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For the past couple of days, I've been besieged by "comments" that look like they are from small businesses that are complaining about Merchant Circle's aggressive voicemail 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 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 U.S.

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: 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 e-mails 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 e-mail 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 e-mails for verification, none responded. (Yes, I should have done more). Moreover, few have phone numbers or Web sites 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 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.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. I have a client who called me just now asking me why he received an email from Merchant Circle "advising" him of a negative comment about his business on the internet.
    Having read your blog earlier today I was able to tell him it was some kind of ridiculous marketing scheme. He did try to follow the link to the supposed negative comment but could not find the comment.
    My client is new to internet advertising so it is inconceivable he could have generated negative attention organically in the week he has been visible. On top of that I monitor client reputation on just this subject and up to today all of my clients have very clean ratings everywhere they are listed.
    IMO this resembles an extortion scheme (opinion only)!! The rats perpetrating this scheme should be shut down ASAP.

  2. Peter:

    I want to make sure our merchants have a great experience using MerchantCircle to find local customers. This information may be helpful –

    MerchantCircle is focused on delivering services to enable local businesses to find more clients. We provide a web page for each merchant as well as tools that merchants can use to get the word out about their business. The MerchantCircle service is free and is currently being used by over 50,000 merchants.

    Merchants can receive ratings and/or reviews on their MerchantCircle listing. Some merchants have raised concerns about not finding out their listing was available or that a consumer had posted information. We have been experimenting with different methods of informing merchants when their listing changes. For example, when a listing is claimed, we pro-actively notify merchants who may not visit the site regularly.

    As you can imagine, this required some investment and some effort. In fact, for a while the entire team of 9 personally contacted local merchants. Some of the experiments seem to be having unintended consequences and had some execution issues. We are working to address those issues while continuing to deliver value to merchants.

    Merchants have complete control over their information on MerchantCircle. If anyone would like their listing removed from MerchantCircle please email with your business name and phone # and we will remove your listing and contact information from our system.

    If you would like to join MerchantCircle, we would be excited to have you on board. To get started, click here for more information or click here to join.

  3. My client has NO negative reviews anywhere on the internet.
    Email me through my blog and prove it if possible. He is a NEW advertiser on the net and it is impossible he was negatively reviewed in one or two days on the net. He is offended by the tactic as am I. He is lucky he has a marketing company looking over his business. I fear for other small businesses who are completely unaware of what (may be) behind these emails.
    Sierra Web Marketing

  4. Peter,

    Fake complaints????? You need to do your homework on this one.

    They look like "comments" from small businesses because they really are!!!

    I think you should place a call to Rustic Canyon Partners……….they are embarrassed and none too happy with the tactics used by Mr Smith and pals.

    The only people that need to stop the nonsense work for Merchantcircle…..there are no excuses for Ben Smith and company…….they operated absolutely unethically.

    They called my business and obviously countless others with a bogus message indicating a negative review…….went to the sight (just as they wanted me to do)….turns out there was no review of any kind………

    That’s some marketing campaign….I can imagine the meeting now………lets see..hmmmmm I know… why don’t we phone spam businesses with a non existant negative review and then they will come see us for sure…..whatcha think boys???? Response……..Let’s Do itttttttt!!!!!! Brilliant!!!!!!! They will really appreciate what we have to offer them even if we had to lie and trick them into visiting us. I can’t believe how smart we are fellas!

    You smelled a rat alright…..just not the one you thought it was.

  5. My business joined in with Merchant Circle about a week ago BECAUSE of the phone call I received. So many people take themselves too seriously. Yes, this was a marketing strategy and it obviously got a lot of attention. Have Publishers Clearing House, auto dealerships, and yes Madonna used similar techniques to garner attention to themselves?

    Come on guys, ride the wave and milk it for what it’s worth.

  6. MerchantCircle are fraudsters, pure and simple.

    On March 28, 2006, they used a robot (with no recourse to a human) to call my phone and deliver an ad, in violation of both the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 and the federal Do-Not-Call list.

    Then, on September 16 and 26, a "member merchant" outside my area, whom I never heard of, and who is certainly no customer of mine sent me two e-mails urging me to join MerchantCircle (or perhaps MerchantCircle "borrowed" his registration info and sent them to me "on his behalf?") On September 16, I responded by entering a negative review on his MerchantCircle listing and denouncing him as a spammer.

    Then on the 27th, I received the following on my voice mail from 866-849-3243: scam/

    Like the other people, I found that nobody had entered any ratings for me at all. Refusing to "activate my account" just to see if I had any ratings, I instead entered two positive testimonials for neighboring businesses that I use, businesses who also had not "activated their accounts," and I saw that when ratings were actually present, they appeared whether or not the "owner" had activated. Since my own listing was devoid of ratings, that means that MerchantCircle flat out lied to me.

    I made the above recording available online in response to a blogger who, like you, had the temerity to suggest, "But were the automated calls even placed?" Yes, they were placed. No, this isn’t an "organized smear campaign." And yes, MerchantCircle are frauds and spammers, and I’ll be damned if I ever deal with them. I hope they die a nasty, smelly, public death in the marketplace.

    As for your not being able to contact complainers at their email addresses, who but a moron would provide you a real address when you post it in the clear on your blog? We *don’t* like to get spam, dig it? If you want to speak to me, YOU post YOUR address, I’ll contact YOU — how’s that?

  7. I do not remember ever hearing of Merchant Circle until I started seeing a monthly membership fee on my AmEx card. I googled merchant circle and found two things: first, they offer a free service and second that there is no way to unsubscribe if one actually had subscribed at all. My next step is through AmEx. Merchant Circle is worse than the scam that attempts to get members by phoning merchants with bad reports, it is fraudulently billing people.

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