John D. Rockefeller, the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, late on Tuesday sent letters to Google, Microsoft and Yahoo alerting them to how their search engines are being gamed through search engine optimization tactics as part of a wider scam involving moving services, which has seen affected consumers lose personal possessions and pay thousands of dollars above quoted prices to dodgy moving companies that promote one service but deliver another.
The letters — sent to to Matthew Cutts at Google; Shashi Seth, SVP at Yahoo; and Microsoft’s president of online services Qi Lu — note that one of the main ways the moving companies in question are connecting with users in the first place is by “gaming the system”, using tactics such as paid links from thousands of bogus sites, to come up higher in search results for unwitting consumers.
Here are the relevant paragraphs from one of the letters:
In our review of hundreds of consumer complaints…they very consistently reported that they had found these Internet moving brokers after entering general search terms (e.g., ‘Miami Movers,’ or ‘long distance moving Las Vegas’) into an Internet search engine such as yours. In their attempt to shop for the services of a reputable moving company online, these consumers instead hired companies that misrepresented their services and caused them serious financial harm…
My staff has conducted a number of test searches using your company’s search engine. Frequently, Internet moving brokers identified in the investigation, which received high numbers of consumer complaints, ranked highly in the search results…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 website and, upon closer review, these links proved to be largely irrelevant. They included abandoned blogs, link directors for unrelated topics, and college student groups and organizations, such as the Cornell Gymnastics Club.
TechCrunch understands that while the Committee on Commerce has interacted with Google, Yahoo and Microsoft before — it has dealt with Google, for example, a little over over privacy issues — this is the first time that it has contacted any of these three over SEO abuses.
But to be clear, the letter is not so much an order or call to action of any kind, as it is more of an alert. The main focus of the Committee’s year-long review has been to address consumer complaints related to misleading moving companies. That review was the subject of a Committee hearing last week. The Committee has also contacted the Department of Transportation as a result of the investigation, “and the logical step was to go contact the search engines, too,” a source tells TechCrunch, since the internet is often how these sites are first found.
Google, Microsoft’s bing, and Yahoo have been known to tinker with their search engine algorithms in the past to modify results — perhaps one of most notable changes being Google Panda, which demoted “content farms” and “link farms” in its search results.
We’ve reached out to the three today for comment on the letter, and to ask whether any of the three would ever adjust rankings to help filter out companies like the ones described in Rockefeller’s letters today. We will update this story with any responses that we get.
Update: A Google spokesperson tells TechCrunch that updates it has made should be helping somewhat to righting this situation.
“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.”