Unethical Customer Reviews Can Cost You Big

July 15th, 2009 by Will Scott

Lifestyle Lift is learning the cost of unethical customer reviews. The New York State Attorney General has reached a $300,000.00 settlement with cosmetic surgery company Lifestyle Lift in response to fabricated consumer reviews.

It appears that Lifestyle Lift was directing employees to spend their time in reviewing their own facilities.

Lifestyle Lift is a plastic surgery chain store. From those online customer reviews one finds, which appear truly authentic, they’re not doing so great in good old fashioned customer service. According to the article in the NY Times it seems that Lifestyle Lift is resorting to aggressive reputation management techniques to suppress bad reviews and advance their own message.

Where did Lifestyle Lift go wrong?

According to the article, it appears that Lifestyle Lift fabricated reviews of their own facilities and even went so far as to create entire new “review” sites to advance their message.

To be clear, user reviews are great. The creation of alternate sites for search or more targeted messaging are a long accepted technique to obtain ranking and spread the message.

Where it becomes a problem is when these reviews and sites are presented as authentic user generated content and they are, in fact, a fabrication in support of public relations.

In short, the creation of false consumer reviews with the intent to deceive is the problem. It’s long been held to be unethical and now, in the state of New York, it’s illegal

Examples of likely fabricated reviews:

These aren’t for Lifestyle Lift, but for other plastic surgery searches. I’m not saying the following are specifically relevant to bunk reviews, but there are a couple listings – you can find them yourself – which have an abundance of positive or non-informative, yet 5-star, reviews.

http://www.google.com/search?q=breast+augmentation+san+francisco
http://www.google.com/search?&q=plastic+surgery+new+jersey

And we don’t know that these are definitely a fabrication but “cool” has 3 reviews, all of which are for the same plastic surgeon, focusing on different locations (1 of which includes “Plastic Surgery” as the business name) and no reviews for other businesses: http://maps.google.com/maps/user?uid=101692309768642551973

And “Happy”, whose reviews look more authentic has a similar instance of 1 each for business name”Plastic Surgery” and for the doctor’s name itself – again, with no reviews for other businesses: http://maps.google.com/maps/user?uid=104188572776476355287

At a minimum, what the above demonstrate is how not to ask for customer reviews. Whether “Happy” and “cool” are real people or employees of the practice, a little digging makes it appear these are inauthentic and calls into question the validity of all the reviews.

So what’s a small business to do?

As the examples show it’s a dog-eat-dog world in online reviews.

Ironically we’re preparing a much more focused post on how to get reviews but in the meantime remember:

  • Be authentic! Chances are if you fake it you’ll get caught.
  • Have customers tell their story. They’ll be much more believable than you.
  • In doubt? Don’t do it! Lifestyle Lift should be a lesson – it might cost you $$

Of course, this case is different than most because Lifestyle Lift got busted. The New York State Attorney General has drawn the line for us with regard to clearly egregious behavior but I think we can all agree they’re not the only ones.

Where does that line get drawn for you? As with every ethical question there are many shades of gray between here and there.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks to the Blog Herald for tipping me off to this story. It’s very relevant to our livelihood and that of our customers.