Interview with Dan Austin, a Google Maps Spam Fighter
Google Maps nowadays is full of bad data, or outright spam and scam. Google management seems to not really care that much as these have been around for years. However, there are a few volunteers out there who dedicate uncountable hours to fighting against the spammers. It is almost as the battle of Good vs. Evil – infinite, but unlike in the movies, it seems like Evil dominates. One of the most notable “soldiers” in the squadrons of Good is Dan Austin, more famous as blissfulight among the Google Maps community. Two of his most notable projects are his My Maps: “Good Locksmiths, Lockouts, and Towing” and “Fake Locksmith Spammers and Scammers“. Dan agreed to share some thoughts with me in an improvised interview:
Nyagoslav: Dan, could you present yourself with a few words to our readers?
Dan: Hi, my name is Dan Austin. I live in Olympia, WA, and am employed working on various real estate projects. I spend quite a bit of free time on the web, exploring the world, and in-between cat videos and Netflix marathons, I like to dabble in Google Maps.
N: How did you get involved in Google Maps and Map Maker?
D: Years ago, I used to work for DHL as a delivery driver. Maps are one of the core tools you use to find people, places, things. It’s unfortunate, but we had paper maps that were good, but not great, and Google Maps and Mapquest were even worse—this was in the days before Map Maker and the more sophisticated multi-layer UI that you see on Google Maps today. Sometimes people just don’t want to be found, even though it was my job to connect them with the thing they had just found off the internet. I had finished some other projects, and was looking for something to ‘do’. I had been using Report a problem on Maps to sporadically fix Maps problems, but as you know, Report a problem leaves something to be desired, and the fixes usually just created more problems down the road. Map Maker had been available outside the U.S., but it wasn’t until last year that it was finally opened up in the U.S. I had a strong desire to fix all the maps problems associated with Map’s base data, and to add in missing details that I had noticed through my travels (and travails). Since my route covered four countries, that was a challenging project, to say the least. The rest, as they say, is cartography. Map Maker satisfies the itch.
N: What are the biggest challenges you find when using Google Maps?
D: Bugs, incorrect base data. Google Maps, like all other Google products, is constantly reinventing itself. It seems like every iteration breaks something even if it ‘improves’ something else. Google is also dependent on a wide variety of sources to construct its map system, and stitching it all together, while a remarkable technical feat, means that there’s a lot of bad data: street directions going the wrong way, a business marker for New York City being dropped in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, weird formatting issues, listings that disappear and reappear seemingly without rhyme or reason, etc. I’m cautious with Google Maps the way I’m cautious with general Google results: the results are quick and easy, but not necessarily comprehensive or accurate. Unfortunately, with so many people dependent on Google Maps, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Maps needs to shift away from the quick and dirty to just being trustworthy and accurate.
N: What are the biggest mistakes done by Google regarding the Maps’ crowdsourcing system?
D: Dependence on volunteers to try to work around technical issues on a product that requires a very reliable infrastructure to support their mapping efforts, and lack of good communication by Google as to why these technical problems continue to persist. In many respects, Google’s Map Maker product feels too beta. It’s one thing to use contractors or employees to work with substandard tools that have long since been surpassed by better off-the-shelf commercial mapping products (weirdly enough, you don’t really draw on GMM so much as point, click, drag, type). It’s another to expect mappers to work for free using those same tools, and all the energy from that production goes into Google’s pockets, very little of which seems to get reinvested back into the product. In many respects, Google’s products all suffer from a reinventing the wheel syndrome. Their reluctance to use ready-made products, and instead focus on developing everything in-house, and then finding a way to outsource the processes that feed the product development is an interesting technical and social experiment, but oftentimes, mappers, as we’re called, feel frustrated by the lack of resolution for those same problems, some of which persist for years. It’s basically inefficient. Free. But inefficient. Categories, for example, are not consistent across all the Maps products, even though they ostensibly share the same database. Sometimes categories are missing altogether, or they’re removed, or there are obvious typos. Why the inconsistency? Duplicates are another example. Places users are familiar with the ‘Why do I have two places on Maps when I only created one?’ problem. It gets even worse on the Map Maker side, because an errant Google bot can make one feature a duplicate of another, even if they have no relationship to one another. And once that’s done, it can’t be undone. So you basically either throw your hands up in frustration or you end up recreating the feature, sometimes multiple times. Google’s ‘quirky’ communication style often means that the issue goes unacknowledged, sometimes for years. So mappers just give up, sometimes on that feature or issue, and frequently, completely. They move on.
