Photos Now Allowed in Google Maps Spam-Reporting Feature

Pull up a Google My Business page that shouldn’t be on the map, click the “Suggest an edit” link, and you’ll see a new feature: the ability to upload a photo as evidence to back up your request.

You don’t have to include a photo, but it should help tilt the scales in your favor.  It’s a new feature, so I don’t yet know the effectiveness of anti-spam reports with photos compared to those without photos.

What I do know is that Google’s got a pitiful track record on following up on valid anti-spam edits, so the photos can’t make things worse.  Google never has done enough to prevent and remove mapspam, but since retiring MapMaker in March of 2017 Google’s really let the rash spread and ooze, particularly in the service-area industries.

Edits with photos aren’t anonymous.  Because “Your photos will be publicly available under your name,” an edit with a photo will include a trail of breadcrumbs back to the good-faith Maps user or to the spammer.  This new feature is like a “MapMaker Lite,” in that MapMaker also showed who edited what.  That’s both good and bad, for reasons I think are obvious.  I guess you don’t include a photo if you don’t want a spammy competitor (for instance) to know who you are.

Have you tried out this new feature in Google Maps spam-reporting yet?  If so, how’s it worked for you?

Are you seeing any similar changes in “Suggest an edit”?

Do you think this is a good move on Google’s part?

Leave a comment!

The Most Obscure “Rule” in Google My Business – a Nasty Surprise

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jayvee/6317802466/

A few days ago I wrote about a tricky issue I seem to have figured out based on a hunch: that having two or more Google My Business pages in the same service area can cause problems if you need to owner-verify one of the pages.

When I was troubleshooting with my client, I couldn’t remember where I saw that overlapping service areas might be an issue for Google.  That bugged me.

Turns out I hadn’t gone totally senile (yet), and that at one point I must have seen this MapMaker thread (or one like it), where MapMaker editor Gregg “Flash” Gordon wrote that:

It is important to note that there is only one listing permitted per SAB per urban area and per location. [Emphasis added.]

Here’s a screenshot (click to enlarge).

As of today (April 4, 2016), that “per urban area” part is not in the Google Places Quality Guidelines:

Businesses that operate in a service area should create one listing for the central office or location and designate service areas.  If you wish to display your complete business address while setting your service area(s), your business location should be staffed and able to receive customers during its stated hours. Google will determine how best to display your business address based on your inputs as well as inputs from other sources

Nor is it in the Google My Business Quality Guidelines, nor in “Service-area businesses on Google” guidelines, nor in “Address entry guidelines,” nor in any other document I know of.  It’s certainly not in any documentation a business owner will ever run across.

It’s not even mentioned by any of the Google My Business Forum “Top Contributors” in my 2014 post on “What’s Missing from the Google Places Quality Guidelines?

Apparently, the only people who know about this dumb, buried “urban area” rule are Googlers, MapMaker editors, and maybe Top Contributors at the GMB forum.  Fine.  Whatever.

But what in tarnation constitutes an “urban area”?

Is it a small town?  Is it Manhattan, or the Five Boroughs of New York City, or the Tri-state area?

What if you’ve got two locations of a business in the middle of nowhere – where the definition of “urban” is the dirt road between the church and the general store?

Oy.

If it’s a rule that’s actually enforced – especially a mushy-worded one like this – it should be present and visible in the rules that Google expects the average business owner to read.  Period.

I guess Google has had bigger fish to fry, like Mic Drop.

Did you know about the “urban area” rule?  If so, where did you read it or hear about it?

Have you seen it enforced?

Leave a comment!

