For most businesses, trying to build and maintain a pristine online reputation is an honest process.

At the same time, it can be costly and frustrating. Because of the challenges, some business owners turn to gray hat and black hat tactics. Just how effective can they be?

To find out, Fusion's Kashmir Hill created a fake business, Freakin’ Awesome Karaoke Express (F.A.K.E.) and purchased 19,000 Twitter followers, 200 Facebook fans and a handful of five-star Yelp reviews.

The total cost: less than $100.

Fake reputations, real money

As Hill explains:

For $5, I could get 200 Facebook fans, or 6,000 Twitter followers, or I could get @SMExpertsBiz to tweet about the truck to the account’s 26,000 Twitter fans. A Lincoln could get me a Facebook review, a Google review, an Amazon review, or, less easily, a Yelp review.

All of this was on offer through Fiverr.com, a 'global online marketplace for creative and professional services.'

According to Hill, "When I identified myself as a journalist and sent messages to people offering to write reviews, they said, ‘We only do real reviews. We really try the products. People send them to us.’ But when I approached them undercover with money in hand, it was a different matter."

None of this is surprising. The market for fake Twitter followers and Facebook fans has been well-documented and in most cases, companies tapping into this market get what they pay for.

What is somewhat surprising however is that Hill's experiment didn't exactly fail, even after she publicized it. The $21 she spent on Twitter followers got her 19,000 followers with Twitter accounts ostensibly created by script, but nobody at Twitter seemed to notice the overnight surge in F.A.K.E.'s follower ranks.

Today, F.A.K.E.'s Twitter account still exists and still has more than 19,000 suspicious-looking followers. F.A.K.E.'s fake Facebook profile still exists too, and the fake reviews on it haven't been removed.

After Hill published her article, Yelp removed F.A.K.E.'s listing from its service and to its credit, did appear to detect the questionable Yelp reviews Hill paid for before she revealed her experiment publicly.

But the fact that her Yelp reviews were flagged as 'not recommended' wasn't at all bad for business...

I got numerous real phone calls and voicemails to the burner number I set up for the karaoke truck. 'What do you charge? I have a birthday coming up and a karaoke truck would be awesome,' said one message from a guy named Brandon. I felt bad! I wish it existed. Even though I never returned the calls of Brandon or any of the other people who wanted to hire the truck, they didn’t leave the business a negative review.

Put simply, despite numerous red flags and the fact that Yelp's systems detected that something might be amiss, neither Twitter nor Facebook penalized F.A.K.E. and F.A.K.E. was still able to generate real business inquiries from the one service that did flag its fake reviews.

For business owners committed to playing by the rules, knowing that others not playing the rules can get away with it might be disconcerting. After all, many companies spend many times more trying to build a pristine online reputation and, at least in terms of surface-level metrics, many don't have the kind of results Hill was able to buy with a very modest budget.

Obviously, this does not mean that business owners should go to the dark side and use the techniques Hill did to build F.A.K.E.'s online reputation.

Despite the results, there are plenty of risks and the long-term results might not be sustainable. But that such techniques can still work at all raises serious questions about the state of the reputation economy and just how successful social platforms and consumers are at separating the wheat from the chaff.

Patricio Robles

Published 23 September, 2015 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (5)

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

I guess the social platforms can't publish the details of their fake-detection algorithms (else the bad guys would know what not to do!.

But the F.A.K.E social activity, does make one wonder how much effort the platforms are really making. It would be interesting to know what budget they spend on it.

A monthly report would be good, giving the numbers of fake accounts/ articles/tweets they have deleted as a result of policing their own platform.

over 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

I think the type of business makes a difference.

If you want karaoke for a birthday, this is an infrequent, unbranded, on-off purchase from a new small business, where you probably don't know anyone who has bought the same thing and there are few (none in this case!) previous customers and hence no real reviews. So you're much more vulnerable to fake reviews etc.

I think faking would work much less well for frequent, branded, regular etc. purchases because the word would get around and there would be real (presumably bad) reviews from high-reputation reviewers to warn shoppers.

over 2 years ago

Pauline Randall

Pauline Randall, Director at Florizel Media

We did something similar with Twitter for a blog we were writing about fakes back in 2012. http://florizelmedia.com/buying-fans-what-you-really-get/

Our fake Twitter account (https://twitter.com/SocialMediaAwes) is still there but did lose the fake likes fairly fast - we now just have 18 followers :( and they don't look that fantastic.

Fakes might get you some attention for a while but I'd still rather go the white hat way.

over 2 years ago

Jason Malikow

Jason Malikow, Founder at Precision Local Marketing

We've seen a lot of fake reviews in the home services market, where word of mouth advertising and recommendations / reviews are key drivers of new business.

It's definitely a problem for marketers when competing businesses feature the same spun reviews. However, our clients and their customers aren't really aware of the issue. The clients want new business, and as long as their customers are happy with the service they receive, our clients are happy.

I think this will be an area where we, as marketing professionals, need to self-police while we educate our clients about the long term value of good customer reviews and relationships.

Jason Malikow
Founder, http://precisionlocalmarketing.com

over 2 years ago

Zak Jacobs

Zak Jacobs, Managing Director at Red Alien

How after all this time are Twitter still allowing these fake followers. It wouldn't take a genius to look at an algorithm that has abnormal peaks in follower activity especially if they were from connected automated accounts as fake followers usually are.

I provided an up to date view on fake followers here http://www.redalien.co.uk/socialmedia/fake-twitter-followers/

It would be good to see accounts receive a trust rating next to each of them so that potential followers can be alerted before following individuals or businesses. I guess even though Twitter have the knowledge and technology to make these things happen they choose not to as more users means more advertising revenue one way or another.

Also with accounts clearly selling followers within Twitter feeds, how are they not picking up on these and in the reporting tool why do they not have button to report fake Twitter follower sales accounts?

about 2 years ago

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