Episode 5 | July 4th, 2023

Google Local Services Sting Operation

A2O Digital conducts a sting operation to prove the illegitimate practices and spam tactics used by companies in the garage door industry which affects Google Local Services. A real customer experience is highlighted and we break down how the company scammed the customer from beginning to end.

Tim 0:03

Welcome back to another episode. I'm Tim. I'm here with Justin. And today we're going to talk a little bit more about spam in local service ads. When I was a kid on watch TV in the 70s, and 80s, and the network was going to deal with some sensitive subject, they would call it a very special episode. And if you're my age, that's, that's familiar to you remember that, and they would say something like, parental supervision is advised. I am going to say this as a very special episode of this podcast. I'm not going to advise parental supervision, but I will say if you're in search marketing, if you're in that business, you work in a search engine, this will be worth your time. We all know spam is rampant in LSA. And today, what we're going to discuss is the algorithm change that fueled the visibility of spam how the spammers are getting through the Google guarantee. The advanced verification, one needs to get the Google guarantee badge of what effect this is having on real companies, and the reason that I call it a very special episode is we're also going to get into the effect that this is having on consumers. We called some of these companies who are spamming Google LSA. We had video cameras, we videotaped the interaction of them coming in and advising us on what was wrong with our garage doors. And we're gonna we're gonna talk about that today. And, you know, folks are getting ripped off, and we're gonna kind of talk about how that went and how that's going. So let's get started. Why don't we start Just and just kind of explain at a high level what these companies are doing to fraud? The LSA system, Just?

Justin 2:17

Sure, yeah. So this particular the companies that we call it was in the garage door vertical, which is particularly bad for this. But there's stuff like this happening all throughout different verticals and industries within Google Local Service ads. But essentially, in this case, what they're doing is somehow they're getting by Google's checks, right. So to join local service ads, you have to go through a whole process where you get background checks, they look into your business, make sure you're legitimate, you're licensed. In certain industries, they background check every single employee that could be out in the homeowners home, and somehow they are getting by those checks. They're figuring out what they need to do to do that. And then from there, once they're passed, Google isn't doing anything to check beyond that, right? They're doing the initial check, and then they're just doing whatever they they want at that point. So some of the things that we've seen, first and foremost, is fake reviews. That's one of like the the biggest things that we're seeing them seeing them do, right. So you go and look at these profiles of these. I'll call them fake companies, or spammy companies. And they're buying hundreds, if not 1000s, of fake reviews. And the crazy part is, is that with Google's algorithm, this is such an important part to ranking is this is allowing them to rank above all the other legitimate companies. Because your rating your number of reviews. And when we look at it, it seems like the velocity of the reviews coming in. So how many reviews are coming in? How quickly are they coming in seem to allow you to rank and essentially, this is, you know, basically an unlevel unfair playing field where the spammers are ranking above all the legitimate people because they can't, they can't keep up with someone getting 50 reviews in a day that they just go and we don't know how they're getting these reviews, but they're clearly fake. And you can't keep up with that. And therefore, they're the ones that are, you know, getting the majority of the leads.

Tim 4:51

And we talked a little bit about that in the last episode too. And the fact that Google changed the algorithm and a review, I mean, the reviews on these listings creates a situation, you know, Google will show these in whole states or, you know, parts of the country rather than just a few towns like they used to. Right?

Justin 5:13

Yeah, well, back if you went back, maybe let's just say a little bit more than a year ago, one of the most important things that we saw with the local service ads algorithm and ranking is location to the searcher, right. So being super local to that person searching upon, I'm located as a business in the same town as that searcher, I'm going to have a higher chance of, you know, ranking first and getting that lead. And they shifted their algorithm and now, with reviews being so important location to the searcher being less important, the spam is able to reach further, exactly like you're saying. Whereas before, you still might have an effect with the spam, but it's just not as as amplified. And they weren't able to, you know, show in as broad of an area and get as many leads as they can now.

Tim 6:06

So we theorized we don't know this to be true, because we don't engage in spam, obviously. But we've theorized that they can show in a large enough area now that this kind of fuel the business model, where they can create a fake job, pay for the fake person to review it, never go on the job, obviously. And you can continue to pay for jobs, because you're gonna rank it's such a large potentially rank such such a large area of the entire state of California and multiple states, right?

