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Inauthenticity – Social Media’s Dirty Little Secret

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According to a report by Small Business Trends this week, a group of SEO companies and small businesses in New York State were caught in a sting operation called “Operation Clean Turf.” Spearheaded by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, the operation uncovered unethical pay-for-review programs. Un


der the guise of “reputation management services,” SEO firms were offering to post fake reviews for businesses on social networking sites such as Yelp!  It seems that social media’s dirty little secret is not so secret anymore. Inauthenticity, not authenticity, seems to be the rule of the day.

In a related story, Yelp! is reportedly suing legal firms in San Diego, which it claims were exchanging positive reviews on its site, something that is explicitly forbidden in its terms of use. After all, Yelp!’s tag line is “Real People, Real Reviews.”

Businesses Cannot Risk Authenticity

Despite social media marketers losing their breath from the excessive shouts of “authenticity!” in the medium, the need for positive online “social proof” is so incredibly important in the decision-making process for consumers that brands simply don’t feel they can risk being truly authentic.

Social media consultants recommend that businesses allow consumers to freely contribute both positive and negative discussions within their social media properties. Encourage, reward, and celebrate the positive in order to turn happy customers into advocates. Embrace any negativity with honest and quick responses to demonstrate the firm’s interest and excellent customer service.

Many PR and customer service representatives advise that a customer who’s had a negative experience is an opportunity to create a loyal advocate if their concerns are addressed satisfactorily and quickly on social channels. The added benefit of having this exchange amplified across social media broadcast the firm’s customer care and establishes a specific brand persona.

Intellectually, we understand this. In practice, do we have the courage to embrace it?

Marketers Embrace Inauthenticity

Despite the mandated “authenticity” in social media communications by marketing and public relations professionals, they’re among the first to break the rule. Be it in the strategies they create for their clients, or the social personas they create for themselves, social media is rife with inauthenticity.

Arguably, this is most evident in the “influencer” category of social marketing. Thanks to social influence scoring platforms that rank influential people online, and, more importantly, the weight that businesses place on such rankings, the need to create a persona that elevates a personal brand to the top of these lists is important.

We’ve read stories of airlines and hotels that provide preferential treatment to people with high Klout scores. Publishers have awarded some authors book deals based, not on their proven expertise or results in a particular field but on their social popularity, which they bet will translate into sales. In fact, Internet marketing in general is based on inauthenticity. The promise of the Internet for start-ups and small businesses is that they can compete with larger competitors because it’s the “great equalizer.”  A small business can appear as big as it wants to portray itself through technology and design.

Should we really be surprised that manufactured brand personas and fake reviews are part of the fabric of the Internet, social media, and influence marketing schemes?

Inauthenticity Is Big Business

The practice is called “astroturfing,” which is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message (e.g. political, advertising, or public relations) to give the appearance of it coming from a disinterested third-party.

Schneiderman’s office shared some of the ads allegedly posted on sites like Craigslist, ODesk.com and Freelancer.com like this example by one of the SEO companies it targeted in the fake review sting:

“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.”

Right there, out in plain sight, we’re advertising inauthenticity.


This summer, I shared the findings of a group of researchers at UCSB that studied the growing practice of hiring cyber shills who are paid to manually inflate positive reviews and ratings. Such companies have existed for some time in the United States, including ShortTask.com, Microworkers.com, and MyEasyTask.com. Because of labor costs, however, most are focused on improving search engine optimization using software programs and processes.

 Shill: An accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice or encourage others.

A new crop of overseas cyber shills like Zhubajie.com or Sandaha.com is quickly growing in popularity because of low operational costs. Such companies artificially increase the social proof of their customer’s individual and business profiles for mere pennies. And business is booming.

The authors of the study stated that they “have found surprising evidence showing that not only do malicious crowd-sourcing systems exist, but they are rapidly growing in both user base and total revenue.” These companies have access to thousands of human shills seated front of computers, doing what software can’t do: registering for services and product trials; signing up for social accounts; liking/following people and brands; and providing the screen captures, blog posts and commentary to demonstrate their affinity and actions. And all for a price that makes it near impossible for unscrupulous marketers and brands to ignore.

What does this mean for businesses?

