Word of mouth can’t be manufactured

Update:

Belkin has released a statement saying it was unaware such activities were taking place and that it is “extremely sorry.” The company said that Belkin “does not participate in, nor does it endorse, unethical practices like this. We know that people look to online user reviews for unbiased opinions from fellow users and instances like this challenge the implicit trust that is placed in this interaction.” The full note is at CrunchGear.

Original post:

A couple of days ago, an astute blogger poking around Amazon’s Mechanical Turk “crowd-sourcing” engine discovered that someone from Belkin — a company that makes computer and electronic peripherals like mice, USB hubs and so on — was paying people through Mechanical Turk to submit fake reviews to Amazon of Belkin products. The wording of the ad (which offered to pay the princely sum of 65 cents for each review) was very specific. It said:

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Quit reviewing us online, café says

Greg Sterling at Screenwerk has an interesting post about a local café in his home town of Oakland called Rooz, which has posted signs saying “No Yelpers” — in other words, no customers who plan to bitch about the service or the food on the Yelp.com customer review site. Greg asked about the sign and got this response:

“What I was told, in a nutshell, is that the café staff has encountered a stream of would-be critics “with attitude,” predisposed to take issue with or be critical of the business.”

Greg says the staff argued that some customers were being deliberately snotty in their reviews “for entertainment reasons or to impress the Yelp community,” and weren’t being respectful of the impact their reviews might have on a small business like the café. The response from some of the Yelpers in question (not surprisingly) has been unapologetic:

“How DARE you ban my opinion?? And for this, I shall not return. EVER. Not the best business plan in the world buddy.”

As Greg notes, it seems a bit odd to pick a fight with your customers, even the snotty ones who give your place lacklustre reviews on a site such as Yelp. Maybe this café owner has enough customers, and doesn’t need to attract any more.

Google needs to get with the program

Well, it happened again. I was going to write a blog post about the new Google Maps feature that lets users write reviews of businesses, but I left it too late and had to go off to a dinner thing, and by the time I got back that bugger Scott Karp had said the exact same thing that I was going to. I swear, if it isn’t him doing that then it’s Mike Masnick from Techdirt.com. If they weren’t such nice guys I would push them in front of a bus or something.

In any case, the point is well made by Scott: adding user reviews to Google Maps makes sense from a certain standpoint, since it adds value to the map info and adds another layer of content to (hopefully) provide stickiness. But it is also lacking any kind of social element, which is something that Yelp.com — or a similar Toronto service called OurFaves.com, which was started by my friend Candice Faktor — have in spades.

Why would someone want to contribute a review to Google Maps when there’s no community? And how is anyone supposed to judge the believability of the review when there’s no social context the way there is with Yelp and OurFaves.com? Someone said they didn’t like the “If you build it, they will come” mentality — they much preferred the “if they come, you should build it” approach.

Google seems to be leaning more towards the former than the latter, and Scott is right — building community and using social tools is not something they have proven to be particularly good at.

Blog payola, round three (or four)

Looks like round three (or is it round four?) of the “blog payola” debate is upon us, something I expected we would see more of in 2007. Over at The Blog Herald, my friend Tony “I Never Sleep” Hung has the 411 on a new PayPerPost-style blog review service called SponsoredReviews, which is reportedly about to launch in beta.

Tony has the details, and Mike Arrington at TechCrunch brings the outrage, in a post that says the “blog payola virus is spreading.” In a response in the comments, someone says that services like PayPerPost fill a need, and Mike responds that drug dealers fill a need too. The bottom line, he says, is that such services mean “misled readers, search engine pollution and credibility questions around the entire blogosphere. All for a few dollars a post.”

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SponsoredReviews, like PayPerPost, appears to require disclosure — although it’s not clear yet whether that will be a general, site-wide disclosure like the one PPP allows, or whether compensation will have to be disclosed on each and every sponsored post, which is the way I think it should be done.

SponsoredReviews is also trying to carve out a variation on the model by allowing bloggers to set their own rates, with a bidding system determining the eventual payola level. And the service says that it will have a rating system, although it’s not clear what that will consist of.

I’ve got a great idea: How about instead of requiring disclosure, SponsoredReviews requires bloggers to post the details of the entire monetary transaction that led to the post in a small box next to the post — complete with all the various bids and the final price that was paid for the review. Transparency is good 🙂

Sure, I’d love a free Ferrari, but…

Just checked in with Techmeme after a few days of eggnog and tobogganing, and what did I find but another ethical dilemma brewing, this time courtesy of Microsoft (although Edelman appears to have played a role as well). I predict that the blogosphere-as-ethical-minefield meme will continue to be a hot topic in the year to come, if only because there seem to be a ton of unresolved issues, not to mention a vast difference of opinion on what’s right and what isn’t.

Reading through the various posts on it, like Joel Spolsky’s or Judi Sohn’s at Web Worker Daily — who wins the prize for my favourite headline, with “There ain’t no such thing as a free laptop” — and the comments on some of those posts, including the ones at Brandon LeBlanc’s blog (he got one of the free Microsoft laptops with Vista but didn’t say so for a few days), it seems as though some people think keeping the laptops is just fine, and others think it is a heinous crime.

As with many of the other ethical issues the blogosphere is wrestling with, this one also occurs in traditional media, particularly in the technology area, where reviewers are often given software and hardware to test. Sometimes the understanding is that the reviewer will keep it (if it isn’t of huge value), but in the vast majority of cases it is sent back. Are there reviewers who keep things they shouldn’t? Sure there are. Does it affect their credibility? Who knows.

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Ed Bott thinks that bloggers should be able to keep the free laptops, and says he isn’t going to lose any of his faith in the credibility or trustworthiness of Brandon LeBlanc or Long Zheng as a result of them keeping it. His argument is that trust is something you build up over time, and that it takes more than a free laptop to demolish it — and I would agree, to a point.

But I also think that a blogger trying to build up credibility and win an audience is fighting an uphill battle to begin with, and accepting freebies without disclosing them is a very slippery slope, and that’s why my position on PayPerPost has also been that payment is fine provided it is disclosed. The FTC seems to agree, given its recent decision on word-of-mouth marketing.

As Tony Hung points out at Deep Jive Interests in this post on PayPerPost buying Performancing, bloggers want to be compensated and many people don’t see anything wrong with that, and neither do I, provided it is disclosed. Anything else, in my opinion, is on the slippery slope. If you think you’re able to keep your footing on that slope, be my guest — but don’t be surprised if you wind up at the bottom.