Thank Google for making it harder to find a phone-repair service

Thank Google for making it harder to find a phone-repair service

Imagine you dropped your smartphone and its display shattered — something that happens around 50 million times in the US each year. Unless you’re pretty handy, your first port of call is likely to be Google to look for a nearby repair store, but there’s a problem. The search engine has blocked paid-for ads below relevant search terms, making it harder to find help.


For businesses, the first space below the search bar is some of the world’s most desirable real estate. Search for “Nissan repair,” and the first entry is a link to Nissan’s official site, paid for by Nissan itself. Do the same for “iPhone repair,” “cracked phone display” or “broken Pixel” and no such ad appears, you just get the maps layout and organic search results.

The reason why is either the first blow in a proxy war over the right to repair, or the unintended result of a heavy-handed attempt to tackle fraud. A year after the change was implemented, however, the repair-store community is demanding answers — something Google promised but has yet to deliver on.

The majority of people using Google will click the first link shown to them, and that spot is available to rent, for a price. Unfortunately, this combination of trust and commerce means that top spot on Google is an easy target for fraudsters. Tech support scams will direct unwitting users to official-looking websites that dupe people into downloading malware.

On August 31st, 2018, The Wall Street Journal published an exposé into these scams and how they operate. On the same day, Google’s David Graff published a response outlining how the company would deal with the problem. The director of Global Product Policy said that Google had seen a “rise in misleading ad experiences, stemming from third-party technical support providers.”

As a consequence, Google began restricting ads in the relevant categories, namely for tech support. The search giant updated its policies to reflect this, blocking ads related to “third-party consumer technical support.” Below it, a non-exhaustive list of examples: “Technical support for troubleshooting, security, virus removal, internet connectivity, online accounts (for example, password resets or login support), or software installation.”

In the months that followed, however, hardware repair businesses found their ads blocked by Google. In May 2019, xiRepair owner Jonathan Strange wrote that, despite being approved to use Apple trademarks in its ads, Google refused the placement. Strange believes that Google may have started with just software keywords and is now targeting phrases like ‘phone repair.’

Detail image of male technician repairing smart phone at electronics store

But Google has never made it clear that it is now targeting ads for hardware repair. And its silence has angered business owners and those in the wider right-to-repair movement, who feel Google is undermining their efforts. Late last month, repair website iFixit published an open letter to the FTC, saying that Google’s decision to block ad placements “deserves scrutiny.” Later on, the company added that businesses that take “mail-in repairs” are “out of luck.”

In a statement to Engadget, the FTC said it could not speak about allegations made against specific companies. It doesn’t appear that Google would be liable for regulatory scrutiny in the near future, however. “It’s very unlikely that Google is using its Android power to gain a monopoly in hardware,” says antitrust lawyer Joel Mitnick; “it would be a difficult case to pursue.” Essentially, because Google’s own Pixel hardware business is so small, it isn’t subject to monopoly rules.

“It’s easy to mistake willful ignorance for malice,” said iFixit Repair Advocate Kevin Purdy in an interview with Engadget, “and in this case, frustratingly, it’s that Google is just deaf to the complaints of repair shops.” He feels the issue is one where Google clumsily implemented a ban before thinking it through. Purdy also feels that Google stands to lose, since it will encourage repair companies to game the algorithm, something Google tells people not to do.

One issue is that Google isn’t explaining or administering its policies in a manner that outsiders can understand. Google’s policy on the use of trademarked words explicitly says that “third parties may properly use trademarks in certain circumstances” — including (emphasis ours) “by resellers to describe products.” But Phone Ninja in Australia was rejected on the basis that it used “brand-name repair terms from our website,” according to owner Bradley Penniment.

“Unfortunately, repairs are 95 percent of our revenue,” added Penniment, saying that removing key search terms would be inadvisable. The owner believes that the ads crackdown is having a significant detriment on his business, with revenues falling by a fifth compared to last year. Unless phones have gotten significantly more sturdy, or the ad crackdown is hurting people. And this experience is not unique to Phone Ninja: Many others are complaining of falling revenues.

One potential consequence is users with damaged hardware can only use official repair channels. That may cause people to get inadequate support and force them to spend more for similar service. A CBC investigation from 2018 found that Apple Store support had a track record of overcharging for minor work, or in one example, saying that repair work would cost $1,200. A third-party store, however, found that the real issue was a loose wire and fixed it for just $75 — saving the customer money and keeping a laptop out of the trash.

The Repair Association, a group that represents more than 60 technology and civil-liberties bodies, including the EFF, polled store owners. In a survey, with people who self-reported as the owners of a repair store, a majority said that they had been rejected for offering “Third-party consumer technical support.” In rejection emails, shared with Engadget, Google does not offer an explanation, just that phrase and a link to the relevant section of its policy.

“There is no alternative to Google,” writes one respondent, noting that they are struggling to find other places to advertise. Others bemoan the slowdown in business that the crackdown has caused, while many others are still chasing a verification system promised by Google….Read more>>



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