Trending: ‘No time to waste’: Bill Gates outlines actions to combat coronavirus now as well as future crises
IMG_3242
A pizza delivered by OrderAhead from World Pizza. The startup, which doesn’t have an agreement with the restaurant, created a rogue World Pizza site that diverted web traffic to its ordering service.

OrderAhead has failed to respond to an inquiry from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, after a specialty pizza shop in Seattle’s International District filed a complaint over the food delivery service hijacking its online identity and diverting customers from the restaurant’s real website.

David and Wren Crosleycone of World Pizza in Seattle's International District filed a complaint against OrderAhead with the state Attorney General's office.
Aaron and Wren Crosleycone of World Pizza in Seattle’s International District filed a complaint against OrderAhead with the state Attorney General’s office.

The request was sent to OrderAhead by the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division on April 17 as part of an informal complaint resolution process, according to documents obtained by GeekWire through a public records request. OrderAhead did not respond within the Attorney General’s requested three-week timeframe.

This process is voluntary, and the Attorney General’s Office this week informed the restaurant, World Pizza, that it can’t compel the company to respond. In its letter to the restaurant’s owners, the Attorney General left open the possibility of launching a formal investigation or enforcement action “at any time if the facts and circumstances indicate that further action is warranted.”

But for now, World Pizza’s complaint against OrderAhead has been closed.

“Somebody should sue them,” said World Pizza owner Aaron Crosleycone. “Somebody should put them out of business. I think what they’re doing is wrong.”

It’s the latest twist in the ongoing saga involving the OrderAhead restaurant ordering and food delivery service. The San Francisco-based startup — a product of the prestigious Y Combinator startup accelerator with a roster of high-profile investors — is linked to thousands of restaurant websites with web addresses and designs that make them seem to be official restaurant sites. In every case we’ve found — in New York, California and Washington state — the sites were created without the knowledge of restaurant owners.

As documented by GeekWire in a series of reports over the past two weeks, the OrderAhead sites frequently appeared above the official restaurant websites in search results, siphoning web traffic away from actual restaurant sites. In many cases, Google Business listings were also registered and linked to the OrderAhead sites — also without the knowledge of the restaurant owners — violating Google’s terms of service.

OrderAhead and Y Combinator have yet to respond to repeated requests for comment. A GeekWire reporter who visited the company’s headquarters in San Francisco was told by an employee that they “can’t just have people coming around here” asking questions.

Founded in 2011, the company has landed a total of $10.5 million in funding from backers including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Ignition Partners.

Small businesses at risk

The case of World Pizza provides a new window into how the OrderAhead operation works.

World Pizza is a family business, operated by husband-and-wife team Aaron and Wren Crosleycone. It’s known for exotic pies such as the “The Famous,” with roasted red potato, garlic, rosemary and gorgonzola, the Sunnyside-Baked Egg pizza, and another pizza with Wasabi-marinated pineapple and roasted sweet red pepper. Its pizzas are delivered in boxes featuring quirky, handwritten “Pizza Haikus.”

“We’re not tech-savvy. We make really good pizza. That’s what we do,” said Wren Crosleycone.

Even so, they were among the first restaurants in the country to notice a rogue OrderAhead website — worldpizzaseattle.com — ranking above their official restaurant site in Google search results, including Google business listings and Google Maps.

worldpizza
World Pizza submitted this screenshot as part of its complaint to the Washington Attorney General’s Office.

After initially contacting OrderAhead, they were able to get the site taken down, but it was still appearing prominently in Google search results and on Google Maps until they worked with Google support to resolve the situation.

World Pizza saw a noticeable decline in orders for a period of time last month, and the owners speculate that OrderAhead’s rogue site may be to blame, due in part to the price markup. For example, a World Pizza “Famous” pie is normally sold for $22.50, but it sells for $25.90 on OrderAhead.

In addition, to this day, a page for World Pizza is still available on the main OrderAhead website, despite the fact that the restaurant has never agreed to have its food delivered by the service.

Working with the World Pizza owners, GeekWire made a test order through the OrderAhead site today. After we placed the order online, it was called in to the restaurant by someone who used our name without identifying himself as an OrderAhead representative. The order was then picked up and delivered by an OrderAhead worker.

After we received our pizza and salad, World Pizza gave us the phone number that was used to place the order. When we called, the man who answered the phone acknowledged that his job is to call restaurants to place orders after they’re made by customers through the OrderAhead site.

“I’m the caller,” he said.

pizza
A sampling of pies from World Pizza.

When we pressed for details about how many orders he calls in during a typical day — hundreds? thousands? — he declined to comment further, saying he needed to get off the phone. Before he hung up, he referred us to a number for his supervisor at OrderAhead, but the mailbox on that line was full when we called.

GeekWire hasn’t been able to confirm how OrderAhead was able to claim thousands restaurant listings in Google Business and link them to the rogue sites. However, there may be a clue in the mysterious calls that World Pizza gets regularly from people claiming to be from Google — providing a code and asking World Pizza to verify its address. Aaron Crosleycone was suspicious of the calls, and he didn’t go along with them, but at one point an employee did.

In recent days, following our reports, Google has started penalizing the unauthorized sites in search results, removing them from restaurant profiles in Google Maps, and revoking the “verified” status on Google Business restaurant listings that connect to the OrderAhead sites.

Restaurant sites still being hijacked

However, the crackdown is far from complete. For example, a rogue OrderAhead site is still linked to the Google Business listing for Seattle restaurant The Golden Olive, whose official site is three entries down on the page in the Google search results. Same goes for Zouave restaurant in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood.

Meanwhile, late one night earlier this week, OrderAhead’s Twitter stream was suddenly flooded with positive tweets about the delivery service, with the effect of burying the coverage of the company’s online tactics. The profiles looked authentic, at first, but many of the same Twitter accounts also separately posted links to “HustleBootyTempTats” — a telltale sign of a tweet farm at work.

Links to GeekWire’s recent coverage of OrderAhead have also been removed from the company’s CrunchBase profile. The last person to edit the page at the time was Shoji Ueki, who works in “growth” at OrderAhead.

World Pizza owner Aaron Crosleycone said he isn’t opposed to working with online delivery companies. He cited Postmates as an example of a company that delivers pizza from the restaurant and is generally transparent about what it’s doing. But he described OrderAhead’s online tactics and stealthy approach as “infuriating.” In particular, he said, “price increases are a big deal,” and no one but the restaurant owner should be making those types of decisions.

OrderAhead’s approach also takes the customer experience out of the hands of restaurant owners, without their knowledge. This is particularly frustrating for a small family business that prides itself on good, friendly customer service —something that is noted frequently in online customer reviews for World Pizza.

Wren Crosleycone said she worries that other restaurants in the International District — where the owners might not speak English, let alone know the ins and outs of Google search rankings — could be especially vulnerable to OrderAhead.

“When goodwill is gone,” she said, “there’s so little that you can do as a small business.”

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline

Comments

Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.