Video Deep Dive: Google Maps Spam and Video Verification
Mike Blumenthal


This is the 25th installment this year of our Deep Dive Into Local series. For the week ending Friday, July 1st, Mary Bowling and Mike Blumenthal shared their thoughts about the previous week in local. The complete video, including links and commentary on critical happenings of the previous week is posted in the Local U forums (paywall). In the second half of that video, they take a deeper strategic and tactical dive into one interesting area that caught their attention during the week.

In this discussion Mary and Mike talk about the impacts of Google Maps spam and Video Verification.

Mary: We’re going to dive into our deep dive now where we’re gonna talk about Google Maps spam and video verification. So Mike and I both read an article that was based on Bryan Seely’s research that talks about how Google is allowing call centers, lead generation businesses, to advertise and to be found with Google My Business listings and it’s really quite disturbing.

Mike: There was a level of issue beyond that, which is that it was actually Scientology was involved in seeking conversions via Google Maps using drug rehabs as a hook. So it even goes beyond just normal sort of for-profit spam into for-profit propaganda spam, right?

Mary: Right.

Mike: And it was at Krebs and Krebs is a very reliable security guy. So Bryan sometimes, you know, has a tendency to showboat, but Krebs is a very respected guy.

Mary: Yeah, so the thing that’s disturbing about this to me is, I mean, beyond the Scientology factoid there, is that Google’s really making a big deal about your-money-or-your-life websites and content and some of these things are obviously greatly affecting your money and your life. It’s pretty hypocritical that they are allowing Google My Business listings — that they’re not being careful about what they are allowing and making sure that their guidelines are being followed.

Mike: I was on a quest to quash some dermatology spam in New York City. Somebody reached out to me and I offered to help as an experiment and there was roughly 20 spammy businesses at one location, things like botox, Juvederm, skin rejuvenation, all at one place. I both have access to Google and I have the tools that are available to the general public to report these, so I did it both ways and it was fascinating. It took literally from April until now to get the bulk of these taken down and when I looked yesterday — even though I’d reported it multiple times, in multiple ways, both publicly and privately — there were still one or two of these left up.

The question for me has always been whether spam that we can find actually shows to a searcher — because part of my Botox issue was that these we were showing, like if you searched on Botox, because this spam listing was called Botox, it was showing in the organic three-pack. And that’s the same with Krebs’ article, the Scientology were showing. That’s the disturbing part, because in reality if it doesn’t show on the first three or in the first ten of the local finder or the first ten of Google Maps, essentially nobody sees the listing, right?

If Google is successful at suppressing their prominence and pushing them down to the second or third page, this isn’t a big problem. But because there is so much reliance on relevance as dictated by the business name, many of these spammy listings manage to creep into visible arena. A question I’ve always had and continue to have and I’ve thought about it, is if you assess the top three plus the top ten, is it worse than it used to be? Is it the same as it used to be? Or is it better? Because in the end, I know how to find spam in Google Maps, but whether the user ever sees those is really the question. Now again some of these that Krebs was reporting on I’ve seen are showing up on the front page of Google Search, where I see them doing, you know, having really negative impacts. But I also know how hard it is to get these removed. Even somebody like I, that have a high Mapmaker rating and I have private access, I have trouble getting these removed.

Mary: Yeah. You know, you say, “Okay, they’ve been shoved back to the second page of the results…”

Mike: Maybe.

Mary: Maybe, but what if you’re the guy that’s right behind these 20 spammers? Getting rid of them can really make a difference for you.

Mike: Right. Yeah, it’s always one of the strategies that I’ve always employed with local SEO is to get rid of the spammers to open up the back for real people.

Mary: Right. And kind of to continue along that line, we’re seeing rumors that Google is going to enable video verification on Google My Business listings. I looked this morning and I don’t see that on their official Google pages yet.

Mike: Right. Well, it was actually a test and it was noted as a test to a couple users. I think it was first shown in Linda’s blog as a test.

Mary: Do you know what kind of businesses receive those?

Mike: I don’t. That’s a good question. Obviously it’s a much more expensive verification method, so one would hope that it gets allocated to the bigger spam areas — plastic surgery, locksmiths, moving companies, garage door openers, but I don’t really know. It could be that it’s that, that it’s gonna to be used for the more spammer areas.

Mary: Yeah, well, I think that’s a great idea because one of the things that they’re asking for is if you see customers at your location, they want to see the public areas in your video. They want you to pretty much give them a tour, show them your sign, go outside, give them a street view. I think that’s a great idea and for service area businesses that go to the customer, they’re saying, “We want to see your license plate. We want to see your vehicle with your sign on the door.” And I think these are all great ways to actually verify that someone has a legitimate, real business and isn’t just taking the easy way out and faking something.

Mike: Right. And Google has always taken the big data approach and always sort of balanced costs against results. What we don’t know is what they perceive as bad results. And obviously there’s a cost component to their definition of bad, right? So if it’s too expensive, they aren’t gonna do it and it’s the same with this video. I mean, it sounds like an expensive way for them and I would question whether, in the end, it moves beyond a test.

Mary: Well, I certainly hope it does, because what I’m seeing now in the lawyer space — I mean, these guys have always tried to fake offices all over an entire state, sometimes over several states — is that they are legitimately going out and getting a bunch of DBAs with keyword-stuffed business names and putting up a website for each of these. And I’ll be darned if they aren’t ranking pretty much based on that keyword-based business name. So one or two attorneys are dominating many local packs, not just one local pack, for really expensive terms.

Mike: Right. And I would point out, you know, I’m a little tired of Google and their approach to spam. We’re now on year eight of spam and, you know, I reported extensively on it in 2007. That makes it year nine, 2008, 2009, 2010. Here’s the bottom line: Google is what Google does, right? And while I see them responding to these public criticisms in a very targeted way, I don’t see them changing systematically what’s going on, because either budgetary constraints or economic concerns —

Mary: Both of which are laughable for a company with that kind of cash in their pocket and that kind of profitability.

Mike: Certainly one could argue, as Krebs does and as I have in the past, that there’s a public safety issue and somebody’s gonna die if this spam is serious enough and … or fall in the hands of Scientologists, which is probably even worse. But I agree that it is laughable, but it’s been laughable for nine years now and so it’s like, I get tired, you know, worn out of poking the bear and the bear, okay, it responds temporarily and then, you know, everybody shuts up and then it moves on. Or Joy gets tired of reporting or Bryan gets tired of reporting, they move on. And then, you know, same thing in three years. That would be my…I mean, unless Local Pack goes totally paid, which is likely.

Mary: Which is very likely at this point.

Mike: Then, you know, if it doesn’t, we will still see significant spam three years from now, right?

Mary: Right.

Mike: I’ll take you up on that.

Mary: It’s not just about the Local Pack anymore either because so many apps are using Google Maps data. So it’s not really just about the Local Pack anymore. It’s about a lot of things that are happening on mobile.

Mike: Right. Well, with that, I think we can close it. We need — I think the closing statement for today is, “Google, get your act together on Maps spam.” And with that, I think we can call it a wrap, eh?

Mary: Yeah, everybody have a happy holiday.

Mike: Yes, likewise. Talk to you later.

Mary: Don’t start any fires.

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