Is Google Really Trying to Scam Kenyan Business Owners? (Updated with Google’s Reaction)


Google was already having one of its toughest weeks in the company's recent history, but it looks like things just got worse: Mocality, a Kenyan startup that offers business listings on its site, now accuses the search giant of scraping its data and using it to cold-call the businesses in its directory to offer them free websites and paid domain names through the Google-backed Getting Kenyan Businesses Online initiative. In the process of poaching Mocality's customers, these Google employees allegedly also told these business owners numerous lies about Mocality. Mocality, after hearing about this, set up a sting operation and caught a number of callers who indeed said they worked for Google (here is an example).

Update: Google has posted a reaction to this on Google+ now. Google's Nelson Mattos: "We were mortified to learn that a team of people working on a Google project improperly used Mocality’s data and misrepresented our relationship with Mocality to encourage customers to create new websites. We’ve already unreservedly apologised to Mocality. We’re still investigating exactly how this happened, and as soon as we have all the facts, we’ll be taking the appropriate action with the people involved." 

Mocality's Accusations

Mocality's evidence for all of this? Besides the calls, the company caught two waves of scraping activity on its site – one with IP addresses based in Kenya and one with IP addresses linked to Google ( It then served a special phone number to visitors from these suspect IP addresses and it never took more than a few hours before the company would intercept calls from Indian call-center employees who identified themselves as calling on behalf of Google.

You can find all the details in Mocality's blog post about their allegations.

Something Ain't Right

Does any of this really make sense, though? Google is investigating the allegations and promises to have a statement soon, but something just doesn't feel right here. The only evidence that really ties any of this back to Google is the IP address that is linked to Google in Mountain View.

The Evidence

IP addresses can be spoofed and over on Hacker News, some folks are arguing that the Google IP address could either stem from the scammers using Google Translate or Google's App Engine or the Google OpenSocial proxy.

Google, given its brand recognition, is probably invoked by more online scammers than anybody else.

On the other hand, though, that all seems like a lot of work for what seems to be – assuming that Google wasn't involved – a pretty standard scam operation. I doubt most scammers would go through the trouble involved here. Also, the fact that a call center in India was involved here either means this was a very elaborate scam, or more evidence for Google's involvement in this. 

Just a Scam Without Google's (Direct) Involvement?

Google, however, generally isn't in the business of selling business listings and domain names – though its affiliates sometimes are. This also seems like a rather labor-intensive operation for very little profit (at least on the scale Google operates on).

What could Google's role in all of this be then? My best guess: somebody went rogue at Getting Kenyan Businesses Online or maybe in a Google-affiliated call center. Google's partners aren't "Google" and while the company will have to take responsibility for this, chances are that whereever this scam originated from was not under direct control of the company.

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9:13 am

How Selling My Startup Led Me to Take a Vow of Middle Class Poverty


This guest post was written by Michael de la Maza. Michael was a member of the founding team of Inquira (acquired by Oracle) and a VP of Corporate Strategy at Softricity (acquired by Microsoft). He holds a PhD in Computer Science from MIT and is the author of Rapid Chess Improvement and co-author of Professional Scrum with Team Foundation Server 2010.  

I.  Down

I started by starting startups – half a dozen of them over the course of almost a decade.

I was close to getting the brass ring on at least three occasions. I once had a legally binding letter of intent to sell a startup when 9/11 happened. On that day, the founder and I were crossing Harvard Bridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts on our way to the airport to take a plane to Washington D.C. to talk to a Fortune 500 CEO. The conversation never happened and the company was shut down.

There were many other misses. A sweet deal to sell trading signals to a hedge fund that went on year after year until the hedge fund decided to invest a big chunk of its assets in a manager who blew up, taking the hedge fund down with it. A six month stint as a consultant at a company that was acquired, me not trying to stick with it because I was not smart enough to figure out that the company had a brilliant CEO, CTO, and EVP of Marketing.