Justin 6:37

Yeah, yeah, it seems like it. And these leads are so affordable, right? In some depending on the vertical, you might be looking at $20 to $30 per lead. Whereas if you were in let's just say, Google ads or other sources, you might be looking at 100 plus dollars per lead. So they are so valuable, and so inexpensive, that they're they're willing to potentially, yeah, create fake jobs, and get reviews on those fake jobs. Because they're less expensive.

Tim 7:15

Um, so let's talk a little bit about how to, you know, just and I know, when when, when we wanted to organize the sting operation, you had already identified, several companies in the area that were spamming the system were likely to be fake, fake garage door companies, what did you look for to identify kind of whether they were spammy or not?

Justin 7:41

I mean, the main thing that you can look at is, like we talked about the reviews. So the rate that those reviews are coming in, right, you go and walk an example of one of the spam companies, you might look, and it says, they've gotten 15 reviews, you're looking at eight in the morning, they got 15 reviews from six to 7am in the morning. That quickly, that's just not realistic. When you go look at real businesses, no business is gonna get 15 reviews over the course of one hour at the time of 6am, you know, in the morning, so when you look at it, it's, it's really obvious if you are looking for it. Now, if you're just a regular consumer, and you're not on the lookout for this, that's not something that you would kind of look at and you're able to get away with, and people don't even notice. So you see that there's other strange things in the reviews, the names of these reviews, when they come in, sometimes are like very foreign, right? Like names that don't, you've never, like every single name is a name you've never really even heard of, or it doesn't sound like real name, foreign names. They must be doing this in some type of not algorithmic but like submitting programmatic Thank you, that's the word that I'm looking for. Because sometimes you'll see the names, and it will like combined two names, right. So they'll be like, two names in the profile that was created, where like, somehow I don't know if they're doing this on spreadsheets and a commas in the wrong spot. But you'll see all these reviews will come in and like they got their comma in the wrong spot. And now every single review is like two names or, you know, something's it's just doesn't it's not natural when you go in when you go and look at it. So there's stuff like that. When you go look at the content in their review, there's stuff that doesn't make sense. For example, things like the the review was left in the middle of the summer and they're talking about and this was just left and they're talking about. It was Thanksgiving when the company came by, doesn't make any sense. Mentioning other businesses in the content of the reviews what else Just like always, there's there's times where the exact same content of a review is, is left for two different people. So you'll see like two or three different reviews from three different people. That's the exact same content word for word verbatim. So like, all this stuff, if you go and look, it's pretty clear to figure out okay, here's the people that are spamming.

Tim 10:23

Yeah, I think we've seen snow discussed in a review in Southern California and things like that until like, yeah, so yeah, you see strange things in the content. Alright. So first thing we know about LSA, is companies required to show up as a brand and in marked truck, that it's got to be evident what your company is, and all that type of stuff. Right? When you when you called the companies that you suspected of being spam, how did they answer the phone Just?

Justin 10:54

So it depended on each one. Some of them were smart enough to figure out, we need to answer the phone, what when you initially call as the business name that's listed in the listing, so they are able to figure that out? Right? That's very easy. You have a tracking number that you order just for the listing, right? And then when that comes in, you know, okay, this calls to this number, I'm going to be XYZ business business name, right? So some did get that right initially. Others didn't, they were just answer as the service. So in this case, it was in the garage door industry, they would answer garage door service. Right. And that's not their their business name. So that's, you know, a tip off right there.

Tim 11:43

Is that against the rules of the local service program?

Justin 11:47

I don't know if there's anything that specifically says you can't answer your phone as garage door service, it's just a tip off, right? Like, if you're a business you should answer it as the name of your business not garage door service. Yeah, exactly. The other part to this the ones that were able to answer the initial call like that, they would typically have a technician call back to actually schedule the call with us this is at least what happened when we did these couple of things. And when they call back, they didn't say Hey, this is you know, Joe from ABC garage door company they just they didn't say the business name they just said this is Joe the garage door technician where they're clearly advertising as multiple different businesses wherever they're advertising so that technician doesn't know what business he is on that particular call they just kind of keep it very generic so once you're past that initial call then it just kind of they it's very generic when they call you

Tim 12:54

So okay, so he calls you back he's from he's generic then he shows up what's what's the truck look like?

