Buying Online Reviews Is Legally Risky

people standing in front of an online review sign to accompany a blog post about buying online reviewsBuying online reviews: is it against the law? The New York Attorney General’s office says yes, the practice flies in the face of promotional regulations.

Don’t think it affects you because you’re not a New Yorker? It may.

Because if one state deems a particular online practice out of bounds, and people in that state can access your website, then that state’s laws may take precedence – no matter your location. Moreover, laws like this often succumb to a dominoes force — once one state does it, many states follow.

The Investigation

Tips about online marketing companies paying for reviews swirled, so NY attorney general Eric Schneiderman initiated an investigation. Schneiderman’s team quickly determined that fake online reviews were “even worse than old-fashioned false advertising.” The attorney general himself opined, “When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement — but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving.”

Nineteen companies were targeted in the investigation and are now paying a cumulative total of $350,000 in damages.

Buying Online Reviews Is Against Regulations; So Are Dummy Accounts

“OK,” you may be thinking, “I don’t pay for reviews, but my family, and friends sure as $#!* give my business A+ reviews on sites like Yelp, Google, and other online review sites. After all, if I don’t toot my own horn, who will!?”

Of course, family and friends can review your products. Technically, yes, they’re supposed to disclose their relationships, but nobody is going to waste resources on tracking down Aunt Bessie who posted a glowing review of your latest cookware product.

But businesses can land in legal hot water by using dummy accounts to post fake reviews. Depending on circumstances, it can be considered a form of unfair and deceptive marketing.

Oh Snap! I Have Tons of Paid Reviews Out There! What Should I do Now!?

First, breathe. The fake testimonial police aren’t going to beat down your door in the morning, demanding thousands of dollars and your Xbox. That said, if you have been buying online reviews, it’s time to craft a roll-back strategy. Here are some suggestions:

  1. If you, yourself, have posted any reviews on sites, like Yelp! or Amazon, remove them.
  2. If you hired an online marketing company to increase online visibility, contact them. Don’t yell and get aggressive. After all, this is a new law. It used to be perfectly acceptable to purchase or barter for positive reviews. Calmly inform them of New York’s decision and see what they say. If they insist bought reviews are fine, send them this article. If they still scoff, find a new online marketing company that stays up-to-date on ever-changing Internet laws.
  3. Re-appropriate your marketing dollars. If you’ve been buying online reviews, consider putting that money towards other marketing efforts. How about: Quality online copy writing for your website and blog, an updated design for your website, pay-per click advertisements, or even a print ad in your local paper?

If you want to speak with an attorney about an online consumer review issue, get in touch.

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