This is the 11th installment this year of our Deep Dive Into Local series. For the week ending Monday, March 27th, 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 discuss Joy Hawkins’ article at Search Engine Land about local SEO spammers and explore the implications for an agency of local spamming in a Google World.
Mary: Joy Hawkins wrote a really great article that calls out SEOs for spamming on their own behalf so that their businesses can rank better. Then, she turns around and shows us how to fight spam like that, that we might find. Also, there was a local SEO that got 60 of his clients’ Google My Business listings suspended for bad behavior in his account. This, I think, is probably what we’re going to do in our deep dive today, Mike.
Mike: Yes, good topic for deep dive. One comment, an interesting sort of technical aside on Joy’s article on local SEO spam in Toronto. She demonstrated that the centroid of the search will shift away from the center of the city if, for example, there’s a lot of — a coalescing of strong listings outside the city. She demonstrated that the centroid isn’t as much about a city centroid as it is about a business intensity and business density centroid. In other words, car dealers being over on this side of the city, the search is going to center around there as opposed to around the center city even when you use Toronto as a keyword in the search.
A little aside there I thought was interesting. Why don’t you lead off the discussion on local SEO and spam?
Mary: Well, I think that there are a lot of instances where Google gives us guidelines of what they want us to do. In local SEO they’ve been very clear and very specific with what those guidelines are to be. The fact that so many SEO companies just totally ignore these is quite telling as to a lack of enforcement on Google’s part. We’re humans. We keep doing bad behavior until we get punished for it —
Mike: I wouldn’t ascribe this to the fundamental nature of mankind. I would ascribe this to the fundamental nature of businesses within capitalism. Where the rules are, self-interest rules. This is a rule. The rule is that self-interest rules. Self-interest, and then there’s an assumption within capitalism that if everybody behaves in their own self interest, there will be an equalizing affect and in the end, everybody will be better off. Well, these businesses are behaving in their perceived self-interest, and they are getting economic benefit from it, right?
Mary: Yeah, they most definitely are. I think that one of the things that SEOs and agencies need to start thinking more seriously about now is, are you working in your own self-interest when you’re helping people spam. I think that Google has a very good idea of who SEOs are out there and who the agencies are out there and who the remote workers are for agencies. I think they know a lot more about us and our behavior than we give them credit for and that by taking on clients who are trying to circumvent the guidelines you may be hurting your own reputation with Google.
Mike: Yes. I saw some interesting strong correlations with SEOs having their reviews automatically prevented from showing [on Google]. It seemed to be correlated to the fact that they were SEOs, not any other indicator. Clearly if that’s the case, if that’s true, and I believe it is, then Google clearly knows who the SEOs are and perceives their behaviors as contrary to Google’s interest, and thus in the review case bans them. That would imply that they know who they are in a very broad sense, not just IP address but perhaps C block, perhaps coworkers, all that sort of stuff, I agree, and related email addresses, related logins. I don’t think that they actively mine that data for enforcement. But, I think when there’s a question they go in, they look, and like in the case of this dummkopf who was spamming 60 local businesses in one account, all 60 of them get marked and taken down and that account gets suspended.
I agree that the question becomes… I also agree it’s not one of ethics. It’s one of self interest. You can’t really have…I don’t see it… Ethics are between me and you. Morals are between me and society. I don’t see that Google has any given right to define the rules of my life or my living. But I think as SEOs we have an obligation to communicate with our clients when we think they’re taking risky behavior that’s going to have long-term negative impact on their business. And if you as an SEO decide it’s going to have an impact on your business, you have to walk from that business. I don’t know, though, that it’s about whether or not you should be following Google’s rules per se. It’s about what’s in your interest. I think that’s different. I think your commenting that way is really the way it needs to be phrased, like is it in your interest to pursue these less than acceptable techniques from Google’s point of view.
Mike: The reality is, like you pointed out, Google enforces, for example, name spam very, very loosely. They just don’t enforce it to any great extent. Spamming your business name, which is dramatically increases your relevance on any given search, is an easy way to achieve rank, and it’s simple. Why wouldn’t you? In that case…
Mary: Why wouldn’t you?
Mike: That’s right. If you had 60 of those in one account, clearly all 60 are going to get banned. If you had 60 businesses in their own accounts, they might or might not. Even though Google might be able to dig out all 60, the likelihood is that they would just change the names back to the real name. Even there the penalties are not typically that bad for title spamming. Again, if you have 60 in one account with title spam you may have the account suspended, which makes life difficult for everybody. Because then once that phone number for the business is tagged then that business is tagged for a long time. You have to go through the mea culpa, mea culpa, never do it again kind of stuff. “It was the SEO’s fault” kind of conversation.
Mary: Yeah. Once the account’s suspended, you can’t even go in there and do anything. You can’t see anything that’s going on.
Mike: The listings within it, though, get tagged as well. Once the account’s suspended, the phone numbers get tagged. It becomes very difficult for that local business to escape the phone number being tagged as likely spam. It could suffer a depression of rank for a long time.
Mary: Is there a way to get out of that?
Mike: Yeah, I think you have to request. It’s not obvious that you’re in it, because there’s nothing like with webmaster tools where you’re notified. You do have to request inclusion. You have to write a really strong letter about why you shouldn’t be in there. You have to prove that you’re on the straight and narrow and that it won’t happen again. Google doesn’t hold grudges in that sense. I think you have to go through that reinclusion request.
The question is it worth it for a business or an agency to spam, and if so when. If a spammer came to you that had been using tactics, I mean a typical business that had been using tactics that were against Google’s rules, what would you say to them?
Mary: I have to take a look at that at a case-by-case basis and where they want to go in the future. A lot of times it comes down to me having to ask them, Do you want to build rankings or do you want to build your business online? The answer that I get may sway me one way or another.
Mike: If they say they want to build ranking, you say sayonara. Maybe with that that’s an appropriate way to end this conversation. Sayonara. We’ll see you next week. Thanks for joining us.