Justin 13:02

So they're showing up in unmarked trucks right? No markings at all which you know as part of local service ads you're supposed to show up in a mark truck they actually do a check to make sure in the garage door industry that you know you're you have a mark truck and you are who you say you are no uniforms either right they're just showing up in regular street clothes and yeah, so there's nothing that indicates you know that this business is the business that you that you called

Tim 13:33

again they just say this is Jimmy or whatever from garage door service right?

Justin 13:38

Yeah, so we actually asked the one gave a different name so like they were ABC garage door company and Google Local Services and when we asked they were a totally different name they gave us a name and on the invoice they gave us that other names so when you did it when you did ask they would tell you a different name, but they have kind of all these different places where they advertise right where they can be all these different names and you know, get these fake reviews and get leads from all over the place but there there's no like standing behind that name. There is a name in the background.

Tim 14:15

But they're just guessing which one you called when they told you right so you asked the name so he just he had to pick one of the ones kind of out of the hat right?

Justin 14:25

He picked the name that was on their invoice but it was not the same name.

Tim 14:28

That you called, okay, gotcha. Yeah, okay. Yeah, that's another another tip off for sure. Right. Okay, so they didn't give you an invoice but it was from a different grocery company. Okay. All right. So let's get into this thing a little bit. But what we created an easy problem for them to solve which is super common in the industry, right? That is, there's two safety eyes. They gotta kind of to be able to see each other if they can't see each other, the doors not gonna go down, right?

Justin 15:04

Yep, so every opener has safety eyes and they run from like the opener, which is typically, you know, in the center of the door kind of back from the, from the opening. And their safety eyes, if you're on the inside of the door, and you look at the bottom right and bottom left on the rails that go down those beams, they're like little eyes, and they speak to each other to ensure that there's nothing in the way of the garage door for when it comes down. It's just kind of a safety mechanism, right? So if like a kid or a pet or something was in the middle of the door, as it was coming down, it wouldn't come down and crush, crush whatever was in the way that senses it and it reverses and the door goes up. So very common. If you're in the industry, you would know how to fix that in two seconds, right? There's typically the openers, when they're up you press the button for it to go down. It would try and go down and then it wouldn't, it would reverse back up. Typically, the opener would flash in a certain way indicating that safety eyes. It's like your garage door person. This is like the easiest thing. Now sometimes homeowners have no idea, right? So you often go to go to a homeowners house and that is the issue. And it's literally just realigning those eyes. And you're done. And everything's you know, good.

Tim 16:22

It's the most common issue in the garage door industry. As you said you can hit the button in the opener flashes a certain way the eyes looking at each other if they can't see each other a light flashes any garage door technician could identify this and half a second, right? Yep. Okay. So that's the problem. We've set up the problem, the most common simplest problem to find. And the first guy comes out, Justin, what happens?

Justin 16:46

So he comes out and comes over and we disconnected the door from the opener to be able to let him into the garage and just said, Hey, it wasn't working. You know, we disconnected from the over I told him exactly said okay, let me check it out. So he goes and looks at the door for a little bit does not go and touch anything with the safety eyes. gets on the phone talking to some manager or something. It was actually in a different language he was he was talking in. Not sure not sure which.

Tim 17:22

We don't know what he said, okay.

Justin 17:24

Yeah, don't know what he said. But talks for a little bit for 10 minutes. And then eventually calls us back in and tells us the springs on the door are not right in the springs need to be fully changed out. So the springs are like a major part that operate the door and allow you to be able to lift it right. So like a door typically could be 100 200 300. You know, however many pounds, that spring lifts the weight of the door. And that's one of like, kind of the more expensive moving parts of a door that often breaks. So he said, basically, the springs are not right, or they need to be changed out and quoted $2,000 to fix the springs.

Tim 18:12

So this should have been about a $75-$85 service fee type job and we got a quote of $2000.

Justin 18:23

Yeah, correct. I mean, there's it like we said it would have been a 10 second fix reengaged the door to the opener, realign safety eyes, and you're done. Now listen to a lot of garage door companies charge a fee to come out, right. So like, there probably would have been some charge like, you know, you need to be able to pay for your guy to come out. But typically, this would be a minimal charge type of deal. Didn’t mention anything about the safety eyes. Said $2,000 for the springs. We told them Okay, we're gonna have to think about it sent us an invoice quote. And, you know, that was it didn't fix the safety eyes just kind of left and said, let me know I'm in the area, I can come back, you know, at any time to come back and fix the door.

