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.”
“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.
Tags: Local Paid Inclusion