November 29, 2021

The Haggler: Picking the Lock of Google’s Search

BOB STROM is the owner of Ballard Lock Key, which provides locksmith services in Seattle. If you live in the area and find yourself locked out of your car or home, here is an essential piece of information about Mr. Strom’s company: it really exists.

By that, the Haggler means that there actually is a guy named Bob Strom, who is a bonded locksmith. And he owns a business, which you can visit, at 7352 15th Ave NW. This might seem too obvious to note, but it sets Mr. Strom apart from more than 90 percent of his local competitors. According to Yelp, there are — no joke — nearly 3,000 locksmiths in Seattle, though with relatively rare exceptions these operations aren’t in Seattle at all.

They are phone banks, typically set up in far-off places, often in other countries. Call them and they’ll dispatch a locksmith. Some are legitimate, but others may all too often do shoddy work and/or charge two or three times the estimate.

In the last five years, some of these lead generation companies, as they are known, have become notorious. A few have been sued by state attorneys general. Several have shown up in gotcha television news stories, a selection of which can be viewed on YouTube by searching for “locksmith scam.”

You might assume that lead gen sites would be no competition for people like Bob Strom. But for a couple of years, in one crucial arena, they have been crushing him: Google search results. Last Tuesday, the Haggler typed “emergency locksmith Seattle” into a browser, and the top results — most notably, the seven that appeared in the highly coveted Google Places spots, which are marked on an area map — appeared to be lead gen sites. They have local addresses, but if you call and ask to visit, they demur.

“We’re renovating,” said a rep at Emergency On Guard Key Service.

“We’re a mobile service,” said a rep at 24/7 Emergency Locksmith. Asked for more information, the rep hung up.

How, you may wonder, do phone banks that may be thousands of miles from Seattle leapfrog a living, breathing local locksmith in Google searches?

The Haggler asked Doug Pierce of Digital Due Diligence, an Internet research firm based in Brooklyn, to look into it. Mr. Pierce found that lead gen sites use some interesting gimmicks to charm and hoodwink Google’s algorithm. Some basically hijack the local addresses of other entities in or near the middle of town. A business called 24 Hour Speedy Emergency Service, for instance, uses the same address as the King County Administration Building. 

Other sites, Mr. Pierce found, are just tricked out for maximum Google visibility. In particular, lead gen sites are good at spreading their name, address and phone number — NAP, as it’s called in the search business — around the Web, which is apparently a superb way to curry favor with Google Places. On Tuesday, a search of the NAP of Emergency On Guard Key Service yielded more than 1,700 results. By contrast, a NAP search of Ballard yielded 256.

Mr. Strom, it turns out, has so little chance of outranking lead gen sites that he’s having a hard time finding a Web consultant to help him fight back.

“I told him that it would just be a waste of his money,” says Craig Baerwaldt of Local Inbound Marketing, a search engine expert whom Mr. Strom tried to hire recently. “There are hundreds of these lead gen sites and they spend a ton of money gaming Google.”

Of course, this is not just a Seattle problem. Lead gen sites dominate Google results for locksmiths in many cities nationwide, and in more than a few towns. And it’s not just locksmiths. Other service industries, like roofing and carpeting, have a similar problem. If Google is the new Yellow Pages, then lead gen sites have perfected the same game that companies in the predigital age played when they started their names with combinations like AAA1 to land atop printed listings.

But because few people search beyond the first page online, snookering Google might be far more effective, especially because many people assume that the company’s algorithm does a bit of consumer-friendly vetting.

The Haggler contacted Google, and a spokesman, Gabriel Stricker, e-mailed this statement on Wednesday: “We’re aware of the gaming practices happening in the locksmith industry — practices which long predate Google and have affected the Yellow Pages for decades. We’ve implemented several measures to combat this issue, including improving our spam-detection algorithms and working with the locksmith industry to find solutions.”

The Haggler appreciates the challenge that Google faces. Thousands of people spend all their workdays devising novel ways to fool the world’s most popular search engine. Fighting this tech-savvy horde can’t be easy.

