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The fake information epidemic and how it will hurt local search in 2017

The fake information epidemic and how it will hurt local search in 2017Fake news and its influence on the election dominated headlines for weeks as fabricated news reports went viral and the election results shocked the nation. But fake news is just one tentacle of a troubling and growing trend of fake media content. The headlines simply brought to light what is a much wider problem: the ease and prevalence with which false online information is used to manipulate behavior.

The manipulation can be of consumer behavior, business behavior or even the behavior of software triggered by false information fed into its system. Scam artists are strongly motivated to take advantage — recent reports cite Russian hackers who stole up to $5 million a day in advertising revenue by posing as fake users in a scheme tagged by the name “Methbot.”

The impact on marketers is particularly hard. As consumers search for information to help make purchase decisions, uncertainty about the veracity of the information they receive impacts the effectiveness of local search marketing. Online advertising already faces challenges gaining consumer trust, and the proliferation of fake content will only hurt it more. Worse, you may be spending money on advertising that no one ever sees, be competing in an unfair market, suffer from hits to your reputation or pay more than you should for marketing products or services.

Being aware of how false information is being used will help marketers avoid problems and identify when they may be affected, saving them from both headaches and wasted dollars. Below are eight ways that false information is being used that you need to know about:

1. Fake news

Fake news got a lot of headlines, and while its impact on marketing is indirect, the effect can still be significant.

The problem is that fake news often outperforms real news in traffic and engagement. Consumers love sensationalized news. Top fake stories received more engagement than top news stories, and some even went viral. Analysis by BuzzFeed found that the 20 top-performing fake election stories generated over 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments, compared to approximately 7.4 million of the 20 best-performing election stories from major news websites.

It may be tempting to follow the mantra that “all publicity is good publicity” and take advantage of the attention fake news gets you. At best, that is short-sighted — at worst, it’s self-destructive. Unlike the sources of fake news, advertisers need more than a click to make money. Online ads need to drive purchase decisions, but a recent study by Marketing Sherpa (registration required) demonstrated that it is still traditional advertising that influences purchase decisions most. The top five most trusted media formats were traditional media, led by print, TV, direct mail, radio and out-of-home ads, and consumers clearly expressed that they are highly influenced by ads in these media compared to online or digital media.

Fake news in digital media certainly doesn’t help. Being viewed as associated with fake news undermines trust in any related content, and that can hurt direct sales, as well as branding or online reputation. And continuing to allow ads to be placed together with fake news only perpetuates the problem by funding it.

The problem with fake news is defining it. While large publishers like Facebook and Google have promised to block fake news sites from receiving their ad products and services, writing algorithms that identify fake news is a harder task than blocking porn sites, hate speech or sites that sell illegal drugs. News as a category is much less black-and-white. There are opinions and editorials. Political positions and contradicting data. Satire and commentary.

There’s also frequency and degree — is a story that has 25 percent false facts or a site that contains five click-bait stories enough to get categorized as “fake news?” Complicating it all is the seeming lack of truth coming from news subjects themselves. I don’t believe I saw a single “fact-check” this past campaign season where any candidate came close to being always truthful.

Regardless, recognize that losing trust hurts us all. Demand accountability, and insist that your marketing not be displayed in a manner that would support or be associated with fake news. Look for options in programmatic advertising choices that help filter out controversial inventory. While the options may be limited now, more are sure to become available in 2017.

2. Fake listings

Real brick-and-mortar locations are battling call centers that create fake listings across the local search ecosystem, including on Google. These fake listings even have fake locations on Google maps, created to boost SEO and pretend the listing has a real location and local presence.

These scams not only steal customers away from true local businesses, they often bait and switch with lowball quotes over the phone, send unqualified service technicians to do the job and demand higher payment once the job is complete.

These fake listings are common in home repair business categories such as plumbing, HVAC and carpet cleaning, as well as emergency services such as locksmiths. While industry groups and Google have tried to address the scam, it’s often akin to playing “Whack-a-mole.” As soon as one location or fake listing is taken down, another pops up and takes its place.

Local businesses can fight back by making sure to clearly and prominently communicate genuinely local markers in their communications. Consumers prefer local businesses for their personalized service, reliability and quality work. Show pictures of your storefront, staff and signs. Use language that is local in nature, such as referring to specific neighborhoods, cross-streets and other local landmarks. Engage in multi-media marketing for local brand recognition.

Also, regularly perform searches for local competition as a consumer might, and report any fake listings or businesses that you know aren’t real.

3. Fake ads

Two kinds of fake ads are being used, especially on social media sites. The first is an ad that poses as a headline story by a major publisher like ESPN. The stories may report the fake death of a famous athlete or some fake scandal involving a celebrity. The ad looks like the major publisher’s content and displays its logo, URL and other identifying marks, but when clicked on, the ad directs to a sales site.

The other type of ad offers fake deals or free giveaways to lure buyers. Photos of a local business’s products, boxes or storefronts may be used in the ad, and the business’s name or URL may also be displayed. But the ads are really run by scammers who take credit card and payment information to run false charges before the payments can be stopped.

Both of these have great potential to affect local businesses. Ads that display fake headlines but lead to other sales sites may appear on your business’s Facebook page, on auto-populated display or banner ads on your website or other business pages that permit third-party ads. Visitors who click on these fake links lose trust not just in advertising generally, but also in those who display them on their websites or social media pages.

Ads that steal your business’s identity and use it to commit fraud clearly damage your reputation and brand. So be on the lookout for these types of scams, and report them immediately.

4. Bogus billing and invoices

Another trick that has been around for some time is fake invoices, but again, technology and the use of fake information is making these types of scams easier to sell. At its most basic, invoices for services never provided show up with the hopes that they will be paid, often for amounts small enough to avoid red flags and under the guise of familiar names or images like a generic Yellow Pages walking fingers logo.