I had so much bad luck that I had to call an extreme version of Radoff’s rule on myself: If someone is consistently unlucky, consider the possibility that they have a character flaw or are incompetent.

The low was very low. Getting fired from one job, laid off from another. Standing in the unemployment line. My doctor telling me that I might be depressed and should see a therapist. A Wikipedia entry which focuses on chess, not on startups, and is about to be removed because I do not meet Wikipedia’ notability guidelines.

After the dotcom crash, I nursed my psyche and hibernated as a civil servant, a research scientist, and a contractor in the defense industry and then, in 2009, I became an agile lean consultant, moving from company to company every 3-6 months.

Then, in July 2011, I received a call from the CEO of Inquira, a company that I helped start, telling me that it had been acquired by Oracle.

II. Up

I experienced something akin to an extended runner’s high. My body felt soft and cloudy. I suspect that oceans of endorphins were swimming through me.

Here were my stream-of-consciousness thoughts in the few hours after I learned of the exit:

Self worth = net worth. If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?  Intense sense of shame and embarrassment that money matters so much. Realizing that 80%+ of my waking hours are spent making money or thinking about making money. Even more humiliation, shame, and blame when I realize that now that I do not need to make more money, I do not know what to do with myself. Surprised that without the need to make money, I may be nothing.

Fear. Fear that I do not know what to do with the money. How to spend it, keep it, save it, invest it. Recalling reading Felix Dennis’ How to Get Rich, where the author, the creator of Maxim, says that whenever a man makes serious money for the first time he can’t help but blow a chunk of it on women.

Women. Endless rivers of women, all attracted to the Benjamins. Teeming, voluptuous women, dreaming of my tumescence. Finally understanding how Patti Stanger and Karma work. 

Wishing that it had happened sooner. Wondering what I would be and how I would be different if the exit had occurred ten years earlier. Wishing that the NASDAQ crash of 2000 and 9/11 hadn’t combined to shred and delay half a generation of startups.  Imagining all of the pain that I would’ve avoided.

Anger. Directed at the doubters. Being able to say, “See I was right” and then immediately wondering why I need to be right.

Victory. Winning. Crushing. Finally. What a relief.

Hope because of new freedom. How can I get rid of old habits now that I am no longer dominated by money?

Shortly after I had these thoughts, I began to create a list of things I planned to purchase.  My presents to myself: the Exclusive Resorts membership, the Marquis jet card, the Fisker Karma, the Patek Philippe, the case of Araujo.

But as I contemplated every purchase I realized that each one would pull me further and further away from the common experience of my fellow human beings. I would be operating in the world of Paris Hilton (“What’s Walmart, do they sell like wall stuff?”) instead of the world of grime, dirt, and soot inhabited by the vast majority of humanity.

Wanting to be connected to others, to be supported and to be supportive, to care and to be cared for, I decided that, in order to step into my fullest myself, I would take a vow of middle class poverty in 2012.

III. Out

What is my vow? I vow, in 2012, to limit my expenses to what the median family of four makes in the greater Boston metropolitan area.

Why do this? Because staying connected to the daily experience of the vast majority of my fellow human beings matters to me.

How much does a family of four make? About $75K. I guesstimate that $25K will go to taxes and, in my case, another $25K pays for housing.  That leaves $25K for everything else: food, healthcare, transportation, etc. I suspect that I will have to cut out all discretionary spending, even purchases which until now I considered to be minor luxuries: the monthly subscription to Massage Envy, my Planet Fitness gym membership, Assouline books, groceries from Whole Foods. Saving will be all but impossible and any financial emergency will cause me to blow my budget.

I suspect that taking this vow of middle class poverty will harm me in many ways.  My health will suffer.  My mind will deteriorate.  My ability to solve daily problems will decline drastically since the judicious application of money is a great weapon when solving quotidian problems.  (What is the best shaving cream? Search all websites selling shaving cream, buy a dozen of them, try them all, and settle on Caswell-Massey 1752.)

