US Senate Committee Asks Google, Yahoo & Bing To Fight Bait-And-Switch Moving Scams

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.

Moving Ripoffs

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

The investigation took place over the past year, concluding in a report (PDF file) that was summarized in a committee press release last week.

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”

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Marcelo Antelo

    Danny, interesting findings but scarry is to conclude that if this happens with Moving certainly occours with many many other segmented (or wide) verticals like cars parts, dogs pets, travel discounts…

  • http://twitter.com/YoungbloodJoe Joe Youngblood

    Moving Cost sounds like a vertical site. I mean it sucks that they are all owned by the same company, but are they actually useful? if so then I dont think the committee’s report is very valid.

  • http://www.MyMovingReviews.com/ Martin Panayotov

    Hey Danny,
    Great article. We are dealing with that from a long time now at http://www.MyMovingReviews.com
    There are many brokers that pretend to be actual moving companies. We will see if the US Senate will be able to deal with the challenge.

  • Maurice Walshe

    Interesting but a bit it does seem to be industries that use
    heavy use of intermediaries, insurance hotels, and so on that have the worst
    spam – maybe affiliates are going to be regulated more.

    Though trying to get a search engine to solve a NP complete
    problem when it might be simpler to make this sort of “spurious contract obtained
    by deception” illegal – as slamming is in telecoms strikes me as “brave” to borrow one of Sir Humphreys
    lines.

    Could John as chair not get a bill to this effect onto the timetable
    in the senate – and I Believe that the Senate has the same mechanisiam as the 10 min Bill rule in the HOC.

  • http://www.esocialmedia.com Jerry Nordstrom

    Did the Senate just figure out how virtually EVERY vertical has lead generation schemes like this? Welcome to the Internet boys, a bit late to your first rodeo, but please set down and let me serve you four fingers of reality.

    Google’s response has always been – We can’t police the validity of our advertisers nor Search Results claims or tactics. Translation – money is too good and risk for stepping into the fray too dangerous. I have documented, demonstrated and presented 10 cases of clear violations of both Google’s formal policy and FTC law. Response from Google – We have taken action but are not able to disclose to you what that action is. Summary, Nothing changed and those companies sold or went bankrupt after helping balloon the debt and loan industry pre 2008.

    I understand the Senate is moving to stop a particular form of advertiser manipulation/deception, but taking action against the Moving Industry? Really that’s the big threat? Try the mortgage industry, Reverse loans, Education and Student loans – Impacts many thousands more consumers than a rogue moving company.
    And as I rant on this issue that clearly hits a personal and raw nerve let me pose this question.

    When will the Senate Committee look at how they advertise and market themselves as politicians? Clearly if a politician can make false and misleading promises to get elected and never deliver upon them, not even so much as try to deliver on them… how in the world can they look the American business community in the eye and say – Your practices are false and misleading?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Guest/100002606955053 Ben Guest

    YES! Hopefully, this will trickle over to the automobile moving industry.

    I guess those old guys in the Senate just don’t get the internet. It’s one of the easiest ways to scam people.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Guest/100002606955053 Ben Guest

    Crazy world we live in, huh?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Guest/100002606955053 Ben Guest

    Ok, let’s look at what you’re saying here.

    Yes, we want the search engines to police the internet when it comes to federal investigations.

    Even if the sites are taken offline, they can 301 redirect it to another site and the old site is still in the index, is it not? So yes, the SEs must know to take it out of their index as we all know Google is more reactive than proactive.

    They are not asking to remove the entire market. They simply asked to better the algorithm to handle bad sites like these that have the bad reviews, consumer complaints, manipulative practices, etc. This is where the star rating signal comes into play, HOWEVER, Google is also aware competitors talk crap on competitors so how do you know if the complaint is really legit? Tough for any algo.

    No, I do not see it as an Apple Map issue. This is scamming sites taking people’s money. People do not buy iPhones for the mapping/GPS system. If they do, that is their mistake of I gotta have the new now! But we all know most consumers are followers, and should know by now to wait on technology when it is released. Please take my advice regarding this as I have an electronic/computer engineering background…

    The FTC isn’t doing their job. Just look at what Danny boy has posted regarding that this past month.

    And from what I see, Google isn’t doing their job either as far as that algo goes. 500 updates and these sites are still ranking???? That’s interesting…

  • http://www.aussie-storage.co.uk/ NatalieDiaz123

    Some of the update that Google has implemented were in the favor of genuine business. These are necessary to avoid the spam and the in near future The steps should be taken after a complete analysis.

  • http://twitter.com/incrediblehelp Jaan Kanellis

    All this shows are search engines continued faults and inadequacies when it comes to quality results. Simply put you can still use techniques against “guidelines” and gain successful rankings. Bad guys can still win, while webmasters that do nothing but white hat can get get caught up in these fish net algorithmic updates.

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