You may not have heard of astro-turfing (yet) in an online context, but you need to be aware of it if you are operating a business online.

Astroturfing is being used to further unlevel the playing field, particularly by large corporations, governments and campaigners, and you should be on the lookout for it. Although, it is notoriously difficult to spot or prove, especially now that there is software available which has been coded for the specific purpose of being undetectable.

Essential reading in understanding precisely what damage astroturfing is doing can be found in George Monbiot’s Blog on The Guardian. Much of the evidence about astroturfing recently has come from the HBGary affair, during which a PR firm decided to try to expose the crackers group Anonymous. (Bad move, as they discovered when thousands of their internal emails were leaked, their website cracked, etc).

In essence, evidence is being brought to light of corporations and governments using astroturfing to create ‘virtual personas’ to give credence to campaigns or to create a buzz about a product, service or brand in a multitude of online media – including blogs, Twitter, forums etc.

Astroturfing, or green marketing, is so-called because the grassroots have no roots. Those people shouting loudly pro-corporation or pro-policy are not who they seem. In fact, they are not really even “who” – they are most likely 1s and 0s.

As a marketing ploy, it may seem like a great idea to populate the world of social media with ‘astroturfers’ lauding your brand. However, this is seriously black hat internet marketing and should be avoided at all costs. In fact, some would say it is more than just black hat, it is downright dishonest and possibly even criminal.

Whilst creating virtual flashmobs, or crowdsourcing 1s and 0s, or trolling in forums to bad mouth your competitors may seem a great way to attract attention to your business etc, it does not take too long in a forum, or even on Twitter, for real human beings to smell a rat.

Even humans who have not been on the Internet for long leave a trail, and as more and more RL (Real Life) data is added to the Net, even a planning application years earlier can add credibility to someone’s existence. Trails into a user’s history should not just meet a dead end, and for those who have spent considerable hours, weeks, months and even years in IRC, chat rooms, fora, and now on social media, it is surprising how often these days people turn out to not have a history at all. This should ring alarm bells if it happens to you, or if an internet marketing agency suggests you use the technique. No ethical and honourable search marketing agency would even offer the service.

Unless you are willing to risk being found out, and face the potential damage that could do to your company, one has to ask what type of companies would resort to this level of tactics when a simple video that goes viral or a conversation with your customers can bring so much more positive PR?

However, what many businesses need to be aware of is that your competitors may be resorting to this approach. If you think you may be a victim of this technique, consult your internet marketing agency about taking positive action to prevent any damage to your brand, reputation and online presence.

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About the author:

A practising internet marketing consultant since 1996, Lindsey Annison helps companies improve their website marketing, online PR and information architecture. Lindsey is also a qualified adult education lecturer and author. As co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign, she has been instrumental in the provision of high-speed internet access to rural areas in the UK. Lindsey is also a past winner of Silicon.com's Outstanding Contribution to UK Technology