When People Search for Customer Service, Brands Suffer

sam.engel Aug 7, 2014

Ginny Marvin recently posted a fascinating article over on Search Engine Land. Her piece focuses on the issues that arise when users search for customer support on Google and Bing. In particular, it deals with searches where people are looking for customer support from specific brands.

"Bank of America support" and "AT&T customer service" would be examples of these searches. They each include a brand name in the search, indicating that the customer is looking for a solution specific to that brand. But what happens when people actually make these searches? What does the user actually see? The article goes on to highlight that the engines aren't exactly consistent in how they treat these searches. Sometimes Google will show a knowledge graph with the brand's official customer service line. Other times, Google will actually show ads—including ads from third parties (not just from the brand).

What Types of Advertisers Are Showing Up?

Typically, the advertisers behind these ads fall into a few different categories:

  • The brands themselves
  • Authorized third-parties
  • Unaffiliated third-parties

That third category is of particular concern for brands. If these third-parties have no relationship with the brand, why are they advertising on these searches? Furthermore, where are they directing searchers—and for what purpose?

The Search Engine Land article provides examples and poses some valuable questions. I'd like to expand on those findings here and explore some of these third-party ads in further detail. Once someone clicks on one of these third-party ads, what happens next? Let's walk through some examples!

What Are These Unaffiliated Third-parties Doing?

While monitoring a set of branded keywords related to customer service and support, we noticed an interesting trend. Many of the advertisements claimed to provide customer service phone numbers from major brands. These ads would generally include a term like "phone" in their domain name, and we typically found them running in the UK. Here's one example that was placed by a site called "connection-directory.co.uk":


Notably, this ad outranks the knowledge graph phone number for O2. This third-party ad is right there, front-and-center at the top of Google. It's the first thing that the user sees after conducting their search. If that placement wasn't enough to earn the click, it's also worth considering that consumers don't always expect brands to provide the most useful contact details. The fact that sites like GetHuman even exist is a sign that brands are a bit hesitant to publish their best customer service numbers in conspicuous places. In this scenario, the knowledge graph number may just be another frustrating phone tree maze—so what's there to lose by clicking on Connection Directory's ad?

Let's assume that someone clicks on the ad. What's next? Do we end up on a site that's similar to GetHuman, one that helps consumers find the best side door to get in front a company rep? Do we just get the same phone number that showed up in Google's knowledge graph? Let's take a quick look at the landing page from this ad:


Well, we do get a phone number here, so that's a start. Plus, this phone number is different from the one we saw in Google's knowledge graph. That's some added value, right? Not so fast. After running a few Google searches for the number provided, it doesn't seem to appear anywhere other than on a few caller ID lookup sites. If this number were truly associated with O2, shouldn't it be showing up in a few more places? At the very least, it could be buried somewhere on a forum.

Let's Figure Out What's Really Going on Here

This finding made us curious, so we started investigating a little further. It wasn't long until we happened upon a very intriguing section from Connection Directory's About Us page. The passage says the following (emphasis added):

Upon calling one of 0843 numbers you will be connected to the company or organisation you have searched for. The cost of the call will be 5 pence per minute when called from a BT landline. Please note that extra charges may be incurred when calling from mobiles or other networks.

The choice of "connected to" seemed a bit off here, especially when "extra charges" were also mentioned. If this were truly O2's official number, shouldn't it either be toll-free or a standard rate? Why would there be extra charges? And if the call is being "connected", is it not going directly to O2?

The Smoking Gun

Now that our suspicions had grown, we were on alert for anything that might help put together more of this puzzle. Fortunately, it didn't take long for us to find a more illustrative and egregious example. The key piece of information is on the landing page associated with the ad (which I'll share below). But first let's take a quick look at the ad that led us to it:


And now, the landing page:


£1.53 per minute? That's pretty much unheard of! And all of that is just for a "connection service" that has nothing to do with Ulster Bank. The site's disclaimer makes it quite apparent that it has no real association with the brand:

Easyphonenumbers.co.uk is a directory enquiries service and is not affiliated with Ulster Bank, we are a directory enquiry and connection service only.

Even in the best case scenario, the connection service simply bridges the caller over to Ulster Bank's official line (and charges them a pretty penny). In other cases, it may divert the caller elsewhere or simply keep them on hold at a premium rate. None of these outcomes are positive for the customer—and by extension, they aren't for the brand either.

Steps that Brands Should Take

What can a brand do here? For starters, they may want to run some manual searches for keywords related to customer service and their brand name. We'd recommend trying at least the following out:

  • [Brand] support
  • [Brand] customer support
  • [Brand] customer service
  • [Brand] customer service number

If the brand finds anything of concern from these checks, they should reach out to Google and Bing with the examples (screenshots and ad click URLs would be particularly helpful). While the engines don't explicitly discuss these types of ads in their trademark policies, these ads would certainly seem to be misleading to the point where the engines should consider taking them down.

As an additional measure, if it's possible to trace calls back to call forwarding or connection services, brands should try to identify the numbers that are sending those callers over to them. With that information, one could look up the referring phone numbers to see if they were associated with premium charges. It may also be worth reporting these advertisers to PhonePayPlus, the UK's governing body for premium rate calls.

Plenty More to Uncover

Of course, this post only discusses one way that brands are being targeted on customer service related searches. It's also limited to the UK. That being said, the findings here would suggest that there's more to explore in this area—especially when it comes to protecting brands and their customers.

There are certainly other countries to investigate further, and there may be new schemes to track down as well. We'll look to follow this post up with some additional findings as they become available. In the meantime, we'd love to hear about any experience you may have had with this or any similar schemes. Feel free to comment below or reach out to us directly!


Business Insider reports that in late October the FTC asked a New York court to shut down a company operating what seems to be a similar scam targeting Facebook and Microsoft.

Topics: affiliate marketing

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