By Carol Millett
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has warned the hospitality industry to check the services provided by its online marketing agencies after a CMA investigation found clients were unaware that fake positive reviews had been posted on their behalf.
The investigation into Total SEO and Marketing, a search engine optimisation and online marketing company, found that it had written over 800 fake positive reviews for 86 small businesses across 26 different websites, between 2014 and 2015.
However some of Total SEO's clients were unaware the reviews posted by Total SEO were false, exposing them to being in breach of the law.
Following the investigation, Total SEO agreed to stop writing fake reviews and agreed to take down all 800 bogus reviews.
The CMA also wrote to all of Total SEO's clients to warn them they could be in breach of the law if they used a third party to post fake reviews on their behalf. The small businesses concerned did not include restaurants or hotels.
A CMA spokeswoman told The Caterer that some of Total SEO's clients had been unaware the reviews were fake. She said businesses in the hospitality industry that rely heavily on online reviews could be inadvertently open to this sort of practice and warned them to be clear on what their SEO suppliers were providing.
She said: "Many restaurants and hotels are dependent on reviews and many small businesses may not be fully aware of what their SEO suppliers are providing. It is important small businesses in any industry make sure if they use a SEO and marketing company that they fully understand what that involves because if it includes fake reviews then they too could be in breach of the law."
Nisha Arora, CMA consumer senior director, said: "With more than half of people in the UK using online reviews to help them choose what to buy, they are becoming an increasingly valuable source of information. Fake reviews can lead to people making the wrong decisions and fair-playing businesses losing out.
"Search engine optimisation companies, PR and marketing agencies provide a valuable service to businesses, but they must do this lawfully. Our enforcement action against Total SEO makes clear that posting fake reviews about clients is unacceptable."