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Astroturfing: Fake Online Reviews are Bad News For Law Firms!

new york atty general astroturfingIf you’re anything like me, whenever you buy or research a product online, you automatically disregard any review that gives the product/service the top available rating. I always look for the lowest reviews for two reasons. First, I’d like to know if there are people who are complaining about flaws in something that might bother me in a similar way. Second, and more importantly, I expect that at least a few of the highest ratings were written by, or on behalf of, the person selling the product.

Given the opportunity, who wouldn’t endorse themselves, particularly when it improves the chances that someone will buy whatever you’re selling? Well, there is a name for posting false reviews to make a product or service look better: “astroturfing.” The Urban Dictionary defines astroturfing as “the act of trying to boost one’s image online with fake comments, paid-for reviews, made-up claims and testimonials.”

Well, recently, the pervasive nature of astroturfing for law firms has drawn the attention of the authorities (most notably the New York Attorney General’s office), and the results aren’t pretty!

Why is astroturfing really such a big deal, you ask? Well, first and foremost, astroturfing is essentially posting a false client testimonial about the quality of legal services provided by your firm. Which is quite clearly against the rules. Furthermore, astroturfing your ratings inflates your credentials online. Search engines frequently rely on ratings from sites like Yelp as part of the algorithm used to determine where your firm ranks for certain search terms. Inflated reviews results in a higher place on the page (Lawyerist.com really explains it best here), and studies suggest that as many as 90% reported relying, at least partially, on online reviews in their purchasing decisions.

Responding to the pervasive use of astroturfing among the marketing industry, the New York Attorney General’s office announced this week that it had settled claims of false advertising with 19 companies, all of whom agreed to cease and desist in their practice of providing fake reviews, and pay a combined $350,000 in legal fines. The companies were accused of offering astoturfing to companies as part of a larger marketing strategy, and even hired people specifically to post friendly reviews of businesses. One company advertised the following:

“We need a person that can post multiple positive reviews on major REVIEW sites. Example: Google Maps, Yelp, CitySearch. Must be from different IP addresses… So you must be able to have multiple IPs. The reviews will be only few sentences long. Need to have some understanding on how Yelp filters works. Previous experience is a plus…just apply –) we are a marketing company.” (Quoted from ArsTechnica)

The ad for workers clearly required that new hires have “some understanding on how Yelp filters” operate, particularly how they filter out reviews determined to qualify as “astroturfing.” Clearly, such an activity qualifies as false advertising, and is also quite clearly a deceptive practice. Although no law firms were among the 19 companies involved in the settlement, the ABA Journal reports that law firms were among the businesses who purchased the astroturfing services offered by the marketing companies.

yelp astroturfingBut the state bar or attorney general’s office is not the only organization that lawyers who engage in astroturfing should fear. Last month, the online review site Yelp filed suit against a San Diego attorney for causing false reviews to be posted on his site. (It happens to be the exact same attorney who recently successfully sued Yelp for violating its marketing contract, although Yelp denies that the suit is retribution.) In the complaint, Yelp – with a slogan like that you KNOW they have a problem – alleges that several people connected to the firm posted false reviews on the site, including inventing fake people to post reviews (while brilliantly using their firm email address). At one point, four positive reviews, from four new Yelp user accounts, were allegedly posted from the same computer within the span of an hour.

Now, the suit was just filed, and the attorney in question denies any wrongdoing in the case. However, the behavior alleged in the lawsuit cannot be ignored, particularly given the increasing number of fake reviews online (one report – per the NY Attorney General’s statement – estimates that 15% of online reviews will be fake by the end of 2014). Therefore, in order to keep your firm safe from the financial and ethical problems surrounding astroturfing, the Lawyerist.com outlined three things not to do when conducting online advertising:

1) Don’t have your employees pretend to be clients and post reviews of your firm.

dumbIt’s dumb. I mean REALLY dumb. Particularly if, like the attorney in the Yelp complaint, someone made a fake login with an email address on the law firm’s domain. Moreover, as an attorney, you’re likely to be universally responsible for what people in your employ do on behalf of the firm, and it’s an ethical violation if they do anything you’d be prohibited from doing! (See ABA Model Rule 5.3, consult your state bar for specifics in your jurisdiction)

If you’re really lucky, you could even get a visit from the FTC about your phony posts!

2) Don’t swap reviews with other lawyers.

Quid pro quo endorsement arrangements are becoming a bigger and bigger problem in the world of professional social networking (covered well in this article about LinkedIn endorsements). While it might not seem like that big of a deal, remember that any endorsement you give to another attorney must be truthful, which means that posting a positive review in exchange for having a positive review written about your firm violates the Rules of Professional conduct if not based on actual experience.

In a pinch, you could probably justify it, but why risk it? Endorse who you want to endorse, and let everyone else do the same.

3) Don’t pay someone to leave fake reviews online.

Finding situations where someone offers services this explicitly in violation of the law and the ethical rules is unusual. However, as this article suggests, most of the attorneys who buy services that include astroturfing likely do so with full knowledge that the practice will be done. It can be difficult getting your message out there in the world of social media and the internet, but ignorance of your firm’s marketers (whether truly ignorant or willfully ignorant) is no excuse; you are responsible for what they do on your behalf.

Remember:

Don’t mislead anyone with your advertising. As the Lawyerist’s article so perfectly states:

“Many of the rules governing what attorneys can and can’t do are vague, confusing and unduly restrictive. But this one’s pretty reasonable and clear: Don’t mislead potential clients with false testimonials, endorsements, reviews, etc.”

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