Tim 19:15

Okay, so here we have a Google guarantee. These people have been vetted, and then they behave in a way that makes you feel like they haven't been vetted at all right? What about the second guy?

Justin 19:29

So the second guy again, unmarked truck, similar story, different company this time, but kind of like similar thing. So he came in and reconnected the door. We showed him a press the button didn't work. He immediately said, it's the lock on your opener. So there's this little lock on this particular opener that when the door closes, it kind of goes through the track so the door could never be opened. It's basically like a safety mechanism so no one could break into the door. So he said “oh yeah, it's your lock” we kind of tried to ask another question like, how do you know it's that, he said “it's a very complicated system but it's your lock, it's going to be $550 to replace that”. And yeah, that's what he said. So he was obviously going to go replace the lock, move the safety eye and try and charge, $550 to purchase.

Tim 20:31

Obviously, the lock was working perfectly on the door, it didn't need it didn't need to be fixed. And it was just again, the safety eye issue should have taken two seconds. So 2 for 2 these spammy companies come out, and they tried everything they could to just rip you off. Yep. So okay, so consumers are really being affected by this, you have a system where Google's creating an environment where a consumer thinks they could trust these people, because they have a Google guarantee badge. But in effect, if you trust them, you're in a lot of trouble. You could get ripped off. I mean, for 1000s of dollars in the first case.

Justin 21:19

Yeah, yeah. Right. Like there's this, Google's putting this guarantee on there saying, hey, trust us, we check these people, you can trust them, right? Automatically that makes the homeowner feel a certain way. Okay. Like, someone looked at this company vetted than for me, right? If you're not on alert, right? What would you look at? If you're going to look at this listing? You'd look at the first few that showed up? You probably go and say okay, let me look at the reviews. Oh, look, there's 1000s of reviews for this company, all five stars. This is this is good. Google guaranteed it. So you're there basically rewarding these scammers and allowing them to come to people's house and rip people off.

Tim 21:58

Yeah, they're creating a perfect environment for it, because I should trust them. Because Google did a lot like they have all these good reviews. It's $2,000. But they have 1000 good reviews, they must know what they’re doing.

Justin 22:10

Yeah, it's really bad. So unfortunately, the consumers just don't really know like, how would you know to be on alert for this? So that's kind of the problem that we're dealing with right now.

Tim 22:24

Let's, let's talk about the scope of it a little bit. So we we work in garage doors in many markets across the country. Is this happening in one or two markets Just or is this a little bit more rampant at this point than that?

Justin 22:40

I mean, you're I would say it's not everywhere. But I would say you're more likely, if you are just pick a random spot in the country and you go do a search for garage door company and go to this local service ads more likely than not the first couple, one or two, or maybe all three of the first few results are going to be spam. I'd say more likely than not. It's not everywhere, right. But it is, you know, significant. It started really, really bad in California and Florida. And it's just grown more and more from there. And, you know typically, in more rural areas, it's not as bad but like your major metro areas, and even not major metros, you know, I'd say more likely than not, there's spam, and you got to kind of watch out for it.

Tim 23:32

So legitimate companies are getting crowded out of LSA, because there's so many spam listings in some of these major markets, right?

Justin 23:41

Yeah, I mean, we have clients where you know, they have really good reviews really good ratings, all legitimate that use to get significant number of leads from this program you know, let's just say 100 200 depending on you know, where you are significant leads, and in many of those places, it's literally dried up to basically nothing and you can tell by looking at who's ranking and all that basically all these leads are going to the spammy companies which is a shame. When Google created this local service ads program which is relatively new it might be I don't remember exactly but let's call it 5-7 years old, pretty new in the scheme of things they created it to give you know the local people a chance the local mom and pop to the local businesses they wanted to give you know everybody a chance to be able to get some leads and created this program where it's pretty simple, right? You sign up you go through these checks and then you know it's based on kind of the reviews you get how local you are to that customer spread the leads out to kind of multiple people. And here we are now where basically none of those local mom and pops are getting anything and it's all going to you know scammers and spammers that have learned to manipulate the system.

Tim 25:05

Alright so in a lot of these major markets have used the Google guarantee program to get your garage door fixed. The only thing guaranteed is somebody's going to come out and rip you off probably right? Because the legitimate companies have been crowded out. The spammy companies, we've seen firsthand that they will try and rip you off. What's Google doing about it?

