The Bruce Clay, Local Paid Inclusion & UBL Kerfuffle

by Chris Silver Smith

Along with many others, I’ve been following the “Local Paid Inclusion” kerfuffle involving Bruce Clay with some interest, and I’ve finally decided to post this comment about the story. Disclosure: I’m on the current Board of Advisors for a company that’s been frequently mentioned along with the story — Universal Business Listing (a.k.a. “UBL”), so I do have a direct interest in these events. While I obviously wouldn’t speak out about UBL without the company’s permission, the thoughts in this blog post are my own opinions and conclusions about the matter, based on my knowledge about the company and people involved. So, read on:

Let me also say: this is in no way dictated by UBL, and they’ve never put limits on my expressions of opinion (and, anyone who knows my history with Verizon knows that I’m not a corporate patsy nor afraid of speaking my opinions about companies far more influential and powerful than UBL — in fact, it’s not widely known but I actually started the process to resign once when Verizon’s public affairs department tried to keep me from speaking at a Search Engine Strategies Conference, but they ultimately backed down). I can’t blame people for being skeptical about business communications, but I do try to be forthright in stuff that I say, and I believe one of the reasons UBL asked me to be an advisor in the first place is because I express my opinions. So. This is not a disingenuous attempt to spin-doctor the truth on my part.

I’m speaking out about the Local Paid Inclusion dealie because UBL has apparently been dragged into this, and aspersions and suspicion have been cast their way — unfairly, from my point of view. I saw Barry Schwarz’s opinion piece this morning, “Bruce Clay Hurts His SEO Legacy & The Industry“, and I was left disatisfied with how the opinion of many has been negatively impacted regarding Universal Business Listing. I’m not saying Barry did anything unfair or illogical — I think I would’ve come to a similar conclusion that he and others have arrived at, based upon the limited communications that have been published about the matter. But, the fact that the series of events has left people with some degree of skepticism and suspicion of Universal Business Listing is why I decided to go ahead and post this.

For any of us involved in online reputation management, you sometimes have to weigh whether talking further about something is just going to throw fuel on the fire or actually help resolve it. But, it is clear that Bruce Clay’s statement on Local Paid Inclusion left many thinking that UBL caused this whole thing in some way, and that Bruce was a victim of their actions.

Here’s what I know about the matter, and my conjecture/opinion on what may have happened:

  • UBL has been discussing and experimenting a number of different business information distribution products and ideas for products, including some variations referred to internally sometimes as “paid insertion”. None of those have had anything to do with “paid inclusion” nor paying to get top rankings in organic search results in local search engines such as Google, Bing, nor Yahoo!. Some of the experiments in listing distribution to search engines and online local directories are being prepared for testing and are in “Alpha” stage.
  • Bruce Clay has been predicting that local search would involve paid inclusion for a while now. In fact, I sat in the audience at SMX West this past year when he spoke on the Local Search Tactics session panel, and I was fairly stunned and not impressed when he suggested that Google would start producing paid placement listings throughout local search results in a massive way and stated that the local search results were “not organic”. I thought it was a highly unusual thing to say, and anyone familiar with the trends in Google’s local search development (not to mention their overall philosophies of search development) would never have said such a thing. At the time, I considered publishing a blog post critiquing the statements made in that presentation, but I opted not to do so out of respect (not to mention it’s not good form to publicly critique someone you work with on an advisory board). I now regret not speaking about it then — if I had, it might have kept this all from happening.
  • Bruce seems to have possibly convinced himself of his own predictions around paid local inclusion. He published a blog post of internet marketing predictions in late January which also invested a considerable importance in the concept with these statements:

    “Local results become a massive revenue source for the search engines. A local paid inclusion program develops where brick and mortar sites can get local result preferential listings for a reasonable monthly fee.”

    and:

    “Local Paid Inclusion will replace traditional SEO and PPC as the first traffic tactic. Premium listings in local results will immediately gain popularity as early adopters happily get traffic for a low fee in a matter of days. This will be the most significant traffic tactic in 2012. Everyone that has a local address will participate.”

    That latter statement is essentially the same sorts of things he’d said earlier last year at SMX West.

