Consumers looking for online reviews of products need to be careful that they are finding real customer reviews and not for-hire endorsements or blatant promotions, according to a recent USA Today article. When doing a review search, fake review sites can be the first ones up on your results page, leading to confusion and bad purchasing decisions.

What's worse is that many of these sites, using SEO to gain the high rankings, come and go so quickly that watchdogs and regulators have a hard time policing them. It is estimated that as many as five percent of the online reviews that people rely on to get gifts and purchase products are bogus - "deceptive opinion spam" - according to a Cornell professor cited in the article who has completed a study on this trend.

Apparently the FTC is well aware of this, and has filed deceptive advertising claims against at least two such reviews. In one case a company hired affiliates to post fake reviews as users of their software to promote sales of its products. In another, a PR firm had employees posing as consumers write favorable reviews about a video game for its client.

One key sign that a Website is bogus is if there are only glowing reviews about a single product. Every company (even Apple!) has its detractors and it's not likely that any product can garner 100 percent satisfaction. Consumers should also look for a preponderance of negative reviews on a single product or company - that could be a competitor at work.

This is just another in a line of questionable practices that marketers can get sucked into through new technology. Just as "fake blogging" and disguising a promotion as a legitimate event can backfire on a company, so too can trying to turn a legitimate consumer service like online reviews into a marketing channel. Legitimate content sites, operated by established publishers with accepted journalistic editorial practices are the only way to achieve credible earned media mindshare with consumers.