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Cleaning Up Online Talk
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Link-Up Digital

It's no secret that the online world can sometimes overflow with trash talk and lies.

People at times spout the nastiest comments imaginable, sitting protected behind their keyboards and their anonymity. And individuals as well as companies sometimes fabricate things. Two recent events may help clean this up a bit.

Google, which has owned the video-sharing service YouTube since 2006, is beefing up the control it gives to video uploaders over the comments others leave about their videos.

Online comments sections and discussion groups are infamous for their anything-goes atmosphere. When people are separated from one another by space and time, some of them let loose with insults, name calling, cursing, and other gratuitous vulgarity.

YouTube video uploaders, as well as "channel owners," will be able to choose to review comments before they appear publicly, whitelist specific people so their comments are automatically approved, and blacklist specified words.

But perhaps the most important change is that Google will automatically bring to the top of the comments section those comments that are deemed, by its algorithms, the most relevant. Previously the first comment you saw was from the last person who left one.

Google will automatically rank comments in three ways: the number of up-votes the comment receives from readers, the number of comments the commenter previously left elsewhere, and whether or not the commenter had been charged previously with abuse or spam.

While online communication is all about free speech, freedom without responsibility can be destructive.

Last year Wired magazine described YouTube as home to "the worst commenters on the internet--racist, cruel, idiotic, nonsensical, and barely literate." According to the website Buzzfeed, "YouTube comments read like gibberish and don't really seem connected to one another. Content ranges from typed grunts to racist sentence fragments to nonsensical homophobic outbursts."

Google is now using the same kind of technology with YouTube comments that it uses with its search engine and that other sites, such as Amazon, use with their reviews.

Most YouTube videos are free. But Google launched a pilot program in last May to let content providers charge from $0.99 to $6.99 per month for specific channels as a way of competing with subscription video providers Netflix and Hulu.

Whereas YouTube has initiated changes from within, online "reputation management" and "search engine optimization" companies are being pressured to clean up their act from the outside. New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman just brought suit again nineteen firms for planting fake reviews on Yelp, CitySearch, Google Local, and similar consumer review sites.

The companies agreed to stop this practice and to pay more than $350,000 in penalties, with individual penalties ranging from $2,500 to just under $100,000. Along with companies providing reputation management services to others, also hit were companies planting fake reviews for themselves.

The year-long undercover investigation found that the companies cited were using their employees to create fake online profiles on consumer review sites as well as paying freelance writers in countries such as Bangladesh and the Philippines $1 to $10 per fake review.

Here's one example of how a search engine optimization company solicited writers of fake review, according to the New York State Attorney General's office:

"We need a person that can post multiple positive reviews on major REVIEW sites. Example: Google Maps, Yelp, CitySearch. Must be from different IP addresses....So you must be able to have multiple IPs. The reviews will be only few sentences long. Need to have some understanding on how Yelp filters works. Previous experience is a plus...just apply --). We are a marketing company."

"Astroturfing" is the name often used for this practice. It's a violation of laws against false advertising and deceptive business practices.

Online reviews can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure for a business.

A 2011 Harvard Business School study projected that a one-star rating increase on Yelp can mean an increase of 5 to 9% in revenue for a restaurant. Researchers at Cornell University found that a one-star shift in a hotel's online ratings at Travelocity and TripAdvisor can lead to an 11% shift in room rates.

Review sites use automated algorithms and reports by users to try to ferret out fake reviews. But it's an ongoing challenge. Market research firm Gartner projects that by 2014, 10 to 15% of reviews at social media sites such as Facebook will be fake.

Online, it's still smart to follow the advice Caveat lector--Let the reader beware.


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgoldsborough@gmail.com or reidgold.com.


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