Fake It Til You Make It? Not in Small Business

"Grassroots" has become the go-to buzz word for everyone from political pundits to pre-school teachers. It seems as if the only way to accomplish something is from "the ground up." In that dirt-driven vein, here's another one for you: "Astroturfing." It has nothing to do with a football field, but it could get you a penalty flag.

"Astroturfing" is defined as the artificial creation of a grassroots buzz for a product, service or political viewpoint; the practice by which a company pretends to have a following but actually fakes it. In simple form, it's posting false or paid-for consumer reviews on websites, like Yelp or TripAdvisor. In some countries, astroturfing is banned and even includes sponsored blog posts. In the U.S., a recent investigation involving astroturfing was aimed at companies based in New York, but it will have widespread ramifications.

In a 2011 Harvard Business School study, a researcher found that restaurants that increased their ranking on Yelp by one star raised their revenues by 5 to 9 percent. Today, that's considered a conservative estimate, as more and more consumers look to fellow consumers for advice before choosing a product or service. This creates an almost absolute need for positive reviews, especially for a new business. Unfortunately, it also creates a veritable marketplace for fake reviews, which in turn, undermines the credibility of the internet.

So much so, that a 2012 Gartner study estimated that one in seven recommendations or ratings on social media sites like Facebook would soon be fake. In response to the surge in sham reviews, Yelp has taken an aggressive approach in screening out reviews it believes to be false. They went so far as to sue a California law firm for writing fake reviews about its self. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also takes online reviews seriously. There are specific guidelines governing online reviews, and it's illegal to write fake reviews for your business or to pay an individual to write reviews for you. The exception is a paid endorsement, and that needs to be identified as such. If the FTC discovers a company writing fake online customer reviews, that company could be fined large amounts of money.

If you find your business in need of a few, good reviews, the answer is simple: earn them!