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Agency Caught Trying to Blackmail Companies in Places

27 May 2011 BY

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.

AUTHORED BY:
h

Bas van den Beld is a speaker, trainer and online marketing strategist. Bas is the founder of Stateofdigital.com. -- You can hire Bas to speak, train or consult.
  • http://samuelcrocker.com Sam Crocker

    Good detective work Bas! I’m not at all surprised to hear that this sort of thing goes on (though I really wish I were). Having heard of similar activities (whereby someone writes a bad review, blogpost, etc.) and then looks for the company to pay to have it removed I’m not surprised to see that this has moved into the Places space as well particularly – as David discussed at SMX and on the show – as Google don’t seem to offer as much support or patrol of Places in general.

    Hope this (in the same way that highly public SPAM outings in the past) will force Google’s hand and force them to take action. Obviously not a huge fan of the public outings but there is a serious difference between “not adhering to guidelines” and extortionate/negative behaviour. This sort of thing clearly deserves more attention and in my view should be a much bigger priority for Google!

    • http://www.basvandenbeld.com Bas van den Beld

      where there is money, there is conmen…sad but true, it is not “SEO”, it just making use of the ‘holes’ in the system…

      • http://rockfi.sh steveplunkett

        log in to google acct.. you can see the edits and the ip addresses for court case.

  • http://www.greatwebsitesblog.com Barry Adams

    a lot of shady local SEO players” – I resent that. This has nothing to do with SEO. This is crime, not search engine optimisation. Calling this SEO would be like calling bank robbers ‘shady financial money exchangers’.

    • http://www.basvandenbeld.com Bas van den Beld

      you realize that is a quote right? :)

      • http://www.greatwebsitesblog.com Barry Adams

        I know – my resentment wasn’t aimed at you, but at that particular phrasing and whoever typed it. :)

  • pageoneresults

    Do a search for “411 Locals”. They’ve been at this for quite some time, at least a couple of years now. A little bit of digging and you’ll find yourself in the abyss wondering how these folks have gotten away with this for as long as they have. Where’s the New York Times when you need them?

    • http://www.basvandenbeld.com Bas van den Beld

      yes, as more comes out it seems they have been doing this for a while. The sad thing is that most probably the companies which are now being blackmailed originally agreed to let 411 handle their local business. Big mistake so it seems.

      • pageoneresults

        I’ve been covering stuff like this for years now. Every now and then someone gets busted but they just continue on with their shenanigans. Here’s a related topic from May 2010.

        Cramming – Unauthorized Telephone Bill Charges
        Local Business Directory Listings
        http://www.WebmasterWorld.com/webmaster_business_issues/4132157.htm

        • pageoneresults

          Note: The above topic may not seem to be related but I’m almost certain similar type of business practices are at play. I’ve read more than enough of these complaints to piece the puzzle together. This is big business for those companies involved. I even found search engine marketing companies that are fronts for this type of crap. Don’t ask me to name names because I’m tired of dealing with their ambulance chasing lawyers! ;)

        • http://www.basvandenbeld.com Bas van den Beld

          The problem is that it is not always SEO companies doing it, but it does reflect on the SEO business…

  • Pingback: When Investing in Local Search Goes Wrong

  • http://marketing-blog.catalystemarketing.com/ Linda Buquet

    Hey Bas,

    Thanks so much for covering my story and spreading the word. I was busy doing Places consulting to help out some SEOs yesterday, so didn’t have time to fully research this, as I would have liked to. But it was interesting to watch the story unfold as my blog readers jumped in and started investigating.

    I did another story recently about a consulting client who had his Place page held hostage by a shady local SEO outfit and the guy without knowing any better paid $1,200 to get his own Place page back. Of course it was so filled with violations, it was in the dreaded “purgatory” penalty state and was useless so we had to start over anyway.

    I know there are all kinds of scammy organic SEO companies too, as I was in that biz for 11 years previous to specializing in Places. However it seems the more Google starts pushing local and giving Places more Page One prominence, the more these scammers come out of the woodwork to try to capitalize on these poor SMBs.

    My Google Places rep tells me they have started putting some of the really shady companies out of business which is great, since they make us all look bad.

    Appreciate the coverage, thanks again!

    Linda

  • http://www.realstrategic.com David Sprague

    Great article. But I certainly wouldn’t have said that their listing are well optimized :)
    In 2 clicks you can see all their reviews were posted on the same day by the same profile.

    Again.. great insights into what these guys are doing, but I just don’t want people
    looking at their listings and think that its good optimization :)

  • http://marketing-blog.catalystemarketing.com/ Linda Buquet

    Yes most of those listing are filled with all kinds of Places violations. So not good examples at all.

    • http://marketing-blog.catalystemarketing.com/ Linda Buquet

      Oops Dave & Bas,

      Just re-read Bas’ post and see where Dave’s comment came from.

      Bas said “She checked some of the listings but at first saw nothing wrong with them. In fact, they were all pretty nicely optimized”

      This was a mis-perception, maybe my fault for rushed communication. So just wanted to clarify.

