The anatomy of an SEO robocall scheme
With a lot of believable lies behind multiple companies, it becomes clear why it's so difficult to hold these businesses accountable. Here's a step-by-step look at what happened during my robocall.
On Oct. 11, 2018, I received a phone call and discovered that Classy Brain (my company) was in existential crisis. The end was near – Google was after me.
The future looked grim. My clients would leave me one by one. I’d have to lay off employees, close my doors, and “Shutter” my location in Moz Local.
My silver lining: “Maybe I’d go work for Joy Hawkins?”
That is a big if. I doubt she’d want the risk of a low-life like myself. According to the robocall, I’m in trouble with Google: “Your Google listing has been flagged for removal. It is not compliant with Google’s standards and AT RISK.”
Great. Sundar Pichai probably has a “Wanted” picture of me hanging in his Mountain View office right now. There was no way Joy, or anyone else for that matter, would hire me.
The call then said, “Press 1 to be connected with Google Certified IT Support.”
Google IT Support? Maybe I could plead my case to them: “This is a mistake! I’m innocent, my listing shouldn’t be suspended!”
If I just pressed 1, maybe I could avoid Google’s police.
I pressed 1.
Digital marketing’s knowledge gap: ‘The market for lemons’
There is a knowledge gap between buyers and sellers in digital marketing. Aaron Wall from SEOBook pointed this out in 2011. His company, SEOBook, created an infographic outlining parallels between the SEO marketplace and George Ackerloff’s Nobel Prize winning 1970 paper “The Market for Lemons.”
Ackerloff’s paper states that when there is a sizable knowledge gap between a seller and a buyer in an industry, the seller will take advantage of the buyer’s lack of knowledge. Nowhere is this more notorious than the used car market (hence the use of the word “lemon”).
The SEO market, SEOBook argues, is no different.
SEOBook’s infographic, created in 2011, still holds true to this day. Digital marketing, search engine optimization (SEO) specifically, hasn’t become any easier. With every Google terms of service update, SEO strategy shift, and new piece of legislation passed, this knowledge gap only grows and every day. What we as digital marketers know versus what businesses on main street know are two completely different things.
I wouldn’t label this purely as a schism between digital marketing companies and local businesses. Sometimes these knowledge gaps exist inside digital marketing companies and occur across departments, specifically sales and SEO development.
Question: How many people reading this from various agencies have had discrepancies between what sales says SEO can do versus what SEO can reasonably do?
My point is people in sales take advantage of SEO’s knowledge gap. And the point of this article – some people in sales REALLY take advantage of it.
The robocall I received on Oct. 11 was clearly misleading. I knew this. You knew this. This wasn’t the first time I had received the call either. I get this call weekly. Being in the industry, I know my Google listing wasn’t “at risk.” It wasn’t “flagged” (whatever that even means).
I know Google doesn’t make calls of this nature. They say so on their website:
“Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous individuals and companies who make fraudulent and misleading calls. Sometimes, callers or pre-recorded robocalls falsely claim to be working ‘with Google’ or ‘for Google’ in an attempt to sell different schemes and online marketing services to unsuspecting individuals and companies.”
Normally I hang up on these calls. And I’m not alone; a large percentage of business owners hang up on these calls. But what about the percentage that don’t? What about the percentage overwhelmed by SEO’s knowledge gap? While the melodramatic introduction wasn’t my exact thought process, would an uninformed small business owner go through a similar thought process?
I wanted to find out.
I wanted to understand how this SEO scam specifically was taking advantage of the knowledge gap. I wanted to understand the business side of it. I wanted to pretend to be that overwhelmed business owner.
So I went down the rabbit hole and I took three questions with me:
- How does a business in the U.S. get away with a robocall scheme?
- What is the anatomy of an SEO robocall scheme?
- How much revenue can these companies generate?
This story is broken into three parts: “Google IT Support,” “Business Support Center” and “Activation Assessment Call.” By the end of it you’ll know why it’s so difficult to hold these companies accountable, how to set up an SEO robocall scheme, and how much money you can generate doing it.
Use these SEO superpowers for good.
Part 1: ‘Google it Support’
The short sell: Ring a bell for credit card information
When I pressed 1, I was transferred to Annie*. She was my Google-sanctioned “IT Support.” She spoke perfect English (much to my surprise). She reiterated my listing had been flagged by Google and was up for removal. I could tell by our conversation she was following a script.
It was a pretty good one.
In the “Believable Lies” section I’m going to outline things from her script that sound true, but aren’t. Since these scripts are used, statements can be prewritten into the script. This makes it easy to scale this shady, yet technical practice.
