September 23, 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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After a Rocky Five Years, Talk of Couric Parting With CBS

Regular appearances on “60 Minutes” were written into her $15 million-a-year contract with CBS, but once she arrived at the network, she found a chilly reception from some of the staff members at the venerable program. Some of Ms. Couric’s associates said that the chilliness seemed to stem from the top, the show’s executive producer, Jeff Fager. That view was disputed by people close to Mr. Fager, who said that Ms. Couric has praised his stewardship of her “60 Minutes” pieces.

Still, her appearances on the show have been fewer than she hoped for — averaging not even five a year. Even after the show won an Emmy for her interview with the airline pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III, Ms. Couric’s visibility on the program never increased.

“They never let her learn the secret handshake there,” said one former NBC colleague.

In February, when Mr. Fager was named chairman of CBS News, his tepid response to the hugely public question of whether she might continue as anchor (Mr. Fager said he hadn’t thought about it yet) sent an additional signal to Ms. Couric and her representatives: it was time to move on.

Ms. Couric and CBS are now negotiating how and when to end her five-year run as anchor, one marked by early criticism, later journalistic successes and disappointing ratings over all.

Ms. Couric is pursuing the idea of her own syndicated talk show, possibly with her former “Today” show co-host, Matt Lauer.

Any such move would be intensely complicated. Mr. Lauer’s contract extends to the end of 2012, while the new show would be expected to start in September. And NBC can be counted on to make perhaps the biggest offer in television news history to keep him at “Today.”

But some people close to the participants conceded the notion had been “thrown around” between the former hosts — and is under serious consideration.

The linchpin in any new show pairing Ms. Couric and Mr. Lauer is Jeff Zucker, who before he was NBC’s chief executive put the two hosts together as executive producer of “Today.” Mr. Zucker had already been expected to be the main creative force behind a talk show with Ms. Couric.

“I think the three of them think it would be awesome to get together again,” one person close to the negotiations said. “It still seems more likely NBC will keep Matt. But it’s not out of the question.”

Even if a reunion with Mr. Lauer does not happen, Ms. Couric is all but certain to commit to the syndicated talk show and leave CBS News.

Almost none of the participants in the discussions about Ms. Couric’s future were willing to be interviewed about her tenure at the anchor desk while talks were continuing. But interviews with producers, network executives and friends of Ms. Couric (most of whom would not speak for the record because they did not want to alienate either the network or Ms. Couric) show that her celebrated hiring was part of a much larger experiment to lift the newscast out of the ratings basement in which it had languished for more than a decade.

For years, network news managers have tried to poach viewers from competitors by adding incremental features. Looking at the steady decline in the evening news audience — down more than 50 percent in the last 30 years — CBS believed its best, maybe only, hope was to throw out the traditional format and attract new viewers with a more interactive and accessible half-hour built around Ms. Couric.

“What we tried to do was change the game,” said Rome Hartman, the first executive producer on Ms. Couric’s newscast. “We tried to grow the whole pie.”

In an interview in the current issue of The New York Times Magazine, Ms. Couric acknowledged being “overly ambitious” and said that in retrospect she would have “given people what they were used to, a traditional newscast” before experimenting with new concepts.

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