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.