Interview with Bryan Seely: Google Maps Spam Fighter and Ethical Hacker for the Little Guy

Try to guess which one of these things isn’t true of Bryan Seely:

  • Created fake Google Places pages for the FBI and Secret Service, listed phone numbers he controlled, intercepted their phone calls, and then turned himself in to the FBI to show them the security hole that Google left. (And he didn’t get shipped off to Guantanamo Bay!)
  • Spoke at TEDx about how easy it is to spam Google Maps, and how that hurts honest business owners and consumers.
  • Found a weak spot in LinkedIn that allowed him to get Mark Cuban’s personal email address – and then let Mark know, and helped LinkedIn fix the problem. (Mark was happy, too: he asked if Bryan could help with his Cyberdust)
  • Grew up in Japan and speaks Japanese.
  • Is a United States Marine.
  • Wants to be buried in a KISS Kasket.

Bryan’s crusade for Maps sanity and better cybersecurity has brought him some press.  He’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, Bloomberg, and elsewhere.

 

He’s the kind of guy who might just bring about the kind of change that’s bad for spammers but good for honest business owners.

As a concerned local-search geek myself, I’ve been following Bryan for a little over a year now – since he first started really poking Google in the eye.  We had a good phone call recently, and decided to expand it into a full-blown interview.

Enjoy!

How did you go from being a decent guy mixed up with with spammers to being a champion of “the little guy”?

I had lost my job while in Southern California and with a young family, it was a bit difficult to be unemployed suddenly. The company I was working for decided to close their California branch and without warning, income was zero.

I ended up working for a company that engaged in the “map spamming” yet when I joined that was not immediately clear.  Over time, it became apparent that I could not work in that industry anymore, and found myself working as a network engineer and systems engineer for a variety of companies up in Seattle.  I moved my family to get away from all of that and start a new life up in Washington.

Fast forward a couple of years, I decided I wanted to see how the local search world was coming along and started to poke around to see if the same Google Maps vulnerabilities were as prevalent.  I was kind of surprised to see that it was much worse than it was before.

The path at that point as not exactly clear, but I knew that I had to do something about it. I ended up writing up a variety of methods for building fake businesses online and sent them to Google. Their response, if you could call it that, was basic dismissal.  I created some funny maps listings to poke at Google a little bit, some of which were pretty funny in my opinion.  I contacted a local news station, Komo, and they ran a story about the entire spam problem.

Google still resisted the entire premise of the problem, and even after the whole “Wiretapping the Secret Service” incident, Google didn’t fix the underlying problems.

I translated the frustration of them refusing to acknowledge and fix the problem into what I have been working on for a year now. The recent TEDx talk, a book that is getting ready to come out, and as much attention as I can bring to this issue.

 

What’s some “ethical hacking” you’re doing now (and are at liberty to discuss)?

Currently, I have a few private clients that range from celebrities to corporations that value their privacy.  There have been a few stories that I can talk about that happened over the last year or two.

The one I enjoy the most was also fairly simple. Brian Krebs wrote about it in an article, where I was able to use Linkedin.com to validate the email addresses of individuals who use the Linkedin.com system.  I was able to get confirmation of the email address that Mark Cuban uses to login, and then I was able to get in touch with him to inform him of the vulnerability.

Mark’s immediate reaction was “what else can you do?” and he asked if I would be willing to work on his Cyberdust app. Since then, there have been a variety of projects in which disclosure would violate agreements, but if you would like to learn more about what I can disclose, visit seelysecurity.com.

 

You’ve been on Google’s radar (not to mention the Feds’) for about a year now.  How much progress would you say they’ve made?

Until a couple of weeks ago, I would have said 0.  When they shut down MapMaker, it was a huge victory for small business owners and consumers, being that MapMaker was a huge source of maps spam.

Hopefully, with the momentum that we have generated, we can get to the bottom of the problem and have Google see how big the problem is and decided to fix it.

 

Why hasn’t Google done more?

I think that they have an overall approach to technology and product development that involves using code, process and reduced overhead governing its development. Another main factor is that Google likes to “crowd-source” their information requirements, which require the public to contribute.

Google makes money in a variety of ways. Providing an amazing search engine, free email and other services that many people use, allows them to sell the end-users eyeballs to advertisers which generates huge money. MapMaker is failed crowd-sourcing experiment that was plagued by bad data and ultimately bad security restrictions to prevent bad data.

