On Monday, New York’s attorney general announced a crackdown on 19 companies that wrote fake online reviews for themselves or their clients. 

I’m glad the attorney general took decisive action on behalf of consumers--but I’m dismayed that it was even necessary. These companies should know better. 

Here’s how wise business owners and operators pursue their reviews and digital reputations: 

Real reviews by real customers are the only ones that matter.

The review ecosystem is valuable to consumers because it relies on you and me to give others like us helpful insight on thousands of different businesses. The system works because we trust that what we’re reading is from real people. But when false reviews are prevalent, they poison this great ecosystem, eroding trust, making it less likely we’ll want to read or write reviews. That’s a shame because reviews don’t just help consumers--they help businesses, too.   

Good businesses get this. They know they can identify what’s working and what’s not working from review content. They understand that they’ll see emerging trends, enabling quick course correction, or be able to pinpoint the practices that are working well--all on the basis of strong feedback. And they know that if they’re doing good things for their customers, genuinely positive reviews will spur additional welcome growth.

It's OK to ask for reviews.

Smart businesses know the importance of reviews. They know consumers are actively relying on them to make purchasing decisions. In fact, four out of five consumers have changed their minds about a product or service based on negative online information. And if a company has been in business for more than a couple of years--especially with repeat customers--they are doing something right. But in many industries, reviews don’t happen organically or at the large volume required for a credible review rating. That’s why it’s more than smart --it is crucial--for businesses to invite their customers to review them. 

When you get reviews, pay close attention to them.

Smart businesses look at reviews from different platforms. They know that multiple review sites are pertinent to them--but some may be especially useful--and they act accordingly. These companies also know that it’s not enough to monitor just a parent location. If multiple locations exist, they all must be regularly managed. And review sites also offer critical intelligence about competitors. Understanding what people do and don’t like about a competitor--in their own words--helps these businesses develop more effective strategies to triumph in the market. 

It's never OK to pay for reviews in any way.

More reviews from real customers translate into a review profile that is more accurate and trustworthy. It’s legitimate for businesses to ask their customers for feedback online--as long as it’s done in the right way. They should not incentivize customers to leave feedback; coupons, free products or services are to be discouraged. Offering customers money for a review or paying someone else to write reviews is the wrong path. 

Some blue-chip companies have a long history of paying for surveys. In my opinion, even that is generally to be discouraged. The right way to get reviews is simply to make it as easy as possible to get feedback without resorting to incentives. Instead, good businesses explain to customers why online feedback matters so much. They ask clients to share their honest experiences on the review sites that matter most to the company.

Ethics matter.

All businesses should be governed by ethics, a framework that helps them carefully navigate tricky waters and make good decisions. If they choose to use the services of an online reputation management company, they work with one that adheres to strict and clearly articulated ethical guidelines. They’ll interview these companies carefully and ask tough questions to make sure their selection is correct. They’ll ask if the online reputation management company has formal ethical guidelines and what they are, if they engage in astroturfing and other deceptive practices, if they have rules on which customers they’ll serve. 

My own company has a manifesto on these topics, and we make training on best practices a central part of employee onboarding. Our sales team, for instance, understands they are absolutely prohibited from offering to create reviews but we go even further: we instruct them to make sure it’s never even implied to the customer, to specifically go out of the way to explain that this is not who we are or what we do. 

Empowering employees is just smart business.

What’s a bad sign? When a company says it will do “whatever it takes” to get results. If you’re a great business, you know that a no-limits, “whatever it takes” approach usually leads to choices that ultimately damage you. Engineering fake reviews falls squarely within that category. Conversely, a good company gets that a short-term gain is a long-term loss when achieved via questionable means. Instead, it reinforces its ethical guidelines and operating standards regularly with employees, particularly in departments with high turnover and, consequently, new faces. We’ve also developed technology that helps our customers discover when fake reviews--both positive and negative--appear to be showing up in their ecosystem. That’s important because sometimes a company’s own employees will attempt to game the system. It's your job to understand how and why it’s happening.

Ultimately, fake reviews serve neither the consumer nor the business--the very definition of a lose-lose situation.