Did the state unfairly help a small company’s competitors, or is the business just looking for a handout?
Greg Collier didn’t think it would be a big deal. Geebo, the small company he founded three years ago in Sacramento, is a Web site that lists hundreds of job openings. The State Personnel Board Web site had links to two other job boards, so Collier asked that a link to his company’s site be included, also.
When SPB refused, Collier asked to have the other links, to Sacjobs.com and Monster.com, removed. The links supposedly vanished. But recently, two years after his request, Collier found that SPB still had links to those sites on another section of its site. He asked again to be included, and SPB officials refused again, saying that the remaining links were an oversight. Again, Collier asked to have the other links removed. The links vanished a second time.
Now, weeks later, Collier is still after SPB. This time, though, he’s demanding money and threatening to sue. Links from the heavily visited state site to the other job boards gave his competitors hundreds of thousands of additional page views, Collier said, which means his competitors can charge more for the listings they sell. He says it’s an unfair competitive advantage.
“I’ve been communicating with them that we’ve probably lost 300,000 users over the last two years, and asking, ‘What are you planning on doing to make us whole?’ And, basically, they aren’t planning on doing anything. It’s like, ‘Tough luck,’ ” Collier said.
SPB spokeswoman Evan Gerberding, one of a few employees who have fielded testy phone calls and e-mails from Collier, didn’t exactly say, “Tough luck.” But she did tell him in an e-mail that he shouldn’t expect anything from the state agency, which is charged with staffing civil-service jobs.
“SPB has reviewed your allegations and has determined that they do not have any legal merit,” Gerberding wrote. “And, since you have not provided us with any legal authority that would cause us to believe otherwise, SPB will not be making a settlement offer to you.”
But why not just give Collier the link he originally wanted—and still wants?
Geebo isn’t just a job site, Gerberding said. Employment is just one of nine categories of classified-type ads it offers. “I don’t know if the SPB should be in the position of helping [Collier] advertise for apartments and roommates and cars and dates. Our focus is to help people find jobs.”
Gerberding said SPB included Monster and Sacjobs because people who use the agency’s site are looking for work, so it seemed logical to include links to other job boards.
And, she added, nobody can say what rules SPB may have violated. “Our lawyers have tried to find some sort of state policy that we could possibly be violating. They have not found anything that says that we’re doing anything wrong, and Geebo has not provided us with any kind of government code or law that says we’re violating it.”
The press office at the state Department of Finance, which absorbed the now-defunct Department of Information Technology this year, referred calls to the state Attorney General. AG spokesperson Sandra Michinoku said they’re stumped, too. “There isn’t anything specifically in state law regarding what can or cannot be included in a Web site link.”
Asked about what specific law SPB may have violated, Collier cited an article about the California Unfair Competition Act that ran in a Southern California legal magazine. Los Angeles attorney Jeffrey Kramer, who wrote the article and is a lawyer specializing in unfair competition, said the act applies mostly to private-sector businesses.
“One question is whether the State Personnel Board is even governed by the Unfair Competition Act,” Kramer said. “There’s nothing I know of that would lend support to this Geebo claim.”
Collier said he’s still trying to find a lawyer. “We are unaware of any attorneys or law firms that have any experience in this area,” he said.
These days, Collier is living near Washington, D.C., where he’s trying to expand the company’s presence on the East Coast. Geebo’s other co-founder moved on, and most of the other work is contracted out, so Collier is the only employee. He started Geebo (it’s a childhood nickname of his) in Sacramento and then expanded the regional classified service to San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York, D.C. and Seattle.
As Collier keeps exploring legal options, he’s also keeping tabs on Web-traffic rankings that he believes prove his point. SPB traffic, he said, ranks 427th out of all Web sites worldwide. So, Collier says that not being included alongside the other job boards on the SPB Web site caused him to lose about 300,000 visitors.
Sacjobs, he said, was ranked at about 150,000 when it appeared on SPB’s site but has been dropping since SPB removed the link late this summer. Last week, he said, it was below 326,000, according to Web-traffic monitor Alexa.com. Geebo, by the way, ranks 246,104.
Asked if he had noticed a change in traffic, Sacjobs owner Ian Coltoff said his company’s numbers haven’t changed, according to an internal counter. “We haven’t lost anything,” said Coltoff, who was surprised and annoyed to hear about SPB removing the link to Sacjobs at Geebo’s request. “I wouldn’t do that to him. The bottom line is he’s looking for a free ride. I think he needs to do some advertising.”
In any case, Collier estimates that missing all that potential traffic amounts to losing around $90,000 in revenue.
“We went into business to fund charitable organizations,” Collier said, citing donations to charities such as Sacramento’s Child and Family Institute. “We’re not in it for the money.” Collier wouldn’t disclose the privately held company’s revenues, but said he hopes to donate 30 cents for each dollar of profit.
It’s unclear how much of a case Collier can make that his small company actually was damaged, but he did manage to get SPB employees thinking about how to treat Web links.
Now, SPB is developing a policy on linking to other job sites. Gerberding said the policy, prompted in part by Geebo’s complaint, hadn’t been finalized yet but probably would include a guideline that SPB’s page only link to private-sector Web sites that “advertise jobs and jobs only.”