Google doesn’t want to have manual oversight over things, they want to implement code, algorithms, processes and procedures to govern their systems which I completely understand. The problem is that they did not do enough, and they didn’t seem to take suggestions from anyone outside of the organization.

 

What has to happen for Google to get serious about mapspam?

Google would have to find a way to verify the data that they are getting and ensure that it is actually legitimate, instead of trusting 100% of the users that are contributing to their system.

I identified many more solutions in my book, Exposing Maps Fraud, which comes out in the fall of 2015.

 

Could an algorithmic solution help?  Or does Google just need to require the type of owner-verification you’ve suggested?

I don’t think that it will be the right solution for this problem.  If Google is not comparing the data to local or federal business data, how will there ever be accountability?  The whole point of registering a business and getting a business license is for accountability and to protect consumers. When people bypass this process and register with Google, there is no way of holding them accountable, as Google doesn’t police or perform enforcement of any kind. Criminals are registering businesses on Google with no risk of being prosecuted, and Google’s stance has been “head in the sand.”

 

When you and I spoke the other day, you said the spam problem on Yelp isn’t nearly as bad as on Google (and I agree).  Why is that, and do you think Google needs to be more like Yelp in some way?

Yelp seems to have more people involved in the verification process right from the start, plus they don’t seem to partner with other directory services like Google does.  Google gets business information from a ton of other sources that have the same “bad data” and maps spam problems.  When they all end up sharing this data, the problem compounds.

Yelp doesn’t seem to just accept data from these other websites blindly, and I think that is a big reason why their service by comparison is virtually spam free.

 

What is the absolute lowest thing you’ve seen a mapspammer do?

I have heard of a few guys that would make keys for unsuspecting homeowners and then rob them when the homeowners weren’t home weeks or months later.

There are so many different “lowest” things, but the harshest thing I can think of is that these criminals organizations are so good at manipulating Google’s ranking system that they put small business owners out of business to where they can’t even support their family.  The American dream of working hard, building up a client base and providing for your family is being taken from thousands of small business owners all over the country.  I think that is easily the lowest thing I can think of.

 

What’s an industry that’s way spammier than most people realize?  (We all know about the infamous trouble areas, like the locksmith space, plumbing, bail bonds, etc.)

Garage door repair is one that was surprising, but the one that didn’t make sense at first was Drug and Alcohol treatment centers. The ones that you end up seeing on Google Maps are not actually real call centers or clinics, but sell the calls to larger organizations who don’t care where they get the calls from.

 

How many of the hardcore spammers are behind businesses that basically do a good job for customers – and aren’t really offline thieves?

I would say that 95% of the spammers build these fake listings, and sell the calls to legitimate business owners or provide a decent service.  When violent crime starts happening, the lifespam of the spammers go way down.  It’s easier to not draw any attention to their fake network by performing a good service. If the consumer gets the service with no hiccups, then no one suspects anything is wrong. That’s how most of these organizations have stayed under the radar for so long.

 

How much of the really bad mapspam seems to be from for-hire SEO companies?

I think that these for-hire SEO companies make up 50% or so of the players at the lower levels. The largest organizations are not running a legitimate SEO operations at all.

Like I said before, map spammers try to stay covert and under the radar otherwise they risk losing their fake listings or getting prosecuted.

 

Besides Google, who has really dropped the ball?

WhitePages, SuperPages and Dex Media are practically all spam. Those directories are more spam than actual businesses.

As to what the government and other organizations can do, I detailed a lot of that in the book.

 

I’ve always found that businesses outside the US are a little less likely to spam, but if they do, Google doesn’t crack down on them as much.  How would you describe the mapspam problem outside of ‘Murica?

Its very similar, but not as prevalent. Other countries have different regulations and business processes so trying to evaluate and learn all the laws of 200+ countries becomes very time prohibitive.

 

What are a couple of specific businesses you admire that are kicking spammy competitors’ butts from the high road?

