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