5 Reasons Why Google Places Is a Black Hat Heaven


Google Places Spam
Google Places is one of the best examples of how Google could get use of its tremendous importance in the life of a small business owner. As Places results show up for almost every search term now, it is practically impossible to overlook them. They gradually turn into a must for the online marketing of any size companies. However, the product seems to have multiple loopholes, thus giving advantage to the so called “black hats” – people using disallowed or even sometimes illegal techniques to rank higher in the search results. The ways to achieve that are tens, but there are a few ones that are specific to Google Places and are so common and obvious that it is hard to imagine Googlers have not noticed them.

1. Business name

The business name on Google Places is arguably one of the most important ranking factors, especially in the pure search results. In the most competitive markets at least 6 out of 7 listings on first page have part or the whole search term in their business name. The Quality Guidelines state:

Do not attempt to manipulate search results by adding extraneous keywords or a description of your business in the business name field.

At the same time many successfully do that. And if it, by some chance, happened that they get caught, as they would have already created numerous citations with the spammy business name, the listing would reappear again in less than a month, automatically created by Google, and would usually return (near) to its previous position. Therefore, “Bob the Barber” is getting penalized, because 50 years ago when his father opened the salon, he did not predict that half a century later it will be much better from marketing point of view to be named “Bob Hair Stylist Hair Salon Buffalo”.

2. Address

In January Google stopped offering phone verification for newly created listings in an attempt to prevent fraudulent behavior and spam. The option left was to get the PIN by postcard, i.e. you had to actually be at the location it is being sent, or at least receive mail there. This system has many workarounds and is still being abused by scams.

Even if one doesn’t know how to get to the phone verification, they can always simply manually move the marker location nearer to the centroid of the area of search and voila – you have your listing on first page, because according to Google you are near the center, and as we know – this is a major ranking factor.

3. Self-reviewing

I know it is pathetic, but there are so many businesses leaving reviews for themselves that I believe currently on Google Places there are more fake than real ones. Many of these are obvious (10 out of 11 reviews for a business are left within one week, and then for a year there is nothing, except a 1-star long explanation of how they cheat), and while it seems odd why Google is unable to catch them, the question “Are they really helping the business?” stays open. One thing is sure – reviews are a ranking factor, so the more the better (in the eyes of Google only, of course).

4. Reviewing competitors

Some time ago I wrote about a photographer who was spamming negative ratings (not reviews) for her competitors. About 2 months later nothing has changed. The ratings are still there – all 129 of them. What happened was that the other local photographers found out about what was happening and answered with many 1-stars. I personally love the last one, and the win is that it follows the Google’s guidelines for posting reviews:

Amanda showed up late to the wedding, rushed through the photo session. She got drunk at the wedding reception and tried to go home with the best man. I trusted John when he said Amanda was the best, but I will never trust John again.

There are thousands of similar cases. Here comes the question – is it so difficult for Google to realize that if a person posts numerous of reviews/ratings in the same day for businesses of the same type in the same area, there is something wrong? I guess it is, because I am yet to see such a spam removed.

5. Reporting competitors

This is the crème de la crème of Google’s negligence. It is easy for anyone to report problems, or modify Google Maps data as it is a crowdsourcing platform. However, most of these should first pass moderator’s approval. Not the “business is closed” report. It gets live very fast and changes from “Reported to be closed” to “Permanently closed” within a few days. After this – it takes less than a week for the Place page to disappear from the search results.

I recently wrote about what it takes for Google to act promptly, but should it always go to the New York Times for a problem to be resolved?

  1. Gav @ CrunchWebDesign
    Gav @ CrunchWebDesign09-18-2011

    Google Places is indeed, too easy for black hat methods to be applied. I see it in almost every local search result and the more you look, the more obvious it becomes.

    From a Local Business point of view, Reviewing Competitors (even negatively) can still have a positive effect on the ranking of a Places listing. Even more so if the local business involved goes about responding to a negative review in the right way. Most potential customers may see a well handled complaint as good customer service and to a certain extent, I think Id rather go with a company that has the odd blip and well handled complaints, than one that has 47 Five Star ratings!

    With regards to reporting Business as Closed, it is really frustrating that this can be done so easily, yet when a genuine report is sent to Google identifying blatant disregard for their guidelines (multiple fake listings all with Location & Service Keywords…….and no mention of business name), Google dont do anything about it!

    Lets hope Google has a few tricks up its sleeves!

  2. Nyagoslav Zhekov
    Nyagoslav Zhekov09-19-2011

    Hi Gav,

    Thanks for the comment!

    Yes, I suppose I was not very clear when stating that reviewing competitors could have negative impact. While the other 4 factors are mainly harming one’s organic ranking, the 1-star ratings are in fact, as you stated, helping it up. However, they could severely harm the reputation of a business.

    Also it is probably a good time to acknowledge that Google actually did deal with the “reported as closed” problem the last week and currently there seem to be no trouble with that. However, one could also maliciously report listings as spammy, duplicates, outdated, etc, and unfortunately it sometimes works.

    I believe some of the problems could easily be dealt with, but the question is how willing Google is to implement changes…

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