One of the people that has been in this fight for a long time is Dan Austin. The problem with fighting spam is that there isn’t any money in fighting the spam. There are plenty of locksmiths that have been fighting against the spammers, Mark Baldino being one, but overall, it’s hard to beat these guys with Google taking their own side and doing virtually nothing.

 

You’ve talked about how spammers would buy fake Google reviews by the thousands.  Has that situation improved at all, and what should Google do to clean up its reviews?

Most spammers are posting their own reviews using the same infrastructure they have for building the fake businesses. Some of them hire people overseas for a much cheaper hourly rate, or just pay local people to do the work. Most of the time, spammers realize they can get away with writing very lazy and sloppy reviews because the amount of time it takes to put effort into real looking reviews is quite high.  It’s not that hard to write a 4 word review that says “Service was great, thanks!” vs a paragraph with sincere words.

 

Are those “reviews” obvious fakes, or are they pretty believable to the untrained eye?

Most of the time, fake reviews are very easy to spot. The easiest way to spot fakes is by looking at all the reviews on a specific business. If you see 10 five star reviews that are very vague or similar, and then several 1 star reviews that are much more detailed, you have probably found a map spammer. Real consumers will feel lied to and will often times leave a 1 star review to show that they are dissatisfied with the service.  When the fake business performs well, there won’t be many bad reviews at all, so that makes them harder to spot.

(Phil note: read this great old post by Nyagoslav on how to sniff out fake reviews.)

 

What’s your reviews-strategy advice?

Make a point of asking politely for a positive review at a specific point once the service has been rendered. Provide a great service, and tell them that you value their reviews and it will help fight against the fake spammers.

Telling consumers that this problem exists and that you are fighting against it helps to get the appropriate willingness to help.

There are many rules when it comes to asking for reviews / offering discounts in exchange for them. I would encourage business owners to understand them and follow them.

 

What’s your advice to business owners who are up against spammers?  What steps should they take?

Get organized, and find time every single day to flag the spammers, but only after you have determined that they are not legitimate. Checking with local / state directories to make sure that you are flagging illegal businesses is critical.

You wouldn’t want to flag a real business just because you think they might be spam.

I will be launching a service that helps business owners with this process, and saves them the time of flagging and checking whether or not the business is legitimate.

 

How about your advice to local SEOs?’

Don’t fall for the temptation of resorting to black hat or grey hat techniques to get ahead.  The stress on me built and built and nearly cost me everything.

Do good work, beat the streets and deliver results. Read more about the products you are working with, learn the techniques you need and apply them without taking shortcuts.  Eventually “karma” catches up to everyone, and I would encourage everyone to abide by the rules.

I was a part of the problem in one industry and now I get to fight against it in all of them. I will not turn a blind eye when I see someone being taken advantage of.

 

What kind of simple due-diligence should consumers do every time they’re researching local businesses?

You should be able to look up the business name, DBA name, and key business information in a state business license search when trying to ascertain the legitimacy of a business.  This is the first place to look.

Check to see if the business actually exists at the location it proclaims to be at.

Remember, sometimes there are typos or a business has a trade name or other things that might look fraudulent, but it could just be a mistake. You don’t want to take down a real business owner’s livelihood because you are angry. The cycle has to end.

 

How can someone reading this join the fight against mapspam?

Join my mailing list at seelysecurity.com to receive information about how you can fight against map spam, and follow me on Twitter @bryanthemapsguy

 

What are some posts / books / other resources that anyone concerned about mapspam should read?

My TEDx talk “Wiretapping The Secret Service Can Be Easy & Fun”

The first Komo story I was part of (link).

Stay tuned for the only book on the subject, coming out soon.

 

I know you do do a lot of cybersecurity consulting that has nothing to do with mapspam.  What’s some cybersecurity advice you have for anyone reading this?

