[IMGCAP(1)]At this point, most companies and even accounting firms have a profile on some sort of review site like Yelp, CitySearch or Google Local.

The idea behind these sites and many more of their ilk is to give the customers and clients of a company the opportunity to share their experiences, good or bad, with anyone who is looking for a similar provider. With the power of user reviews outpacing advertising exponentially, it's a good strategy.

Along with the creation of a profile on these sites comes the temptation to "pad" them with fake reviews. I've seen very reputable firms do this without blinking an eye. In fact, according to Gartner, 10 to 15 percent of online reviews are fake. But before you start paying your intern to create phony profiles and rave about your services, think twice.

The practice of creating and posting fake reviews is called "astroturfing" and it got 19 companies in New York slapped with fines ranging from $2,500 to $100,000. You read that correctly; you can be fined for this behavior, and in New York at least, authorities are cracking down hard.

Think the Office of the New York Attorney General is overreacting? I'm here to say he's not.
First, it's false advertising, pure and simple. It's really not that different than Splenda saying it's "made from real sugar" or Airborne claiming to ward off colds. Those companies and many others have had to pay dearly, so why shouldn't those who are creating fake testimonials?

Second, it creates skepticism about the entire client review system. This is a meaningful loss, because the system has such a lot to offer both businesses and consumers. It's really a brilliant idea to have actual users of a product or service share their experience with others. Like many, I tend to put much more stock in user reviews than any other type of advertising. In fact, public feedback plays heavily into the hotels I book, restaurants I try and service providers I choose. If companies are allowed to continue posting fake reviews, the entire system will eventually implode.

Third, it's lazy and shady behavior, and if you are busted, it will certainly harm your brand. If you are willing to cheat at this, where else are you cutting corners? This is particularly pertinent for accounting firms, since you are, in essence, selling trust. Once a cheater, always a cheater applies to more than marriage infidelity in my book.

Instead of taking the low road, why not create a true, multipronged marketing plan for your firm? It's smart to incorporate online review sites into your strategy, but let the reviews come from your real customers. Just ask your clients to post a review! There is absolutely nothing wrong with making this type of request, and real clients tend to say even better things than you can write yourself.

What do you think about these fines and what they mean for the online review site industry? Overreaction or long-overdue consequence?

Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk is president of bbr marketing, a firm that provides marketing strategy, training and tactical implementation for professional services firms. She can be contacted at www.bbrmarketing.com, or you can read bbr’s blog posts at www.bbrmarketing.com/blog or www.marketingideasforcpas.com.

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