Occur on Amazon?

So what about the monster site Amazon, could they suffer from AstroTurfing? Oh yes – there is a lot of fake reviews occurring there at the moment. With the explosion of affiliate marketers moving into the Amazon market due to Google crushing many of these internet marketer’s websites. These affiliate markets had their income destroyed with the Google Panda and Penguine updates.

So one of the hippest/hottest online internet marketing things is to become a seller on Amazon. Kindle books, physical items – you name it, it’s happening.

The general approach is you open a sellers account with Amazon – you sell a product (physical or electronic eg Kindle book). You list the product super cheap or even give it away so there is 15-20 sales or more in a short period of time.  I wonder how many of these are bought with the same credit card or delivery address. Then at the end of this you give 4-5 star rating on the product. (eg You review the product you are selling) People also get caught up in the hype of the sales spin and popularity – as everyone wants to be popular right Kim K?

Smells like turf AstroTurfing to me.

There is an online Amazon Selling Machine course which teaches these tactics. And they teach you to create a dozen + accounts as a buyer so you purchase your own item as cheap as possible and provide positive reviews to game the Amazon system. Is it really gaming the Amazon system, or just smart marketing – I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

This helps your product become a hot item and boosts your Amazon rating and moves you to the top of the search category for that product. Sounds similar to a search engine of some sort?

5 Million 5 star Review on iTunes & Google Play

I know there are some seriously great games and apps on iTunes and Google Play – my kids still love Angry Birds. But I bet you didn’t know that you can seriously purchase 5,000 reviews on an app for a few thousand dollars.

People go to extremes in employing staff from phone stores and other places that every time a new phone comes in the store a certain app is downloaded with a new account and an appropriately glowing review occurs.  This happens on free apps and apps that cost money – it’s all built into the fake review pricing.

There was a PR firm Reverb Communications and one of its executives Tracie Snitker – who agreed to remove all fake reviews from within iTunes.  Refer to NYTimes for the full story

What Can you Do about a Negative Review

So what can you do about it if you believe someone has been undertaking negative AstroTurfing on your business. Well not much, I have to say at the moment. As companies like Yelp will not remove negative reviews unless you have a really good case. However if you prove that the person who has placed the negative review has only a few reviews and joined the day of the review than you have a much better chance of having the review removed. But it will still be very difficult.

Even if you decide not to join one of the review sites,  consumers can list your business without your permission in many instances.

You can try to undertake positive SEO on other things when people do a search on your website name or company name. But it doesn’t help when someone is doing a search within one of these review sites for your products or services.  But how big of a problem is it really – as most people use Google for their search. According to Gartner 10-15% of reviews by 2014 will be fake!

So it could be an effective approach to undertake SEO tactics to push these negative reviews off page one at least and replace them with press releases or something like this. Either way, it will cost money.

Also it may be time to have a look at your product or services and see how you can improve the customer experience as great products and services to at least stop bad reviews occuring from genuine customers.

Fake Review Profile – Is there one

So what is the profile of a fake reviewer. There are a few telling signs:

  1. Overly positive review, sounding like it was written by a PR company listing capabilities of the product.
  2. Review date being the same date the reviewers account was created.
  3. The reviewer having 500+ 5 star reviews – maybe they have a gig on
  4. 5 Star or 1 star review from accounts that only have 1 review created
  5. Random review names –  ggg11223 (not this really means that much)

Now, by no way does this mean that if a reviewers account meets these criteria it is a forgone conclusion. However, if it smells like plastic – it could be AstroTurf.

So what Does 3 Stars Mean?

So what about the rating system – what does 1 star mean and what about 5 stars. This is one of the biggest problems I see with the whole online review process.  As there is no universal ruling and different people provide 3 stars for different reasons.

fake reviews AstoTurfing

AstroTurfing is every where!


I spoke to someone for one of the review sites in Brisbane and they said that the service would have to be pretty bad for them to give a 3 star rating. It makes me wonder what’s the point of a 1 star – if they would never use it. The reasoning behind only using a 3 star rating as the minimum was, they don’t like confrontation and it’s easier to just give a 3 star rather than a 1 star. So this begs the question, is this also AstroTurfing?

Legal Action on Negative Reviews

There have been a few cases about businesses suing individuals over fake or misleading reviews – but does the review site have any accountability. It doesn’t look like they do, and it’s likely because of their terms and conditions stating things like “You may expose yourself to liability”

Conclusion on AstroTurfing

So are review sites any good well, YES – but take them with a grain of salt as you don’t know if the review is fake or not.

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