Passwords!  You don’t have to make them hard to remember, just make them as long as possible. For example:  P@ssw0rd!%123     that is a hard to type password, and hard to remember. This one is harder to break, but easier to remember:  Mydogcannotplaytheharmonicaworthadamn!123   You can use phrases instead of keywords, and computers are trained to substitute numbers and symbols for letters when cracking passwords. The longer the password is, the harder it is to crack.

Use 2-factor authentication on Gmail, Dropbox, or whatever services that you use online. Period.

Don’t shop online or do banking on public wi-fi, like at Starbucks. Just don’t.

Change passwords on your home devices like you would change your oil, regularly.

Update your antivirus software and don’t download stuff from people you don’t know. That’s the 2015 version of “don’t take candy from strangers.”

Most of the places you are getting malware and spyware come from websites that are the result of searching for pirated software, pornography, or “earning money working from home,” etc. These websites try to lure you into downloading their “coupon printer” or money saving toolbar which ends up being a virus or something.  Word to the wise: stick to the main road.

 

You’ve mentioned that you’re concerned about people’s online privacy (or lack thereof) in general.  What battles are you fighting on that front?

Right now, a couple of startups that are in the early stages of product development that will be hyper focused on consumer privacy and advocacy.

 

Tell me about the book you’ve got coming out.

The book details the entire ecosystem of fraud and scamming that is happening in the online maps world. Google Maps, Bing, Yelp, and the various other websites that you use to find local businesses are not the convenience and safe havens for innovation that most people see them as.

Spammers have found numerous ways to game the system and make a ton of money in the process. They are taking advantage of consumers, business owners and no one is really doing anything about it. I talked about it in the TEDx talk back in April, and the book will address all of the various pieces, how it works, and even detail HOW the scammers are doing it.

The hope is that Google and other websites will have to take action to fix this once and for all, and consumers and business owners will stop losing money, time, and their livelihoods.

 

As a Devil Dog, you support your fellow Marines and veterans.  What’s the best way for someone reading this to help out?

To help with Marines and other veterans, There are a number of places I would suggest donating your time and/or money:

The Wounded Warrior Project (woundedwarriorproject.org)

Donate your time to the VA (volunteer.va.gov)

(Phil note: there’s also my Visibility for Veterans program.)

 

Can someone reading this hire you to help in any way?

I am available to be contacted via email (bryan@seelysecurity.com) or you can fill out a contact form on seelysecurity.com.

My main business focus is cyber-security consulting, which involves “ethical hacking”, PCI and compliance auditing, as well as doing infrastructure and project based work as well.  I have been a high end voice over IP (VoIP) guy for a while, as well as a network engineer and consultant for a while, so whether its deploying something new, upgrades, or troubleshooting, I am pretty comfortable with just about anything you can throw at me.

Lately I have been getting a wide variety of work, especially “I have been hacked, can you help” type stories.  People see me on TMZ or other outlets and reach out with questions, and I am more than happy to answer.

By the way, on June 24th I will be teaching a cyber-security workshop at the Global Fund Forum in Bermuda. Feel free to connect with me there, if you’re planning some shore leave in Bermuda 🙂

Thanks to Bryan for a great interview.  I suggest checking out his site, getting on his email list, and following him on Twitter.

He can even make you a snazzy “Edward’s Snow Den” t-shirt.

Any questions?  Got a painful mapspam story?  Leave a comment!

20 Local SEO Techniques You Overlooked (Almost)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/

We local-SEO geeks talk about the same old basic principles a little too much: clean up your citations, don’t get penalized by Google, be mobile-friendly, earn “local” links, create “unique” content, deserve reviews, ask for reviews, etc.

It’s all good advice.  I’ve devoted many of my blog posts in the last 4 years to unpacking that advice so it’s easy to act on.

The trouble is we’re repetitive.  We’re almost as bad as the talking heads at CNN.  We rarely move on to what you should do once you’re pretty solid on the basics – and there is a lot you can and should do.

(In fact, many of the overlooked wins can also help you even if you just started working on your local SEO.)