But I expect the benefits to greatly outweigh the harm. Reducing condescension and clearing the belief that “self worth = net worth” may be two of the greatest benefits after the ability to better connect with other humans.

Is my vow of middle class poverty completely pure?  No, it is not.  For one, I will be enjoying the lifestyle of a family of four, instead of a family of one, and, since I am a single guy, I am not quite capturing the experience of the median.  And, in the final days of 2011, I am stocking up on luxuries, or at least what luxuries used to be for me before the exit: a lifetime subscription to Lumosity, a Hero account at Fitocracy (where I am an angel investor), the Learning Breakthrough kit, a six month premium subscription to Zirtual.

But the greatest distance will be emotional: I know that I am rich. I know that my vow of middle class poverty will last one year. Those who are actually in the middle class, those who have to struggle year in and year out to save a few hundred dollars so they can take a short vacation to a nearby city, do not have the luxury of seeing that the end is in sight.

I expect that 2012 will be transformative. I hope to increase my ability to empathize, to care for others, and to be in a state of lovingkindness.

Happy Christmas.

4:45 pm

Google Business Photos: New Indoor Street View Images Go Live


After a long period of rumors and denials, Google officially announced its Google Business Photos program (a.k.a. indoor Street View) earlier this year. While Google put the first set of businesses online soon after the announcement, we didn’t hear much about this project since. Now, however, it looks as if more and more of these indoor, Street View-like images are going online. You can find some examples here and here.

When Google first announced this program, the company stressed that it was mostly interested in working with independent local merchants. Merchants also had to apply to be included in this program. True to form, the new indoor Street View images come from small, independent stores, including the comic book store you can see below.

Google Maps indoor comics

Interestingly, it doesn’t look as if these images are linked to the larger Street View and the surrounding streets, though. Instead, the only way to get to them right now, it seems, is by going through the business’ Place Page. It would be nice if Google made finding these images a bit easier.

As one business owner pointed out on Hacker News earlier today, the total visit from the Google team took about 20-30 minutes (though things didn’t go right the first time around and they had to come back).

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Microsoft’s Bing has been offering interior views of some businesses since last December.

Google Maps indoor

5:56 pm

Is Groupon Asking Merchants to Write Fake Yelp Reviews? (Updated)


In a post on his blog Venture Level today, entrepreneur Romil Patel describes his experiences with running Groupon and LivingSocial deals. Overall, his experience with Groupon was not exactly positive, but what struck me while reading his account was that the Groupon representative he worked with asked him to create positive Yelp reviews for his own business.

Here is the relevant part from the post:

Later on, after the terms were accepted by me, my rep emails me and asks me to create Yelp reviews for my QSR [quick service restaurant], by having either my employees write how good my QSR is or having my “best” customers write them. I’m not too sure, but I’m confident this has to be against Yelp’s terms of service since this would be considered creating fake and biased reviews. Needless to say- I thought this was an ethics issue, and I didn’t do it.

Indeed, self-reviews are obviously against Yelp’s terms of service and rather unethical. It is striking that a Groupon representative would ask merchants to do this in the first place. Groupon often features excerpts from positive Yelp reviews when it advertises deals and this behavior immediately renders all of these reviews suspect.

It is hard to say if this is something other Groupon representatives do as well, or if this representative just went rogue. As Patel himself notes, maybe the Groupon representative he dealt with was just not up to par (he had numerous other issues with him as well).

I have asked Groupon for a statement and will update this post once I hear back.

Update (4/22 12:40pm PT): A Groupon spokesperson responded with the following statement:

We never ask merchants to falsify online reviews with those from their best customers or employees. We do use sites like Yelp and Citysearch to provide credible third-party reviews of the merchants we feature; if a merchant doesn’t have any, it’s difficult for us to run them because our customers expect that third-party approval. We will note this to the merchant and encourage them to ask *all* customers to post Yelp reviews, positive or negative. We’re much more likely to run a deal when we know our subscribers can make an educated purchase.

9:32 pm