Phony Comments, or, Why Some Companies Are Banned From iLounge | iLounge Article

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Phony Comments, or, Why Some Companies Are Banned From iLounge

Earlier in iLounge’s history, we had an “anything goes” policy on user comments: with the exception of advertisements, almost any user comment would get posted. A few years ago, this changed. We saw that some companies were using our comments section to try and fake the appearance of enthusiasm for their own products, or create negative buzz around their competitors. This practice, “astroturfing,” led to a major change in iLounge policy: a complete ban on positive or negative astroturfing, plus an explanation that we were going to stop dealing with companies that engaged in this practice—or other sleazy marketing tricks—on our site. We summed up the policy simply: “if it’s not on iLounge, there’s a reason.”

This week, following a report that a Belkin employee was caught offering cash for phony positive user comments about Belkin products, we felt that an update to our readers on the status of our anti-astroturfing efforts was in order. We also wanted to take a moment to explain the root causes of these practices, and reaffirm our commitment to keeping iLounge’s comments free of them.

Our anti-astroturfing policy is referenced at the bottom of every iLounge page with a comments box, putting potential astroturfers on notice that their offending comments will be closed, their companies will be banned, and that they may be publicly identified as we see fit. Under this policy, our administrators have on numerous occasions closed and investigated comments that were being anonymously posted by company employees or—as the common excuse goes—their overenthusiastic family members. Then we’ve banned the companies from further coverage, sometimes for months, other times permanently.

This is the reason, for example, that you no longer see any news or reviews for iLuv products here. Caught once, the company was temporarily blocked; caught a second time, the company was permanently banned from the site. Of course, there were denials, then excuses, and then apologies. At some point along the way, our team decided that the company and its products weren’t worth the trouble they caused. And the same thing has happened with other companies, as well. Yet, despite the most recent news story, it should be noted that Belkin is not among the companies we’ve blocked: in our experience, the company’s representatives have been straightforward and honest with iLounge and our readers, proactively addressing issues. It is possible, of course, for a good company to have a bad seed.

So what are the root causes of astroturfing—the things that lead bad seeds or bad companies to misleadingly market their products? At the core, there’s a belief that positive user comments will spur product sales, and that negative ones will hurt sales. And to some extent, that belief is accurate.

As we began to research astroturfing problems, we heard from companies that they were under pressure from retailers to come up with positive user comments for their products. A certain huge iPod and iPhone retailer told companies that sales of their products were being influenced by positive and negative user reviews, and that their products would be dropped if the reviews were too low. So, rather than improving the products, some companies started to fake positive reviews.

Another source is a less concrete form of sales pressure. Some salespeople feel that every sale of a competing product is a lost sale for their own product, so they try to lower competitors’ sales by smearing them. Certain companies have come up with sneaky, less than brazen ways to do this, too: a semi-positive comment with one or two pointed digs buried inside, such as: “I thought that this Belkin charger was the best around, and loved using it until it fell apart in the socket and I had to pay $20 to get a new one.” Truthfully, product-specific “user” comments have gotten to the point where we wouldn’t put complete faith in any of them, and for a time, we considered turning them off altogether. Our current approach, moderation, is a compromise to give our helpful, honest readers a voice while eliminating as many of the useless or problem comments as possible.

Obviously, we can’t patrol the entire Internet for phony comments posted by companies, and as we’ve seen after banning certain ones, they often go elsewhere and pull the same tricks. They may be successful, as few other sites—retail or otherwise—prohibit astroturfing despite how serious the problem has become. In fact, some retail sites, including ones run by developers, actually seem to be encouraging or engaging in the practice. We punish it by spotlighting the offenders, often in the same place that they tried to offend.

Regardless of what you may find elsewhere, rest assured that we’re doing our best to make sure that the information and comments you read on iLounge are based on facts and the honest opinions of the people posting them. If you see a suspicious comment, report it to Bob Levens, our Chief Forum Administrator, at [email protected], and he’ll be on the case right away. Thank you for your continued participation in our community, and for helping to enhance both our main site and our Forums.

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Comments

1

thanks for posting this.

Truth be told, in the last 3 years i don’t think i have bought an iPod accessory without consulting iLounge first. I then usually stop by Amazon to see whether the comments there line up with iLounge’s reviews.

Posted by mike in boston or toronto on January 20, 2009 at 3:47 PM (CST)

2

I never buy any iPod product without reading iLounge’s reviews. Although I do look at reviews on Amazon, I don’t give them as much weight as I do with the iLounge reviews. Partly it’s because I feel iLounge does a much better job in offering a fair shake at a product, and partly because I’m turned off by folks who either rant and rave about a product or simply can’t spell right.

Posted by cxc273 on January 20, 2009 at 4:22 PM (CST)

3

I love this article.  I’ve never spent more time on reviews other than amazon until I’ve started reading iLounge a few weeks ago.  Keep up the great work!

Posted by Rick on January 20, 2009 at 4:51 PM (CST)

4

I’m ambivalent about this—specifically, the iLuv policy. Shouldn’t iLounge’s role be to review products, not to make decisions about business ethics?

I can understand notes appended to the reviews detailing problems with a company, but I think the products should stand or fail on their own merits.

Posted by Scott on January 20, 2009 at 5:05 PM (CST)

5

#1-3: Thank you very much for your continued readership and support.

#4, As we have defined it, our role is to provide information about companies, products, and services that we—after seven and a half years of covering Apple’s digital media products—believe are worth spotlighting for our readers. Viewed from another direction, while people can use Google to sift through information about everything in the entire world, we see our role as being to give our readers the truly important and worthwhile information they need in an efficient fashion… without the filler.

