BOB STROM is the owner of Ballard Lock & Key, which provides locksmith services in Seattle. If you live in the area and find yourself locked out of your car or home, here is an essential piece of information about Mr. Strom’s company: it really exists. By that, the Haggler means that there actually is a guy named Bob Strom, who is a bonded locksmith. And he owns a business, which you can visit, at 7352 15th Ave NW. This might seem too obvious to note, but it sets Mr. Strom apart from more than 90 percent of his local competitors. According to Yelp, there are — no joke — nearly 3,000 locksmiths in Seattle, though with relatively rare exceptions these operations aren’t in Seattle at all.
They are phone banks, typically set up in far-off places, often in other countries. Call them and they’ll dispatch a locksmith. Some are legitimate, but others may all too often do shoddy work and/or charge two or three times the estimate.
In the last five years, some of these lead generation companies, as they are known, have become notorious. A few have been sued by state attorneys general. Several have shown up in gotcha television news stories, a selection of which can be viewed on YouTube by searching for “locksmith scam.”
You might assume that lead gen sites would be no competition for people like Bob Strom. But for a couple of years, in one crucial arena, they have been crushing him: Google search results. Last Tuesday, the Haggler typed “emergency locksmith Seattle” into a browser, and the top results — most notably, the seven that appeared in the highly coveted Google Places spots, which are marked on an area map — appeared to be lead gen sites. They have local addresses, but if you call and ask to visit, they demur.
“We’re renovating,” said a rep at Emergency On Guard Key Service.
“We’re a mobile service,” said a rep at 24/7 Emergency Locksmith. Asked for more information, the rep hung up.
How, you may wonder, do phone banks that may be thousands of miles from Seattle leapfrog a living, breathing local locksmith in Google searches?

This story reminds me how difficult it is for small businesses to fight for survival on internet.