Tucson firms find it's buyer beware in Wild West of Internet marketing

2013-12-29T00:00:00Z Tucson firms find it's buyer beware in Wild West of Internet marketingBy Emily Bregel Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The salesman’s claims were too good to be true, in retrospect, says local business owner Danny Valenzuela.

Valenzuela, who owns tree-removal service AAA Mammoth Tree and Landscaping, shelled out $1,500 last month to an Internet marketing company that he says oversold its service.

The company, Internet Marketing Services, is based in Southern California but is recruiting customers in Tucson. Besides Valenzuela, at least one other local firm received repeated calls from the company.

Internet Marketing Services promised a banner ad for Valenzuela’s business would appear at the top of online search-engine results for people typing in “tree service Tucson” or “tree removal Tucson” — the two keyword phrases Valenzuela paid to reserve. The company guaranteed 2,000 page views on his website each month for one year.

But a salesman with Internet Marketing Services told Valenzuela he had to first download an “upgrade” to his Internet browser, Google Chrome, to see the banner ad that would appear. And it turned out the only people who would see Valenzuela’s banner ad were those who downloaded an add-on, he says.

“I should have been a little more savvy about it when I had to download their product,” said Valenzuela, who later got a refund.

“To be honest, that’s the problem. How are you gonna go ahead and check something out when you don’t know exactly what’s valid and what’s not?”

When it comes to Internet marketing, finding reputable companies and legitimately good deals isn’t always black and white.

Because knowledge about how Web advertising works is not widespread, many individuals and companies are vulnerable to misleading claims or downright malicious attacks, said Jason Jones, a lawyer and consumer advocate based in Chicago.

Even law enforcement and consumer advocates don’t always have in-depth understanding of the Internet, said Jones, who founded The Salty Droid website to expose Internet scams.

“At this point and for the last 10 years, you can basically get away with anything over the Internet,” Jones said. “It’s like a dark black hole. So few people have a sophisticated working knowledge of it, especially people working in the government.”

Last year the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center got nearly 290,000 consumer complaints representing losses of more than $525 million.

Small businesses with limited resources are particularly vulnerable to Internet marketing scams and misleading claims, said John Breyault, vice president of public policy for the National Consumers League.

“They might not have the resources to hire an IT department to help you sniff out those threats,” he said. “They’re not fraud experts.”

SMALL firms at risk

Robin Burkhart handles finances and marketing for Absolute Removal, a commercial debris-removal company in Tucson. The small business’s president also received numerous calls from Internet Marketing Services, pitching the same package that Valenzuela purchased, and Burkhart’s boss asked her to look into it.

“We all want to advertise, and one of the most desirous positions to be in is on the first page of Google or Yahoo or Bing, and this is what they were offering,” she said.

But the claims didn’t seem realistic, so Burkhart advised her boss to stop taking calls from Internet Marketing Services. She worries the company is misleading other small-business owners in town.

“A lot of businesses in Tucson now are probably not doing any other advertising because they are thinking this is working,” she said.

Valenzuela regrets not trusting his instincts when he had to download a Google Chrome extension for his banner ad to be displayed.

The extension, called “BrowseBoost,” is listed on Chrome’s Web store. Anyone can upload items like extensions or apps to the Chrome Web store, the Internet browser warns, although it announced last summer it would begin vetting items posted to the store.

The BrowseBoost extension has no screenshots, user comments or ratings, which is a red flag to Eric Griffith, an editor with PC Magazine who recently wrote a piece on the 90 best Google Chrome extensions.

“If you’re marketing something and the company you use says everyone has to download special software to make the marketing ‘visible,’ that’s pretty poor marketing,” he said via email.

Even when he began to have his doubts, Valenzuela decided to wait a few weeks and see if clicks started coming through. He did not see an increase in traffic — or clients — and he struggled to get a refund for his first of two payments, each of $1,495.

Rick Paulson, a salesman with Internet Marketing Services, initially said Valenzuela would not get a refund because he hadn’t yet paid in full.

“Why would I give him a refund?” he said in an interview. “I absolutely said I would give him a refund if we didn’t deliver what we said we were going to do.” Paulson said he asked Valenzuela to send a second check.

Valenzuela said he finally got a refund last week — on the condition that he call a reporter to say he got a refund.

Paulson directed questions about how the marketing service works to Neal Safran, who Paulson said was corporate attorney. In an email, Safran denied working for the company currently but clarified how the service works. He did not respond to questions about who owns the company.

“Customers … sign an agreement permitting the installation of software and cookies on their individual computer only, which connects that computer to a closed network that allows other computers on the network to display the customer’s website as a banner on the search page screen when the keywords or phrases are typed into the search bar,” he said.

Jones calls that arrangement “preposterously useless.”

“Internet advertising implies scale,” he said. “Google is answering 100 billion search queries per month. The same things work not at all on the micro scale.”

The company’s sales pitch about banner ads getting top placement is misleading, but not necessarily fraudulent, said Danny Sullivan, an expert on Internet marketing and search-engine optimization who runs the website SearchEngineLand.com

“Rather than doing this,” Sullivan said, “people considering it would probably be better advised to spend a much smaller amount directly with Google through its Google AdWords system.”

Google is so big, Jones said, that “no one can match it.”

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at ebregel@azstarnet.com or 807-7774. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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