Too Many Donuts for the Google MapMaker Anti-Spam Cops?

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Google’s finest aren’t throwing the book at spammers.

I recently asked Dan Austin – a longtime buster-upper of MapMaker and other spam – to help with a project.  One of my client’s competitors was doing the following:

  • Created multiple pages for the same business at the same address
  • Created additional pages using a residential address – for a bricks-and-mortar business
  • Keyword-stuffing the description (yes, even more than you might be told is acceptable)
  • Writing sock-puppet reviews for themselves
  • Writing negative reviews of their competitors
  • Sniping at competitors in MapMaker, like by changing their business hours to showing “Closed” for most of the day

My client had gone back and forth with this slimy competitor over MapMaker edits and “Report a problem” requests, to no avail.  That’s when I decided the least-inefficient option would be to contact Sheriff Dan.

Dan reported the abuses.  Then we contacted Google and got through to the right person.

What Google did to the offending business ranged from good to (almost) laughable:

1.  They removed the descriptors from the Google Places business name(s).  That was good.

2.  They removed one of the spammy pages.  Also good.

3.  They converted one of the spammy pages into a non-local Google+ page, rather than nuke the page entirely (or merge it with the one legit page at the same address).   That’s what Google temporarily – and I now know accidentally – did to a couple of my clients last month.  Inadequate.

4.  They let the sock-puppet reviews remain.  Pathetic.

Overall, the spam situation in my client’s market is much better than it was, because that one guy has had some of the wind taken out of his sails.  But Google gave him 2 months with conjugal visits, when he should be doing 5 years in solitary.

The sad thing is, this case got more human-review than others do.  It’s not like we only went through the usual channels.

As Dan explained:

It shows that Google has multiple contradictory policies (each Geo group handles the same data differently), little inclination to enforce their vague guidelines, and are more interested in hoarding and preserving data at all costs than ensuring the integrity of the listings.

The absurdity is that you have to use extraordinary measures to get half a response.  Using the normal reporting channels (MM “Report this”/delete, Maps “Report a problem,” Google+ Local “Edit details”) yielded no response at all!

– Dan

As Dan also said, Google has developed an “inability to know what to do with spam, even when they’re clearly shown what it is via direct contact channels.”

As I mentioned in point #3, Google didn’t remove one of the obvious spam pages, but instead kept it around as a non-local Google+ page.  If they didn’t know about it or couldn’t do anything about it, even that meager change wouldn’t have been made.

Although I suppose Google could still take harsher measures against this spammer and others, what we’re seeing is a reluctance to penalize obvious violators.  Google could be cutting out the spam with a sword.  Instead they wave a Play-Doh knife.

Fortunately, spam battles like the one I described aren’t quite as common as maybe I made them sound.  They’re not an issue for the vast majority of my clients, and they might not be an issue for you.

What’s the spam situation in your market?  What has / hasn’t worked for you?  Leave a comment!

Comments

  1. avatar Dan Austin says:

    I should note that it’s become progressively more difficult and complex to address the Local spam issue on Maps. Prior to this, it was relatively easy to pull listings via Map Maker, even with the bugs, but Google has been on a tear to balkanize their Geo products into separate silos (MM, Places-or-whatever-they’re-calling-it-this-week, Maps, Google+Local, etc.) rather than creating a unified interface that enables you to address spam regardless of the portal that you’re using. Although it’s using one database for all the Geo products, even their own tools are so bad and buggy that they’re not able to adequately address some outstanding issues with not only spam, but almost any kind of geo issue you can think of. To make matters worse, Google has been steadily trimming the data that you can manage via MM in favor of Places, the latest debacle being the removal of custom categories. It used to be that MM provided a barely adequate means of adding data that the generally clueless Places team couldn’t figure out how to build or prioritize (such as categories, which has long been a threadbare clusterf*ck with cats disappearing and reappearing, complete with typos; no matter, the spammers just use keyword category stuffing in the business name, bypassing whatever rudimentary filters Google has), but now it’s only good for editing roads and other features that no one can claim or wants to claim. The irony here is that Google is getting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free data, and they can’t even be bothered to build good tools for the inclusion of free data from their frequently reluctant “partners”, much less exercise a little quality control so that the data is somewhat correct. I think Google takes a bit too much pride in the crapfest that is Google Maps.

    It’s also interesting to note that Maps Report a problem is worse than before, if that’s even possible. Instead of responding to feedback over a period of three to six months, they’re no longer responding at all, unless you see the White House or Statute of Liberty suddenly disappear, in which case it should only take them a few weeks to address once it hits the media. In effect, if you try to address any spam issue via Maps RAP, you’re out of luck.

    • Thanks, Dan.

      Even though it’s just another way Google has tied your hands, doesn’t the removal of custom categories help mitigate MM spam issues even a little?

      • avatar Dan Austin says:

        No, not really. Custom categories have always been most beneficial to legit businesses that couldn’t find a standard category that best describes their business model. Most spammers can hardly be bothered with categories, and save most of their creative energies for title and other forms of keyword spam which are not adequately policed. Since categories are just one factor in ranking and search, it’s much easier to bypass the spam controls by adopting a category that is relatively benign, like Glass Repair or Gym or whatever, and then alter it after approval to fit whatever schema is most conducive to spamming.

        I haven’t seen any custom categories for spammers in over a year, at least. I have, however, seen many custom categories for legit businesses that should be a part of the category system, but aren’t available.

  2. Glad to see you shining a light on this Phil. I went through a similar attempt to defeat spam with Dan’s help. I didn’t get nearly as far as you did. It’s a hopeless battle. Google’s editors appear to have some kind of deliberate spam blindness. I assume they just don’t want to get in the middle of fights and put all their trust in whatever automated systems they have to detect and squash spam. Unfortunately, those systems suck.

