The world is about to turn upside down in Dallas-Fort Worth for contractors, plumbers, electricians, garage door techs, locksmiths, painters, home cleaners and heating and air conditioning repair companies.
Did I leave anybody out?
The honest ones shouldn't have a problem, but as for the rest ...
What's up, Watchdog?
Google launched a program in North Texas this week that will change the way we shop for home services. The change makes it much harder for con artists to weasel their way into our homes.
That's a pretty bold statement, Watchdog. Can you back it up?
I believe so. It's called Local Services by Google, a very unsexy name for such an important program. Google is now giving verification check marks, which Google calls "a badge of trust," for those contractors who advertise in its search results and can pass a background test.
What does the background test include?
They do criminal background checks on all employees, plus look at past civil case histories as well as check for proper licensing and insurance. If a company passes, it earns a badge of trust and the highest ranking in Google search results.
So is this live right now?
Some of it came to our market this week, and more is coming. But you can check it yourself. Type the name of your city and garage door repair into a search box, and the top ads that display should show Google's trust badges.
What happens if a contractor messes up?
That's the best part! Google is offering a money-back guarantee.
Nope. It's called the Google Guarantee. If the service provider won't take care of it, Google promises to cover it.
How can Google promise that?
When I talked to Kim Spalding, Google's product director for small and medium business ads, she explained that Google is so confident in its selection of preferred companies that it doesn't expect a problem. Companies want to stay on Google's good side.
What about that garage door company you write about that has a zillion names?
As of now, GDS of Carrollton has no trust badges. If this lasts, it has the potential to destroy the company's national business model (built on overcharging). GDS is the type of company Google apparently is aiming to power down. Google wants to take away the power of out-of-town call centers that pretend to be local and put the power back into the hands of actual local businesses.
So, in essence, Google is putting itself out there to help consumers find honest repair people?
You could look at it that way, or you could look at it The Watchdog's way: Google, for all its power and goodness in spreading free knowledge to the world, is also indirectly or even directly responsible for giving crooks everywhere an opportunity to display themselves to the world in a way not previously possible.
Google's Page 1 search results represent the most precious real estate in advertising. But results — as The Watchdog often shows — are sometimes corrupted by ad buyers with less than honest motives. Google is trying to do something about it.
How does the program work for businesses?
They have to apply at the Local Service by Google website. (Google it!) The program was beta tested in San Diego. I talked to plumbing company owner Dan Traversi who told me that as a beta tester, his business grew under the new program.
He praised what he calls "very high quality leads" from the program with a closing rate of 70 percent.
The program comes with an app for businesses that lets them track, schedule and communicate. A business can even turn off ads when there are too many customers. Nice problem to have.
What happens if a legitimate business can't get the trust badge?
Google says it has an appeals process including a video interview where the owner can walk a Google rep through his or her business.
I noticed Google now places paid ads atop search results, rather than on the side. When did that start?
Last year, and it changed everything. I'm betting most people don't even distinguish between an ad and a search result. They look about the same. There's a lot of danger in that. And this could fix it.
This change affects almost everybody.
Anybody who shops on Google, which is most of us. This new system is supposed to separate locals from the out-of-town, non-caring giants or the fly-by-nighters. Both can overpromise and under deliver.
Sounds harsh, Watchdog.
You should see my mail. Do you see the significance of this?
With great power comes greater responsibility. All-powerful Google now chooses for us who is good and who isn't. This gives the global titan even more power. Google promises this is all about helping consumers.
Before you go, Watchdog, what about roofers?
Not yet. Google's Spalding says, "We're not covering roofers at this time. We are looking at new categories."
Fingers crossed. If the state won't regulate, maybe Google will.
Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.
IN THE KNOW
Google says it bans unethical advertising that doesn't follow its rules.
On rare occasions, Google bans an entire industry. That happened in the payday loan industry. Google won't take any more loan company ads, it said in a blog post, because the loans "often result in unaffordable payments and high default rates for users."
Google has since banned more than 5 million payday loan ads.
Google also banned ads for weight-loss scams, counterfeit goods, illegal prescription drugs, gambling sites and websites that launch unwanted software and malware.
Google says it forbids:
Untrustworthy behavior that conceals or misstates information about a business, product or service.
Ads that contain superlatives like "best," "No. 1," "better than" and "faster than."
Missing information, such as not telling customers about the complete payment model. In its AdWords policy, Google states, "We don't want users to feel misled by ads that we deliver, so we strive to be clear and honest."
— Dave Lieber
ABOUT THIS COLUMN
The Watchdog Desk works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.
Contact The Watchdog
Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265