Illegitimate Locksmiths Polluted Google's Search Results for Years, Now Google is Fighting Back

The "Odds are good that your [search] results include locksmiths that are not locksmiths at all", declares Sunday's The New York Times article "Fake Online Locksmiths May Be Out to Pick Your Pocket, Too". The excellent piece of investigative journalism explores why extreme caution is required when googling locksmiths, who is behind the spam, and concludes with Google's lethargy in solving the problem. I helped the Times research and lay the groundwork for this story and want to share my analysis as a supplement to their article.

The problem with searching Google for a locksmith is that you'll most likely land on the webpage of a lead generation company that will outsource your job and once a subcontractor arrives will demand more money than originally quoted. These middle men rely on several factors in their favor to win at Google:

  • More experience optimizing AdWords and Google My Business business listings than your run-of-the-mill locksmith
  • Less overhead costs since they don't actually operate a locksmith business
  • The rise of mobile devices, which due to the smaller screen size means the top search results are all ads
The end result is you get ripped off and you and your local legitimate locksmith lose the chance to do honest business together.

A strange state of affairs for Google to allow

AdWords spam for a locksmith in West Seattle
Ads cover the whole screen on mobile

Everything related to advertising on Google is geared toward keeping these three parties happy and coming back:

  1. Advertisers want to show relevant ads that people click
  2. Users want to see relevant ads
  3. Google wants to make a good experience for both the advertisers and the users so they come back
Yet with ads for locksmiths, Google wins, lead-gen advertisers wins, but legitimate locksmith advertisers and users lose.

Lead-gen locksmiths taking over Google is an epidemic. "I’m not exaggerating when I say these guys have people in every large and midsize city in the United States," John Ware, an assistant United States attorney in St. Louis, told The New York Times. My own test searches on Google for locksmiths in Atlanta, Seattle, and New York City's West Village revealed on average 64% of ads on desktop pointed to lead-gen locksmiths. Why isn't Google cracking down on this?

Google eco-system
Google's ad auction participants

Percentage of locksmith ads that point to lead gen websites in 3 cities

A lack of urgency

 

Certainly this is always going to be a cat and mouse game, but Google has been too comfortable with the way things are. This isn't the first time The New York Times has written about the problem and many others have rung the alarm as well, including the Master Locksmith Association. Google's astonishing lack of urgency may stem from:

  • Low competition - how many people are going to use Apple Maps or search Bing?
  • There's low security risk - lead-gen locksmith websites may be less likely to have malware
  • It's not a scalable solution - the usual authority and relevancy metrics mean nothing if the problem occurs offline
  • Smart people at Google don't find it cool to work on combatting spam manually
  • Sticking with the status quo means higher cost per click bids than there otherwise would be

Google realizes there's more money to be made

How much Google makes from locksmith ads per month
Google's comfy $1M/mo from "locksmith" search ads

The status quo is being shaken up by companies like Angie's List and Amazon Home Services which go a step further than Google, Yelp and phone books which list only contact information and (often biased) reviews. Visitors to this new generation of home services sites find providers that have undergone checks on their license, insurance and background as well as mystery shopping. Google finds their core search business threatened as people will bypass Google altogether and start their searches at these sites since they provide a better experience.

Google invests down funnel

If you can't beat them, buy them. Google is in the ad business, and since the home services market isn't one of it's "moonshot" bets, Google recently invested in both Thumbtack and HomeAdvisor, websites that vet and help people find local contractors, and plans to change their search results to push people there. "Homeowners searching for contractors on Google will be shown results that are 'HomeAdvisor screened and approved'", CNBC reports.

Thumbtack and HomeAdvisor are good at vetting legitimate, trusted local service providers at scale - "more than two million verified pro reviews and one of the industry's most comprehensive screening processes," HomeAdvisor's website says - but both companies rely on customer acquisition from search engine traffic. The investment then is a no-brainer. Google plugs a hole in the quality of its search results, while Thumbtack and HomeAdvisor gain distribution in the form of integrating into those same search results and moreover a "get out of jail free" card that allows them to be more aggressive at SEO.

Home Services Ads

 

Besides capturing downstream value by investing in Thumbtack and HomeAdvisor, Google also intends to introduce a new ad format called Home Services Ads. Whereas currently the top ad positions in search results are text ads, which are abused by scammy lead-gen companies since they can be purchased self-serve via AdWords, this new format, currently in beta testing, will require vetting of advertisers to ensure service quality.

Combining downstream investment plus creating a new ad format is a win-win for Google to simultaneously increase revenue and improve search quality. I suspect searchers will find the new experience positive, scammer locksmiths will be dealt a blow and should find there's less incentive to spam, while legitimate locksmiths who are good at SEO and managing AdWords will face new challenges and opportunities securing visibility.

Google's beta test of Home Services Ads
Google's beta test of Home Service Ads