Justin 25:25

Unfortunately, not, not a lot. You know, we've brought this to the attention of, you know, our reps and everywhere where we can, and I don't know if it just hasn't made its way up the chain enough for Google to do something. But right now, they haven't done much. That's why we want to bring you know, attention to this, the more attention we can bring, maybe Google will eventually decide, hey, this is a problem. We need to we need to do something about it. So, you know, unfortunately, right now, they do have some forms where you can kind of submit these things, but nothing happens. You do it and it falls on deaf ears, and you never hear anything back and nothing's really done. I don't know if Google is trying to, you know, do this on a scale to wipe everything out, right? Playing like a whack a mole game.

Tim 26:22

Trying to solve it algorithmically.

Justin 26:23

Yeah it’s hard so maybe they're trying to do this algorithmically. And that's harder than they think. I don't know. I don't even know if this is on their radar at this point, or at least the decision makers who decide what goes.

Tim 26:38

I know, we're collecting as much information as we can about the spammers. We've been reporting everything we can to Google. I don't know that there's anything more we can do. We're working on trying to work with the organizations within our industry to inform them and keep everybody abreast. But this is really a problem. It's got to be tackled by Google. And there's nothing that I've seen so far, that shows me they've addressed this other than providing a form where I can report a single spammer, which is like, give me a paper cup for a firehose, right.

Justin 27:16

Yeah. And the form, they don't do anything with like we've submitted and waited a long period of time, and nothing's ever happened in those same listings

Tim 27:24

Yeah, a form where you can submit one at a time when there's 10,000. Like, that makes no sense. So that's where we're at right now. The legitimate companies are getting crowded out of that product. The spammers are overwhelming it, it's a hugely successful business model for them, because they're getting leads at a really reasonable price, the trust is being extended to them by Google. And they can go out and in bright tickets on customers, if you're just going to scan them, you get 1000s of dollars, every job you do. You can make a lot of money.

Justin 28:06

Oh, yeah, they're making a lot of money. I'll tell you that. I know that. The other thing I didn't mention, and this doesn't happen everywhere. But the other thing we're seeing is not only are these, you know, scammers getting fake reviews, like good reviews for themselves, they will even go as far as to attack legitimate listings with negative reviews, which again, the rating being part of this, they will even go that far. And Google's provided no help for that either.

Tim 28:37

We talked a lot about that in our last episode, Justin. So yeah, if folks if folks want to, there is a number of review spam techniques. We talked about them in our last episode. So I said that this was videotaped, right? We videoed this just weren't we didn't share that video on this podcast, obviously. There's reasons for that, too, guys. Have we shared that with Google? Or do we have plans to?

Justin 29:05

We do. We're kind of like cutting it together to make it easier to digest. But we are going to share that with a rep at Google that says they're going to you know, move it up the flagpole, and show it to the people that need to see it. So listen, we've been talking about this for a long time. Nothing's happened. So who knows? We'll see we are sharing it. We submitted there's a way if you are a legitimate, a customer that's gotten ripped off by these people, there is a way to submit that to Google and kind of request your money back too so we've submitted that saying hey, here's what's happened with this business. So yeah, we're doing kind of everything we can to get that in the right hands, but we'll see what happens.

Tim 29:55

Yeah, and you know, A20 Digital we are trying to put as much heat and light on this problem as we can, I'm having conversations with Google letting them know, the extent to which we are finding these listings, knowing the extent of how many reviews are fake, how many review attacks happen, that review attacks, actually, Google responded to much, much more quickly. But this is still a big problem that Google needs to address. So you know, thank you for spending time with us to listen to this problem. Awareness is curative. Right. So the more people we can make aware of this, the more help we can get in putting some heat and light on it with Google. So we appreciate you spend a little time listening to us today. Justin, any final words?

Justin 30:51

I think we covered it, it’s a shame. I think Google did have good intentions with the program and what they wanted to do. I don’t know if it’s just unawareness by them or its gotten so big and they can’t handle it. Like Tim said awareness is the way we are going to cure this and hopefully at some point Google will realize what’s going on and figure out how to solve the issue.

Tim 31:22

You could solve it algorithmically another way too. You could make it just so that these listings only showed the searcher being the in the center of the search is the biggest ranking factor. If Google switches back to the way that it was, they would end the problem.

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