(Revised) Complaints About Merchant Circle

For the past couple of days, I’ve been besieged by “comments” that look like they are from small businesses who are complaining about Merchant Circle’s aggressive voice mail promos. Merchant Circle is a new company that is designed to generate small business traffic via SEO/SEM, Free DA, enhanced listings and other state-of-the-art techniques.

When someone posts a review about a business in Merchant Circle, the company’s system automatically calls the business to tell them about it, hoping to generate interest in signing up for its service. To date, Merchant Circle tells me 40,000 businesses have signed up for a free level of service. Of those, a “very small percentage” have converted to a pay tier. No wonder the company is getting more aggressive, right? And those calls are apparently alienating people all over the USA.

Here is a comment from “Cathy,” who I’ve learned is a legit florist in Anaheim:

“A fellow florist received one of your ‘negative review’ calls today and expressed concern as to how she could possibly have deserved such a comment. Thankfully this blog spells out the marketing scam. I took a look at Merchant Circle and found the same erroneous data for my city and category as the widely seen in most Yellow Pages; fictitious ‘local’ listings for out-of-state call centers and the mis-categorizations of a number of businesses. No where does the site explain the source of the merchant ratings or make the raters accountable for their blemishing of the reputations of some excellent local businesses. No where can a company defend itself except the forced ‘claiming’ of their tattered honor and goodwill. That’s not marketing – it’s ransom. Unbelievable that the Chandler family or Disney would endorse these tactics.”

Here is a different sample from “Holly:”

“We received this call today too, with a recorded message that said we had “negative information”. Went to the site and did not see any comments under our name. Glad I found this string of messages and know I am not alone, and it is definitely SPAM! Everyone should report them at: www.DoNotCall.gov Click on “File a Complaint” and report them. After searching Google I found Merchant Circle’s phone number: 650-352-1335. Hope this helps!”

This is awful, right? But not so quick. While the problems appear to be very real, some of the comments — not all — may not be. For one thing, the emails mostly come from people with just one name, just like the proud Afghani people: I send my regards to “Lisa,” “Lynda,” “Ginger,” “Robert,” “Steve,” “Cindy,” “Erin,” “Matthew,” and several others.

While the commenters typically have return email addresses that have different ISPs and domain names, some have different IP addresses. Most tend to be “too interesting,” but have the same voice. Moreover, when I sent out three test emails for verification, none responded. (Yes, I should have done more). Moreover, few have phone numbers or websites attached to them.

The last straw was when I Googled “Merchant Circle.” This kind of grassroots campaign would typically have a call to action posted somewhere. But it doesn’t. The only thing you see is an article that I wrote a few months ago, when Merchant Circle launched.

It just doesn’t make sense that I am suddenly getting tons of comments from around the country for such an old article. Here is my take. Merchant Circle, a Rustic Canyon project launched by Ben Smith, the creator of Spoke Software, is dedicated to helping small businesses be successful on the Web. It has been very entrepreneurial, and has really thought through what small businesses need to get noticed on the Web.

I don’t know if it will be successful – and I have made no secret of being dismayed at the low level of security that they have on the system for changing business information. But if it had some success, it would be good for the entire local online advertising industry.

Maybe it has been too caustic about the Yellow Pages industry in its attention-getting promotions and blog comments, who knows? I can’t imagine that a Yellow Pages executive would do something like this.