While the FTC prepares to hold a workshop investigating the ways manufacturers restrict third-party repair, we have concerns about a different restriction: the way Google, the world’s dominant advertising giant and search engine, has entirely shut off online advertisements for third-party repair services on its platforms. This issue deserves scrutiny. Repair shops who cannot find customers cannot help them, regardless of their access to manuals or parts.
You can find nearly anything on Google, but you can’t find ads for repair experts who can fix electronics. Search “MacBook repair,” “cellphone repair,” or “broken cellphone screen,” and there are no advertisements, just a Google Map of whatever business might be nearby, and then the usual search results. If you’re a shop that wants to target customers in your region, or one that takes mail-in repairs, you are out of luck.
This is not an accident. Google, in an October 2018 update to its “Other restricted business policy,” banned “Technical support by third-party providers for consumer technology products and online services.”
Google’s intent, at a glance, is to bar the worst kind of computer-invading spam. From their list of “non-exhaustive” list of examples, you can infer that the targets are bait-and-switch or fraudulent offers to speed up your computer or phone, remove viruses that aren’t there, or deal with lost passwords or account issues:
Technical support for troubleshooting, security, virus removal, internet connectivity, online accounts (for example, password resets or login support), or software installation
On the surface, this is a reasonable reaction to persistent fraud. It’s very easy to take advantage of someone searching online for virus removal, and we’ve had to combat this kind of spam ourselves on iFixit.
In a blog post detailing their policy change in late August 2018, Google stated that “in the coming months, we will roll out a verification program to ensure that only legitimate providers of third-party tech support can use our platform to reach consumers.” Shortly after they removed tech support ads, Google started removing ads for local repair businesses as well. And, nearly a year later, no such verification program exists—leaving independent repair businesses caught up in a broad ban given far too little thought.
Search Engine Journal documented some of the fallout in a post last month. Repair shops, even those authorized by Apple and other manufacturers, have lost a tool they once put hundreds or thousands of dollars into. Repair shops ask each other for advice in forums and discussion boards, but there is no solution. They can only hope that Google decides, eventually, to distinguish between someone in a non-extradition country who tricks people into installing spyware through fake Windows pop-ups, and someone who has been repairing electronics professionally for years.
We asked Google for input on their policy, the status of their verification program, and the impact on third-party repair shops, but have not yet heard back.
At iFixit, we do not fix people’s phones or help them with software. We provide detailed guides for common device repairs, and sell the tools and parts needed, so people can fix their own things. Yet Google’s policy is so broad, and their application of it so indiscriminate, that even we have had Google ads banned for self-evident phrases like “screen fix kit” and “screens available.”
The back-and-forth chain between iFixit and Google Ads is long. To summarize, Google banned these ads, re-enabled them after a review, banned them again, and eventually claimed it would do a deeper review and possibly flag our account to prevent problems. Google’s final ruling was that, while iFixit does not offer services, our website had a section where people could find and contact certified technicians to assist them. “Thus, it falls under this policy,” Google wrote.
We have since had to remove that referral section to gain access to Google Ads. This feature would suggest a local technician in case someone didn’t want to perform a repair themselves, while they were looking at the do-it-yourself instructions. This feature was free for both consumers and repair shops. Removing is a loss for everyone, and we’d like to restore it.
How broad is this ban? An iFixit staffer, on the phone with a Google Ads customer service representative, asked them if, by selling shoelaces, we would be offering “technical support for shoe repair.” The representative told us that shoe laces would be fine, because they are not consumer electronics.
By treating all third-party repair as a fraud-prone liability, and directing all interest in device repair to their own Maps and search results, Google is severely handicapping repair businesses, prioritizing purchases over repair and reuse, and deciding which companies customers can turn to when they need to fix electronics. As we stated in our submission to the Nixing the Fix hearing, independent repair businesses are struggling to survive, while owners of digital goods cannot keep them operational as long as they need.
Third-party repair creates jobs, helps the environment, and gives consumers choice and competitive pricing. If the world’s dominant search engine and advertising platform refuses to serve this market, it will have dire consequences for the future of our economy.