SEO companies sued by Google for robocalling My Business’ users
Google and Local Lighthouse settled an agreement for the last to stop making robocalls to Google My Business users and costumers. Google received thousands of complaints from users complaining that Local Lighthouse, a SEO based in Tustin, California, were making unsolicited robocalls offering services and claiming to be affiliated to Google.
Google alleged that calls were extensive and unauthorized and that the related use of Google mark was misleading. On 2015 September 16, Google has taken legal action against Local Lighthouse in case n. 04219. Google filed the lawsuit in the US District Court for Northern District of California. Lawsuit was ended by both parties with Defendant accepting to stop making calls and Plaintiff without making further actions.
Robocalls are annoying Google’s My Business consumers
Google runs the Google My Business service for entrepreneurs which wants to gain more visibility on Google Maps or Google Search. The owner of a business, through an easy to use account, can insert information about its business as phone number, opening hours or street address. These information will be displayed everytime a user search for that business or products and service it offers. Businesses can interact with users responding to reviews or posting photos to attract more costumers.
On September 2015, Google rised to defend its customers against a SEO companies which performed robocall to all businesses owners using Google My Business. They receive incessant and unsolicited phone calls by an unidentified phone number with a recorded voice speaking. The message tells that it is extremely urgent to speak to the business owner, who was tried to be reached numerous times, for non-existing problems with his Google Business Listing. Against false guarantees of first-page placement in Google search results, the owner is induced to enter into contracts with the company whose costs are hundreds of dollars in recurring monthly bills.
This is a pre-recorded message to sell or market services, commonly defined robocall or automated phone call. US law allows robocall in few cases. First, to alert for availability or unavailability of a product or a service for which we (and many other person) expressely are waiting for. Doctor can make robocall to shift a visit, pharmacy and airline company to advise that a medicine is arrived or a flight is cancelled. Second, US law allows sales message to advertise products we don’t expect, but only when a written permission does exist. If we have not given any written permission to get calls from the company, that automated call is definitely illegal.
Since the beginning of 2015, Google has received a large amount of complaints from users of Google My Business, especially small businesses owners and individuals, because of robocallers claiming to be affiliated with Google that were targeting them.
They have been bombarded at any hour by callers offering misleading promotions of Google’s services as improving Google Search and AdWords rankings or their My Business profile. While some consumer have filed lawsuit against the robocalling company, others have directed their complaints at Google and Google has taken in serious account these complaints, pointing out that its consumers would never have been robocalled nor Google would have given permission to third affiliates to do it, in order to avoid that small businesses owners and Google individual users could be worried about their My Business profile getting worse and prompted to accept misleading offerings.
Google is not the only company suffering complaints from users and costumers. In 2014, US Federal Trade Commission received about 215.000 complaints for robocalls, that grew up to 150.000 per month, leading to more than 100 lawsuits against more than 600 companies and individuals making automated calls illegally. Chronicles report that robocalling is an actual job, with thousands of individuals making calls and impersonating companies as police or the FTC itself.
Google has even set a vademecum for illegal robocalls targets, explaining some measures that can turn out to be useful to cease this annoying phenomena, as reporting callers to the impersonated company, or hanging up the phone without pressing any further key, or contacting the phone company to ask for blocking calls from specific numbers, or registering to national “do not call” registry.
Further problems occur when robocallers use untraceable phone numbers. This evenience makes very difficult to take action against callers, not to mention that untraceable phone numbers are often associated to fake companies or massive global networks of intermediaries.
Local Lighthouse is named the company which made robocalls to Google users. As Google reported, its sales agents made various false and misleading telemarketing calls, confusing consumers about the nature of the relationship between the company and Google as well as the nature of company’s services. Indeed, agents claimed to be in representation of Google or calling on its behalf, to be affiliated with Google or to be entered in agreement for providing SEO services or, managed to make consumers believe that their services were approved or at least endorsed by Google.
Google demanded to Local Lighthouse to bring its practices into compliance with Google’s policy
Google demanded to Local Lighthouse to immediately cease robocalling and bring its practices into compliance with Google’s Third Party Policy but the company denyied that it called Google My Business consumers to market its services or that it harassed them with unwanted automated phone calls guaranteeing top placement in search engines. Google informed Local Lighthouse that it had received further complaints regarding its sales agents which were introducing themselves as Google Local Listing representatives.