      I wrote: “I did notice lots of keyword stuffing in titles of many of the listings – but not all. And many that I quickly spot checked seemed to repeat name and city in the description.”

      And I noted possible other violations too. So I never said these listings were well optimized. Just assumed maybe an agency had done them all because they all had nice stock photos which seemed suspicious.

  • Bas van den Beld

    You are right off course :)

  • http://www.geolocalseo.com/blog Stever

    Nice to see this getting more coverage across more SEO blogs.

    I’d love to see Google track down the accounts they use for these listings and simply close them down. Then contact the small business owners telling them how to then re-claim those listings for themselves.

  • http://www.vervesearch.com Lisa Myers

    OMG it makes me SO mad when companies con people like this. I covered a similar thing back in the day of Searchcowboys, where a Norwegian search agency was “selling” keywords in Google Places http://www.searchcowboys.com/columns/964 (funny how my name doesn’t even appare as author of this article that I WROTE!)

    Anyway, agencies “selling off” Google Places seems to be widespread from every corner of the world, these agencies seems to be like weed unfortunately, you “bust” one and ten more appear. But I’m really glad you wrote about this Linda. Let’s open a “can of whoop ass” on these kind of agencies…

  • Autocrat

    Okay … I have a minor issue with this bit…

    “…
    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.
    …”

    Google – providing support?
    Seriously – I almost wet myself.
    Have you seen what Google consideers as “support”?
    It’s forums (which have major issues), which have little interaction from Google staff.
    Instead, you ahve Top Contributors – non-google employees who dedicate their time/effort to assistance the hundreds/thousands of people that Google Corp simply doesn’t give a stuff about.

    So – sure, G may start charging for Places,
    but please – no one be disappointed by
    1) The utter lack of “official” support
    2) The complete lack of any real understanding of “the little peoples” problems

    Unless G are about to completely overhaul their support structure (more than possible),
    then things are likely to still suck.
    (Even if they do overhaul it – G are Not going to fork out the money it would take to do it properly, and still rely heavily on non-employees.)

  • Don Qi

    “Google also announced recently it will start to charge for Places”

    Okidoke… When/Where?

  • http://marketing-blog.catalystemarketing.com/ Linda Buquet

    “Google also announced recently it will start to charge for Places,”

    Yes I was just coming to ask the same thing. Google never announced that. Where did you hear Places is going to start charging? I’m one of the contributors for David’s local search ranking factors and keep a pretty good ear to the ground and have not heard even a rumor about that.

    Also just listened to the radio show where David supposedly mentioned it, but I didn’t hear it. Maybe I missed it. But all I heard was toward the end David was talking about Boost and saying he thought it was good for the simple fact that it forced G to offer SOME type of support since it’s a paid service. But I didn’t hear anything about charging for Places in general.

    Not that it would surprise me if they did start some new monetization options. I know from talks with my Google Places rep there are lots of things in the works. But I don’t think they would charge just for a Places listing, not at this point at least.

  • http://www.basvandenbeld.com Bas van den Beld

    Hi all, first of all thanks for commenting.

    There is the question of Google Places starting charging for Places. I think I have written it down to boldly. Thank you for pointing that out.

    This was mentioned in the talk we (Lisa, David, Martijn and me) had in London. It could be that it was off air, not sure, I’ll doublecheck that with Lisa. It wasn’t David who mentioned it, may have been Lisa. David responded to it by saying that that would mean Google would have to give more support.

    There are signals however that Google might be going in that direction: http://blumenthals.com/blog/2011/06/07/google-hiring-sales-staff-in-seattle-for-large-scale-smb-acquisition/ but that is for Google Offers, which is related to Places.

    I’ll go and dive into that, will get back to you. It was however a bi-line in the article about your post Linda :). Good find that was.

    • http://www.basvandenbeld.com Bas van den Beld

      ok, doublechecked with David. It is badly written by me because I have mis-heard it. David said that they were now monetizing it (via Boost, an optional product), so not actually making Places paid. My mistake sorry!

  • http://www.geolocalseo.com/blog Stever

    I’m pretty sure they’ll always be keeping Places free – for just having listings of businesses. They’ll monetize around the peripheries – Offers, Boost ads, Adwords with local extensions for directions and phone calls.

    They could however eventually make the phone calls a cost per call for all Places accounts.

    • http://www.basvandenbeld.com Bas van den Beld

      That is the most logical yes. I do think there could also be different ‘levels’, like for example Boost, which kind of is a different level of Places. So within Places, but more specified. So basis free, different levels paid.

      That however ALSO means that Google has to improve their support on Places…

  • http://www.geolocalseo.com/blog Stever

    Groupon has a rep that holds the hand of the merchant to create and write up every deal. As well they have an army of thousands of sales people trying to get merchants to do deals. For Google to compete with that through Offers they’ll need a sales and support team – thus the staff hire there. Some of that may spill over into general Places support – but probably very limited.

    Boost is just the lazy version of adwords and is all automated – not requiring much support. At it’s core it is Adwords with an on/off switch inside Places.

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