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How to avoid the tech support search engine trap

Recently, a friend of mine was having troubles with his Epson scanner. He Googled Epson tech support and wound up talking to a technician who logged into his Mac and claimed to find viruses that were affecting the scanner's performance. He offered to fix the problems on the spot for US$200. My friend didn't call me in time, becoming a victim of search engine ranking that can give top search billing to firms that are often not what they appear to be -- in this case, Epson's tech support team -- and more often, simply con men.

Ultimately, my friend's problem was misconfigured software. He shouldn't have let someone log into his Mac, but he thought -- mistakenly -- that he was talking to Epson.

It's a common problem. Even doing a Google search on iPhone tech support gave me three non-Apple firms as results. Yes, most of us look at the web address of the link, but many people don't, and that makes this kind of scam profitable. And sure, there are third-party technicians who show up in the results and are often members of the Apple Consultants Network who could provide top-notch support. But many people have no idea who is genuine or bogus until it's too late.

It's not just Google. I ran the same search on Bing and got similar results. While Google at least highlights the third parties as ads, Bing's page layout doesn't exactly make it easy to see what are ads and what are real search results. In fact, Epson's support page was the fifth item on the list of Bing results.

I had a similar experience while trying to book hotel reservations. I wanted a room with a national chain, and the top search result looked legitimate. It wasn't, and all kinds of fees were added to what should have been an inexpensive set of rooms. I cancelled, booked with the chain directly, and saved $175.00.

Many of our readers know this, but others do not. Search engines are in business to make money, and search results can be skewed by companies paying search providers for featured listings. If you need tech support for your devices, be sure to contact the manufacturer directly. And if you need local hands-on help, look for providers who are certified by a manufacturer.

You'll often see the same misleading search results when looking for manuals and instructions. There are third parties that lead the search engines links, but then they want your email address for who knows what purpose, or you may be asked to pay for something you can download directly for free. Almost every manufacturer makes up-to-date manuals and instruction sheets available at no cost, so don't fall for scams that charge a fee for what could be outdated information.

Both Google and Bing will show you the web addresses on your search. If a given result doesn't appear to be pointed to an actual manufacturer's web site, look for the proper link to save yourself frustration and potentially some money. If you have had similar experiences, be sure to share them with our readers.

For more information about how web search works, there is a solid academic paper at the Stanford University website. And yes, I found it using Google.

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