On Tuesday, Miranda Miller of Search Engine Watch published a story called “Google, Bing & Yahoo in Partnership to Sell Top Organic Local Listings? ” The article outlined a new service offered through Bruce Clay Inc. – a venerable search agency – in partnership with Universal Business Listings (UBL) called Local Paid Inclusion. Local Paid Inclusion, according to its own website (which has since been taken down, but can still be viewed in archive form ; you can also view screenshots at Search News Central ), was billed as a way to get your website to the top of the local listings – for a fee (emphases mine):
In January of 2012 we were approached to participate in a new and exciting program: Local Paid Inclusion (LPI). We’re offering it directly to local businesses, to chains of businesses, to resellers and through large distribution channels. We have an exclusive agreement to distribute LPI to domain registrars.
Local Paid Inclusion is a Google, Yahoo and Bing official service that is offered as an approved official contracted program in cooperation with those search engines. This is a program supported by the search engines directly – and you can order it here. The search engines do not sell this directly.
According to Miranda, “One source said plans called for the paid listings to be categorized as organic and would not be marked paid, advertising, or sponsored – they would blend seamlessly with organic local listings.”
Naturally, this raised about ten red flags. Yes, ads are taking over the SERPs , but none of the major search engines have ever endorsed paid inclusion in the organic results – it would be a complete 180 from everything they claim to stand for. Secondly, Bruce Clay is an industry veteran, so it raised eyebrows, to say the least, to see him participating in something superficially scammy.
Danny Sullivan was also on the case – reporting that Bing and Google claimed no involvement in any such program .
Twitter was an interesting place to be on Tuesday night – my “Marketers” column in TweetDeck was blowing up with accusations, rants, demands for explanation and apology, as well as a few prudent souls asking that the search community ask questions before casting aspersions.
One of the most vocal detractors was Alan Bleiweiss :
If Local Paid Inclusion Sounds Too Good to Be True, That’s Because It Is
Before long, both Danny and Miranda had updated their stories with statements from all parties supposedly involved – the search engines were all denying involvement, and UBL also released a statement  saying there was no such deal in the works:
Universal Business Listing denies any association with articles and news reports about a "paid inclusion" business listing service. The company has made no such announcements or claims, particularly in regards to Google. It has no product announcements pending.
Naturally, everyone was waiting to hear how Bruce Clay would explain this – and he and his staff promised that an explanation was forthcoming. On Feb. 1, he published a statement on local paid inclusion , claiming that they had received “confusing and contradicting” statements from their backend partner (UBL) and taking responsibility for releasing misinformation:
We announced what we believed to be a legitimate program where Bruce Clay, Inc. was going to be one of several distributors of this service. Our understanding of this service was that it impacted the sequence of entries within the Places or local results in search engines. And within that separate area of the results, this service would validate local profiles, assuring those entries would naturally result in appearing higher in the local results.
There was misinterpretation of the information surrounding this service; mainly that it would impact the organic search results, instead of only the local results. We take responsibility for an unclear message being announced in an untimely manner, where specifics of the program were not disclosed and the messaging was jumbled.
Bruce Clay, Inc. also takes responsibility for the early promotion of the service Local Paid Inclusion without taking the extra steps to verify these contracts existed as we understood them. For that, we apologize …
We are currently working to better understand all of the contractual agreements in place, if any, with those search engines regarding this service.
This statement seems to manifest some confusion over the difference between “organic” and “local” results – as Bill Slawski notes in a comment :
Local results are “organic” results and are algorithmically determined. They just come from a different repository than web search results. To sell them to the highest bidder is just as bad as selling web results to the highest bidder.
I can’t even begin to imagine that Google, Yahoo, or Bing would sign off on a service like the one that was described on the Local Paid Inclusion pages, but I would imagine that the FTC would be pretty interested in learning more if they did.
While some commenters thanked Bruce for his honesty, others remained angry. Ben Cook comments :
This post tries to blame their partners and the reporter that broke the story but none of those people were responsible for the obviously false claims made by BCI on the website.
Here’s Rob Woods :
The original claims were either a) an attempt to convince small businesses that there was such a service (i.e. paying for the submission will guarantee top results) when there never was such a service b) a complete misrepresentation by UBL that was given no due diligence, analysis, or even passed through a common sense filter on the BC side. Either way it doesn’t look good.
In short, questions remain about how the service came to be announced before crucial details were finalized and facts were checked. Was a well-known search agency trying to dupe small businesses, or was the agency itself duped by shady business partners?
One thing is clear – SEOs are a suspicious, nosy bunch. There are plenty of unethical “SEO” practitioners out there trying to convince clients they can get them to #1 on Google – and they’re part of the reason that SEO has a reputation for being snake oil . But high-profile companies with connections and visibility in the search marketing industry don’t stand much of a chance trying to get away with less-than-white-hat practices. We’re too self-righteous – and too competitive – for that.
More Web Marketing Highlights
I love this case study by Dan Shure on the Distilled blog – he noticed a funny result for the search “fave”  and did some (deep) digging to figure out what brought the page to #1. Long slideshow, but worth it!
Does tiny upstart Pinterest have more of an impact on SEO than Google+ ? Jared Reed at Pan Galactic thinks so, and he shares an infographic from Monetate with supporting evidence.
Brad Geddes shares eight quick ways to increase your AdWords CTR , including extensions and sitelinks.
Is it possible for an ad campaign to be too successful? Via Ad Age, learn why Priceline is axing its William Shatner campaign .
At SEJ, Neil Patel talks about three important ranking factors that “nobody seems to care about ,” like authorship markup.
Here’s your fun for the week – Washington Post interviewed the guy who makes these hilarious pronunciation videos :
Have a great weekend! And feel free to check out some real local online marketing  advice that isn't phony.