Here are some of the gems:
- “We’re a Google-certified partner (They have an Adwords Certification). Google doesn’t have inbound and outbound call centers. They work with us to make these calls for them and inform everyone of their expired Google listings.”
- “It [an internal notification] shows your listing is expired and flagged for removal.” These notifications come from their dashboards, but they communicate this in a way that makes it seem like Google is providing the notifications.
- “Your listing has been flagged for removal because it hasn’t been verified. I need to get all of your information on the listing correct.”
- “The reason listings are removed is because information is missing or outdated or if a business goes out of business. I can get you verified right now.”
Some interesting things about our conversation:
- She has never actually heard the robocalls that bring people in.
- She was brand new and hadn’t made a sale yet.
- She did not receive a commission on anything she sold, rather she’d receive a “point” and then get to “ring a bell” for her sale. Again, Annie had never rung the bell before and she seemed eager to do so.
- The company she worked for was Downtown Marketing (fake name I made up). Not only was it in the U.S., it was in Utah.
- She made around $11/hour. I found a job posting for a company that is involved in similar tactics. These positions don’t pay well.
From our conversation, it became clear Annie had one goal – get my credit card information. She presented an offer: I could get my Google listing “verified” for $399. My listing would no longer be “flagged” or “at risk.” The Google police would no longer be after me.
Honestly this is where most sane people would hang up. But if I wanted my questions answered I knew I would have to go further into this mess.
…but I wasn’t going to go further for $399. I wanted a discount.
So we agreed that I would sign up for the service at $299. Annie would get to ring her bell. I’d get my information.
After I gave them my credit card information, Annie transferred me to the “Business Help Center.” This wasn’t a division inside “Downtown Marketing.” This turned out to be a different business altogether. It was a business literally called “Business Help Center.” People from this business had different emails and the Business Help Center even had a different website.
At first I was confused… why a different business? Why not just run everything through Downtown Marketing?
This led me to a key insight about one of the questions I had.
How does a U.S.-based business get away with a robocall scheme?
They make it hard to find and report the actual business.
Annie, from the company who called me, was from “Downtown Marketing Inc.” but that company is probably owned by another company, which is in turn owned by another company. These public-facing companies are shell companies hiding behind other companies.
It’s difficult to find the top of the pile.
Planet Money did a podcast about robocall schemes. There, they lay out a basic truth about the industry: “Reporting a company behind a robocall scheme is like playing whack-a-mole, when a shell company goes down, another pops up in its place.”
In this case specifically, who would I report? Downtown Marketing? Business Help Center? Some other company I haven’t even come across yet?
Accountability is, and always will be, difficult.
Part 2: ‘Business Help Center’
My representative from Business Help Center was named Marissa. A few minutes in, the goal of our conversation became clear: fulfill the order I had just paid for. She was going to make my business compliant with Google’s “policies.” Remember, this is what I’m paying for. I was in “trouble” with Google and this would help get me out of it.
Behind the scenes, I could tell Marissa had a different job. She was likely trying to prepare me for a another sale.
Marissa seemed to be more experienced and less inclined to answer my probing questions. Our back and forth wasn’t as friendly as it was with Annie. Marissa was all business.
She had a sales script too, and her script had even better lines. She was a total pro at delivery too. To my surprise, she even threw in a couple nice touches that seemed really believable. For example, when we started, she looked at the first two letters of the email address tied to my Google My Business account* and presented that information like Google gave it specially to her.
*When you claim an already-verified business in Google My Business, it will give you 2-digits of the email registered on the account. In my case, this email was “cl…@gmail.com.” This is public information, it’s just a bit hidden. It’s certainly not common knowledge. How clever is that – presenting the impression that Google is giving Marissa this information because she is “affiliated with Google.” It drives the narrative that these guys are working on behalf of Google.
This model really is something special.
Here are some snapshots of my conversation with Marissa that sounded true, but weren’t.
- “Something on that listing makes it not compliant with Google’s standards and it is at risk.”
- “Google does change their policies every so often just like any place else they are constantly updating things. The problem is they don’t always notify people when those changes are being made. We are a Google-certified third-party and we do work under Google’s platform. And because we work under their platform we are notified when those changes are going to be made so that we can go in and get your listings compliant with those changes and make sure that everything is under those standards so that it isn’t flagged for removal.”
- “You can create a listing by yourself. I’d say it is simple but it’s not. Google has standards and guidelines and if the listings aren’t compliant with those standards they get flagged.” (By the time I was done I must have heard that my listing was flagged and at risk 20-plus times.)
