Fake Positive Reviews on Yelp and Google+ Violate Ethics Rules, State Laws

If you’re trying to get more clients for your law firm website, profiles in customer review sites like Avvo and Google+ can help. In the modern age, clients are increasingly using the Internet as a resource to find their attorneys rather than asking for referrals from friends and colleagues.

When a prospective client searches for a law firm in Google, the first organic search results (i.e. not paid advertisements) are the law firms that are in Google+ and have reviews.

Related: [Infographic] Law Firm SEO – The Difference Between The First Page of Google and the Rest

Once your Google+ profile is set up and you need to get positive reviews, attorneys can be tempted to create fake reviews, ones that they, employees, or family members created.

First off – don’t. Check out our article on how to get positive customer reviews. It’s 7 actionable tips for you. It’s easy, quick, and safe.

New York Sues 19 Companies for Fake Reviews

Recently, review sites and state attorneys general have begun to crack down on fake reviews. New York’s attorney general recently filed suit against 19 companies for providing fake reviews of businesses.

[New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman] said that 90% of consumers claim online reviews influence their buying decisions. Schneiderman cited a Harvard Business School study from 2011 that estimated that a one-star rating increase on Yelp translated to an increase of 5% to 9% in revenues for a restaurant.

Schneiderman said some so-called search engine optimization (SEO) companies routinely offered fake reviews as part of their services. When Schneiderman’s office called leading SEO companies in New York to request assistance in combating negative reviews for their fake yoghurt shop, representatives from some of these companies offered to write fake reviews . . .

Dominic Rushe, The Guardian

Customer Review Site Sues Law Firm

Not only is this practice against many state laws regarding false advertising, it also violates the terms of service of the reviewing websites. Yelp, a popular customer review site, recently filed suit against San Diego-based law firm McMillan Law Group after the firm had its employees and friends create Yelp accounts to give the firm positive reviews. The complaint alleges that the firm also traded positive reviews with other law firms. Yelp’s complaint seeks damages for breach of contract regarding Yelp’s terms of service, which, among other things (inter alia for you law fans out there) prohibit fake reviews, compensating people for reviews, and trading positive reviews. It also contains causes of action for intentional interference with contract, and claims for false advertising and unfair competition under California law.

Ethics and Customer Review Websites

That’s not all. Bringing it on home, if the fact that lawsuits brought by review websites and attorneys general weren’t enough of a deterrent for you, fake reviews also likely violate your state’s ethics rules.

Rule 7.2 of the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct (adopted by many states) prohibits giving “anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services . . .” Moreover, Rule 7.1 prohibits making “a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.”

While attorneys have ethical obligations, they can’t blame their marketers for unethical conduct. When you hire an SEO firm to do your search engine marketing, you’re hiring an agent. If that agent engages in false advertising, you’re on the hook. So, making sure your SEO company is acting ethically is paramount (shameful plug here for JurisPage law firm SEO).

Carolyn Elefant of MyShingle has a great article in which she points out that while it is “crystal clear that lawyers have an ethical obligation to avoid deceptive practices in advertising” state ethics boards often lack the technical savvy and resources to police review sites. So, the more significant deterrent for the attorney is not likely going to be a disciplinary board, but rather a lawsuit with the threat of a $4 million fine.

Andrew Cabasso
About the Author: Andrew Cabasso
Andrew Cabasso is an attorney and co-founder of JurisPage, an online marketing agency for law firms, now part of Uptime Legal. Andrew has given many lectures and CLEs on website design and Internet marketing to legal professionals. He is the author of Search Engine Optimization for Lawyers and The Complete Guide to Attorney PPC. Follow Andrew on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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