Getting companies' names to show up higher in search engine results is the lucrative business known as search engine optimization, or SEO.
There's a range of SEO practices, from "white hat" ones that are endorsed by search engines, to "black hat" practices that, while they may not be illegal, violate search engine rules.
Now Google is taking a rare legal action against one Southern California SEO company it says went too far and broke the law. In its complaint (PDF), Google says that Tustin, California-based Local Lighthouse has bombarded consumers with "incessant, unsolicited automated telephone calls" since mid-2014, making "false guarantees of first-page placement in Google search results."
Google lawyers also say Local Lighthouse misrepresents its relationship with Google. The company's salespeople call themselves "Google Local Listing representatives." According to complaints Google has received, Local Lighthouse sales agents have made statements including "We’re a Google subcontractor," "we’re working for Google," and "the $100 fee [to buy Local Lighthouse services] goes to Google." Lighthouse promises customer webpages "will show up multiple times on the front page and get what’s called ‘Front Page Domination.’"
Those misrepresentations violate trademark and false advertising laws, Google says. Local Lighthouse hasn't yet responded to the complaint, which was filed today in San Francisco federal court.
The lawsuit was disclosed in a company blog post, which addresses the wider issue of robocalls marketing search services to businesses.
"It’s difficult for Google to take action against callers because they often use untraceable phone numbers, fake company names, and massive global networks of intermediaries," writes Google Operations Manager Brad Wetherall. "Dealing with illegal robocallers isn’t just a waste of time, it can result in wasted resources and significant damage to your business. We hope these tips, and shining a light on the issue, will help discourage and eventually eliminate this practice."
In general most types of pre-recorded marketing calls are illegal in the United States, and the Federal Trade Commission has taken action against some of the worst offenders. The FTC has also held contests offering cash prizes to people who develop anti-robocall technology. Despite that, robocalls have spiked in recent years because of the availability of autodialers that can send out thousands of phone calls per minute.