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Using Questionable Reputation Management Tactics Is Risky Business

There’s no doubt that it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to maintain your online reputation, and it may be tempting to look for ways to ease the burden. One way is to hire a company that specializes in reputation management. There are plenty of companies out there that offer seemingly quick and easy ways to improve your online ratings. Unfortunately, some of these review companies may be using “Black Hat” techniques and putting dealers that use their services at risk. A classic example is the dealership that suffered devastating reputation damage a few years ago because of the review-posting practices of a company they hired. A customer discovered that suspicious “reviewers” were writing 5-star reviews about all kinds of businesses and dealerships across the nation on the same day.

Another area of concern is the activity of a company’s own employees. The Federal Trade Commission charged a California marketing company with deceptive advertising after it found that the company’s employees were posing as ordinary consumers posting positive reviews online. Even worse, The Florida Attorney General sued an auto dealership for violations of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, for its employees allegedly posting fake reviews.

FTC guidelines require companies to ensure that their posts are completely accurate and not misleading, and planting or allowing fake reviews is a clear violation. Dealers may also face liability if employees review their employer’s services or products without disclosing the employment relationship. The FTC requires the disclosure of all “material connections” between a reviewer and the company that is being reviewed. These connections can be any relationship between a reviewer and the company that could affect the credibility a consumer gives to that reviewer’s statements, such as an employment or business relationship. So if employees, friends, family, or vendors post reviews to prop up a dealership’s online reputation, they must clearly disclose any relationship they have with the company. In addition, all reviews must be an honest opinion based on a real experience. Reviewers must never endorse a product or service that they have not used personally or create any other form of false endorsement.

Failure to follow these regulations can result in substantial penalties. In recent actions, the New York Attorney General fined a company $300,000 for ordering its employees to write fake reviews and the FTC ordered another company to pay $250,000 for fake reviews posted by the company's affiliate marketers. In the Florida dealership case, the lawsuit seeks restitution for harmed consumers, civil penalties of up to $15,000 per violation, attorneys’ fees and costs, and injunctive relief.

The FTC has stated that companies are fully responsible and liable for all inappropriate actions of their employees, their vendors, and any advocates they recruit. While reviewers may also be held personally liable for statements made in the course of their endorsements, the FTC has indicated that its enforcement activities will generally focus on companies receiving the reviews.

Paid-for reviews are another area that regulators are cracking down on. The practice of offering a free oil change or gas card to a customer in exchange for a good survey has long been frowned upon by manufacturers. Because there are no factory gatekeepers when it comes to online ratings, it may seem tempting to offer customers an incentive to post a positive review. The good news is that you can if you want to; the not-so-good news is that the FTC requires that any reviewer provided with any form of compensation for posting a review must fully disclose the source and nature of any compensation received. So, if you pay for reviews and the reviewers fail to disclose their compensation, you may face liability. This is an area where it’s easy to get caught and besides the legal danger, your reputation will likely take a big hit.

While paying someone to write a review is not illegal as long as it is disclosed to the reader, doing so would likely hamper the review's credibility. In addition, the dealer would be responsible for holding the reviewer accountable for properly disclosing the compensation. In other words, paid-for reviews are probably not worth the trouble.

Besides the potential legal ramifications, fake, paid-for, and “on behalf of” reviews violate the Terms of Service for most review sites. Google, Yelp, and others are cracking down on reviews written by someone hired or paid by a business, and violations could result in having reviews removed or worse, being banned and causing a dip in your search rankings. There’s also the very real possibility that after getting caught gaming the system, no one will trust your reviews ever again.

This past summer Google deleted hundreds of reviews from a number of dealerships for what they described as “suspicious behavior” and “spammy” content. Unfortunately, it seems that they went over the top and deleted many legitimate reviews, but the fact remains that they are looking very closely at the review-posting process. Google wants to ensure that reviews are posted from real people and not agents acting on a consumer’s behalf. There are a number of companies that offer business owners a service that will call their customers, collect a review, and post it on Google. This violates Google’s policies and those reviews will eventually be removed for spam.

Yelp has long been notorious for filtering reviews on their site, but recently they have gone even further. Apparently, they set up a sting operation to help uncover companies that purchase fake positive reviews, then calling out the offenders and showing the world its evidence. Consumer Alerts have shown up on Yelp reviews that say “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business. We weren’t fooled, but wanted you to know because buying reviews not only hurts consumers, but also honest businesses who play by the rules”.

If someone is assisting you with your online reputation management, make sure you fully understand exactly how they are gathering the reviews, posting them and distributing them. This goes for your staff as well.

It’s never been more important to be 100% authentic in your review-gathering and Online Reputation Management – the penalties can be very large and are not worth the risk. Questionable reputation management tactics can destroy a dealership’s credibility, lead to legal headaches, and do far more harm than good.

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