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Tom Kean: Shark-infested waters of online search engines

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I had a great conversation with a new member of staff last week. This lady is (being careful how I say it) a woman of the world, perfectly sensible and in possession of sufficient intelligence to “look under the bonnet” of most issues life throws at her.

But we ventured into shark-infested waters when she told me of her attempts last year (before she joined us of course) at finding an adviser for a “friend” of hers. That in itself is no great anecdote but what came next reinforced my belief that all the money in the world will not alter the fact cowboys and charlatans are out there alive, kicking and thriving.

Our new employee had Googled some basic phrases to search out some pensions advice. Up popped a company that seemed to be serving as a broker for locating pensions advisers, suspiciously in the same style as Unbiased. Not only does it spell “advisor” incorrectly, it states very robustly its service is “free”. Great. We all flog ourselves near to death trying to “justify our expensive services” and this lot lower the bar, stating something quite simply a lie.

It reminds me of the untruths peddled by the Money Advice Service, which clearly does not give advice but claims to do so. And why have we not levied the same charge at The Pensions Advisory Service, which claims to be, and I quote: “The people who help with pensions – we offer free and impartial guidance to people with workplace and personal pensions”? Fair enough but it needs to change its name to put “guidance” in there and reinforce who pays its wages – because it is most certainly not free. As for the new Pension Wise initiative? That is, I am afraid to say, about as much use as a solar-powered foghorn.

All that aside, what raises my hackles is the fact these basic Google searches do not yield a better response from Unbiased. Who is looking after its search engine optimisation, I wonder? Probably someone from the MAS.

The internet is full of marketing abuse right at the top of page one. Scams are proliferating right under the noses of those meant to protect the public and yet the perceived reaction is woeful. I have always thought that if you simply spent the total regulatory budget on a sustained and high profile ad campaign to tell people they should only ever deal with authorised advisers (and how to check that is what happens) it would be infinitely more effective than the reactionary and esoteric regime we all work under.

It will never happen I know but I long for the day I hear that nothing has been emitted from Canary Wharf. Less truly is more when it comes to regulation: make it as easy as you possibly can and perhaps people will understand it, consumers and practitioners alike. Make something opaque and you open up all manner of ways to deviate from the straight and narrow, as we have seen so many times before. The simpler something is, the easier it is to spot the deviants and everyone can look to re-build the confidence we all want.

Tom Kean is director of Thameside Financial Planning 

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Comments

There are 2 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Scam sites raise my hackles too Tom. But I feel your anger is misplaced in accusing unbiased of doing nothing about it (I assume this is what you mean when you say someone from the MAS looks after our search engine optimisation?) particularly when you do not know the facts of either how the search engine market works, the regulation of that market or how unbiased responds to this activity.

    As a business we spend a large amount of time protecting the trademarked ‘unbiased.co.uk’ url from those eager to cash in on the brand awareness and from consumers unaware of the slick online operators keen to get their business by pretending to be something they are not. I can assure you that we often contact Google to complain of competitor activity that goes against the (admittedly few) rules Google employs to protect brands and consumers. Google is obviously interested in making money and therefore a vibrant competitor market around the key words you no doubt searched on. If you search brand or business names that consist of ‘dictionary words’ on Google you will see a big difference in the competitor advertising depending on the brands budge. Therefore Orange or Virgin will have no other advertisers in that space – they too are like unbiased in having a business name that is a ‘dictionary word’ but unlike smaller businesses have a legal team and a multi million pound advertising spend and therefore can achieve concessions in order to continue revenue flowing in the direction of search engines. You do not name the impersonator you came across but I can assure you they very much on our radar and we have taken professional advice on how we can quickly and effectively deal with the site in order to best protect the consumer who thinks they are using our service.

    The answer is for the FCA to look to protect the consumer in the digital environment and for the industry who understands the real difference between the words being bandied about to report those who live to profit from consumers detriment to have a clear and easy way to report this activity to the FCA or some other responsible body. It would also help if Google were taken to task for its laissez faire approach to the customer expectation – particularly in a sector that can have such an impact on the consumer – but I have absolutely no expectation on this front whatsoever.

  2. I understand Karen’s annoyance at being lumped in with the F-packs own failures, so putting aside any criticism of Unbiased, Tom makes a good point about the Govt’s favourite word “signposting”

    If the FS Register of advisers and firms was any good and they signposted the consumer to it by advertising, then scams would be reduced. The MAS register is NOT going to be a substitute, nor is unbiased, vouchedfor, BuywithConfidence or any other scheme as the thing that protects the consumer is the FOS and in particular the FSCS which only comes with REGULTAED advice. ALL regulated firms are on the register, whether they are looking or paying to attract new business or only looking for a specific type of business, unlike the other names mentioned which are all a segment of society and it’s needs.

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