Meet Dana Auriemma. She’s a business blogger for MINDBODY, a management software provider in the health, wellness, and beauty industry. According to her online profile, Auriemma started dancing at the age of 3, blogs twice a month for MINDBODY, and “hearts the business of fitness.”
She’s also become the key participant in an unexpectedly controversial Quora thread that has brought to new light the growing problem of online reviews.
This week, in response to the question, “Does MINDBODY have competitors?” Auriemma wrote:
“I have an unbiased point-of-view because I don’t work for any of the competitors that are answering this question. I know a little about the other options out there but I personally recommend only MindBody. I’d never consider settling for anything else or trusting my business to anyone else. I can see how MB’s system could be intimidating because they have such incredible capabilities but the benefit they bring to your business is well worth the learning curve. I’ve loved their customer service and the fact that they were continuously finding ways to enhance their software in a manner that never disturbed my business. They have amazing features to manage everything about your business — and most importantly, clients LOVE MindBodyOnline. It’s such a client-friendly system that it really helps drive your business. Good luck with your decision and business, and I suggest you just still consider MB.”
Needless to say, Auriemma’s “answer” set off the alarm bells of numerous Quora users. First, her response doesn’t actually address the original question. More importantly, it’s a resoundingly positive, one-sided review written by someone who claims to have an “unbiased” point of view, and who also conveniently left out the part about being a business blogger for MINDBODY.
The glowing review caught the attention of Andrew Wicklander, founder of TULA Software, a Web-based yoga studio software and a competitor of MINDBODY. “Quora isn’t for lying or misrepresentation,” Wicklander wrote below Auriemma’s answer. “It’s a place for people to seek honest answers to legitimate questions.”
Auriemma attempted to clear up the confusion by saying that she did not work for MINDBODY, and that she had no incentive for leaving the online review. A quick Google search performed by Wicklander, however, revealed that majority of the users who upvoted Auriemma’s answer were all MINDBODY employees.
“The idea,” he wrote, addressing Auriemma, “the idea that this was not a coordinated effort to hijack a Quora thread, with you as a participant, smacks of more credibility issues for both you and MINDBODY.”
Furthermore, it was found that a couple of positive MINDBODY reviews that also appeared in the same Quora thread turned out to be written by company employees.
Wrote Patricia Stern: “I am not sure who the competitors are for MINDBODY…but I personally recommend MINDBODY.”
“MINDBODY provides a robust brandable and customizable booking site that is clean, easy to use and extremely robust,” added Jenee Arend. “Plus, they also have a Facebook integration, Constant Contact integration, online gift certificates, online store, their own merchant account processing, and a daily deals functionality.”
Stern is a technical support specialist for MINDBODY, while Arends is a regional sales manager for the company.
The worrisome events in the Quora thread come on the heels of a New York Times report that detailed the fraudulent actions of nineteen companies caught writing fake reviews on community-based sites like Yelp, CitySearch, and Google+ Local. In an age when consumer reviews significantly influence purchase decisions and directly impact sales, some businesses hoping to boost their online reputation have resorted to “astroturfing”—the practice of masking sponsors of a message to give the appearance of the message as having come from disinterested, grassroots participants.
The 19 companies caught have already been fined by New York regulators—and slapped with a total of $350,000 in penalties—but Attorney General Eric Schneiderman advised consumers to remain vigilant of online review fraud. “This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution,” he said.
This includes reviews outside of traditional aggregators and posted on similar community-based platforms like Quora. Described as “your best source for knowledge” and created as a type of question-and-answer website grown by its own community of users, Quora is guided by content policies and guidelines not unlike that of review sites like Yelp and Google+ Local. (Auriemma, Stern, and Arend’s answers have since been downvoted and deleted or collapsed.) But thanks to the increased sophistication of online astroturfers, users must, more than ever, take all kinds of user-generated content with a grain of salt.
“If I were Rick Stollmeyer (founder and CEO of MINDBODY), I’d be worried….” Wicklander later wrote in a company blog post. “What does it say about a company when they’ve raised $50 million yet they’re still so insecure that they have to try and game public Quora threads and write fake reviews?”
Worries that you may be deceived by fake reviews and astroturfing? Here are 6 savvy ways to spot online review fraud:
1. Analyze the reviewer’s writing style. There are common indicators that give away a fake review: lack of detail, exaggerated praise, liberal use of exclamation points or ALL CAPS, and an over-the-top tone of voice almost begging you to buy the product or service in question.
2. Google the reviewer. Anonymous reviews are instantly suspicious, but even if a reviewer writes under his or her real name, it’s still recommended that you verify the identity with a quick Google search of who’s doing the writing.
3. Look for details. According to ConsumerSearch.com editor-in-chief Christine Frietchen, fake reviews can be spotted by checking whether or not the reviewer makes use of specific examples. “Somebody who is not very knowledgeable about the product,” she says, “someone who doesn’t tell you how they used it or how they tried to use it and it didn’t work out – those could possibly be fakes.”
4. Be wary of black and white. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but it’s reasonable to doubt the authenticity of a review if it’s 100 percent positive or 100 percent negative. Real customers don’t have any hidden agendas and won’t hesitate to say something negative even if their own experience was generally positive.
5. Look out for brochure vocabulary. Chris Moran, a senior editor for the Consumerist, fake reviews make use of adjectives and phrases that consumers normally don’t use. Alarm bells should ring if, “for instance, you’re looking for a modem and you see ‘explosive speed.’” He explains, “No one talks like that, even if they love the product.”
6. Report fakery. If you suspect a fake review, contact the site administrator to prevent future readers from being deceived. Resting on your laurels will only encourage more malicious activity and reward businesses that resort to astroturfing.