  • I believe Bruce may have so convinced himself that paid local inclusion would be happening that he heard what he wanted to hear when UBL personnel discussed some of their “paid insertion” types of products.
  • Bruce has been a reseller of UBL’s local listing distribution service, and based upon that relationship and his misunderstanding of UBL product plans, he published the LocalPaidInclusion.com website — that site, its description of products and its content were done without any knowledge nor involvement on the part of UBL.
  • I think it highly likely that when the reporter, Miranda Miller, at Search Engine Watch was pitched the story by Bruce Clay (“Google, Bing & Yahoo in Partnership to Sell Top Organic Local Listings?“), he must’ve hinted that UBL was his backend partner. Or, perhaps someone else with a passing familiarity of Bruce’s business told them that UBL was a partner, based upon the preexisting relationship for normal local listing distribution services.
  • When Miranda called UBL and spoke with CEO, Doyal Bryant, I think he misunderstood what he was being asked — if a reporter called out of the blue and asked if he was planning some sort of distribution project with major search engines, he’d truthfully answer “yes”, unwittingly confirming a story about a completely different thing than what he realized. When he said a project was on hold with search engines pending some testing, it was something involving normal listing information distribution services — not a guaranteed top listing placement product — because there isn’t one. I understand there was a very brief call involving him speaking to her on a mobile phone while stepping out of a meeting — so, perhaps the call quality wasn’t all that great as well.
  • While Miranda was only one of the players in this comedy of errors, I think it behooves a reporter to doublecheck that they’ve heard rightly when the story appears to be extraordinarily unbelievable. I wasn’t witness to the convo betwixt her and Doyal, but I also think that some level of misunderstanding was going on, that some degree of it was also her responsibility, and that perhaps she should’ve blinked and paused to doublecheck that particular story. At the same time, it’s understandable if a well-established person has given you a story and others reportedly involved appear to be confirming it.
  • UBL was dismayed by their abrupt association with a controversial project they knew nothing of. It was also difficult to figure out how to explain their CEO’s apparent confirmation to Search Engine Watch without further muddying the waters with references to their “paid insertion” types of products, and they also didn’t wish to reveal details of other local technology products that they have in the works.
  • There’s also the fact that they have respect of Bruce Clay and didn’t wish to cause him embarrassment, and, just as with any corporation, there are issues around what it’s safe to say about people who’ve worked with you in terms of liability. (I’m also on the record as saying that I respect Bruce Clay, and consider him to be one of the pioneers in SEO. I still respect him — I’m just wishing he’d gone further to clarify that UBL wasn’t involved in this, and that UBL’s not forcing him to shut up about the fact that nothing’s going on.)
  • The negative publicity was a bit confounding to deal with as well – how do you disprove a negative?  As it was, UBL executives showed restraint with their statements. Unfortunately, this restraint and vagueness about proprietary product plans lead people to conclude they were more deeply involved than the reality.
  • Bruce’s blog post around the matter was disappointing from UBL’s perspective. It was a sort of politician’s apology, like when someone says “I’m sorry you feel bad about what I did to you.” The blog post did take some responsibility and apologized some, but it also continues to muddy the waters by hinting that there’s a nondisclosure in place keeping them from revealing the full truth of the matter. This mystery partner, we’re lead to believe, is being mean to Bruce Clay by keeping him from telling on them. He’s trying to have it both ways in that blog post, which just isn’t cool.
  • There was no agreement betwee UBL & Bruce Clay to have a paid inclusion service that would give preferential treatment in local search engines with Google/Bing/Yahoo, as far as I’m aware. I’m on the Board of Advisors there, and chat with Doyal Bryant about the major company plans on a somewhat frequent basis, and this sort of product concept has never existed there. Never. Not even speculatively.

Perhaps there is some mystery partner lurking in the background somewhere that really did have such an idea, and convinced Bruce that they could deliver it. I don’t believe that partner was UBL. There’s no agreement with UBL over such a product, so there’s no nondisclosure keeping Bruce from talking about the complete nonexistence of the exclusive Local Paid Inclusion product with UBL. This is less than vaporware, I believe. UBL is mystified by it, and mystified as to how to disprove a negative.

Their fault, if there is any, is by way of the busy, workaholic CEO of UBL, Doyal Bryant, who is guilty of not slowing down and taking the time to carefully understand the context of questions that were asked of him when a reporter called him up and asked about projects which sounded vaguely like things the company really does, involving someone with whom the company really has had a partnership.

The truth of what actually happened is pretty straightforward. There’s no big conspiracy going on. It’s a bit of a comedy of errors.

Related posts:

  1. Guest Post At Bruce Clay’s Blog: 10 Image SEO Tips For Local


 
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16 Responses to “The Bruce Clay, Local Paid Inclusion & UBL Kerfuffle”

  1. Simon Heseltine says:

    Chris…

    This is the spaghetti defense… throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks…

    You imply that Miranda didn’t ask the right questions of either Bruce or Doyal… given that you weren’t on either of those calls (and neither was I), that one slides down the wall.