N: You are well-known with your restless endeavors against spammers. What made you focus on this particular problem?
D: Boredom. I wish it were more sexy than that, but filling my time can be a challenge, and spammers just happen to incite the right combination of factors that make this interesting for me. Initially, while I was mapping other features, I kept noticing how certain locksmith POIs—points of interest—kept popping up in the strangest places: the middle of intersections, 7-11′s, etc.—place where they have no obvious presence. As I began to investigate them, I found that the addresses were false, or obviously belonged to other features that it was pretending to be at or a part of. The Place pages for the individual POIs were even worse. Full of typos, the same pictures repeated a hundred times in similar type listings, reviews that linked to other locksmith spam locations, I began to suspect a pattern, and my hunch was confirmed when I did some additional research, and discovered that locksmith spammers dominated the local listings, and were extorting victim’s and decimating the ranks of the legitimate, licensed locksmith industry. I started deleting whatever I could find, gathered up additional search tools, raised the alarms on the Google Map Maker forums, and gradually began to focus more and more on locksmiths, to the exclusion of other mapping activities.
N: Which are the industries that use most black hat techniques?
D: Locksmiths, garage door supplier, movers, carpet and other cleaning businesses, tow services, limo and taxi services, bail bondsmen, dating services, check cashers, and any kind of service contractor (plumbing, HVAC, electrical, auto repair, etc.).
N: Why do you think spam is widespread exactly among these business types?
D: Basically, a lot of what we consider ‘shady’ industries, where the profit margins are low, the line between black and white is exceedingly grey, limited regulation, no storefront, and the temptation to ‘get slightly ahead’ where there are so many competitors who are also spamming Google Maps, usually attracts spammers. And it’s also easy to get into spamming, because the industrial support for it is enormous—everything from black hat SEO optimizers to website builders who do nothing but build spam websites. The other is that Google really isn’t that concerned about Places spammers. Their primary interest is attracting ad dollars, and their products are built accordingly. They have no enforcement mechanisms; their verification mechanisms are opaque, crude, and easily circumvented; there is no regulation of their own product by either consumers or the government, and since it’s given away for ‘free’, there’s no sense of responsibility to the business owners or customers that the listing be accurate or even legal—the prevailing assumption is buyer beware; lack of communication and customer service, unless you happen to be a well-connected politician, a zealous crusading state or federal law prosecutor, or a big ad buyer, in which case, yes, the giant does notice, and the giant does not like these bees flying around. It just wants the honey. And it will do what it has to keep the honey—and the money—flowing.
Additionally, some longstanding criminal enterprises have made the leap from the white and yellow pages (what we used to call the ‘internet’, albeit the printed kind) and used their SEO firepower, cash, and organized crime networks to expand into service categories that are particularly susceptible to bait-and-switch tactics, like locksmiths. Since the product is a service, and the ‘customer’ is usually a one-time ‘mark’, the spammers can afford to burn the connection to that customer and move on to the next victim, adopting a different name, a different location, a different number, a different ‘locksmith’. For every spam listing that gets pulled down, 10 more pop up, and they poison the well for all the other legitimate industries who share their business category. After awhile, every locksmith looks like a spammer, and many adopt the tactics of the spammers just to stay in business. Or just go out of business.
N: What is your methodology of discovering spam? How do you make sure particular information is spammy or fake?
