It’s more-or-less common knowledge now that having positive reviews about your law firm online can increase the public’s perception of your firm.
Studies show that 85 percent of individuals trust online reviews as much as recommendations from their friends and family. And the presence of positive reviews leads almost three-in-four consumers to trust a business more than if it had no reviews or featured primarily negative ones.
And, as you might expect, including reviews in your website’s search listings can have a significant impact on clickthrough rates for those listings.
But, in terms of the policing of modern internet fraud, efforts to stop or minimize the occurrence of fake or unethically incentivized reviews seem to be a fairly low priority for big names like Google — at least for the time being, that is. The FTC, however, has a history of taking legal action against some of the biggest fake-review offenders.
The fact that the spread of fake reviews seems to be given infrequent attention — and that they seem to be largely tolerated or otherwise often go unnoticed — is perhaps why professionals in the legal field tend to be among the worst perpetrators of this practice, according to at least one SEO expert.
One anecdotal test of the top twenty personal injury attorney listings in a major city by that expert revealed that eight of them, or forty percent, featured fake reviews. Additionally, another volunteer review hawk uncovered a fake profile used to provide reviews for 23 separate law firms in 22 different states across the U.S. at one point, further bolstering that claim.
Fake Reviews Can’t Persist as the Norm Forever
Though Google appears to be focusing its energy primarily on other spam issues at the present moment, the search engine cannot sit on its haunches and allow spammers to run the show on its review platform indefinitely.
After all, the presence of a single fake review on such a platform undermines the credibility of all of the other reviews on that platform. And, should consumers grow weary of reviews in general at any point, those reviews will eventually lose their value completely in the eyes of consumers.
Though one spam experiment by a British journalist led a fake restaurant of the journalist’s own creation to be listed as the number-one eatery in London for a brief period on TripAdvisor, TripAdvisor itself claims to have algorithms in place which detect suspicious review activity and says that it removes posts placed by review spammers.
The company also says that it has managed to locate a number of offshore review farms through this process and that it took legal action against sixty of them in 2015. TripAdvisor also claims to have spotted the journalist’s scam and removed the fake listing before his story on the subject was published by Vice (though the journalist claims he still has yet to be blacklisted by TripAdvisor for the offense).
For its part, the popular review site Yelp ads warning labels to company profiles when that company is caught trying to purchase fake reviews. It also ads warnings when media attention leads to a flood of negative reviews that might not be related to the level of service or quality of the products offered by a business.
Facebook has recently done away with its star rating system in favor of allowing individuals to offer (or not offer) business recommendations on the platform, though it has some pretty specific guidelines about who can make those recommendations, and what the circumstances surrounding those recommendations should be. And though most third-party review platforms ask that reviews come only from actual customers, Avvo at least makes it clear when reviews are coming from actual clients and when they are peer endorsements by other attorneys.
Though Google has yet to take any major steps by way of putting the kibosh on the practice of trading in fake or fraudulent reviews (it will occasionally remove fake or inappropriately incentivized reviews that it is made aware of), the search giant will probably not be able to ignore the problem forever. And that means that the days of attorneys gaining an advantage by relying on fake reviews to inflate the public perception of their law firms are likely numbered.
Not Only Are Fake Reviews Unethical, They’re Also Illegal
When an attorney sees a competitor getting ahead online by engaging in black hat tactics like purchasing fake reviews, they can be tempted to engage in such practices themselves (in poker parlance, this is referred to as going on ‘tilt’).
But not only do attorneys who purchase fake reviews risk losing those reviews when they are caught, they also put themselves at risk of facing action by their state bar authorities, lawsuits by the companies who provide the review service, and could even face legal action from the FTC.
Even a simple quid-pro-quo exchange of reviews by attorney peers could be considered a violation of both FTC regulations and legal ethical guidelines. And no law firm wants to be on the receiving end of an FTC fine that can reach into six-figures while also drawing unwanted media attention to the firm’s unethical advertising practices.
It’s not unheard of for the FTC to take action against commercial entities who actively engage in the practice of soliciting and publishing fake reviews, either. In 2013, the Attorney General of New York settled a case against 19 separate companies accused of posting fake reviews for a total of $350,000 in fines ranging from $2500 to $100,000 for each.
Then, in 2017, the FTC hit a car dealer in California with $3.6 million in fines for encouraging its employees to pose as customers in order to post fake reviews about the company on multiple platforms (we covered this instance in this SEO eBook about Google Penalties).
If You’re Considering Purchasing Fake Reviews for Your Law Firm, Don’t
Where there may be a short-term payoff for your law firm in the form of traffic to your website or an increased clickthrough rate from SERPs as a result of purchasing or incentivizing falsified positive reviews about your firm, the risks associated with doing so simply aren’t worth it.
There are a number of tools available to attorneys — including the LawLytics Reputation Management Add-on — that make it easy and affordable for LawLytics member attorneys to ethically and efficiently obtain reviews from satisfied clients. Using such a service also eliminates the stress of involving your law firm in unethical and/or illegal marketing activities and removes the threat of eventual action by either state bars or the FTC.
For those who may have felt the urge to purchase fake reviews in order to keep up with a competitor who seems to be getting ahead by doing just that, you can report fake and fraudulent reviews to Google via the Google My Business Forum until the search engine comes up with a more targeted and aggressive method of addressing such blatant violations of its guidelines.
If you are not a LawLytics Member yet but would like like to discuss your firm’s online marketing strategy with one of the experts on our team, schedule a call with us here.