The internet has always struggled with authenticity. It is a medium that accepts anonymous interaction, so you never know if the voice at the other end is really who it says it is. This provides for both an overwhelming opportunity (think sites like glassdoor.com) and a saddening view on humanity (think the comments on any political article).
This struggle has always existed in the world of online reviews. Fake reviews and fake comments are just part of what you get online. Astroturfing has always existed, but it is just plain easier and more prevalent online. In the world of local business reviews, we have seen massive growth in the number of online reviews over the last 2 years. This growth, for the most part, has been lead by product and marketplace innovations at Yelp. One of their claimed technological innovations is ability to detect fake reviews in a large-scale way. This removes some of the astroturfing that is going on and provide their customers with a more authentic experience. But now Yelp is in the news (again) for supposedly requiring businesses to purchase advertising from them in order to remove negative reviews or maintain positive reviews. This approach would certainly destroy any authenticity Yelp has created through their fake review removal technology. I can’t imagine this extortionist approach being either implicitly or explicitly supported by anyone that matters in Yelp. However, I can see a few rogue sales people looking to close deals by hanging this over a customer’s head. If that is the case, Yelp needs to clean its house and clean it quick if it wants to retain the authenticity it has started to build.
So what does this all mean to the small business owner? First and foremost, you need know what reviews exist for your business online. Secondly, you need to be responsible for maintaining your digital reputation. See a review bashing your business that your competitor down the street wrote? You need to flag that review. All major review sites offer a mechanism for contesting these type of reviews. See a review bashing your business that a real customer wrote? You have an opportunity to respond to that review in many cases. Maybe that waiter was really a problem and has been fired or maybe that customer was just being unreasonable. Your response, at the very least, will show your potential customers that you care. Now with all the reviews and review sites out there, this process can be overwhelming…but we are busy building tools to help.