Here are 20 stones I find unturned way too often:

1.  Nail the categories on your non-Google listings: Pick out the most-relevant ones, and as many of them as are applicable. Dig them up with Moz Local’s free “Category Research” area and with my category lists for Apple Maps and Yelp.

2.  Do a second round of work on your citations. Do it a couple of months after the initial blob of work.  You might be amazed at how many stragglers you find.  Might be enough to motivate you for a third go-round.

3.  Try to find and possibly hire a MapMaker editor to join the Forces of Good in your local anti-spam war. Of course, there’s no guarantee that even a MapMaker editor can stop your competitors’ spam offensive, but it’s worth a shot.

4.  Become or get to know an “Elite” Yelper (like this recruit). Got a review that’s viciously personal, un-PC, or is obviously from an imposter?  The Elite Yelper may know just how to phrase the takedown request for the best chances of a takedown.  Also, because most Elite Yelpers don’t really have lives, Yelp seems to expect them to report data-errors (like wrong addresses), and usually acts on them.

5.  Embedding on your website the Google map that’s featured on your Places page. Don’t embed a map of a generic address.  You want Google to know people are looking up directions to you.

6.  Get a Google Business View photo shoot. (10 reasons here.)

7.  Pick the right itemtype for the blob of name / address / phone info that you’ve marked up with Schema.org markup. Or take a few extra minutes to go bananas with your Schema.

8.  Join a couple of local and industry associations. I’m talking about your local Chamber of Commerce and the sorts of organizations you’d find if you Google the word that describes your business + “association” or “organization.”  They’re often worth joining for the offline benefits, and you’ll probably get a good link.

9.  Diversify the sites where you encourage customer reviews. The benefits are many.

10.  Create a “Reviews” page. Use it to showcase your reviews (possibly with widgets and badges) and to ask any customers who visit the page to put in a good word.  You can pretty easily create a page from scratch, or you can make a nice one with a service like Grade.us.  Link to it in the signature of your emails, as a gentle way to encourage any customers you email to pick up a quill.

11.  Write blog posts to answer super-specific questions that a customer might type into Google. Don’t try to rank for your main keywords (“How to Pick the Best Dentist in Cleveland: a Guide by Cleveland Dentists for Cleveland Dentist Patients”).  It won’t work and you’ll look stupid.  (Refer to this post and its follow-up.)

12.  Get some barnacle SEO happening. By now, Will Scott’s concept isn’t new, but most business owners still don’t even try to do it.  But just start with the basics: if you pick out all the right categories (see point #1) and encourage reviews on a variety of sites (see point #9) you’ll be in pretty good shape.

13.  Use wildcard searches for keyword-research. (This one was new to me until very recently.)

14.  Lengthen pages that aren’t ranking well – including and perhaps especially your homepage. Yes, this sounds old-school, and about as cool as a pocket protector.  But I’m not telling you to add gibberish.  Go into detail about what makes you different, describe your service / process, address concerns the reader might have, etc.  Google likes having meat to sink its teeth into.  One-paragraph Wonder Bread pages tend not to do as well.

15.  Ask for reviews twice. People forget, and it’s a nice excuse to keep in touch.  Follow up with customers you asked for a review – especially if they said they would.  It’s easy to avoid making yourself a pest: just say you’d still appreciate their feedback, ask them if they have any questions for you, and thank them in advance.

16.  Include links to sites where you have reviews. (Be sure to have those links open into a new browser tab, so nobody’s leaving your site.)  Use review widgets and badges when you can.

17.  Cannibalize underperforming microsites, bad blog posts, or other online carcasses. Grab (and edit as need be) any content that’s redeemable, and use it to make your site bigger and better.

18.  Get listed on Apple Maps. Yes, everyone knows about aMaps by now, but I’m amazed at how many times I start working for clients and see only their competitors on Apple.

