Last week, I wrote about Unvarnished, the ‘Yelp for people‘ startup
that has sparked a decent amount of controversy since publicly launching a private beta. In my post on the
company, I echoed the sentiments of a good number of fellow bloggers
and suggested that Unvarnished “may be 2010’s worst startup.

Unvarnished’s co-founder, Peter Kazanjy, left a comment on my post,
which was shortly thereafter followed by an interesting comment from a
fellow going by the name of “Mike.”

The comment looked a little bit suspicious to me, especially given that it was posted less than 30 minutes after the co-founder’s, so I checked and noticed that the email address “Mike” provided indicated that he shared Peter’s last name. A little digging online appeared to confirm that Peter had a relative named Mike, so I figured one plus one probably equals two.

My suspicions were confirmed after Mike Kazanjy, Peter’s brother, responded to me, apologizing for his “use of anonymous response earlier” but chastising me for spreading “inflammatory and baseless criticisms“. It’s worth pointing out that Mike did not use our anonymous response functionality, which is available to registered users; he simply didn’t provide his last name.

According to Mike, the long and short of it is that there’s nothing wrong with his comment. “The truth is that every single word of my comment is an undeniable fact” he proclaims. Unfortunately, anybody reading his initial comment can see that it was written to appear as an unbiased, non-conflicted statement from “Mike“, a guy who just happened to think Unvarnished was a good idea and wondering aloud whether it could have been of use to his company in a particular situation.

From the first sentence (“I think this service could be very worthwhile“) to the last (“Maybe this service could hedge out some of that risk?“), there’s absolutely no indication that it was written by the brother of Unvarnished’s co-founder or somebody who was in any way involved in the company. No legitimate excuse is given for the omission of Mike’s last name, although Peter seems to believe that our comments system is to blame for his brother’s apparent inability to say “By the way, I’m the brother of the company’s co-founder” or even “I have a relationship to the company.

The comment left by “Mike“, of course, has a name: astroturf. And astroturf serves one purpose: to mislead or deceive. Knowing that there’s usually fire where there’s smoke, I decided to take a look at some of the other blog posts that were written about Unvarnished, and based on a review of the comments left on them, it appears that Unvarnished’s astroturfing may extend beyond Econsultancy.

On TECH.BLORGE.COM, a “Mikechimes in to set the record straight about Unvarnished. He claims to be “a participant in the private beta.” There are defensive comments from a “Mike” on Marketing Pilgrim and TechStartups.com too, and a quick survey of the comments left on TechCrunch’s Unvarnished post reveals that people named “Mike” seem far more likely to support what Unvarnished is doing than those who don’t go by “Mike“. One comment from “Mike” on TechCrunch even says “I know the founders well“. If you see some similarities in writing style and arguments across these comments and those left by Mike Kazanjy here, you share my company.

When faced with the evidence, Mike Kazanjy has confirmed that at least some of these comments were indeed written by him. The excuse: he failed to reveal his last name and relationship to the company because he wanted to avoid “personal attacks and threats“. An especially revealing excuse given that Unvarnished — the service Mike so staunchly defends — doesn’t provide individuals any ability to protect their profiles from the same sort of abuse.

Obviously, in the absence of other publishers looking at email and IP addresses, it’s impossible to identify all of the astroturf comments left by Mike Kazanjy or people related to Unvarnished. But I would suggest that the odds Unvarnished astroturfed in only a few places are probably pretty slim. After all, if you astroturf on one site, what reason does anyone have to believe you’re not doing everywhere else? Zebras don’t change their stripes.

Astroturfing, of course, is something that goes on all the time on the internet. Companies hoping to create the impression that they’re popular or on to something big will overlook the fact that astroturfing is usually pretty obvious to just about everyone. And they’re willing to overlook the fact that glowing comments left by faceless people who go by “Mike” or “Melissa” or “Joe” or “Jane” usually carry little to no weight anyway, unless they’re truly insightful, which they almost never are.

But the astroturfing confirmed here is particularly problematic and worth pointing out given the nature of the Unvarnished service and the arguments Peter Kazanjy makes defending it. Peter has spent a lot of time in the blogosphere responding to the criticisms his startup has received. A common thread: he would have everyone believe that anonymous users can be trusted to review co-workers and associates with integrity, and that the over-ambitious won’t be dishonest and try to game the system. In other words, you can trust the reviews on Unvarnished, even if you don’t know who is behind them.

Yet if Peter Kazanjy’s brother is going to post supportive comments about Unvarnished on multiple sites without disclosing his identity and relationship to the company, all the while pretending that he is just some guy named “Mike” who thinks Unvarnished is a great idea, and Peter doesn’t see the sad irony in this, what does that say about Unvarnished? In my opinion, one can only come to a single conclusion: Unvarnished talks a good game, but at the end of the day, the people behind it are willing to engage in precisely the type of behavior they say Unvarnished’s users won’t.

Photo credit: griffithchris via Flickr.