    • Well said, D.

      I hope at least they get semi-serious about review QC again.

    • avatar Dan Austin says:

      Your situation was interesting, in that every business in your client’s local market was engaged in keyword spamming via the title of the business. I couldn’t find one business in the top 10 that was registered with the state using their Google Places business name, even though they were legitimate storefronts (visible on street view and/or satellite view) who had entirely different business names on their signage. Since they’re all claimed, it’s really difficult, if not impossible to convince Google Places that obvious spam is obvious. I can only imagine it’s because their reviewers’ tools, which rely heavily on algos to make the “right” decision, have no way of understanding what is or isn’t spam, which can be traced back to the incompetence of the Local Spam Team, which never met a spam POI that they couldn’t figure out how to keep up. It’s amazing that Google is so committed to their AI heavy approach to QC, but when their tools fall short, they essentially just give up, because they’re looking for a situation that can fit their tools, rather than building tools to fit the situation. Internally, I suspect that all this iteration nonsense is just that, nonsense, and that Google is not nearly as adaptive as their reputation has made them out to be. Instead of rapidly iterating their response to spam, they’re always month and months behind. Combine that with a lax culture of policing yourself (that always works out well), and any kind of spamming is awarded, because there’s no one to ensure the integrity of the listings at any level. It’s part and parcel of Google’s “ethical” stance: “Let’s get the money and we’ll fix the problems later”.

      • “obvious spam is obvious”… not to Google apparently. A little common sense from their end would help. They have excellent Local Support staff; why not allow them to make mods?

  3. Hey Phil,

    That’s a very notable example of how easy it is for spammers, and at the same time – how difficult it is for regular, honest businesses, when it comes to Google Maps. I believe you might be a little too positive when you say that such spam battles are uncommon. In fact, they are the everyday reality of enormous part of the SABs across the US, sometimes knowingly, more frequently not. I think the only sparkle of optimism comes from the fact that I can notice there are less spammers now than there were 2-3 years ago, for instance. And by “less spammers” I mean less organizations that use aggressive spammy strategies to do business (for their own self-controled businesses, or for their clients). Some tried, or are trying, to go to a more “illuminated” part of the scene where spam is not allowed, because they came to realize that relying heavily on spam (again – to promote your own business, or to do “SEO” for your clients) is not a sustainable business strategy. However, I don’t think spam as an absolute number of spammy (inter)actions on Google Maps has decreased.

    Regarding the reviews that you mentioned haven’t been removed – I think there are two main reasons for that:

    1) I believe reviews are stored in a separate database from the business data, so it *might* be possible that the Google editors for Map Maker might not have the power to do anything with the reviews.
    2) Google have very vague policies when it comes to removing reviews. There should be undeniable proofs for them to decide to remove the reviews manually. Otherwise they would just leave the work to the anti-spam algorithm.

    This is definitely not a relief, but I think the listings editor you discussed the issue with might not be of particular fault when it comes to the reviews.

    Cheers!
    Nyagoslav

    • Hey Nyagoslav,

      Great points. Thanks.

      1. I agree re. the reviews being stored in a separate DB. A listing can be nuked without the reviews going away for good, and vice versa.

      2. I haven’t heard of a Google review being filtered for months. I can’t even say with certainty they’re still filtering.

      As for my being “positive” about the spam situation, you know I’m not a glass-half-full kind of guy 🙂

    • avatar Dan Austin says:

      Nyagoslav, I think the problem is that Google can’t figure out what to do with reviews and reviewers. They would like to be Yelp, but they’re absolutely allergic to any kind of social interaction that can’t be mediated through multiple layers of devices and IP protocols (my polite way of saying Google loves machines, but not people), and having a vibrant review community (like Yelp) requires a commitment of resources that they’ve only recently committed to pulling back from (as in scaling back their ambitious and doomed-from-the-start Google+ planned development/ghost town). With Places, there have been so many move-the-furniture-I’m-bored moments, so many legit reviews that have, poof! disappeared because of technical incompetence on part of Google, that it’s hard to put much faith in nurturing something like reviews if you’re not sure that all your hard work isn’t going to disappear tomorrow. Reviews, like local spam, have turned into a volume exercise, and there’s little emphasis on elevating high quality reviews in the results.

      I should note that evaluating whether or not a review is spam or not is tricky, but it can be done, provided that you see enough of them (building up pattern recognition), and you’re sure that the person writing them isn’t a real person (which can usually be verified by tracing it back to other sources). Writing spam reviews are a lot harder than building a listing, because it require a level of creativity that most spammers can’t muster up on their best days.

  4. Because I know we all just sit around twiddling our thumbs with nothing better to do…

    I’d encourage everyone reading this post to get involved with MapMaker and start reviewing local edits when you have time. We can’t conquer spam all over the world, but at the very least you could contribute to the problem in your neighborhood/city. Spend 15 minutes a day reviewing edits and you’ll get a quick idea for what edits are good and which are dubious.

  5. You mean the MM autoresponder to RAP BS shouldn’t make us feel all warm inside?

    Kinda falls in line with their duplicitous vaguer than grey advertising policies – that tiny inconsequential part of their revenue.

  6. A client of mine had a local competitor who had 3 almost identical websites, 3 Map profiles and I once saw his ads in the SERP take the first 4 AdWords positions for a juicy keyword. I reported the crook to Google and, after spending an inordinate amount of time on the issue, just gave up. Now he is only double serving ads and has 4 profiles in Maps. It seems that Google went from “Do no evil” to “See no evil”.

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