    You imply that the call quality may have ‘perhaps’ been an issue, well, you used to work for Verizon, so maybe that’s a possibility, but then again, you weren’t on the calls, so another mess on the floor.

    You try the Reagan defense… Doyal was confused, he didn’t know what was being asked of him. You know Doyal, I don’t, but again, you weren’t on the calls, or there to ascertain whether he was or not, so another one slip sliding away.

    You impugn Miranda’s reporting without knowing exactly what was said by all parties to her. Did you contact Miranda and talk to her before writing this post? No? You presumably just spoke to Doyal? Do you think that leads to a balanced, impartial response? I don’t.

    I’m only amazed that you didn’t try the “She’s got a funny accent because she says aboot and eh? which threw him” defense. Nah, that one wouldn’t have stuck to the wall either.

  2. Kristine Schachinger says:

    I think it is ironic that you attack Miranda’s reporting by surmising what might or might not have happened in a phone call you had no access to about something you did not talk to her about.

    As for Bruce Clay, I will not speak to his mindset when he posted the original comment, but he did say (paraphrased now, but have the original in a screenshot should it be needed) there was a Google sanctioned pay to get ranked program.

    Whether he misunderstood or not, whether UBL was involved or not, this was CLEARLY stated The fact that she called to confirm and UBL “misunderstood” I find hard to believe, but say they did. There was a statement from BCL that it existed, a website with the same claims on the BCL C block. Usually that would be all the proof anyone would need.

    However, she contacted the parties involved got statements and did her best to cover all sides. Unfortunately, it seems you do not hold yourself to the same standard you claim she did not adhere to (she did) and are seeking to throw out shiny objects in hopes of distraction.

    Now I guess the question is since you moderate this comment set will you post MY and the other comments I know that have been submitted or will they not appear..

  3. Kristina says:

    This is an obvious cover the butt posting. The CEO of UBL is so overworked that he can’t hear a question and respond to it accurately? Yet Bruce Clay ( yes THE Bruce Clay) is so filled with free time he can come up with an accurate apology and statement. Spin it baby….ridiculous, I wish I had the four minutes of my life back it took to read this drivel.

  4. Miranda Miller says:

    Much of the guess work and supposition of this particularly imaginative version of what may have happened could have been avoided had you contacted me prior to publishing, rather than afterwards to share the link with me.

  5. I don’t believe i’m throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

    It is conjectural of me to speculate on what may’ve been said in the convo. But, it’s not outragious to suggest that it behooves a reporter to fully establish the facts of a story before publishing it. There wasn’t such a product. UBL apparently didn’t have such a deal with Bruce Clay – so, how did she get the idea they did? UBL did have listing distro with him, and in the context of that, you can see how they might’ve thought that was what they were being asked about.

    As I outlined, there are credible reasons why the CEO misunderstood what was being asked of him. I believe that’s what happened. It’s not a great excuse by any means. It’s not the 1st time a CEO has misunderstood what was being asked of him, and it probably won’t be the last. Unfortunately,

    if people prefer to believe the worst, this explanation won’t satisfy them. Which is exactly why the company probably chose not to say more.

  6. Miranda Miller says:

    Chris, as I said in my article, in the comments, and on SEO Dojo radio, I contacted Bruce, I spoke with Doyal, and I spoke with Google, Bing & Yahoo.

    Yes, it is conjecture, what you’ve printed here. Yes, it is embarrassingly speculative. I know you want to believe the best about the company whose board you sit on, but you know nothing about me. I do not go off half-cocked and print “misunderstandings” as fact.

    The CEO did not misunderstand me, make no mistake about it. He was quite explicit and offered to let me test the Local Paid Inclusion service next week. We both referred to it as that. He told me Bruce was not to have released it yet, not that it didn’t exist, that he didn’t know what I was talking about, or that I must be mistaken.

    He said he couldn’t talk about it right now because of confidentiality agreements… then, quite amazingly, he did talk about it. Bragged, almost. Which I’m guessing won’t result in any trouble for him, as a nonexistent deal can’t have much more than a nonexistent NDA.

    Any other questions? I’m not out to make anyone’s life difficult, but I won’t be maligned over anyone else’s lack of integrity, either.

  7. Simon Heseltine says:

    “As I outlined, there are credible reasons why the CEO misunderstood what was being asked of him”

    “…perhaps the call quality wasn’t all that great…”

    Yep, spot on *sigh*

    Actually, what you outlined above were a series of “maybe” and “perhaps” not factual reasons. But now I’m repeating myself, and I have better things to do than spend more time on this hatchet job.

