Follow-Up on Merchant Circle’s Misbehavior

Last week, I got 22 comments within a two-day timeframe on a several-month-old post regarding Merchant Circle. I took all the comments off the blog after noting irregularities among them. Basically, I saw a deliberate attempt by one or more people to create a pseudo grassroots movement against Merchant Circle by writing lots of phony letters. I don't like that.

But guess what? When it comes to Merchant Circle, it turns out there are lots of angry people. People I have known and trusted for many years wrote or called to let me know I had been overly sympathetic to the company.

Here is a note from a high-level exec in California …

"I just saw your post on Merchant Circle. … When I checked out the service (I signed up XXXX as a merchant) it basically spammed a bunch of nearby businesses that they had email addresses for in my name without me even knowing it."

Here is another note from a colleague in Michigan I have worked with for many years.

"Thanks for writing this. I got one of those calls ('You have received negative comments at Merchant Circle'). I panicked and raced to the site to find it was a marketing scam. I was so mad I'll never do anything with them for any reason."

In fact, Merchant Circle's marketing efforts were far more extensive and misleading than I was led to believe. But there is something else. I now believe that I overreacted by roping all the commenters in together. There were at least three real commenters buried amid the other comments, and probably more. I apologize to them, and thank them for taking the time to warn the community of Merchant Circle's misbehavior.

Cathy Hillen-Rulloda, who runs the Avante Gardens – florals unique blog, is one of them. I previously used a portion of her comments in my post because they were the most articulate.

Ms. Hillen-Rulloda has taken my mistake in stride. She thinks this should serve as a warning to small businesses that want to be taken seriously to start using their own domain names. "I'm not surprised that IPs and emails of small business owners didn't jive. Heck, I see local florists using Hotmail, AOL and Yahoo email addresses on their sites — hardly professional or confidence inspiring to a consumer," she wrote in an e-mail.

"Many small local businesses have a long way to go," she continued. "It’s too bad Merchant Circle couldn’t figure out a way to demonstrate how they’d help — instead of using the fright tactics."

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Perry

    Peter, this also highlights a new problem which will undoubtedly grow in importance in the coming months and years – "comment spam". The success of reviews will foster not only a growing temptation for merchants to create fictious reviews (or solicit consumers via overt methods i.e. "buying votes"), but – I’d predict – a new frontier of "SEO services" where the next obvious package offer to merchants will be to ensure they are "well represented" in review sites.

    While I do believe consumers are increasingly able to sift through a list of reviews and ignore bogus and bias, at some point, it runs the real risk of being akin to reading an unprotected e-mail box. You end up losing faith in the tool.

    We’ll see how it all progresses. Clearly the march to social content and context is unmistakable, I just think it will be full of new challenges and forces that introduce real noise and adoption/confidence risk. This MC example is a case in point to a future of comment-based content that won’t be all that "neighborly".

    Perry

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