September 24, 2013

Astroturf just got pricey: the escalating war on false reviews



In all the recent furor over authors posting false or misleading reviews of their books on Amazon or other sites, one thing has been missing: the suggestion that such practices might not only be gross and a betrayal of the trust of your readership, but might also come with a pretty hefty fine.

New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman announced on Monday the results of his office’s yearlong investigation into astroturf reviews for businesses. As David Streitfeld reports for the New York Times,

Agreements have been reached with 19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in penalties. … Among those signing the agreements are a charter bus operator, a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain and an adult entertainment club. Also signing are several reputation-enhancement firms that place fraudulent reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo.

Schneiderman’s methods and language about the problem are all a bit farcical. His investigators apparently posed as “the owner of a Brooklyn yogurt shop that was the victim of unfair reviews.” And in his press conference he said “on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions.” Unless the “you” he was addressing there was a room full of my sweet and trusting grandmother, I’m not sure that’s entirely true.

But it’s hard to argue that it’s not an irritating and widespread problem. And now, for a few of those involved in buying such reviews, it’s become an expensive one. Streitfeld reports that one bus company agreed to pay a fine of $75,000. And Yelp has even sued a law firm in California over complimentary self-reviews.

What, then, for book reviews on Amazon, or even sites signed up for their affiliate programs? Where should we draw the line between criticism or acclaim under a false name—virtually a tradition among authors—and false advertising, which is illegal in many jurisdictions.

Amazon recently changed their terms to disallow authors from reviewing themselves or their contemporaries in an effort to combat vengeful review feuding. But complicating the issue is the fact that Amazon has, in an effort to shirk New York State tax liability, argued that members of its affiliate program linking to it from the state are in fact advertising for Amazon. Crucially, for Amazon’s argument, they do not constitute a “nexus” for Amazon and thus the company does not have a presence in the state. But if reviews outside of Amazon pointing to given products on the site are advertisements not for those products but for Amazon itself, what does that mean for reviews posted to Amazon’s own site? If a review posted to an Amazon book page is an advertisement, is it an advertisement for that book, or for Amazon?

I don’t think either type of review constitutes advertising, false or otherwise, whether or not Amazon’s tortured legal tactics might lead us to that conclusion.

The problem is one of definition. First, we have a place in our cultural history for criticism of books, less so for bus companies (though I don’t doubt there are Yelp reviews of Greyhound out there that rival The Inferno for their beauty and terror). But more importantly, if the subject of review has paid for that review, it is surely an ad, whether posted on Amazon or the Yelp page for the Big Boy in Gaylord, Michigan. The FTC agrees.

All this leaves honest reviewers in a strange position. The awaited legal crackdown on paid reviews of books might be coming, though probably not at the federal level any time soon. Maybe in the meantime it’s best not to give that local yogurt shop (which, by the way, is the Times too complacent to write “frozen yogurt” or am I missing out on a whole delicious genre of store?) too many glowing reviews.

As for members of affiliate programs, you’re probably still fine, unless your reviews are just mellifluous odes to the glories of Amazon itself, in which case get a new hobby, Holder, we know how you feel.


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.