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MerchantCircle may be best known as the bad boy of telemarketing for a negative marketing scheme that went awry last fall. But the eight-person Rustic Canyon start-up promises it has mended its ways and points to a growing base of registered members (90,000) and a host of helpful member services. This week, it even got a nice writeup in BusinessWeek.

Director of Marketing Walt Duflock, a former eBay-ite, says that roughly 50 percent of the company’s registered members rely on the site as their sole Web presence. Some members come in via word of mouth, some through the telemarketing efforts, and some from the virtuous circle affiliate effort from Commission Junction, where affiliates get $2.50 for recommending free members, $25 for basic members and $75 for premium members.

In addition to a Web site, MerchantCircle is providing members with coupons, blogs, links to relevant Topix news clips, integrated Google maps and a reputation management program that allows businesses to check out everything that has been written about them across the Web. It also provides SEO and, for premium tier members, SEM.

The site does even more. It has a cooperative relationship with classified site Edgeio, where relevant ads are inserted on the Edgeio site, and vice versa. “(Merchant Circle) is a great way to get the word out,” says Duflock.

At this point, almost all the company’s registered base is coming in on the free tier. While the company still has a business plan in place where “x” percent would hopefully migrate to the $30 or $100 monthly tiers that provide paid advertising on search engines, newspaper sites and Jingle Nets’ 1-800-FREE411, the company may learn to live with free as its predominant model. It can still make money off Google AdSense and partner services, Duflock notes. Businesses that are mostly likely to want a Google program are probably signing up on their own.

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