The US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation has written to the major US search engines of Google, Yahoo and Bing asking them to examine how some moving services are using “bait-and-switch” tactics on customers who find them through search results.
Each search engine received the same letter, covering how a committee investigation found that consumers are doing searches for topics relating to moving services and encountering companies with names that seem similar to large, reputable brands.
Consumers pay what they believe to be a moving deposit but which instead is a brokerage fee. The actual moving company that does the work demands further payment, sometimes for thousands of dollars more than the original estimate.
And Winning Search Results
From the letter each search engine received (they can be found here):
Frequently, Internet moving brokers identified in the investigation, which received high numbers of consumer complaints, ranked highly in the search results. Based upon evidence obtained through the investigation, it appears that some of these companies may be “gaming the system” in order to boost their search rankings.
These companies appear to be using paid links to inflate their popularity. For example, one company had tens of thousands of external links to its web sites and, upon closer review, these links proved to be largely irrelevant. They included abandoned blogs, link directories for unrelated topics, and college student groups and organizaiotns, such as the Cornell Gymanstics Club.
The Committee’s Search Spam Report
I’m still going through the report myself and may do a follow-up story on some of the findings, but it’s fascinating reading so far. It might even be considered the most official search engine spam report I’ve ever seen. It focuses in particular on two carriers and two brokers:
- Able Moving (carrier)
- Best Price Moving & Storage (carrier)
- Nationwide Relocation Services (broker)
- Budget Van Lines (broker)
Nationwide Relocation Services (and owner Aldo DiSorbo) especially get called out, in part because DiSorbo is said to run many brokerage services using different names, ranging from American Van Lines to Patriot Van Lines. From the report:
Websites operated by or on behalf of the DiSorbo Broker Companies use questionable website and linking strategies that appear to be intended to enhance the companies’ search engine rankings.
For example, Mr. DiSorbo operates movingcost.com, a company that purports to provide consumers information about “the most qualified and professional relocation experts in the industry.” The operators of this website have attempted to increase its popularity by embedding text that includes hyperlinks to www.movingcost.com in tens of thousands of other websites.
In many instances, these linked websites are college newspapers and student organizations – like the Cornell Gymnastics Club and the Yale Democrats – or they are irrelevant link directories such as “Muscle-Body Links.” While these links have little or no relevance to the content of the websites in which they are embedded, they help increase movingcost.com’s popularity with search engines, making it more likely that consumers will find the page during an Internet search.
Once at the website, www.movingcost.com appears to be a legitimate tool for consumers to locate reputable moving companies. The homepage includes links to social media and a section on “Moving Tips.” Upon closer review, however, the site is little more than a tool for DiSorbo Brokers Companies to attract Internet customers.
The site’s “Featured Movers” – Moving Squad, MBM Moving Systems, American Van Lines, and Nationwide Relocation Services – are all companies owned by Mr. DiSorbo or his family members.
“Penguin” Hasn’t Bitten These Listings
The study began in October 2011 and lasted several months. The timing is important, because Google’s Penguin Update launched in late April was a change Google introduced to its search engine designed precisely to prevent sites using some of the spam tactics described in the Senate report from ranking well.
If the report was done largely before Penguin hit, then it might reflect a worse situation than after the upgrade spam filters went into place. But it seems Penguin hasn’t solved the problem. A committee spokesperson cited these examples of the problem still happening:
- “Mover in Surfside” brings up American Van Lines in the top results of all three search engines
- “Raleigh movers” has American Van Lines in the first page of results on Google and the second page for Yahoo and Bing
- “Mover in Tuscon” has Nationwide Relocation ranking in the second page of results on all three search engines
Here’s an example of the first, the top results from Google for mover in surfside. American Van Lines actually shows up twice in the listings there, once under its the americanvanlines.com domain and once under the moveinsurfside.com domain that it also appears to operate:
On Bing, the same search brings up American Van Lines in the first and second results for its moveinsurfside.com domain:
A Reasonable, Measured Request From DC
Remarkably, the letter doesn’t make any type of strange, outrageous demands of the search engines. Indeed, after having watched so much come out of Washington DC and government in general that seems ignorant of how search engines work, the report and lettter both reflect that some real homework has been done. Nor does it single out Google for what’s clearly an industry-wide problem.
The letter, signed by committee chair Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), asks simply that the search engine companies take a closer look at the issue:
Because I know that your company devotes significant time and resources to improving the quality of your users’ searches, I am sharing the results of my Committee’s investigation with you and asking you to review them.
Internet search is a powerful tool for consumers. It helps them learn more about products and servies they are interested in purchasing, and it helps them find the best price and value when they decide to buy.
Unfortunately, the Committee’s investigation shows that a number of moving companies are using Internet-based commerce to take advantage of consumers.
A committee spokesperson I corresponded with about the report echoed the same:
We did the investigation into the moving companies and along the way, realized that the Internet brokers are a major component of the scam.
After the hearing, where Senator Rockefeller released the report, he figured the next best step is to let Google, Bing, and Yahoo know that we have evidence that suggests these shady companies are taking advantage of the algorithms. Then let them look into it and determine whether the companies are really gaming the system to boost their rankings.
It’s a refreshing, reasonable approach.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google in particular take snap action to correct this particular problem, as it did in November 2010, after a New York Times article focused on how merchants with bad reviews could still rank well. Within days, Google introduced a change intended to solve that issue. As an aside, the particular merchant that was featured was recently sentenced to four years in federal prison.
I’ll be checking more with Google, as well as Bing, about their responses to the letter. Yahoo is largely dependent on whatever Bing does, since Yahoo’s results come from Bing.
Of course, there are more scams that plague search results beyond these. The squeaky wheel of this particular problem will likely get fixed quickly. However, the letter will probably give Google more ammunition for pressing ahead with harsher Penguin Updates.
Some hit by it have argued that Google is trying to somehow wipe out businesses; here’s a US Senate committee actually encouraging that to happen, at least businesses that are getting ahead in search listings despite bad business practices.
Postscript (Sept 26): I now have a statement from Bing:
We appreciate the information passed along by the Committee. We work aggressively to detect low quality results and re-evaluate low quality links. We are continuing looking for ways to improve our search results to provide consumers with the highest quality and most relevant results.
And one from Google:
We make more than 500 improvements to our search algorithms every year to make them more useful, including a significant update this past April to combat practices like link schemes. We’re always looking for ways to make it harder for scammers to trick consumers, so we appreciate the specifics the Committee provided. Senator Rockefeller’s concerns point out how important it is that search engines continue to have the ability to constantly and quickly improve our results for our users.
Google also told me:
- The Penguin Update significantly impacted the Google search rankings of movingcost.com, the main site mentioned in the report, reducing its search traffic by about 75%
- The movingcost.com site was also caught in a crackdown on spam link networks in March 2012
- Google will also investigate more deeply based on the report’s findings of link buying, link spam, and other violations of Google’s quality guidelines — and demotions wil be seen in “very short order”
- The Penguin Update: Google’s Webspam Algorithm Gets Official Name
- Dear Congress: It’s Not OK Not To Know How Search Engines Work, Either
- The Emanuel Update: Google Will Penalize Sites Repeatedly Accused Of Copyright Infringement
- Google: Now Likely Using Online Merchant Reviews As Ranking Signal
- DecorMyEyes Merchant Vitaly Borker Sentenced To Four Years In Federal Prison