Astroturfing is the fine art of generating buzz on the internet through deceptive methods. Here are some classic examples, fake websites, viral videos, “independent” blogs operated by marketing companies and supportive forum posts on key community web sites. Posts written by some marketing intern in a posh ad agency office. Astroturfing is, literally, everywhere on the Internet, infecting any community that might generate potential sales. Which is basically all of them.
One aspect of astroturfing raises my hackles enough to write this post; the “astroturfed review.” A review implies some level of honesty and integrity and the proliferation of bogus, manipulated, quid pro quo (cash or product) or “sponsored” reviews on the internet makes it that much harder to discern good product from bad.
Since it is very difficult to prove a review is bogus and slinging accusations is a fast way into a libel lawsuit, I will not link to reviews I believe to be manufactured by a marketing geek. I will instead provide a few tips to help spot a review that is questionable. After that, determining the veracity and value of a review is up to you. Remember that legitimate reviews can also have some of these characteristics, but rarely all. One or two is possible, but if you are over 75% of this list, think very hard about the value of the review.
The LivingDice.com Astroturfed Review Spotting Guide
1. The Exhortation: On any review, skip to the end and check for an “exhortation to action.” Typical exhortations include, “Visit site fakesite.com for a free gift!” or “See More Preview Images Here!” It is marketing speak for “make the visitor do something.” It is like a holy mantra to marketers and nearly always appears as the last thing you read. Watch any TV commercial and see it in action.
2. The Love-Fest: Too good to be true usually means it is and some clumsy marketers really oversell the product. “This vegetable slicer CURES cancer and will make you look like a SUPER-MODEL in three weeks!” This type of review is a rare thing since most marketers learned a new word; subtlety.
3. Cloning: Pick a sentence in the review. I often use the exhortations identified from step 1, but any reasonably unique sentence in the suspicious review works. Paste it into a Google search window, enclose the sentence in quotation marks and run a search. Quotation marks force an exact match in the search engine’s database. If 10 sites have exactly the same line in the same review, check out a couple. Make sure they are not just re-posting the review or aggregators like Digg.com. However, if every site has the same review, or more commonly, partially original reviews with key paragraphs, links (the description, not just the same link), exhortations or phrases common between them, be warned.
4. Language Check: Marketers working on a budget often hire international help to post bogus reviews, comments and forum posts. For my English speaking audience, look for strange sentence grammar. However, because this is such an unreliable indicator of astroturfing, I suggest you use it as a secondary method, in combination with other methods.
5. The Blitz: Ten notable refrigerator magnet blogs, podcasts and news sites suddenly post reviews of an exciting new magnet available next week…within 48 hours of each other. Staggered out a bit, but still within a very small time window. A bit hard to spot unless you stay on top of your community or hobby, but often it takes just a little research to make this connection. Google is your friend.
6. Keyword Overload: Keywords are lifeblood for marketers. Links from reviews filled with relevant keywords enhance your own site’ search rankings. Additionally, if the search engine sends an interested searcher to the review, it helpfully links to your site as well. Either way it is a marketing win! Spotting a keyword-packed review is really a matter of practice. Look for strange word groupings that are correct but seem forced. For our fridge magnet example, rather than saying “the new magnet,” the review says the “new powerful square magnet widget.” While grammatically correct, the second sounds odd and is clearly designed to boost keyword relevancy on the review. However reviews from experienced content creators/bloggers/webmasters often employ some degree of keyword optimization, so really look for flagrant abuses here.
These tools, plus some common sense will help sort the wheat from the chaff reviews. Doubt everything you read on the Internet. Be skeptical and critical in your thinking.
After ranting about reviews in this post, I really should discuss the approach I take to reviewing products on Livingdice.com, lest I be called hypocrite. First, companies sometimes send me free product (usually RPGs or board games.) I review it and get to keep it. Whenever this occurs, I will clearly disclose this in the review. Once that product is in my hands, I am free to state my opinion without reservation. I do not accept any product that comes with strings attached. I also implement keyword optimization on a limited basis. I write for people first, but if I can work in some relevant keywords, so be it. Although I do not operate Livingdice.com for profit, I do run it with the intent that as many gamers read it as possible. Reasonable keyword optimization aids in that goal. Some of my reviews even have exhortations at the end, even on items I purchased myself. Sometimes I like a product enough to urge you to do more research.
Ethical issues aside, reviews are opinions and opinions draw their power from the value others place in their source. My goal from the very start of this site it to remain an ethical, entertaining and useful source of information for gamers. This promise and my record to date are all the evidence I have that I am not a reviewer for sale. Judge the evidence as you will and grant my reviews whatever value you deem appropriate.
Finally, let me be very clear on this issue; if a company would like to submit an astroturfed review to Livingdice.com, regardless of the incentives offered, this is the only answer they will receive.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer