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For anyone offering local search marketing services there should be a bright line between real local search engine reviews and fake ones…but whenever there is money on the line, someone is going to take a shortcut. Bending the rules online isn’t new, but what’s interesting in this case is: who condoned the cheating is and how obvious it was.

attorney general eric schneiderman

Photo: www.nysenate.gov

In an interesting example of the government taking the reins on violations that should be handled by the local search engines themselves, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has announced that his office will be cracking down on ‘astroturfing’…the practice of site owners paying for favorable reviews of their company on local search engines. It’s unclear how much collusion there was between site owners and the agencies they hired, but the end result in all the cases investigated was that a site owner hired an SEO agency, PR firm or reputation management firm to write fake reviews. In many cases the writing was outsourced overseas to the Philippines, southeast Asia or Europe for a per-review price of a few dollars.

As stated at the outset, whenever there is a buck to be made, someone will bend the rules to make it, but there is a larger issue here which involves the online marketing community, the search engines and site owners alike: trust. Ever wonder why the acronym ‘SEO’ carries both positive and negative connotations? Practices like these may give a site a momentary edge, but in the end, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of both business owners and search engines. In some cases, search engine professionals are even talking about walking away from the term ‘SEO’ altogether to avoid being tarred with the same brush as those who are cheating. In an article from last year, SEO luminary Rand Fishkin entertains the question, ‘Should We Use SEO as an Industry Term Anymore?’. In our eyes, there is always an ethical SEO application and when used correctly, SEO is a valid option for increasing search engine rank. However, it should only be used ethically and should also be one facet of an ongoing online marketing effort.

So what is the end result of bending the rules or hiring a marketing agency to bend them for you? Well, the New York Attorney General’s office is putting a price tag on faking your way to good local search engine rank. They have handed out some $350,000 in fines to 19 companies and are requiring them to sign statements stating they will no longer solicit false reviews on behalf of clients. For those in the market for an online marketing firm, either for local search engine optimization or other services, here is a word of advice: if it sounds like cheating, it probably is. The internet may seem like the wild west, but sites are punished every day for mistakes made in the past, so make sure your online marketing firm is above board. Black boxes lead to black marks, and clearing your name is every bit as hard to accomplish online as it is in person.