Payola? There’s An App For That!

Remember a few months ago when there was a scandal about a Belkin employee paying people $0.65 per review to post 5-star reviews to Amazon?

Well, that was child’s play compared to what PR firm Reverb Communications has allegedly been doing for it clients. According to Gagan Biyani at  TechCrunch, Reverb hired interns to post positive review to Apple’s App Store for clients. Indeed, TechCrunch posted documentation obtained through an anonymous tipster, including the following:

Reverb employs a small team of interns who are focused on managing online message boards, writing influential game reviews, and keeping a gauge on the online communities. Reverb uses the interns as a sounding board to understand the new mediums where consumers are learning about products, hearing about hot new games and listen to the thoughts of our targeted audience. Reverb will use these interns on Developer Y products to post game reviews (written by Reverb staff members) ensuring the majority of the reviews will have the key messaging and talking points developed by the Reverb PR/marketing team.

What makes this story especially newsworthy is that Reverb’s client list includes some big names, such as Harmonix (i.e., Guitar Hero and Rock Band) and MTV Games.

Apparently the reviewer system isn’t entirely anonymous, so Biyani was able to look for patterns:

iTunes allows you to see other reviews posted by the same reviewer. So, we clicked on the reviewer “Vegas Bound” (iTunes link) and started to look at his reviews. He reviewed 7 applications, and gave each one of them 5 stars. Each review was short and sweet, and extremely positive. These reviews represented 6 different developers. A quick Google search revealed an infuriating truth: every single one of these developers was a client of one PR firm: Reverb Communications.

I can only hope that scandals like these will cause people to be more skeptical of reviews (or opinions in general) that come from anonymous or obfuscated sources. While most reviews are probably sincere, it doesn’t take much to erode public trust. Moreover, a few shill reviews can attract attention to a product, thus leading legitimate reviews to follow afterward. Where’s the harm? Products without those shill reviews are starved of the attention they might deserve. Money substitutes for authentic endorsement.

Our brave new world of social media makes it possible to truly democratize the sharing of knowledge and opinions. But gaming the system like this erodes the trust that is essential for this process to work–and thus devalues all of the information available to us online. The key enabler of such gaming is anonymity. Fortunately the miscreants do get caught on occasion. Hopefully we will learn from this experience and build more robust systems that aren’t so easily gamed. Transparency or FAIL.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

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