An Imagined Conversation with Google about Reviews, 29Prime & Sock Puppets

29Prime is easy to spot as a deceptive local seo company that preys on unsuspecting small business folks eager to “be on the first page of Google”. Like many low-life firms of their ilk, they have a number of “aliases” (aka 29Live, 29Maps, 29SEM, 29Search, Locallistings.com etc, etc.) they use to make tracking them a little more difficult.

Their robo calls ring into my office no less than 4 times a week with pitches like “Select one now to claim your free listing on Google”, “We are Google’s 6th largest provider of data”, “We guarantee first page placement, “We are Google Authorized to claim your listing”.

As coffee break sport, I often select 1 on the dial pad just to hear the pitch and see how befuddled I can make the salesman by asking for verification of the claims… and of course to learn that free is relative. In this case it means $399 a month.

If there is any doubt in your mind about how despicable 29Prime is you can check out some of these online resources that should quickly convince you.

* their D+ rating at Better Business Bureau and the many disputes.
* More than one independent 29Prime is a scam website or
* this article about the roving reporter in Gilbert AZ claiming to have helped a small preschool get their erroneously charged $1500 back from 29Prime.

But this article isn’t about wondering how a business like this can continue to operate in our lax regulatory/enforcement environment. It isn’t about the myth of efficiency in the markets or how SMBs could continue to be duped by them. It isn’t about how is it conceivable that a company like Google has yet to have their lawyers muzzle 29Prime’s claims to be Google or act on their behalf. Or about how a company like this could be mentioned in the SF Chronicle as a top ranked Local SEO firm.

These are all interesting stories in their own right but not the focus of this article.

This story is about comparing how Yelp and Google handle 29Prime’s star rankings and present the results to the public. This story is asking how, after 4 years in the review business,  Google gets it very  wrong and Yelp seems to get 29Prime’s review standing right.
Yelp, as you can see clearly identifies 29Prime for what it is; a company not worthy of anything but the lowest possible rating. Google on the other hand, awards them a 3.5 star rating, enough to allow an unsuspecting smb to agree to give them money.

Google has 51 reviews for them. Yelp has 106. We have no idea if Google has removed any but it is clear that Yelp has filtered out 95 of the reviews as untrustworthy. The sock puppets are clearly winning at Google but seem to have been held at bay at Yelp.

Since Google is unlikely to respond to me publicly I have fabricated a conversation with them about this issue:
Google might say: This is just an anecdote and a single case, our large, scale statistical approach gets thousands of other cases like this right.

I would respond: Google, there are plenty of similar examples of sock puppet reviews that are trivial to spot and yet you seem to not be able to identify them correctly. Even if they are a small percentage the possibility of  public harm is very real.

Google might say: We are inoculating our spam filters by allowing bogus reviews in and soon, very soon our ago will know all there is to know about bad actors and bad actions in the world of reviews.

I would say: Enough with the innoculation already. The eggregious cases of positive review spam are everywhere and time has come and passed for your review filters to be up to the task of properly sorting out this sort of behavior. If Yelp has a transparent filtering process in place, what exactly are you waiting for?

Google might say: We don’t show SEO firms on the main search results just because of this sort of abuse.

I would say: If they can buy their way to the top of the page and highlight their bogus reviews, what difference does it make? It looks legit to most searchers.

Google might say: We have other engineering priorities that come before getting our review system working properly.

I would say: Either you are in the review business or you are not. If you are, then it is time to double down in the review space and make your product worthy of your name.

Google’s current strategy for (not) filtering sock puppet reviews allows scammers and criminals to appear as honest brokers on the front page of Google.

At the end of the day this story is about how Google, in failing to properly prevent fake reviews, is effectively aiding and abetting 29Prime’s (criminal?) deceptions. Even though my story is anecdotal, this story is about how Google, in their rush to get into the review business, does not yet have their review act together fours + years on.

This isn’t just hurting Google. More importantly it is hurting the public as well.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
An Imagined Conversation with Google about Reviews, 29Prime & Sock Puppets by

26 thoughts on “An Imagined Conversation with Google about Reviews, 29Prime & Sock Puppets”

  1. Mike: I cracked up at your “imaginary conversation” with Google. How telling. In google world the algo’s and engineering take precedence over accuracy, honesty, quick customer service, etc.

    I know from a former Yelp employee that there is a level of human oversight in the review world. I can’t tell how much. They do it in the San Francisco office. They do have millions of reviews. That means they have to put a lot of bodies into it.

    Yelp makes $$quadrillions less than google. Putting real bodies into real customer service has a more significant financial impact on Yelp than on Google.

    Yet Yelp does it. It makes their universe of reviews more believable and trustworthy than Google’s.

    Google establishes certain standards against the most indecent and inappropriate behavior….and then they don’t follow through.

    But Yelp does it. It has a significantly greater impact on their bottom line than it would if Google put those same number of bodies on human oversight of reviews.

    But Google refuses to do it. Too often the body of reviews within Google are not believable. I’ve discussed with people who know nothing about the technical aspects of reviews, etc. Their response was repeatedly….”I wont read the Google reviews.”

    Take that, Google, for publishing unedited “cr@p”

  2. Mike,

    As always, glad to see you call out slimy, unethical companies. If it’s this difficult for Google to spot sock puppet reviews in the SEO space, how will they EVER figure them out in verticals with far broader consumer appeal?

  3. Wow, that’s quite an interesting coincidence. Just today I talked about 29Prime as I noticed a bunch of PR announcements that they are the “Top Local SEO Company according to topseos.com”.

