So I wrote on Tuesday about reputation management. The New York Attorney General issued a press release announcing his crackdown on 19 companies that produced fake online reviews and posted them on sites like Yelp! I suggested in my blog that attorney general level enforcement may be the only way to deal with this phenomenon. But Jack Schafer posted a piece that questions if an attorney general should be wasting his time and taxpayer money on this type of activity.
Schafer raises an interesting point – where do we draw the line here? When a presidential candidate spends months trashing his primary opponent but then “endorses” him after losing the primary is that a false endorsement? How about comments on book covers? If I give a glowing snippet of praise just because I will expect that author to do the same for me is there any deception?
Traditionally, I think, we’ve looked at deceptive practices as being a little more factual. The car either gets 40 miles to the gallon or it doesn’t. If I lie about that it’s fraud. If I tell you that your love life will improve if you drive a convertible, I may not be sincere, but I probably haven’t committed fraud. And I think that’s Schaefer’s point. The reviews may be phony, but they are at most, phony opinions. And there’s a buyer beware quality to subjective assessments.
I do agree with Schaefer’s assessment that the online services like Yelp! have more to lose here than do consumers. Those services depend on the perception that the reviews are honest. If that perception goes away, what purpose does Yelp! serve? All of which is to say, expect the online review services to press attorney generals for action. Their business depends on it.