09 June 2007
Local Reviews: A Spammer's Revenge
Do I blame it on my Google Reader? (Don’t get me wrong, I really love it.)
I’m particularly interested in what’s happening in the world of real local florists; one of those categories of businesses where the web has been both a small business enemy and friend.
The Social Web and Phony Local Flower Shops
A couple weeks ago my reader displayed a post about a flower shop in San Francisco submitted to Netscape.
(Ironic that it appeared between my blog post about two of our flower shop designers being selected as finalists in a prestigious national competition and a story about whether flower shops will be around in the future.)
Instead of reading about Floramor Studios, Amy Kee, or some other wonderful San Francisco florist, I found a keyword-loaded affiliate link spam post telling readers about an ‘SF florist’ that‘s really a Connecticut-based call center – From You Flowers (nicknamed F U Flowers by some of us local types. ;) )
In the ‘Related Posts’ area, I spot similar articles from the same site about the same ‘online only’ company calling them a ‘Honolulu florist’ and an ‘Omaha florist’. Same spam MO, same affiliate links.
<Added: For the record, here are some real San Francisco florists, real Omaha florists and real Honolulu florists.>
Geographic misrepresentation, where calls centers, their agents and affiliates pretend they’re local flower shops, isn’t new to the floral industry - but it is getting worse by the day despite 20 states passing various laws prohibiting the practice. (A California State Senate committee is scheduled to consider a bill addressing specific types of geographic misrepresentation by flower sellers this coming Tuesday.)
Most out-of-state marketers charge convenience fees and all extract commissions before forwarding the orders to real local flower shops - so on a $55 total purchase from a company like From You Flowers, only $29.42 filters down to the real San Francisco florist after F U and their floral wire service remove services charges, commissions and fees.
If consumers knowingly choose to use an affiliate broker, so be it. But they shouldn’t be tricked into believing a company is legitimately local when they’re not. Don’t just take my word for it, read what the FTC has to say about companies posing as local florists.
(I doubt F U Flowers is aware of the manufactured testimonials by this affiliate, but its not the first time one of them has been caught bottom feeding.)
So I created a login at Netscape, sunk the posts and left comments about the veracity of the articles including “I call BS. Not a Honolulu florist, just a Connecticut call center who will charge a service fee and take a cut of each order before passing it on to a real flower shop in Honolulu.”
AOL Local (Beta) ‘Business Review’
Fast forward to the following weekend. My Google Reader showed an article about AOL Local’s updated Beta version so I decide to check it out only to find a swift payback left by one of the Netscape spammers – a bogus ‘review’ (complete with mimicked words) about my Anaheim flower shop:
So now one of the Netscape posters had crossed over from garden variety shilling, false testimonials and affiliate link spamming to defamation. Wow, if you're gonna review my company, you could at least buy something first.
Note that AOL Local (admittedly Beta) doesn’t reveal the user names of reviewers and offers no clear or easy way for business owners to contact them to correct data or refute defamatory reviews like this.
I had bookmarked Andy Beal’s excellent post about reputation management and am using a couple different approaches to get the phony review deleted. Turns out AOL Local allows the easy, anonymous posting of dreck but requires snail mail to their legal department before they’ll consider removal. In case anyone else is facing this situation, address letters to:
AOL Corporate Office
22000 AOL Way,
Dulles VA 20166
Playing on Small Business Fears
I and a few other real local florists have been outspoken about the tactics of some of these ‘online only’ and phony local florist affiliate marketers. A couple years ago approximately 20 of us received anonymous letters telling us we were being blacklisted in floral wire service directories by a group of 45 such companies.
I have no doubt that the fear of such economic reprisals - blacklisting and reputation damaging revenge ‘reviews’ - keeps more 'mom & pop' local florists from standing up and calling BS.
But of course, that’s the intent.
Social media used to shill and then exact revenge though phony negative reviews. So much for empowering the 'wisdom of the crowds'.
If anyone's interested in what real customers and some real florists say about our company, please check out City Search, Yahoo Local or Insider Pages. (Would be nice if Google Local would find those reviews, too.)
Next time, I'll probably just hit the 'Report' button on Netscape - or not.
Added: I realized after re-reading this that I needed to clarify a couple things.
One is that there are many florists that care deeply about the industry and do their part to fight spammers and scammers. They do so by refusing to fill deceptively-sold orders and by helping to educate consumers about how to tell if florists are really local or not. You may never hear about some of their work because they go about it quietly.
Two is that though 'revenge reviews' are intended to have a chilling effect, I'm pretty sure the end result will be just the opposite.
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