As we exercise editorial judgment over what does and doesn’t belong on iLounge’s pages, we have decided that we are not going to give a spotlight to companies that attempt to mislead our readers using the service we provide. Why waste our time covering products from such companies when there are so many other deserving companies and products out there?

To go one step deeper, the very concept of reviewing products depends on us to make certain evaluations as to the provider’s fitness to provide services required for the products: consistent manufacturing, fulfillment, customer service, warranty repairs, and so on. We are not willing to view products in a vacuum, as if these and related factors are unimportant; they are in many cases critical to readers, as follow-up comments we have received over the years have indicated. Our belief is that companies that deal honestly with their customers and potential customers are worthy of attention, and those that don’t, aren’t.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 20, 2009 at 5:21 PM (CST)

6

@ Scott:
“Shouldn’t iLounge’s role be to review products, not to make decisions about business ethics?”

Yes, but it is iLounge’s site and reputation, so they have every right to step in to address such sleezy tactics.  You’re also right that products should stand or fail on their own merits, but the problem is “what to do about false merits”?  The point being, iLounge shouldn’t have to take such an approach, but the reality is what it is, and I think most readers here appreciate their approach.

Posted by rockmyplimsoul on January 20, 2009 at 5:26 PM (CST)

7

Whenever I am considering buying an iPod accessory or just want to read a review I always go to iLounge. Case in point, the Apple In-ear headphones with remote and mic. I held off buying this until iLounge posted a review.

Thanks to Jeremy, I more or less know what to expect from the new Apple in-ear headphones.

I respect iLounge’s decision not to review products from companies caught astroturfing or other unsavory practices.

iLounge maybe be a review site but they are also a business and they have a reputation to protect. I am glad that they are taking this approach and I laud them for their integrity and sense of responsibility.

Posted by Jim on January 20, 2009 at 5:44 PM (CST)

8

And after all these years, I’m still amazed that folks post comments from work without realizing them blogging, forum, etc software will out them. At least have the decency to hide your identity by astroturfing from home or Kinkos.

I usually try to deal with these matters privately, as iLounge has done. Other than the Hertz employee I outted after he chose to use my comments section to levy personal attacks because he didn’t care for my coverage of their satellite radio non-integration. Incidentally, that’s also when I became an Avis customer.

Back to Belkin, I wish Amazon would limit reviews to paying customers. And kill their Amazon Vine program, too.

Last but not least, iLounge remains one of my few must-read sites. You’ve done a great job here, Jeremy.

Posted by DaveZatz on January 20, 2009 at 10:24 PM (CST)

9

I’ve been reading online reviews for a long time.  Astro-turfing is a problem everywhere.  I appreciate the effort to patrol the forum because this place would quickly turn into a stinking cesspool.  It’s like food poisoning in the restaurant business.  If the comment section were over-run by relatives, friends, and employees of companies that are destroying the reputations of other products, while pumping their own brand, the site will deteriorate quickly, the loyal following of readers would leave, and the quality of content will suffer.

If you want a high quality site, integrity is everything.  Look at Digg.  They’ve been over-run by 20 or so individuals who pump each other’s articles just to get front page access.  It’s not worth visting anymore because the system has holes, allowing a small group to exploit weaknesses to gain advantage.  The sad thing is that the general perception is that to make it to the front page, it had to fair and square.

Posted by MNinAL on January 25, 2009 at 9:35 AM (CST)

10

I’ve turned to the Forum and Review section of iLounge since they were still called iPodLounge.

When I decided to invest in a new pair of headphones I spent hours reading through reviews and user comments to come to a sound conclusion. Being a starving student, I didn’t want to part with $100+ only to be moderately impressed with my purchase.

While I think the iLounge reviews are some of the best and most thorough in the industry, for things like headphones (which are a very personal choice based on music genres and preferences) one has to read the comments as well to get a full impression of the product offered. In this sense, I do not need the comments section to be full of companies defending their products and trying to pave over their shortcomings.

It is for this reason that I now value iLounge even more for providing sound, unbiased advice.

Thank you.

Posted by Tantousha on January 25, 2009 at 11:26 AM (CST)

11

IMO belkin should be kicked out of the site as well… Big companies shouldnt be shielded and should suffer the same faith as small ones, actually they should be scrutinized even more since they are so big - a site like ilounge might be life or death to small companies and while not excusable its understandable why they do such things, but for Belkin which sell their stuff worldwide they do this out of greedyness not “survivial instinct” and thats not even understandable. there should also be a complete list of companies that do this, so we readers can see which companies try to scam us. Referring to them vagely as “some” and “certain companies” might shield the business but frankly ilounge is here for users and we deserve to know what companies use corrupt policies. I read the belkin thing last week and will no ever use them again.

Posted by Cptnodegard on January 27, 2009 at 3:12 AM (CST)

12

I am a new visitor to this site and I am very impressed by this statement, that your site doesn’t condone astroturfing.  Amazing! I wish Engadget would do the same; could you please share with them your successes so that they can follow suit?  The comments there and everywhere else is getting out of hand and you’re a beacon of hope. :)

Posted by crrp6501 on June 8, 2009 at 12:32 PM (CDT)

If you have a comment, news tip, advertising inquiry, or coverage request, a question about iPods/iPhones/iPad or accessories, or if you sell or market iPod/iPhone/iPad products or services, read iLounge's Comments + Questions policies before posting, and fully identify yourself if you do. We will delete comments containing advertising, astroturfing, trolling, personal attacks, offensive language, or other objectionable content, then ban and/or publicly identify violators.

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