Agency Caught Trying to Blackmail Companies in Places

At SASCON last week we talked about Negative SEO and the tactics that can disrupt competitors, we carried on that discussion on our radioshow Tuesday. Some of them were funny, some were nasty and others seemed harmless. There are cases however that you are not talking about ‘negative SEO’ anymore, but now a case has come to light which touches closer on extortion than on Negative SEO.

Linda Buquet, a blogger about local and Google Places, yesterday found about a hundred results in Google Places with in the title “Awaiting Removal”. At first it seemed as if they were getting penalized by Google, it turned out to be a company trying to fraud unknowing business in Places.

Buquet found the listing and assumed it was Google who had put the “Awaiting Removal” in there (see example here), maybe as a warning. But it seems highly unlikely that Google would do this public. She checked some of the listings but at first saw nothing wrong with them. In fact, they were all pretty nicely optimized. And they most of them were gathered in the center of the US. She then already figured: “So one thought I had is that these could all be listings from one big agency?”

Buquet didn’t have more time to dive into it so her readers did, and they found some interesting conclusions. The thread (read the comments!) then reads on like a real detective story. It wasn’t Google, it was a company trying to con other companies.

Commenter Kevin Phelps figured it was “a marketing firm that is getting rid of these listings for some unknown reason.”

Commenter “Stever” eventually found the fraud. He found that a company “411 Locals” was the owner of several of the claimed domains. They apparently are threatening companies into removing the places and “offer the .info websites as an option, probably an upsell.

Phelps then actually called some of the agencies:

“I’ve called a few of these people and they’re all telling me that they signed up with a company and the company is threatening to remove the page for non-payment. Some people report the company billing them numerous times though.”

So what has happened here is that unclaimed listings had been claimed by one single company, “411 locals” who then contacted the companies which should have claimed them, offered to handle it for them, sends them invoices and then threatened to delete them. Which means they could not be recovered that easily. This is not negative SEO anymore, but pure fraud, blackmail.

According to Buquet Google says they are closing down “a lot of shady local SEO players”, hopefully these will be one of them, also because it is these kind of companies that give the industry a bad name. Google also announced recently it will start to charge for Places, which on the one hand seems a bad thing, but as David Mihm said in our radioshow two weeks ago where we discussed this topic in depth, it will also force Google to actually give some customer support.

The big lesson which can be learned here however is that you need to claim your listings as soon as you can.

Bas van den Beld

About Bas van den Beld

Bas van den Beld is an award winning Digital Marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the founder of State of Digital and helps companies develop solid marketing strategies.