The potential benefits and threats can’t be ignored, and, clearly, they’re not.  Astroturfring has become a big industry.  Businesses around the world use software and services to mask their identities and provide the impression that real clients are providing endorsements of their brand or criticisms of competitors.  More and more studies are emerging that suggest astroturfing has reached a point where public viewpoints and actions are, in fact, affecting brand perceptions and purchase decisions.

As more of these stories are uncovered, consumers will become more cynical and rely less on the social proof created by reviews, paid endorsements, and perceived “influential” social celebrities.  More emphasis will be placed on the reviews, comments, and recommendations of those in the customer’s personal, trusted circles.

This is one of the reasons that Google Search Plus Your World, which prioritizes the content created, shared, and promoted by a person’s personal social graph, has become so important to the practice of SEO and influence marketing.   Inauthenticity, the true nature of social media marketing, has given birth to contextual influence marketing practices.

Maybe there is hope after all.

Sensei Debates

Is the nature of social media marketing truly inauthentic?

Will the growing reports of fake reviews, followers, “Likes,” and fans render social proof sites ineffective?

Sam Fiorella
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego


Join the Conversation

JulianAdorney 5pts

Couldn't agree more, Sam.  It's a little crazy to see how the need for authentic "social proof" to drive sales has led so many companies in the opposite direction; they try to buy social proof and then piggyback on its perceived authenticity, but all they do is make legitimate social proof seem inauthentic.

I think a lot of start-ups actually try to justify this to themselves as just an advanced version of the Buffalo Effect.  They think, "We clearly have a great product customers will love, but no-one will buy it unless they think lots of other people have already bought it.  No-one wants to be the first.  So let's just fudge our numbers a little so they won't feel like the first".  They then post a 'social share' button claiming 500 people have already Tweeted about them or something.  It's the first step on a slippery slope.

Do you think reviews or testimonials from strangers can still work?  Are they still authentic, or do customers just see it all as a fraud?

dbvickery 5pts

Couldn't believe that ad that blatantly looked for resources to shadily post multiple reviews from multiple IP addresses. I've heard of the reputation management practices of people posting more "good content" to drive down the bad reviews/content, but this is crazy.

Good point how we recommend the "ideal" of embrace and encourage the advocates...and even MORE embrace/encourage the detractors with the goal of turning them into even stronger brand loyalists. But it still comes down to courage and a gambler's spirit that you can take the bad review in a very public forum, and then have the competence and agility to resolve that issue while everyone watches.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@dbvickery Not sure if it's a "gambler's spirit" as much as it is courage and vision on the part of the CEO and CMO.  Focus on creating the best customer experience possible, and where you fail, acknowledge it and go out of your way to make it right - publicly. We can't move backwards. 

dbvickery 5pts

@samfiorella @dbvickery Like you said, easier to say...harder to do. I'm definitely in favor of the approach, but it's the brand reputation on the line. And the viewing public will have to know the difference between great customer service - and valiant efforts to "make right" - versus a troll that decides to stick around and blow up for awhile.

growbizco 5pts

Yeah, and even more unfortunate, creating all that noise often comes with a hefty price tag... Unless there's a big, fundamental change in the way social media and Internet marketing consultants approach their trade (which is unlikely, at least in the near future) many smaller businesses will have to learn the hard way. 

It's funny, I remember a few years ago when people were claiming that the Internet and all of its associated platforms and possibilities would allow small businesses to compete on the level of big business. "Small is the new big." But now, it's more like "small is the "new" small."

growbizco 5pts

Hi Sam,

Excellent article. Your point about the rise of contextual influence marketing is THE point that needs to be plastered everywhere. Most businesses don't yet get what is happening; they're still caught up in trying to understand social media and the latest Google algorthim updates. 

I see this as a very big opportunity for small businesses in particular, since the people behind them as well as their online profiles are more accessible and visible. It's a kind of social capital that the majority of big businesses ignore; they're too busy running after numbers as @prosperitygal and @Merlin U Ward mentioned.

When it comes to online marketing, many small business owners get overwhelmed. Often it's because they are looking at what the big boys are doing and thinking to themselves that they can never compete.The reality is exactly the opposite. It will be much easier for them to build an authentic online following, and that is the most important asset that they can have.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@growbizco And, unfortunately, too many small businesses get caught up in the "race" of social media. Social influence scoring platforms and social media marketers have created the impression that big is better. In reality, we're discovering that big can be just more noise. 