Causes of action under 15 USC
Google files for Federal Trademark Infringement under 15 USC § 1114; Unfair Competition and False Designation of Origin under 15 USC § 1125; and and False Advertising under 15 USC § 1125 demanding for Jury trial against Local Lighthouse.
Google claims extensive, unauthorized, and misleading use of the Google mark and other marks that include or incorporate the GOOGLE mark alleging that Local Lighthouse’s sales agents represent Google or are calling on behalf of Google; that they are affiliated with Google or has been contracted by Google to provide SEO services; that they are fostering the mistaken belief that their services are approved, sponsored, or endorsed by Google. For the aforementioned reasons, Google asks for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief under 15 U.S.C. § 1051 et seq.
Local Lighthouse denies any allegation of marketing its services against Google with automated and unwanted phone calls or by the fraudulent means of its sales agents.
Intellectual Property Action can be pursued under the Trademark Act
Google’s action is pursued under the Trademark Act of 1946 as amended, 15 USC §1051, c.d. Lanham Act, for being an Intellectual Property Action. In fact, Google, as a provider of search engine, advertising, web application, and social networking services, developes and promotes its goods and services under the Google trademark. To protect the exclusiveness of the mark and to notice to the public of its ownership, Google owns numerous trademark registrations for the Google mark and related variations.
Furthermore, Google offers online and mobile advertising services for others including Google AdWords, Google Maps and Google Plus. Companies of search engine marketing (SEM) which assist businesses in managing their online advertising accounts with search engines, are conferred as Partners and enter into Google Partners program and Google’s Third Party Policy should they meet established requirements.
As Google alleged, Local Lighthouse is a third-party marketing company that offers to businesses the management of accounts and search engine optimization (“SEO”) services, to improve the placement of customers’ webpages in organic search results. Promotion of their services comes through telemarketing calls, being them automatic or by sales agents, making extensive, unauthorized, and misleading use of the Google mark.
Guaranteeing firs-page placement in a search engine’s search results without authorization, affiliation, approval, certification, sponsorship or endorsement given by the search engine, constitutes false and misleading statements that harm consumers, because Local Lighthouse’s services do not actually result in first-page placement in Google search results. Google’s first and second causes of action are Federal Trademark Infringement under 15 USC § 1114 and Federal Unfair Competition and False Designation of Origin under 15 USC § 1125.
Both of them relate to the fact that Google owns the distinctive, strong, valid, and registered Google trademark as well as other registered marks including or incorporating it. Without Google’s consent or endorsement Local Lighthouse has marketed and sold in commerce services under the Google’s mark. Confusion of consumers, profit from the googdwill and irreparably damage as harm to Google’s business and reputation and the diminution of the goodwill of the Google mark, are circumstances jointly referred by Google to both provisions.
Third cause of action is False Advertising under 15 USC § 1125 for the sued company has made claims regarding its non-existent relationship with Google misrepresenting the nature, characteristics, and qualities of Google’s products and services. Where false and misleading claims are likely to induce consumers to purchase advertiser’s services, or likely to deceive a substantial segment of the buying public, or to influence the buying decisions of consumers, the advertiser can be responsible pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 1116.
Local Lighthouse accepted resolution
After reaching settlement with Google and arresting a Court trial before its natural ending, Local Lighthouse was forced to accept some measures to make Google sure that no more robocalls will tempest its consumers. On the Local Lighthouse website appeared a disclaimer that it is a provider of web visibility products and services that leverages search optimization and keyword management to drive higher search rankings, underlining that the company is fully independent and not associated with Google or with any other major search engine.
Other legal actions are taken against robocallers
Local Lighthouse is not the only marketing firm against whom Google has taken legal action due to a misleading and unauthorized usage of Google’s name and mark in connection with SEO scams, that use robocalls to induce small businesses to pay for unwanted SEO services under the threat that their listing on Google Search or Google Maps will be closed. Kydia Inc, Point Break media and Supreme Marketing Group are some of the targeted SEO companies sued by Google.