- “We’re going to send you a Verification Code from Google.” This wasn’t the PIN that is sent via post card on Google My Business. This was a text sent to my phone. When you create a Gmail account, Google will send a verification code if you add your phone as a backup. She created a special email, just for me, and verified that email by sending my phone a code. She didn’t tell me she was creating an email, all she told me was she was going to send me a code from Google. Again this was given to drive the narrative that she was working on behalf of Google.
- “Google is asking me to update your business description and service radius.”
One thing I want to reiterate from the conversation – it is really clever to make it seem like Google is providing Marissa with special information that only she can get. So when she says things like, “Google is asking me to update… service radius.” You think… of course Google is! She just showed me twice that she could make systems from Google reach out!
But remember… Google isn’t asking her to do any of that.
She ended our call having fulfilled what I paid for. I was cleared. The Google cops would no longer be after me and my listing was no longer at risk.
She then also fulfilled her final part in this system. She prepared me for a hard sell from a different person: “Will you be near a computer in 20-30 minutes? We need to schedule an ‘Activation Assessment Call’ to triple-check and finalize your listing.”
She did this by making it seem like I needed to be on this call. It was after this I started to get a picture for how this work of art of a system operates. It follows one key rule about humans and sales…
Once you get someone to buy something small from you. You can get them to buy something bigger later.
What is the anatomy of an SEO robocall scheme?
- Convince the business owner that Google just called them.
- Sell a small service (Get those digits! Ring that bell!) and scare a customer into paying to get “in compliance.” Charge around a $399 price point. Be negotiable with this price.
- Build trust, make them believe you are affiliated with Google.
- Fulfill the obligations of your $399 order. While doing so, set the customer up for a different phone call. Make them believe this is the final step to getting in compliance.
- In reality the final phone call is a setup to sell SEO services (spoiler: cheap directory services).
- Find out what the businesses’ monthly marketing budget is.
- Price and sell your service for around the max marketing budget.
Deep into the rabbit hole, my adventure was almost finished. I could sense the final boss was near.
Part 3: ‘Activation assessment call’
The final boss
I was transferred to Rustin (remember: fake names). Rustin was by far the most knowledgeable person I had spoken to so far. And that was appropriate, because Rustin was in charge of the kill step: getting me to sign up for services. What kind of services? Directory services! Directory services from which provider!?
…Yext! Wait what? Really??
(1) Yext is a service that allows you to control your business citation information (name, address, phone number, etc.) across over 100 directories online. These services are typically pretty inexpensive if purchased from Yext directly. However, Yext does offer the ability for other companies to white-label (sell on their behalf) the product.
(2) Citations are something that Moz local, who surveyed industry experts in 2018, says account for 10.82% of rank. Far below more important things like reviews, links, on-site content, proximity and Google My Business category.
(3) Citations are also something that Andrew Shotland at Local SEO Guide says:
“There is even less correlation [regarding rank] with these types of factors [citations) than last year, which tells me that while they are table stakes, they aren’t going to differentiate you among even the top 10 local search results.”
Rustin was having none of my side note. He was here to make money, and he was going to harness the power of Yext to do it. He was going to find out how much money I spent a month on marketing, and in the process sell me his service at that price (which ended up being a $2,000plus set up fee plus “monthly services” at $169/month).
Here’s the 200 IQ script he used to do it:
- “Google is really adamant about posting correct information on their search engine right, cause that’s like their whole business model. Especially like name, address and phone number. It’s called NAP consistency.”
- “Basically, your information is not updated, accurate, compliant. There’s just different compliances and things that Google looks for. Then they question if your business is still around.”
- “If there’s not a lot of activity on the particular listing. There’s a bunch of different sub-compliances that they look at. So if it’s not kept up, then they’ll flag you, and they’ll have a robo-dialer thing call the living crap out of you. If you don’t respond they’ll delete you. If you do respond, Google won’t talk to you they’ll just basically transfer you to someone who has a license with them to do this. Mainly us, in this case. There are a few other companies out there that do this too.”
- “So there’s a difference between having basic free listings: Yelp, Dex and Google. They also have paid content, where they make their money. So which one are they going to be more apt to care about. The people who are paying right?
- “So if you register directly and you get what’s called ‘preferred content.’”
- “Home court advantage goes to you in Colorado Springs. The way it works, it starts in your zip code. As your visibility grows on the internet, with what’s called your ‘credibility score,’ then it will start to expand itself out.”
- “Let’s say you’re in Colorado Springs and you look up “restaurant” and a restaurant in Pueblo pops up and you ask yourself, “Why did a restaurant in Pueblo pop up I’m in Colorado Springs?” It’s because they have more credibility and have marketed themselves so effectively that they are overtaking Colorado Springs [Maps] slots.”
- “Ads doesn’t convert at all. The conversion is horrible. People see this little clear ‘Ad’ and don’t trust it. So they’ll click on them and charge you a bunch of money, but they don’t convert.”
