October 6, 2011
Imagine a group of doctors has decided to review the leading products in your category and create a website providing an unbiased review. Sounds great, right? “Now consumers will see how we stack up to the competition,” you think. You type your product name into Google, and see a paid advertisement with the headline “[Your Product] – WARNING.” You click the link and find that the good doctors have nothing good to say at all. Worse yet, your competitor’s product is rated “#1”, and covered with “buy now” links.
Despite the FTC’s Revised Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials, there’s a vibrant market for paid consumer reviews. Help-for-hire sites like Elance.com and Guru.com show an abundance of companies looking for paid reviews, and freelancers looking to write them. While the FTC Guides proscribe paid reviews without adequate disclosure of “material connection,” there is a nefarious trend emerging in “consumer reviews” which has resulted in several recent law suits.
“Review sites” often feature a group of unaffiliated reviewers (often physicians) who provide a comprehensive and “unbiased” review of a particular product category. They round up the competing products and write “reviews,” which all have a decidedly negative slant…for all but one. These sites typically employ a ranking system, where the “#1” product receives rave reviews and links where consumers can purchase the product. There are twists, but the overall plot remains consistent.
What good is a “review site” if nobody sees it? These sites get limited “SEO” benefit by including all those competitor trademarks in the text (and often META tags), but some go even further. Site owners often purchase Google AdWords using competitor trademarks along with inflammatory words like “SCAM” and “WARNING.” Throw in an astroturfing campaign of blog posts pointing back to the “review site,” and you start gaining “SEO” traction.
Seems like potential liability abounds, but what lessons can we learn from all this? For starters, consumers should be wary, and brand owners should monitor their online reputation. What about the “#1” product manufacturer? Overzealous affiliate marketers can set up these sites unbeknownst to the manufacturer. Those who use affiliate marketers must be vigilant in selecting affiliates, crafting service contracts that address their potential liabilities, and monitoring affiliates’ online activities. Remember, all signs point to the “#1” product manufacturer on these sites. When the FTC or competitors’ attorneys come calling (or suing), it’s typically the manufacturer, not the affiliate marketer, initially in their sites.
This isn’t meant to be all doom and gloom, but rather to illustrate how a few bad apples can ruin the bunch. Customer-review-based marketing can be wonderfully effective when done properly. Responsible and transparent use of endorsements and consumer reviews is imperative to maintain the integrity of the industry at large.
If you’ve ever had a product involved on a suspicious “review site," or know someone who has, please comment below.
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