Those schemes are becoming more sophisticated. For example, real agreements are made for sales of useless listings or digital products that are made to look legitimate but have no real audience. Fake agreements are generated through fabricated emails or spliced phone calls to capture voice authorizations that never occurred.

Local businesses are also billed for misleading charges such as expiring annual URL subscriptions or fake URL address subscriptions that get paid when business owners are too busy to pay close attention.

Scammers are also posing as clients, vendors, or even the government asking for payment. Emails appear legitimate, yet links to bank accounts or online payment portals redirect payment to criminals.

These scams can target local businesses or marketers alike. Make sure you educate your staff to watch for these false charges and bills. Thousands of advertisers pay these fake bills every month, costing businesses billions. Don’t be one of them!

5. Fake reviews

Most of the concern to date with fake reviews have been with negative reviews. Local businesses usually complain of losing customers and sales over one- and two-star ratings. Yet the power of reviews to affect purchase decisions is driving another trend: fabricating positive reviews.

With reviews impacting decisions for 92 percent of consumers, positive reviews boost sales dramatically. Yet an honest, hardworking 3.5-star rated company is going to find it hard to compete against a 4.5-star company that offers a similar product or service. False reviews artificially skew expectations and create an unlevel playing field. Sometimes, the false positive reviews even “compare” competitors’ products and state why the product being reviewed is superior — a double whammy for the competitor.

Amazon is aware of these problems in its marketplace and sued 1,000 people about a year ago for selling fake positive reviews of products. Yet the problem continues, often through promotional programs, including product giveaways. Product giveaways are usually accompanied by a voluntary request that the recipient honestly review the product. While not a fake review, the potential for misleading a customer exists when a review is indirectly paid for.

The FTC requires that reviewers who are compensated disclose that fact, but based on the complaints on Amazon, reviews that don’t comply abound on the site. And because many customers get the free products through coupon codes that discount the product substantially or completely, even filtering reviews from “verified purchasers” doesn’t solve the problem.

Combat the problem by getting legitimate reviews from real buyers of your product or service. Almost 90 percent of consumers would leave a review if asked, so you can increase the number of reviews simply by reaching out. Genuine reviews will stand out more, too, as reviews themselves are now getting reviewed: many sites direct users to the highest rated or most helpful reviews.

6. Phantom bids

Four of the largest ad agency holding companies are facing Department of Justice investigations into price fixing. Reports describe the alleged misconduct as soliciting bids for services such as video production that are rigged so that agency prices for similar services would appear to be comparatively competitive.

Stories like these are absolute killers to the reputation of the marketing industry at a time when local businesses already distrust marketing companies and question the return on investment of hiring a marketing provider.

In this culture, transparency with your client is critical, and pricing must be clear and in writing. Cost of the service, knowing what they are getting and realistic expectations of results are the most important decision factors for advertisers who are shopping for marketing services. Make sure that there is no question about the reliability of that information provided to prospective clients.

7. Fake websites and audiences

The Russian Methbot scam epitomizes why so many local businesses express concern over digital advertising. Methbot created fake web pages that attracted ad algorithms into placing video ads on these sites. They then used manufactured consumer profiles to “watch” the ads that paid the sites for the fake human traffic and views. The scam was unprecedented in its ability to create fake consumers that mimicked real ones in the way they surfed the web, clicked on content, moved the mouse and possessed unique IP addresses, all of which increased the value of ads placed on those sites and made detection of the fraud difficult.

Yet even less sophisticated campaigns that generate false impressions in response to search ads or that hire real people to click on ads can be costly.

Local businesses can ill afford to absorb the cost of advertising that isn’t viewed by real customers. Concerns about paying for fake impressions, views or even clicks are real. Yet avoiding digital advertising doesn’t seem to be the answer.

Be alert to the issue and look over your bills carefully. Watch out for unusual spikes in traffic and clicks that are clustered together in short time spans. Identifying problems early will help avoid costs from running up and result in faster resolution with media sellers.

8. False URLs

The Methbot scheme duped programmatic advertising platforms into placing ads on false websites. False URLs are intended to capture real consumers who mistype URLs of websites that they are in fact trying to visit. Also referred to as typo-squatting or URL hijacking, some examples of addresses that have used this ploy include usatodaycom.com and abcnews.com.co.

While not a new tactic, “fat finger” mistakes are more prevalent today with touch screens and small keyboards on mobile devices. The expansion of gTLDs also provides more opportunities for capturing typos with domains such as .om, .cm and mimicking popular web addresses with different domains.

USA Today cites Intel Security’s chief technology officer explaining,

“They create a site that looks essentially like the real one, at least on the surface. It’s fairly straightforward to do, and then you’re simply relying on human nature to not notice.”

Most of the time, these sites serve advertising that generates revenue for the URL owner and are relatively harmless. Other times, though, malware infections or phishing attempts to collect personal information are the goals.

While high-traffic sites tend to be the targets of typo-squatting, small business is not immune. A marketer for a local wine bar found that another local business used a variation on his client’s URL to direct online traffic its way.

You also want to be cautious of having your ads appear on typo-squatting pages, sites that are unlikely to provide any positive return for those ads. And beware of your own typos when providing links from your site to social media or other high-profile domains. Studies showed that up to 80 percent or more of single character typos for names like Twitter, Facebook and Google landed on typo-squatting sites. Sending customers to one of these fake URLs is one sure way to lose them.

Closing thoughts

While many of the scams themselves are not new, the way that false content and information are being used to disguise the scam or improve the success rate are. It is critical to be aware of and guard against these attempts both for yourself and on behalf of your clients. Demand accountability, and refuse to support fake news or other false information by funding it through advertising. Our future depends on it.
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