Yet if the example of locksmiths is any indication, the horde has the upper hand in certain service sectors, and it all but owns Google Places. Though Google is apparently already battling back. On Thursday, a search of “emergency locksmith Seattle” yielded only one Google Places result, not seven, but maybe more tinkering is needed. The site that landed on this prized perch appeared to be a lead gen operation — it’s 24/7 Emergency Locksmith, which lists its address at a U.P.S. store. The woman who answered the phone at 24/7 would say nothing about the company, or even where she was located.

FOR Mr. Strom, the sooner Google works out more countermeasures, the better. He estimates that he has lost about one-third of his revenue since the lead gen sites popped up a few years ago. Customers have paid a steep price, too.

“We showed up at a job last week,” he said, “and this woman told me, ‘A young man came yesterday, quoted me $49 to open my door, then he drilled my lock, charged me $400 and left — and now I need a new lock.’ I hear something like that almost every week.”

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Google Introduces New Social Tool and Settles Privacy Charge

Google introduced its latest social tool on Wednesday, the same day it settled with the Federal Trade Commission over charges of deceptive privacy practices last year for Buzz, the social networking tool in Gmail.

Under the settlement, Google agreed to start a privacy program, permit audits for 20 years and face $16,000 fines for any future privacy misrepresentations. This is the first time the F.T.C. has charged a company with such violations and ordered it to start a privacy program, the commission said.

The new social networking tool, called +1, lets people annotate Google search results and ads so they can recommend Web pages to friends and acquaintances. It is the biggest feature yet in Google’s long-awaited social networking toolkit.

The introduction of +1 and the F.T.C. charges highlight two of Google’s biggest challenges: heightened competition from Facebook, and near-constant criticism from privacy advocates and policy makers over its practices.

As it tries to make its services more social, the company has come under intense scrutiny from people concerned about its broad access to personal information. But at the same time, it is in the unusual position of racing to catch up with a rival, as Facebook captures more of the time, information and ad views of Internet users.

Of particular concern to Google is the fact that many people now turn to Facebook with search queries, like seeking the best place to go on vacation, because they trust the advice of friends more than that of an anonymous search engine.

With +1, which began rolling out to users Wednesday, Google wants to personalize search results.

In an interview about the new tool, Matt Cutts, a principal search engineer at Google, took great pains to emphasize that the company had learned from the privacy outcry after it introduced Buzz, which let Gmail users share status updates, photos and videos.

The debut of Buzz in February 2010 unleashed a barrage of criticism from users and privacy advocates because it automatically included users’ e-mail contacts in their social network.

Mr. Cutts repeatedly stressed that anything people shared with +1 was public.

“If you wouldn’t feel comfortable telling your friends and broadcasting this to the world, then of course you don’t have to click the +1 button,” he said.

Still, some privacy advocates were wary.

“It’s ironic it’s coming out on the same day” as the F.T.C. settlement, said John M. Simpson, an advocate at Consumer Watchdog, a critic of Google. “It seems to me there are some of the same kinds of issues that happened with Buzz. The key is how transparent and open it is about what’s going to be shared and how you share it.”

The name +1 came from Internet slang that people use to indicate that they approve of what someone has said.

People logged into their Google accounts will be able to click a +1 button next to search results to publicly recommend the pages. People perusing results will see how many Google users recommended a page and see names and photographs of people they know. Google is considering whether to use the recommendations to influence the order of search results.

Google will find people that users know through Gmail and chat contacts, as well as people users follow on Google Reader or Buzz. Later it will include contacts from other social sites like Twitter and Flickr. But it will not include contacts from Facebook, because that information is not publicly shared on the Web, Mr. Cutts said. Google has been in a tussle with Facebook over sharing information between the two services.

People will also be able to recommend ads. And if someone recommends a search result that links to a hotel’s Web site and the hotel later advertises on Google, that person’s recommendation will appear with the ad.

“That’s going to be very powerful,” said Bryan Wiener, chief executive of 360i, a digital advertising agency. “A friend’s recommendation is going to have greater influence on consumer behavior than a marketer’s message.” He said it could also lower the cost of ads because Google charges less for ads that are clicked on more.

Google’s +1 is remarkably similar to Facebook’s Like button, which lets people recommend Web sites and ads to their friends.

Later, Web publishers will be able to include a +1 button on their pages, just as many include a Facebook Like button today.

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