(Computer Repair Doctor in Orlando, Florida)
Jonathan Strange owns a cell phone repair shop in Montgomery, Alabama, and with the nearest Apple Store about 100 miles away, his establishment has become a convenient place for locals to get a broken iPhone fixed.
But lately, his store has been getting a little harder to find online for a reason beyond his control: Google is no longer accepting his ads.
“Even though there’s no Apple Store near the customers, we have definitely seen a decrease in traffic to the store,” he said.
Strange isn’t alone. For months now, Google has been cracking down on ads from third-party repair services. The goal is to stop tech support scams from preying on unsuspecting users through Google ads. However, the ad ban is hurting many legitimate repair services, including Strange’s XiRepair shop. “Probably 70 or 80 percent of our customers come from Google. That’s not just us, but all across the repair industry. That’s how much power [Google has] over us,” he said.
Indeed, if you need a cell phone or computer repair, you probably Google it. In a matter of seconds, the company’s search engine or Google Maps can tell you the closest repair services and how they’ve been rated.
These repair services still show up in search results. But originally, businesses could also buy and serve ads on the search results, granting them better online visibility. Matt Ham is among the repair business owners who routinely bought them. “There’s no substitute for Google. The consumer behavior is the same: They break their phone, they Google for iPhone repair near me,” he said.
Ham would know; he owns seven Computer Repair Doctor shops across the US, and also runs a marketing company for 300 different electronic repair shops. “Us alone, we were spending about over $ 200,000 a month with our (marketing) clients,” he told PCMag. With that money, Ham could buy keywords for when people searched for “iPhone repair,” “computer repair,” and “laptop repair.” An ad for the repair business would then appear in the results.
(XiRepair in Montgomery, Alabama)
But Google’s crackdown resulted in the company canceling Ham’s ad campaigns and damaging his business, he said.
“We’ve seen a significant decrease, from 10 to a 35 percent drop in revenue, because of this ban,” Ham said. His marketing clients, on the other hand, have seen revenue decline from 5 percent to 70 percent since the ban went into effect, with the hit more pronounced among newer repair businesses.
Cory Meisenheimer runs 10 brick-and-mortar stores in Idaho and Washington state, including Idaho iRepair. He also bought ads on Google, but saw search traffic plummet as the ad ban went into effect. “We didn’t think this was ever going to happen,” he said. “We are struggling to figure out how to reach consumers now.”
The ban is also affecting repair business owners outside the US. “In the first few months of the ban, we saw retail bookings fall by as much as 40 percent as a direct result of Google’s actions,” said Sam Walker, who runs a repair business in Australia called Fix2U, which can send a technician to your home to fix the device.
Of course, repair businesses have other outlets where they can advertise and promote themselves, including Yahoo, Bing, Facebook, Instagram, and Yelp. But none are as popular as Google when it comes to looking up repair services, the business owners told PCMag.
“There’s a segment of the population that use one company for 90 percent of everything they do and that’s Google,” said Timothy Hoppe, who runs Cellular Mekanix in Eugene, Oregon.
However, Google’s ad ban may have one clear beneficiary: big businesses. Although third-party repair services can no longer place ads with the search engine, major companies such as Best Buy, Verizon, and the makers of the electronics are allowed.
“We’ve seen that the bigger boxed stores can still run their ads, which is not fair at all,” Ham said. “So instead of local businesses, users who Google repair services will find Best Buy.”
Google searches for iPhone 7 repairs show ads for Verizon and Best Buy.
The change is subtle, but it can have major ramifications for a consumer. In Montgomery, Alabama, Strange’s repair shop, for instance, can install a new iPhone battery for $ 50. He can also do other smartphone repairs at similar costs, all on the same day. However, repair services from the big brands tend to be pricier, offer a narrow range of services, and can sometimes require you to hand over your device, and ship it to another location across the country, he said.
The effect can compel a consumer to spend more, and even buy an entirely new phone, when they could’ve fixed their old one at a fraction of the cost. “A lot of people go to the carrier store, and they are told if their phone doesn’t turn on they should get another,” Strange said. “They don’t realize the iPhone 6 didn’t turn on because the battery is drained, which is a $ 50 repair compared to getting an iPhone X, which costs $ 1,000.”
The issue reflects ongoing tensions between repair businesses and the official tech vendors, who’ve been accused of blocking consumers from sourcing lower-cost repairs from third parties. Although Google’s ad ban is focused on stopping tech support scams—a real problem—Google’s solution hurts small businesses, says iFixit, a website devoted to helping consumers fix their devices.
“Google is severely handicapping repair businesses, prioritizing purchases over repair and reuse, and deciding which companies customers can turn to when they need to fix electronics,” iFixit wrote to the US Federal Trade Commission about the Google ad ban last month.
Google did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In August 2018, it pledged to “roll out a verification program to ensure that only legitimate providers of third-party tech support can use our platform to reach consumers.” That was supposed to happen “in the coming months,” but a year later, repair owners say they’ve heard nothing from Google about getting verified.
“It’s hard for us to believe that there isn’t some way to delineate between online ‘Speed up your PC’ scam advertisements from long-established businesses that provide a service to people who bring their devices to them,” said Kevin Purdy, the iFixit staffer who wrote the open letter to the FTC. “There has to be some way to split that hair.”
Still, not every ad has been banned; iFixit did an informal poll of 281 third-party repair services, and found only 65 percent had their Google ads taken down. What’s causing the uneven enforcement isn’t clear, but it’s possible Google’s algorithms are failing to catch some of the ads. “As the fraudulent activity takes place off our platform, it’s increasingly difficult to separate the bad actors from the legitimate providers,” Google acknowledged last year.
In the meantime, some repair business owners feel the tech giant has de-legitimized their trade. “The rest of us are looked down upon for some reason,” Meisenheimer said. “It really should be up to the customer to decide who they want to do business with.”