D: Look at Places! More seriously, I find it using a lot of ways: searching through the Places forums using keyword search like spam or locksmiths, focusing on particular Maps categories like Escort Service and Locksmith and doing a general search on Google Maps or Google Map Maker. Once you know where they work and what they do, it becomes easy to find; they live on the dark side of Google Maps, so to speak, so they have a tendency to repeat the same patterns, ad infinitum. They basically make tracks, and I track them. Since I’ve deleted so many spammer POIs, I can usually tell right away what is spam and what isn’t, but I go through a process of verifying my intuition: I reverse search the telephone number and address and see what other businesses share the same address or if there’s anything fishy attached to it (or even if it’s a real address); I look at the Place page and reviews, searching for obvious signs or as I like to put it, ‘tells’, reverse searching images, examine content for misspellings, wrongly or weirdly worded descriptions and paragraphs; I also search a wide variety of databases that are particular to a business category, such as licensing and property databases; and I do a general search of the business on the internet. It isn’t one thing that confirms it (although it’s usually one thing that catches my eye): it’s all those things. It’s hard for a spammer to break their patterns, because they’re lazy and they’re trying to spam, and those two factor seem to cancel out whatever they try to use to conceal themselves. Sometimes I get it wrong: on several occasions I’ve deleted legit POIs. So then I have to do my best to restore and fix their listing, and learn from my mistake.
N: How do you deal with spammers? What steps do you take to get the spam removed?
D: I delete them. I use Map Maker, primarily. I also use Report a problem on the Google Places page for problematic listings that Map Maker can’t take care of. I contact Google with the occasional issue if something doesn’t get done to my satisfaction, or if they need to explore a certain avenue that spammers are treading on and that Google isn’t. Sometimes I shame them—both Google and the spammers—publicly on the Places and Map Maker forums, in an effort to draw attention to the spam problem. It’s really a combination of approaches, coupled with my relentlessness. You just have to be relentless. They have an investment they want to protect, but you have to escalate the cost so that it’s no longer worth the effort to maintain their listing. And restless. There’s always more spam.
N: What advise could you give to the regular users who have to choose which business to contact?
D: Do some research before buying—read the reviews, look on their listing to see what they have to say about their business—and trust your intuition. It’s the Wild West, right now. For any service, get a quote. If they won’t quote, go to the next one. Shop around. If you’re getting scammed, you’ll know it, right away, and you can always say ‘I’m calling the cops’. If you pay, pay with a credit card, because you can always revoke the charge. You can always say ‘I’m not paying’. The tendency in any emergency situation (like being locked out of your car at 2AM) is to panic. 911 is for panicking. You have a few minutes to evaluate your situation. Use that time wisely. And ultimately be prepared to be scammed; it’s going to happen, it’s going to be painful, and you’ll be more aware the next time.
N: What advise could you give to the business owners on how to deal with unfair competition?
D: Don’t spam in response to the spammers. This is the biggest problem I can see. It just escalates the problem out of control, because spammers respond with more spam, not less. I would report it, and if the Report a problem doesn’t work, raise a stink in the forums. Call your representative, regulatory authorities, the media, and anyone you know at Google. Everyone is asleep, and they just don’t care. Wake them up! Above all, if you can take individual action, do it. Figure out how to do it. I did. End result: thousands of spam deletions later, those listings are gone. Be patient, by systematic, be thorough, be accurate. It will get taken down if you persist.
N: What advise would you give to Google on how to deal with spammers?
D: They need to actively clean out the spammers from their base maps data. Some of it is left over junk from spam wars years ago. Other stuff is more recent. Leaving it to inadequate reporting mechanisms, algorithms, and an army of easily thwarted and discouraged volunteers is not the most effective way of dealing with the spammer problem. Hiring a team of spam fighters is the only way it can be done. Once it’s gone, verification procedures need to be instituted for the categories that attract a lot of spam (see above), and more effort needs to be expended to work with law enforcement to exercise their muscles on particularly virulent spam. Connecting ‘real’ identities to real reviews, making sure that the Places listings are trustworthy and accurate, and creating a landscape that is focused on reliability, fairness, and customer service, are just a few of the steps Places can take to make Maps better, and free of spam. Mostly.