THE SPAM IN GOOGLE MAPS: WHY LOCAL BUSINESS OWNERS NEED TO BE SEO SAVVY

GOOGLE LOCAL SEARCH – WE ALL NEED OUR 15 MINUTES OF FAME

Managing a local business could be a challenge, however, ensuring a distinguished online presence for that business – well, now that is an accomplishment worth bragging about.

I believe that there is hardly a local business owner, who will doubt the importance of maintaining prominent local presence in Google search results, but for the sake of the argument let’s support the claim with some industry research stats:

  • 46% of all searches on Google are with local intent;
  • 76% of all local searches result in a phone call;
  • 71% of people look up the business online before they visit it for the first time.

And while Google is not the sole search engine out there, it surely is the most widely used, especially as it comes to its maps app and its local search functionality. Its domination both on desktop and mobile is unparalleled.

Google Maps is available both for Android and iPhone devices and while there are popular alternatives like Apple and Bing Maps, as well as Yelp, they don’t stand a real chance against Google’s product on their own.

GOOGLE MAPS – CAN WE REALLY ENTER AND WIN THE RACE?

Google Local Search still remains a free-to-enter platform for all Local Businesses, even if the advertising options in this niche are growing by the hour. Every local businesses owner could try to edit what Google shows in their search results for their business by entering Google My Business – the actual control panel for modifying or updating one’s business info.

But is it that simple to rank in Google Local Search results really – filling in correctly your Google listing and hoping that Google will rank your business as the most relevant and trustworthy one in your area and to recommend it to your potential customers?

It would have been, if only all the local businesses were playing by the rules or if Google was diligent enough to disqualify the cheaters from the ranking race. Unfortunately the reality is a bit less utopian. Google Maps spam is a huge issue nowadays and it has been for years now. Google does little to improve their service, even though they do not omit monetizing it regardless of its flaws.

Truth to be told the Google maps spam is a real threat to local businesses that wish to be found online. The map spammers, unobstructed by any real sanctions by Google, thrive in the Local Search. They rank fake businesses with ease, at a scale, using methods that have been working for years.

Google has failed to address these holes in their local search algo and people are getting more and more frustrated. The more educated people, who haven’t tried to benefit from the search engine’s flaws, have tried to warn Google and help them realize how map spammers excel at faking their way into the Local Search, but their voices have left unheard.

Being a responsible local business owner means knowing your market, knowing your competitors, being aware of the threats to your success and trying to work on your strengths to rise above the mass and reach your target customers. Well, if you are to rise above the map spammers then you surely need to learn why they are so good at what they do, how they could hurt your business, and how you can fight and win back your local rankings.

CYBER FRAUD: THE WEB OF LIES BY BRYAN SEELY

In its core this post is a reference to the epic book on Google Maps Spam by Brian Seely, but it’s also much more. It aims at convincing you why you need to become more SEO savvy in order to protect your local business. The Maps Spam should no longer be ignored and its impact on your business should be acknowledged.

Even the Googlers themselves admit it:

“Maps is a mess. It’s known at the highest levels, but we don’t talk about it publicly.”

Bryan Seely was actually one of those pro bono Google Maps contributors, who tried to fight and report persistent spam, but eventually become disillusioned when realizing how unconcerned Google’s team was of the problem and how helpless he was at trying to awaken their sense of responsibility towards the local business community.

But let’s delve a bit in his story and learn a thing or two from the horse’s mouth shall we?

THE PROBLEM

The most prolific spam niche in Google Maps is associated with the service-based businesses. According to Google Guidelines SABs  (service area businesses) are allowed and even advised to  hide their addresses if they do not have a storefront office and serve their customers at their location.

This particular rule actually gives a green light to map spammers to trick the algorithm: their fake listings cannot be reported because they have no address associated with them. As Bryan puts it:

“Fake listings dominate nearly every service business category”

There are several problems arising from this maps spam invasion:

  • Fake businesses dominate Google maps top search results;
  • Online users get ripped off by pseudo service providers that are not licensed, bonded or insured;
  • Legitimate local businesses are downsizing and even going bankrupt due to website traffic drops, shrunk numbers of customer calls and orders that are now transferred to the fake business listings.

THE EASE OF FAKING A LOCAL BUSINESS ON GOOGLE

As Bryan explains in detail in his book Cyber Fraud, Google Maps is the preferred online destination of spammers, because of the higher scalability and ROI of a successful spam campaign:

“The criminals don’t target Bing alone, or Whitepages.com, or any other directory because the payoff is too small to make it worthwhile.

When you can manipulate the results on Google Maps, you can earn a king’s ransom.”

Bryan confirms that the spam strategy has been well-elaborated throughout the years and still renders perfect results. All you have to do is follow a basic script:

  • Request a Google business listing verification with a postcard (phone verification is even easier  to fake) on a selected address and after the verification – claim the listing and move its address to whatever location you need;
  • Do this on scale: repeat the process for dozens or hundreds of listings with name variations or even business vertical changes;
  • Buy keyword stuffed domains for the specific vertical you work in and associate those to the Google listings;
  • Create or buy Google accounts and order or write fake reviews for the respective Google listings;
  • Organize  a call center service to service the inbound calls and sell them at markup  to legitimate businesses that have lagged behind in the local results;
  • Use Google Adwords to further stabilize your top SERP positions and to suppress the presence of legitimate businesses in the above the fold section of the search results;
  • Do this with tracking caution: using different IPs, deleting browser cookies, etc.

The process is clear an out in the open. A number of former Google contributors have tried to make Google see that the problems is serious, but the top search engine seems to lack the motivation to invest more resources and workforce in improving their maps product.

THE INADEQUATE GOOGLE RESPONSE

Bryan has also tried to escalate this issue to Google’s attention on a number of occasions. In his book he explains in detail how he:

  • Directly reached out to Google and submitted a comprehensive vulnerability report;
  • Created fake Google local listings himself – as to prove a point and attracted industry experts attention;
  • Created fake FBI and Secret Service Google listings that outranked the legitimate ones and recorded the inbound calls;
  • Managed to attract huge media attention that resulted in TV and newspaper coverage;
  • Even created and ranked in the top 3 local results a fake daycare center listing in a matter of 15 minutes and brought the process to the attention of a Google employee.

None of his efforts resulted in any long-term improvement in the Google local search platform, though. His claims remained unaddressed and his attempt to contribute in the fight against map spam was never recognized by Google.

The sad thing is that as Bryan concludes:

“They (Google) make way too much money on AdWords to give a shit about small businesses”

THE TAKEAWAYS FOR LOCAL BUSINESS OWNERS

In such a brutally competitive market like Google local search, local businesses should know what problems they are to face, what tactics are used by their unfair competition – the maps spammers, and how they are to preserve their good local rankings.

One certain way towards keeping a good local presence online is to be at least a bit SEO savvy. Recognizing the worth of the local SEO efforts and especially citation building, citation audit & cleanup procedures, along with review gathering strategies is a must.

Staying competitive in a highly spammed local vertical does not mean to adopt a spammers’ strategy, but to use the maximum potential of your own legitimate business and to concentrate on your local SEO strategy, as whitehat as it may be.

Staying on the modern market, that is ruled by internet shopping and extensive pre-shopping research experience requires you to know the essentials of the local search dynamics. Being an SEO savvy is no longer an advantage but a necessary minimum if you are to build a successful marketing plan for your local business.