  8. Andrew Jensen says:

    Excellent, Chris! Thanks for taking the time to give us the “other” perspective.

  9. Alan Bleiweiss says:

    Chris

    I hope this post is a joke. because a) it’s full of swiss-cheese holes in it’s own conclusions and b) because it’s nothing but one misdirection statement after another.

    Given UBLs history of making false public claims and statements regarding your own company’s supposed relationships with Search industry companies that end up turning out to be blatantly false you’re treading on dangerous water..

    Given your own company’s history of throwing search industry companies into financial tail-spins due to failed action on your company’s part, I think you need to make a major retraction of this nonsense before someone rips your company to shreds in an upcoming blog post.

    Of course, I am confident you won’t publish this comment. Just be aware that UBL will not come 9out of this unscathed.

  10. Sage Lewis says:

    This post just adds to the surreal, bizarre nature of this story.

    Your attempt to bring credibility to UBL, as other commentors have suggested, has done the opposite. You are just speculating, which is what most of us are doing. Except you are an UBL insider.

    You make UBL look less trustworthy here.

    Why wouldn’t they have had someone knowledgeable of the happenings comment on the topic?

  11. Alan Bleiweiss says:

    Oh. Forgive my mis-spoken statement. When I said “your own company”, I meant UBL. While I see now you’re only somewhat-related to them, given how this article was written, it was pretty effortless for me to become blurred by the relationship line. If you don’t in fact get paid to write this kind of defense article for them, then I apologize in that regard. Everything else stands as far as why it’s pretty near impossible to believe UBL isn’t a key factor in the “kerfufle”

  12. Doc Sheldon says:

    Chris, I find it amusing that you say “it behooves a reporter to fully establish the facts of a story before publishing it.” I do agree with it… it was true 30 years ago when I published my own newspaper and magazines and it’s still true today. I happen to know that this story was fully vetted with a critical eye before the decision was rendered to run it. All parties were given an opportunity to respond or comment.

    My amusement is aroused by the fact that you found it unnecessary to speak with Miranda, Jonathan or Danny about the basis of the story. Fine… your blog, your rules, right? How terribly convenient for you. Had you done so, I assure you, your opinion would be quite different.

    Personally, I don’t care whether Google et al. were cooking up a scheme to sell placements or not. And I don’t particularly care if Bruce gets raked over the coals if he knowingly misrepresented things. What I most emphatically DO care about is ONE individual being thrown under the bus, while others, equally or MORE guilty, sit back and chuckle, suffering no ill effects. Call me idealistic, but that’s unacceptable to me.

    Your spin fails to impress, Chris. And guess what? If any of your companions advised you to let it alone, as a post like this might do UBL more harm than good…

    they were right. ;)

  13. Miranda, I apologize. You’re right that I shouldn’t have speculated about a conversation I wasn’t witness to, and it wasn’t right of me to suggest that you made a mistake or were inaccurate.

    It can hardly be your fault if someone in an interview seems to be confirming questions you’re asking of them — that’s entirely their responsibility.

  14. Regarding various comments about speculation, I just know that it’s not speculation on my part to state that I discuss projects with some frequency with the guys at UBL, and no such product offering has been discussed with me. I also don’t need to talk to anyone else to know that there’s no real upside to UBL to take a partner down the path with a purported product that would be unlikely to exist on the face of it. I also know that it would be very easy for people in a convo to confuse similar-sounding words, and that the only UBL product concept name I’m aware of that bears passing resemblance to “inclusion” is “insertion”. I also know that Bruce Clay went on a lot in his preso at SMX West about Google moving to aggressively expand paid listings in the local search results way before this controversy — and to me that begins to explain what happened with that website. I know that it’s unlikely on the face of it that UBL would discuss a such a product with someone who’s no longer on their advisory board while keeping me, their local search guy who is an advisor and covered by their confidentiality agreements, in the dark about it. None of this is speculation on my part.

    I know it’s not a particularly pretty story, and is unsatisfactory to some. UBL may not be popular to some in the industry, and they’re in something of an underdog status for some of their lines of business — but, even so, I don’t think it’s fair to lay this at their feet. I’m pretty well convinced that they did not have plans to create a paid inclusion product guaranteed to rank tops in organic local SERPs. It’s the sort of concept I would have rapidly and immediately called “bullshit” upon.

    The question I’d put to you is this: If someone creates a website that makes wild claims, and then subsequently implies your company put them up to it (without publicly citing your company by name), how would you refute it?

  15. Miranda Miller says:

    Appreciated, Chris… I’m just going to back away slowly now from this entire thing. Understand why you would want to have your say, being on the board – would not be an enviable position.

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