With her daughter's birthday party coming up, Kristin Jaakola wanted the carpet in her Ham Lake home to get professionally cleaned. In March, her husband Googled Zerorez, a company that they had used before, to find its phone number.
The Jaakolas called and made an appointment with what they thought was Zerorez. Then they realized, too late, that they had actually hired a different company, Distinctive Cleaning, that had found a way to steer Google searches for Zerorez to itself.
"We definitely learned our lesson to really look at what you are Googling," Jaakola said. "My husband was so convinced that was who he called."
Zerorez, which calls itself Minnesota's biggest carpet cleaner, said what happened to the Jaakolas goes beyond spirited competition. Last week Zerorez filed a federal lawsuit against Distinctive Cleaning for trademark infringement and false advertisement.
In the lawsuit, Zerorez claims Distinctive Cleaning bought up Google search terms to trick customers looking for Zerorez and told customers that they used the "exactly the same" cleaning process as Zerorez. Other companies have done the same thing, according to a Zerorez representative.
"There are people that believe we have been to their homes and cleaned, but we weren't. We have been committed to doing everything we can to make sure consumers have accurate information," said Michael Kaplan, an owner of the Zerorez franchise in Minnesota. "This has been an ongoing issue since 2011."
Jennifer Carr, the owner of Bloomington-based Distinctive Cleaning, did not return e-mails or phone calls from Whistleblower. According to the lawsuit, Distinctive Cleaning's attorneys have previously claimed that "Distinctive Cleaning was not using Zerorez's trademarks 'in a trademark sense.' "
As competition in the market rises, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota said it is seeing these practices more often. It's been so pervasive that the bureau urged its accredited businesses to claim business profiles on websites such as Google, Yelp and Manta.
"If Distinctive Cleaning has been working behind the scenes to steer potential Zerorez customers their way, possibly misleading them in the process, that would fall short of accepted ethical standards," said Dan Hendrickson, a spokesman for the BBB. "Competition is healthy, but this kind of tactic, if true, definitely seems to go beyond that."
Competitors purchasing search terms has been a hotly contested issue as businesses fight for high rankings in Web searches. In 2004, Geico Corp. sued Google, saying the company should not be allowed to sell ads to rival insurance companies that appear when someone searches for Geico. A federal judge ruled that Google's advertisement policy did not violate federal trademark laws.
Zerorez has spent millions in radio advertisements in Minnesota to pitch its cleaners that leave carpets free of "dirt-attracting" residue. In April 2012, Zerorez said they discovered Google AdWord terms such as "Zero Rez Carpet Cleaning," but the hyperlinks pointed to the Distinctive Cleaning website, the lawsuit says.
If a company purchases Google AdWord terms or phrases, Google users who search for the purchased terms will see a link to that company's website.
Zerorez sent Distinctive Cleaning a cease-and-desist letter in April 2012 and again in January 2013.
Two months later, the Jaakolas went online to look for Zerorez. They called the first number that popped up and scheduled an appointment. They lost track of that number, so they Googled the number again, two days before the cleaners were supposed to come, to confirm their appointment. This time they got the real number for Zerorez, who told Jaakola they did not have her in their system.
It was too late to change cleaners before the party, Jaakola said. After Distinctive Cleaning did the job, she said, her carpets did not "look any better than they did before."
After seeing her daughter's spotless carpet, Bev Menk of New Brighton decided to call Zerorez to clean the Coca-Cola, coffee and marker stains off her carpet. From the moment the sales representative walked into her home, Menk said he was unprofessional and even left without doing the job.
She watched him get in a van with Zerorez painted on the side in small print under a different company's name.
When Menk called Zerorez to complain, they told her she had never hired them. Zerorez eventually came in and did the job.
"I can't say that the company that I called wouldn't have done a good job," Menk said. "Had he come in and done it, I never would have realized it was a misrepresentation."