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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