- “It’s all about credibility with the internet.”
- “I’ll show you how these algorithms work.”
- “There are 300-plus different sites that Google references to determine where to rank you or not rank you. The more consistent information or “NAP consistency” and other sub-categories they have, and the more visibility you have across the web in the entire web in the places Google wants you to be on. The higher you will rank. Because again, good credible information equals safe for Google to post up at the top. They know you’re going to answer the phone, that you’re actually in business, if you’re going to meet at the office that the map will take them to the right place.”
- “There’s about 70 different primary directories that Google references, and about 250 sub-directories or niche directories they look at to determine where to put you.”
- “It’s a mathematical system. They average how visible you are by how credible you are, and that’s how much credibility they give you.”
- “If you called Yelp, Yelp’s going to charge you like $300-$400 to sign-up and $3 to $4 to $500 bucks/month to be on there. They’re the more expense one. A lot of them are $60 bucks, a lot are $200, but if you’re paying $200 a directory times 70 that’s $14,000/month in directory fees.”
- “We are integrated with them through a Google-licensed program.” Doesn’t exist.
- “We have the Costco-wholesale rate of directories. They charge two fees, a setup/registration fee (one-time) and they charge a monthly-maintenance fee. We pay them $27/directory to register and like $2.35/month to keep them active and maintain. It’s not something you have to do forever, you just have to get your credibility higher than everyone else to the point to where everybody else can’t catch back up to you.”
- Google has a “credibility score” that is determined by NAP consistency in different directories. To show up in Google Maps, sign up for our directory service.
- “Of course I’m not ranking,” shouted the imaginary, frustrated business owner, “I don’t have preferred content because I haven’t purchased it yet (clearly my competitors have), that means that my credibility score in Google is low, and that’s why I’m not showing up on Google Maps! It all makes sense!”
What. A. Process. So our adventure ends with our hero not having really defeated the final boss, moreso saved the game to try again later. By the end of the call Rustin could tell I wasn’t interested in purchasing his services. He 100% knew I was fishing. I was revealed.
We ended the call.
Also, didn’t I have one last question to answer? That I found out after the call ended.
How much revenue can these companies generate?
On my call with Rustin, I found out the name of the CEO involved with the company. The big cheese, the guy who likely had a large part in this process. After finding out his name I did some investigating. I was able to find the parent company behind this scheme… on the Forbes Fastest Growing Companies list.
The company who called me generated over 4.3 million dollars last year. Or as some (mainly me) call it, Scrooge McDuck money.
How do you stop SEO robocall spammers?
Not to sound negative but…
I’m actually asking you, the reader, this question. I have no idea. You can report these businesses, but it makes me wonder if anything meaningful is done. This is big business that isn’t going anywhere unless Google, Yext, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state governments do something to crack down:
- Google needs to bring more lawsuits against companies of this type. They also need to be more proactive in educating business owners on these types of practices. One post and form on their website is not enough.
- Yext (and directory services like it) needs to not allow businesses who utilize these practices to use its software.
- The FTC and state attorneys also needs to bring lawsuits against companies of this nature. State governments also need better methods for reporting.
- The media needs to educate everyone on these types of practices. Kudos to Planet Money for diving into it.
But let’s say I did everything that I’m supposed to do with what is currently available. This company was in the state of Utah, so I need to research the laws:
Ok. Done. Then I need to file a complaint with the State of Utah.
Ok… then I need to report a “third party policy violation” with Google.
Ok… then I should probably let Yext know someone is using their product in a disingenuous way:
- *crickets (no URL exists)
And after all of that, I wait. And that’s even if I make it this far. It’s assuming I didn’t come across any problems in the reporting process.
Which leads me to…
Problems with the reporting process
Remember when I said that these companies are hard to report? Well it’s getting even harder to report them now. They are evolving past an individual’s ability to report them. Remember, I ONLY received this information when I paid $299 to do so.
I never would have been able to find out as much had I not paid.
To back this up, I recently spoke with another company of this type – FDS listings. This company wouldn’t give me any information unless I paid either. They specifically tell their employees not to give away this information.
That means these companies are evolving faster than Google and anyone else for that matter can report and/or regulate them. These companies know about the reporting mechanisms used and deliberately make it difficult.
So where does that leave us?
From my end, I spent a total of 1 hour 58 minutes and 35 seconds on the phone with these guys. I spent $299. And I learned that robocalling for SEO is clearly not a waste of time.
I also learned Yext will let pretty much anyone sell their product, no matter how tawdry.
*The names and companies involved in this have been changed. I don’t feel like going through the process of getting legal/death threats again.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.