Last week, a very bright and tech-savvy colleague of mine had to renew his Pennsylvania driver’s license. So what did he do? Like most of us would, he went on the Internet and Googled “renew Pennsylvania driver’s license.” And this is where his troubles began.
If you were to Google the phrase “renew Pennsylvania driver’s license,” the first thing that you’d see would be a link for the website pa-services.org. (We’re not linking to it for reasons that will be explained later.) The logo for that site is strikingly similar to the one used on the official Dept. of Transportation website for Pennsylvania, as you can see on the comparison image here, and pa-services.org is actually a very attractive and user-friendly website, unsurprisingly more attractive and user-friendly than the state’s actual site.
When you get to the site that you probably think you are using to renew your Pennsylvania driver’s license, the first thing that you’d likely spot is the clickable button for “Renew Driver License.”
What you might not notice, because you’d naturally be drawn to the photos, is the disclaimer at the very top of the page that states that, “pa-services.org is a privately owned website that is not owned or operated by any government agency.”
And another thing that your eyes probably won’t process on this well-designed site is the small “Ads” notation in the upper right hand corner of the box in which the prominent “Renew Driver License” button appears. See below.
And so you click on that “Renew Driver License” link.
Once you do so, you land on driverslicenseservices.org, without any notification that you’re being directed to another website. The disclaimer at the top of that page is even smaller than the one on the previous site. You’ll be asked to enter lots of personal data. The next screen asks for your credit card number.
And then what do you get for your $22.95? Not a renewed Pennsylvania driver’s license, but a PDF download that supposedly helps guide you through the process of getting one — information that is easily available for free on the actual state site. And who now in the Wild West of the Internet has your personal information? God only knows.
We contacted pa-services.org to ask them about this, and an employee there pointed out that they don’t sell anything. And that seems to be true. They just prominently advertise for driverslicenseservices.org, and a representative from the latter site justified their service via email by telling us that their “team of experts has spent 1000’s of hours” on the research involved in that $22.95 download. Granted, a download that you almost certainly didn’t need.
Philly Mag asked both sites what relationship the two have, and we have yet to receive a response. According to Internet registration records, pa-services.org launched on October 19, 2015, the month after the domain driverslicenseservices.org was created. Both websites were registered anonymously through the Internet domain registry GoDaddy.com.
So why is the unofficial site coming up on top of Google search results?
In short, some companies are very good at what’s known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO). When done correctly, SEO improves the Google search results of one site over another.
One of the most famous examples of SEO centers around former Pennsylvania Sen. and presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Folks who hated Santorum and who were skilled at SEO caused any Google search for “Santorum” to result in a top link to Spreading Santorum, a site devoted to defining the word “Santorum” as something no doubt offensive to the staunch conservative. Poor Rick.
“This stuff happens every day,” says Lance Bachmann, CEO of Philadelphia SEO firm 1SEO. “Both sites are trying to use the language that there is a real need for a guide to get your license or renew.”
The unofficial site most likely comes up first because that site is using phrases like “Renew Pennsylvania Driver’s License” in a Google AdWords advertising campaign, explains Bachmann. As previously mentioned, we aren’t linking to either of these sites, and the reason is that this would only help their SEO efforts, as Bachmann confirms.
“The state can run a branded Adwords campaign, and with the right bid and strategy they would be first,” says Bachmann.
PennDOT spokesperson Alexis Campbell insists that the state is working on its SEO strategy to improve the search results. Campbell confirms that the state has received complaints about these unofficial sites, but points out that the Commonwealth can’t control what Google does.
Campbell suggests that residents wishing to renew a Pennsylvania driver’s license or use other PennDOT services enter the official URL www.dmv.pa.gov into their browsers. A nice suggestion, but in the end, most of us just go to Google by default.
A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania’s Attorney General’s office told Philly Mag that the A.G. hasn’t had any complaints about these sites from consumers, and suggests that anyone who feels they’ve been scammed file a report with that office.
As always, caveat emptor.
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