As all business owners know, referrals are the golden ticket to business success.  We live and die on referrals.  The more we get, the more successful our companies tend to be.  While it’s not always true that referrals equal success, it is often a Key Performance Indicator!

In the online world, reviews and testimonials from your customers are also golden.  They validate our company and service level to the online shopper or researcher, and allow for further interaction.  Studies have shown that consumers definitely look at testimonials on websites and reviews on 3rd party sites, like Yelp and TripAdvisor, before spending their hard-earned cash.

For many business owners, however, these reviews are ruining their businesses and in many cases, the claims made in the reviews aren’t even true.  There are numerous lawsuits affiliated with Yelp, related to anonymously posted false reviews on business listings. It goes both ways, too, with negative reviews most likely originating from competitors or disgruntled ex-employees, and positive reviews from current employees, family members, or friends of the company. This technique is aptly named “astroturfing”, as using fake reviews can convince business prospects that your metaphorical grass is greener than it really is.

Yelp has specific ideas about what kind of reviews are acceptable, and what kind of reviews are biased. You can find out more about their rules in the official Yelp blog, but here’s a quick summary:

“We try to showcase the most helpful and reliable reviews among the millions that are submitted to the site. Not all reviews make the cut, and those that don’t are posted to a separate “Filtered Review” page. Filtered reviews don’t factor into a business’s overall star rating, but users can still read them by clicking on the link at the bottom of the business’s profile page… The filter sometimes affects perfectly legitimate reviews and misses some fake ones, too. After all, legitimate reviews sometimes look questionable, and questionable reviews sometimes look legitimate. We think the filter does a good job given the sheer volume of reviews and the difficulty of its task, but it doesn’t really matter what we think — consumers will only use Yelp if we do a good job of showcasing the most helpful and reliable reviews.” – Yelp’s FAQ

Recently, the state of New York sued many businesses for a ton of money for engaging in astroturfing. At least 19 businesses  offering fake review services were busted recently by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. By setting up a fake company looking to hire these illegitimate services, he was able to uncover a lot of details about how these companies are gaming the system. A total of $350,000 in fines will be paid by these 19 companies, who have all signed agreements that they will no longer engage in these practices.

The bottom line is that practices such as astroturfing are not only illegal and can land you in big trouble with the law, but they do not help your business get better. If you are receiving negative reviews from your customers, that is a big sign that you need to make some changes about how you do business. Improve your argument – don’t raise your voice. The best way to fix a real negative review is to respond publicly to the complaint, offer a solution or a customer service phone number to call, and provide genuine help for the dissatisfied customer. This will showcase your stellar customer service instead of highlighting your mistakes.