Silver-tongued entrepreneur Auren Hoffman was able to extinguish a growing wave of criticism directed at his people-search company Rapleaf with a single blog post. He promised to mend his ways and bring fixes to Rapleaf's privacy practices. We didn't have much faith in Rapleaf's reform — Hoffman's post was mostly rhetoric, little change. A week later, Hoffman has gone out of his way to prove our doubts by partnering with MerchantCircle. MerchantCircle, of course, is the local merchant directory we've criticized before. Of course, Rapleaf and MerchantCircle are in some ways a perfect match.
A directory on its face, MerchantCircle at its root, it is a cynical, poorly-conceived search-engine-optimization play using deceptive techniques to harvest business data. MerchantCircle is notorious for autodialing merchants to build its database. The recorded message tries to dupe merchants into entering their data with the lie that someone has left a bad review. It's a classic bait-and-switch not unlike Rapleaf's "someone has searched for you" emails. Hoffman's new buddies have used this technique for at least a year despite numerous complaints.
MerchantCircle's response, like Hoffman's has been to pay lip service to its critics. Entrepreneur John Battelle contacted CEO Ben Smith a year ago. Smith promised to address the deceptive practice but — surprise, surprise — MerchantCircle continues the spam-calling to this day.
How will Hoffman spin this one? His words promise one thing. His actions, quite another. As in the real world, one's reputation is best judged not by what one says, but by the company one keeps.