I’m baaaack from the Summer hiatus–I got a long one, thank you. Dr. Media says watch this space, Google is becoming the biggest advertising agency in the world, they want to do cell phones–see GOOG-411 as an example-AND they are moving towards being a TV network, whats next, production? They can afford it, but as the saying goes, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? This little blip, is the 1st in what may become on of many of turning the do no evil empire into the 2nd coming of he who shall not be named. Stay tuned.

Users’ complaints to FTC show another side of Google

All they wanted from Google was $10.

The Internet colossus had offered this enticement to people who signed up for its online payment service, Checkout – but some customers said they failed to get their promised credit.

After losing patience with Google’s customer service, several users acted: They filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission.

“I feel that I was misled,” one user from San Francisco wrote.

The dustup over online offers is just one example of the discontent Google’s growing legion of users have voiced to the agency responsible for enforcing consumer protection laws. Aggrieved, annoyed and occasionally misguided, users have lodged hundreds of complaints about everything from Google overcharging for advertising to returning pornographic Web sites when users search for their own names.

The grievances highlight customer service challenges Google faces as it assumes an ever more important role in its users’ lives. Dealing with hundreds of millions of people doesn’t always go smoothly – even for a company with incredible global popularity.

The seemingly mundane complaints come amid a larger federal review of Google’s proposed $3.1 billion acquisition of online advertising firm DoubleClick, following concerns that the deal will create a monopoly and harm consumers.

Against that backdrop, The Chronicle obtained Google’s consumer complaints for three years through open records requests. The names of people who groused to the government were blacked out, as were more than a dozen pages that were said to be part of law enforcement investigations.

One person from Frederick, Md., told of being booted from Google’s advertising program without explanation, wasting the 120 hours he spent preparing his Web site. Another from Hopkins, Mich., was flummoxed by software he downloaded from Google that he couldn’t figure out how to remove. Yet another from Omaha, Neb., was shocked that a search of her name returned a pornographic Web site and worried that “this may tarnish my reputation and affect my career.”

Not surprisingly, the number of complaints against Google has increased in tandem with its popularity. In 2005, the agency received 74 complaints related to the Mountain View company, followed by 133 in 2006 and then 176 during the first six months of this year. Still, that’s a small sliver of consumers, considering that in August, Google had 128.5 million U.S. users, according to comScore.

By no means is Google the leading target of consumer ire. A top 10 violators list for 2006 made no mention of the search engine. Rather, the rogue’s gallery is led by the three major credit reporting agencies. Experian topped all others with 7,701 complaints; Equifax followed with 5,806; and TransUnion had 5,504.

The Federal Trade Commission invites consumers to file grievances about any company and organization that they suspect of fraudulent business practices, and hundreds of thousands of people use the system annually to voice their displeasure. Few companies escape the public’s wrath.

But when consumers vent to the government about Google, it tends to be about highly individual matters rather than sweeping indictments about the company as a monopoly or the incarnation of George Orwell’s Big Brother. Either they insist that they are owed money by Google, or they feel personally wronged in some way.

Many people were concerned about personal information available through Google, such as one who wanted all traces of an old bankruptcy filing removed or another who was embarrassed by racy conversations he had on various Internet message boards. Google generally refuses to remove such material from its index except by court order, and instead advises users to take up the issue with the owner of the Web site that published the embarrassing material.

Only a handful of complaints took aim at Google’s proposed merger with DoubleClick or the information Google collects about its users. Privacy groups said the limited public concern shows how unaware people are about the potential dangers.

“Marketers are compiling dossiers on you based on the pictures you post and the Web sites you visit,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a digital rights group. “Most people have no idea.”

Chester’s organization helped spur the Federal Trade Commission to review Google’s merger and to plan a town hall meeting about online advertising and privacy in Washington, D.C., next month after filing complaints directly to the agency’s commissioner and secretary. Because of their reputation and access to the media, public interest groups tend to get the Federal Trade Commission’s ear more easily than individual consumers, who typically file their complaints through an online form on the agency’s Web site.

Alana Karen, a manager at Google who helps oversee the company’s response to customer inquires, said that Google strives to give its users and advertisers as much assistance as possible. The first step is creating easy-to-use products and then providing online FAQs that answer most questions, she said.

For additional assistance, Google offers e-mail help for individual products or online chat. Google staffers respond with prepared answers for the most frequently asked questions and, if necessary, give more personal help.

“We try really hard to satisfy customer complaints when they come in to us,” Karen said.

A common thread among the complaints is Google’s failure to respond to customer service e-mails, or users being told their problem would be investigated only to hear nothing back. Some railed at Google for providing no telephone number to call when things go wrong.

Asked about difficulties in getting Google’s attention, Karen said, “We’re always looking for ways to improve.”

The Federal Trade Commission can use the information it collects to open investigations and prosecute wrongdoers. However, many of the complaints it receives simply reflect poor customer service – not fraud.

In some cases, the agency forwards complaints to the companies targeted so they can take a stab at fixing the problem. Google said it occasionally has received a heads-up, but declined to provide any more details.

Google was conciliatory to users who failed to get their promised rebates for using the Checkout online payment service. A spokesman acknowledged that the company got user feedback about the problem, and that it eventually resolved the issue by giving credits to people who asked.

A number of Google’s small advertisers and publishers also were well represented among the complaints.

Several advertisers said Google continued to charge them for ads after they dropped out of its ad program. Dozens of online publishers said Google wrongly confiscated their earnings – sometimes thousands of dollars – after accusing them of click fraud, the practice of publishers illicitly clicking on ads that Google supplies to inflate their earnings.

Over the past few years, Google has adjusted its products to mollify consumer outrage. Whether the changes were in response to complaints to the Federal Trade Commission is unclear.

For example, Google’s reverse telephone directory, which allows users to search a telephone number to find out who it belongs to and get a map to that person’s home, generated a deluge of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission after the service was introduced four years ago. Google soon started allowing users to remove their numbers from the service, although that didn’t stop people from continuing to file grievances with the government.

“I am single and live on a dead end road in the country alone,” someone from Floral City, Fla., recently complained, fearing the directory would lure a burglar or worse to her home. “Guess the answer will be for everyone to arm themselves.”

Unhappy with Google

Some of the most frequent complaints the Federal Trade Commission has received about the Internet search giant:

Privacy: Search results turned up personal information that users want suppressed.

Reverse telephone directory: Users fear it will be used by criminals and stalkers.

Checkout: Google allegedly failed to deliver on promised $10 credit for signing up; products ordered using the online payment service never arrived.

Advertising: Advertisers say they were overcharged, that Google jacked up ad prices and confiscated earnings due publishers whom the company mistakenly accused of fraud.

DoubleClick: Opposition to $3.1 billion acquisition of online advertising company because of monopoly or privacy fears.

— FTC’s consumer complaint form can be found at ftc.gov.

— Google offers online help centers at google.com/support.

Source: Federal Trade Commission, Google

E-mail Verne Kopytoff at vkopytoff@sfchronicle.com.