    Your imagined conversation is exactly what I would expect it to actually be. And earlpearl is correct in saying that Google seems to still not understand that it is not possible to solve everything algorithmically in a world, whose nature is based on uniqueness and diversity, but not mathematics.

  4. Bravo for naming names…We should all go ahead and share that name and this link with our “circles” of online acquaintances and prospects.

    The SF Chronicle is just a vessel – is TopSEOs.com legit or are they trumping up 29Fugazi for the promise of positive reviews…or just some dough.

    “The online marketing firm holds the 1st position in the list of top 10 local SEO providers.”

    WTF does that mean?

  5. @Daniel
    Google isn’t the first to cope with them and are unlikely to be the last but they sure are annoying (and all too obvious).

    @earlpearl
    They have dropped the ball on support but they have been investing significant resources in the area of late. A bit early to predict a complete turn arournd but I am seeing positive signs of life

    @David
    They are just innoculating the system now… :)

    @Nyagoslav
    Actually that PR announcement was what motivated me to write this story. I have been dueling with their salesmen for the past 3 or 4 months but when I saw that I was livid.

    @Chris
    TopSEO has a long history of controversy around their approach.

  6. Google publicly proclaims their mission to be to provide useful search results. Yet, when viewed as a whole, Google’s reviews and ratings are not useful to searchers because there are so many obviously unauthentic ones.

    Surely, Google must realize that reviews and ratings are at the heart of social engagement and that doing a crappy job in that space can only harm their new social wunderkind, Google+. Or maybe not.

  7. Mike, one of my clients used 29Prime about a year and a half ago, when they were called something different… I believe Your Local Merchant. The company created Places listings for them with the url http://www.yourlocalprofile.com, which used to land people on a page with all Chinese characters. Since Google still has those pages in their index, the listing keeps coming up in places. I spoke with a rep from 29Prime who “doesn’t know when” they acquired the other company or the relationship with the other company, but said she would put a work order in for her web development team to remove those pages from their database. About 3 months ago I spoke with one of their reps (they used a different company name at that time too) and they transferred the ownership of a places listing that they still had control over. It was a pain just to get in touch with them since the company had changed hands several times.

    It’s been a battle reversing the damage they did with the info they spread across the web for my client, but I’m slowly but surely correcting it!

  8. Hey Mike,
    Clearly, they are robocalling the wrong fellow. Regarding Top SEOs, they continue to list my business in their Local SEO ratings as making millions of dollars. I have never spoken to or emailed anyone at this business and they send me emails about once a month informing me of my top rankings. I have received phone calls from several SMBs who have been duped by the Top SEO thing and are phoning me based on a false representation of my business. I try to explain that these are not results authorized by me nor do they represent an accurate picture of my business, but who knows what the SMBs really believe. After all, as your post so vividly points out, if it’s published on the Internet, people will believe it. Google is not helping with their presentation of 29.

  9. @Mary
    I think that they do understand or at least some of them do but….I also think that the real answer lies in the faux response….”we have other engineering priorities”

  10. Yes, the TopSEO story is another story that creeps into the edges of this one and one that has been ongoing for a long time. You, Stever & Mike Ramsey all have told me the exact same thing about it… they essentially trade off of your good names to help sell the company that is paying for the number one spot… in this case 29Prime.

  11. I think it’s about time someone in a dorm room or a garage start working on a local listing / review system from the ground up. Trying to fix Google Places is like trying to change a tire while the car is moving.

  12. Mike, looks like they spawned another new company. Just got a question in the forum from an SMB worried he’d given his PIN to a company he should not have.

    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Places/thread?tid=3e5eb0c30dcd3619&hl=en&fid=3e5eb0c30dcd36190004b374917fe4d3

    Checked the Whois and summitsem.com was regged just a couple weeks ago by 29Prime. :-( As soon as I hit the home page and saw the link to the Do Not Call list and a logo for #1 in TopSEOs I knew it was them.

    @JimB, love the tire changing analogy!

  13. This is pretty funny… Go to Google and do a search for: “site:http://www.29prime.com/

    Some of their pages must have been hacked because you’ll see a lot of…. dirty titles. I won’t post the titles here, but take a look at some of them, HAHA!

  14. Nice expose… My clients get approached by SEO firms promising that they are Google’s right hand quite often. I did not know about this particular one , but claims of those people just outrage me sometimes
    Olga

  15. I’ve got a forum thread with a 29prime rep trolling for local seo clients, http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Places/thread?tid=44f81359e1f62cb4&hl=en. I normally let this go as I figure everyone needs to make a living. But, I’d heard so many bad things about 29prime that I warned the OPs not to use the company.

    Well the 29Prime poster came back with their ranking on TopSEO.com and claiming that they have a 95% customer service ranking. I’m going to do some more research on my own tonight. I know most of you aren’t reading this any more, but if anyone has some links or stories hand about why 29Prime is bad, I’d like to see them.

  16. Jim, I believe a good shot would be to ask John Bauer (eGumBall in the forum) for 29Prime. He has a long-term “close relationship” with them.

  17. Russell Wallace and 29 Prime are ruthless scammers, the scum bag is covered in horrible tattoos and is nothing but a thug that preys on small business owners. Russell likes to start a new company every other day so he can scrap the failing ones and run for the hills.

  18. I used to get a few calls a month from them. After reading this article, I went to their website and filled out the “Do No Call” form found in the footer.

    AFTER filling out the form, I get 2-3 calls everyday!

  19. Thanks so much for your article. I got a call from these slimeballs today and decided to look into their company before moving forward. It’s shocking how immoral these people are! Now I have to take steps to warn my clients about them with a newsletter. I will include a link to your blog.
    By the way, they now have an F rating on BBB.

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