Imagine a world in which someone else gets to define you: who you are, what you do, everyone's perceptions of you. That someone else is so big and powerful and yet equally anonymous such that there is nothing you can do to redefine yourself, no matter the truth.
That day, I have recently discovered, is today.
My client, Citadel Exploration, Inc., is a small, start-up oil company based in Newport Beach. They may be sitting on one of the largest oil discoveries in California in many years, and while oil exploration is risky, they have potential to make early investors a modest fortune.
But, according to Google (and until recently, Yahoo!), they are a subprime lender based in San Diego, with a completely different name. And there is almost nothing we can do about it.
That is, if you go to Google Finance and look up the ticker symbol for Citadel Exploration ("COIL"), you get facts and information for a completely different entity - one that no longer exists - with a completely different name and industry. The same was true for Yahoo! (save for the name error) until last week.
For more than eight months I have been working to get those information behemoths to correct their records and present accurate facts to the investing public. However, it wasn't until I sent a tweet to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer that we even received an acknowledgement of the problem, let alone action to fix it. Similar tweets to Google-related entities received favorites from Google entities, but no action.
Citadel's identity, to much of the investing public, is not its own. It is completely at Google's mercy, and Google plainly does not care.
Here's the back story: In 2011, Citadel became a publicly traded entity via a technique called a "reverse merger" with a defunct subprime lender - essentially, Citadel acquired the shell of the company and its accounting and legal infrastructure. It is a common technique used by many small companies to become public every year without the many hurdles and expenses of the initial public offering process.
The problem for Citadel was that, for reasons we've never been able to identify, both Yahoo! and Google continued to report years-old information for the defunct shell. Facts as basic and incontrovertible as the company's industry, address and even its name (in the case of Google) are wrong
At first, this seemed like a simple problem to solve. Both web companies have "error reporting" pages or similar functionality. I dutifully filled out the error forms several times over several weeks, but never even received an emailed acknowledgement. I contacted Yahoo!'s data provider, a firm called S&P Capital IQ, part of McGraw & Hill Financial. CapIQ was able to show us that they had the right data and were feeding the right facts to Yahoo!, but had no explanation as to why Yahoo! had their information wrong.
And that's when things got scary. I asked, via email, if we could be put in touch with CapIQ's contact at Yahoo!. Their response: We just have an email for them, we don't actually talk to anyone there.
Consider that: CapIQ feeds billions of bytes of data that millions of Yahoo! visitors use to make financial decisions covering untold sums of money and impacting businesses as tiny as Citadel and as big as, well, Yahoo!, and the data provider has no way to contact them?
So, we wrote to that email address. Several times. No response. I called a dozen phone numbers that I was able to research for Yahoo! Most were disconnected. Most of the rest were for email password resets. The one time I spoke to a live human being it was a service tech in India who left me on hold for 30 minutes before the phone disconnected. When I finally talked to someone, I was sent to the phone number for email password resets.
We considered, but squelched, a plan to distribute a press release calling attention to our plight and letting investors know Citadel really is a reputable (if early-stage) company. I left voice mails for the Yahoo! PR Department. No response.
So, then I turned to Twitter! After launching several tweets to @Yahoo and related entities, including @NedBrody, the head of Yahoo! North America, both I and my client were at our wits' end. Not even being publicly called out made them care.
So, I swung for the fences. Shortly after noon on Monday, July 7, I went all-in: "@marissamayer my client @CitadelOil has tried to get material errors fixed on @yahoo finance for 6 months. NO RESPONSE! #BadCustomerSvc." If Yahoo!'s CEO didn't have a team of PR hawks protecting her, it was back to square one.
Fortunately, I guessed right. About 10 minutes after that tweet, I received a reply and follow from Sean Hammel, a PR rep for Yahoo!. By 10 the next morning, most of the errors had been fixed.
It truly was a simple problem, it just required someone to notice. And care. Which may be why Google still has not responded.
Google does not identify its data provider, though Cap IQ claims it is not them. Not wanting to waste time, I turned directly to Twitter. Since Google CEO Larry Page isn't on Twitter, I targeted several other Google-related entities, and asked friends to "favorite" and "retweet" those tweets, including LA Observed's Kevin Roderick. Surely a bunch of RTs and favorites, especially from someone with 20,000 followers, will get their attention.
Or not. All those tweets did was garner interest from ShtLst, a web-based customer service problem solver. We did, however, get several favorites from the maker of the Google Finance mobile app.
Regardless, as of this writing, Google Finance still shows that my Orange County oil client is a San Diego-based subprime lender.
And that is what they will be, until someone at Google decides otherwise.