Lately in the SEO for law firms world, there’s been a maelstrom of lawsuits recently concerning “fake” online reviews for services like Yelp, Google, and CitySearch; and both SEO companies and law firms are getting caught in the wake.

The tipping point was a recent investigation by the New York Attorney General’s Office targeting companies buying fake reviews, as well as the companies providing them.

“Operation Clean Turf” was a year long investigation that nabbed 19 local companies who ended up paying more than $350,000 in fines for the posting of fake reviews.  The name was derived from the industry term for this practice which is “Astroturfing” and it breaks laws against false advertising and deceptive business practices.

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“1000 reviews coming right up sir!” (source)

To give you an idea of the amount of fake reviews posted, just one of the 19 companies cited had generated over 1,500 fake reviews.  Mary K. Engle, who directs the U.S. FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices, estimates that 15 to 20 percent of online reviews are falsified.

BusinessWeek had a great breakdown of what exactly occurred.

Well What Does That Mean for Attorneys?

Compared to some other industries of a retail nature (restaurants, fitness studios, etc.) attracting reviews for legal services is a tricky job.  It’s rare that clients will go rave online about a DUI charge that got dropped, or a successful defense of a lawsuit, so building up online reviews remains a tricky job for attorneys (particularly on the plaintiff side).

Recently a lawyer was sued by Yelp itself because of fake reviews that attorneys working in the firm had posted on their Yelp page in an effort to increase it’s positive reviews.  After some back and forth, Yelp is demanding more than $25,000 from the San Diego based law firm.

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Despite record earnings in the last quarter, Yelp has yet to post a profit.

Could this turn into a more common practice for Yelp? A lot will depend on the outcome of this lawsuit.

So, What’s a Safe Way to Gather Reviews?

The short answer is to nudge them into growing organically.  While it’s certainly reasonable to send a “thank you” email to a client once they are finished working your firm (which would of course contain some text that encourages the client to post a review if they felt satisfied) there’s no easy way to go about asking that they post a review.

Another tactic you may want to avoid (which I am seeing more of lately) is to offer gift cards, cash, or “presents” to clients in exchange for a review.

This is a tactic that was busted in “Operation Clean Turf” and while this may seem like a strategy that search engines or review companies won’t pick up on, the algorithms that catch these fake reviews are only going to grow smarter.  Better to play it safe than risk your reputation down the road.

The best course of action for attorneys is to make the review process as seamless as possible for their clients.  Once they’ve signed with your firm see whether they have a Google+ profile or a Yelp account.  Do they?  Start interacting with your client through those portals (ie friending them) and once it’s time to send out that “Thank You” email they’ve already interacted with you across those sites and the chances of getting a review can grow.

I don’t doubt that there will be plenty more press to come on this issue in the coming months, so if your firm is practicing any “shady” review techniques, it’s time to can those practices before it’s too late.

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