Rogue restaurant websites connected to the OrderAhead delivery service are claiming the official Google Business listings of restaurants around the country — diverting web traffic from actual restaurant websites in violation of the search giant’s terms of service.
That’s the latest finding from GeekWire’s ongoing investigation into OrderAhead, a product of the Y Combinator startup accelerator with a roster of high-profile Silicon Valley investors, including Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt.
Last week, we reported about the widespread registration of rogue OrderAhead websites using restaurant names without the restaurant’s knowledge or consent. These sites often rank the actual restaurant websites in search results. When someone orders food through one of the sites, OrderAhead workers order and deliver food at a markup without telling the restaurant they’re with a delivery service.
Now, further research shows that someone is also claiming and somehow verifying Google Business listings for these rogue OrderAhead sites — allowing the sites to appear prominently in search results and Google Maps, perpetuating the impression that the unofficial sites are official restaurant sites.
While many restaurants have verified their Google Business listings on their own, preventing their identities from being hijacked, we were able to identify countless examples of listings being claimed and associated with OrderAhead sites.
Take, for example, Cafe Turko, a restaurant that serves delicious Turkish food just down the road from the GeekWire office in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Its official site is being outranked in Google search results by a rogue website hosted by OrderAhead, because the restaurant’s Google Business listing has been claimed by someone who associated the listing with the unofficial site.
Cafe Turko’s location is also claimed and associated with the OrderAhead site on Google Maps.
Google Business listings are managed through a special type of Google+ page, dedicated to the physical location of the business. When a business verifies their listing, a “verified local business” icon will appear on the Google+ page, giving the verified business owner control of the listing. In cases like Cafe Turko and hundreds of others that we discovered, the Google Business listings that point to OrderAhead are listed as verified.
At Cafe Turko today, after ordering lunch of chicken and lamb Ali Nazik, we showed restaurant owner Sureyya Gokeri what happens when someone searches for her restaurant on Google, with the unauthorized OrderAhead site outranking her official restaurant site in the search results.
“Why are they showing up above my site?” she asked, before pointing out, with pride, the 4.5-star average rating for the restaurant.
Google has safeguards in place to verify listings, including contacting businesses over the phone or via letter.
However, in its support documentation, Google explains, “You may be instantly verified to manage your business if you’ve already verified your business’s website with Google Webmaster Tools.” Because the OrderAhead sites are associated with the listings, whoever controls those unofficial sites could use the Webmaster Tools method to claim the listings.
As part of its investigation, GeekWire last week used several of the unauthorized restaurant sites to order food from restaurants in San Francisco and Seattle. The orders were placed, picked up and delivered by OrderAhead workers as if they were regular customers, without telling the restaurants they were delivering the food for OrderAhead customers and charging a markup.
Verification of a Google Business listing involves some clear Terms of Service that do not allow unauthorized parties to claim the page. In the first step of the process, you are asked to verify, “I am authorized to manage this business and I agree to the Terms of Service“.
The Terms of Service clearly require that the person verifying the business is an owner or authorized agent of the company: “In addition, you confirm that you are the owner of the entity listed on the page or an authorized agent who is able to bind others on behalf of the entity”
Further, Google’s User Content and Conduct Policy strictly prohibits impersonation or deceptive behavior, stating “Do not use our products to impersonate.” Given the wide array of identities and hosting providers being used by these OrderAhead rogue websites, it is unclear if Google’s webspam team will be able to actively police this activity.
We contacted Google about our latest findings several days ago, but the search company has not yet provided a specific statement on the issue of the OrderAhead sites. In general, however, business owners that want to correct the situation can use the Report a Problem feature in Google Maps and Google My Business to manage their business listings.
OrderAhead, the Y Combinator grad, has a variety of high-profile backers, including Matrix Partners, Ignition Partners, Menlo Ventures, CrunchFund, Marc Benioff, Jerry Yang and Eric Schmidt (via Innovation Endeavors).
We have repeatedly contacted OrderAhead for comment and clarification on this ongoing story, but have not heard back from the company. When we visited the company’s San Francisco headquarters last week, an employee who didn’t identify herself said they “can’t just have people coming around here” asking questions. Y Combinator also hasn’t responded to our request for comment.