Merlin U Ward
Merlin U Ward 5pts

@samfiorella @growbizco What is especially unfortunate about these actions is that companies won't be able to keep up with the lie. Those has boost their ratings to have 4-5 stars and positive reviews won't have the ability to actually deliver on the expectations they are setting for new customers. New customers will walk into their establishment expecting a certain level of service based on the reviews they read, only to find they place is below the perceived value. This leads to more bad reviews and the cycle perpetuates because the core problem was never truly addressed.  

timfargo 5pts

Interesting article. Thanks!

cendrinemedia 5pts

Excellent article, Sam! This doesn't surprise me. People tend to replicate behaviors that they see working offline. They also feel protected by their screen. 

I am glad to see some people exposing the problem. It will help everyone in the long run!

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@cendrinemedia Thank you. The issue, of course, is that online such practices are more easily called out than offline. It's a big risk but one many businesses are engaged in and will continue to be engaged in. 

prosperitygal 5pts

Merlin how do we address human behavior and their lizard brain all in one?  Sam, it continues to amaze me that businesses do not want to address their inefficiencies or dissatisfied customers. They say they do in public, but you can tell from their actions they are not genuine.

Local case in point. We received some VERY bad service from a restaurant here ( where I had been bringing a LOT of business over a couple of weeks).  One of my friends said "enough" when they were so rude to us and wrote them a yelp review.  Then a few days later I wrote one on my experience.  Did the owner change their behavior? Nope, they instead looked me up and called my cell and google voice number over and over asking me to remove my review.  Instead of correcting the issue, they stalked me.

Then you hear about companies giving fake reviews like this and other news stories and I am then asking myself, why do I even check reviews to decide where I want to go? That just pushes us to not try new places unless our friends have been their first.  Looks like that social connection just got more important!

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@prosperitygal  When shopping around for a new doctor a few years ago: The online reviews for one that was recommended to me by a friend were horrible. After visiting the doctor, I found out that the negative reviews were posted by the son (and his friends) of a doctor with a practice down the road. 

I've stopped looking at reviews unless I notice they're from my friends. Most of the time, I'll just post a note asking for recommendations and feedback and then make a decision based on feedback received.  

To answer your question, I don't think we can change human behavior, which is why we can't rely on simple scoring or rating systems to determine influence, advocacy, or quality/integrity of a business or individual. We must look beyond such flat metrics. Do our homework. 

Merlin U Ward
Merlin U Ward 5pts

@prosperitygal @samfiorella The other option is to have accountability in the system. Yelp! and many other review sites are free to the user, and therefore officer little or no accountability. However, a site like Angie's List has at least the barrier of entry of having to pay to use it as a person. Combined with the heavy governance like Yelp! it could make for a much, much, much better system. "The problem with the internet is that it is free" - Me. ;-)

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Merlin U Ward  Yes, payment for reviews might stop some but not all. With the possibility of gaming the system out there, people and businesses will throw money at it.  

Merlin U Ward
Merlin U Ward 5pts

Very enlightening, Sam! In my experience reviews are treated much like all the other "health metrics" that companies want to grow. There seems to be a great aversion to negative feedback, and a consistent "keeping up with jones'" attitude toward them. No one wants to have less reviews than their competitor and the abundance of those reviews better be positive! Much in the same way that companies want larger follower/fan numbers and more comments and likes, they want more reviews just for the sake of having a larger number of them. It's a bit upsetting because, as you point out, there is a lot of opportunity in these reviews to gain valuable insights form consumer's feedback, if they would only really read and consider the reviews. 

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Merlin U Ward True. Not sure if there's a way back. We created capchas and other tools to prevent such things but then armies of human-cyber shills were formed off-shore to combat those efforts. I'm glad to see Yelp! and law enforcement taking a stand on this but I'm not sure that their efforts will be enough.  

The answer in my opinion is what Google is doing with "your world," which highlights what Danny and I offered in our book: localization and personalization will become key to the effectiveness of online advocacy and influence. 


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