19.  Try hard to reach non-English speakers, if applicable. Don’t just stick Se Habla Español (for example) in your footer as an afterthought.  Include a paragraph in that language on your homepage and on your “Contact” page.  Maybe create a whole page geared toward those customers.  Be sure to use the hreflang tag if you have more than one version of the same page.

20.  If you’re a local SEO-er, find steps your clients might be able to do better than you can. Don’t just look for more billable hours; look for the best person for the job, or the best combination of people.  Don’t spend hours trying to dig up all their old phone numbers and addresses; ask them first.  Whenever a writing task comes up, pump your clients for info.  When you need to find link opportunities, send them my link questionnaire.  They know the business better than you do.  If you don’t get much cooperation, fine.  At least you tried, and you’re giving them options.  But I’ve found that most clients recognize when they’ve got just the right wrench for the oddly-shaped bolt.

What’s an “overlooked” local SEO tip you like?

Any that you’re considering but not sure about?

Leave a comment!

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

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!

An Overlooked Way to Report a Crooked Local Competitor

A recent conversation with my buddy, Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca, led me to wonder: what is the best way to report a business that’s using a fake address or fake DBA to get ahead in the Google+ Local results?

 

The question came up because of a comment I made in this year’s Local Search Ranking Factors study, about how you’re doing the right thing if you report a competitor who’s using questionable means to eat your lunch in the local results.

(If you want to check out my original comment, it’s the third-from-last one – and my last comment – in the LSRF, down near the bottom of the page.)

Google would have you believe that the only way to report a competitor is to use the “Report a problem” feature.  My experience never has been that “Report a problem” is particularly effective.  But what’s made me lose faith recently is that the competitor of a client of mine has been using a UPS store as his address – and you can clearly see the UPS signage from Street View.  The boneheads at  Google have done nothing.

Which made me think: is Google’s “Report a problem” the only way you can even try to level the playing field?

No: you could also report the offending business on MapMaker.  If your edit comes to the attention of a good Regional Expert Reviewer (RER), you may be in luck.  But MapMaker is still a roll of the dice.

Then it occurred to me: what if you flag down the business at other important sites in the local-search “ecosystem”?

I’m talking about alerting sites like Yelp and YP to the fact that your competitor is using fake info.  That’s the stone I forget to turn over – and that other people probably also forget to turn over.  (If you frequently report crooked competitors this way, I tip my hat to you.)

Which sites should you go to?  By my count, the only important local-search sites with some semblance of a “report inaccurate info” feature are Yelp, YP, SuperPages, InsiderPages, ExpressUpdate, and Yahoo.

 

As for ExpressUpdate.com, I think you just have to contact them personally (from the “Contact Us” button at the bottom of the site).  No idea how helpful they are, though.

What should you put in your reports?

  • You competitor’s real business info;
  • The inaccurate or fake business that your competitor is using instead;
  • How you know the fake info is fake, and how you know the real info is real, and
  • Your contact info, if possible.

I wish I could say exactly how well this type of reporting works.  I don’t know yet.  For whatever reason, unethical competitors usually aren’t a problem for my clients, so I don’t have too many occasions to flag them down.

As far as I can see, there are 3 possible outcomes of flagging down dishonest competitors on sites like the above:

1.  Nothing happens – in which case I suggest trying again in a couple of weeks, and maybe asking other people to flag them down.  I can’t guarantee that grinding will do the trick, but don’t assume it won’t.

2.  One or more of the sites corrects or removes the offending listing, which could hurt not only your competitor’s visibility on that site, but also his/her NAP consistency and possibly Google+ Local rankings.

3.  Enough of the sites start displaying the real info that Google finally realizes the info on your competitor’s Places/Plus page is fake.  As Bill Slawski has written, Google’s patents describe that this is one anti-spam method that Google uses to police Maps.

Don’t confine your efforts to level the playing field.  Keep flagging down those competitors on Google, but also try it on other sites.  Something’s gotta give.

What methods have you tried to report competitors using fake info?  What seems to have worked – or not worked – so far?  Leave a comment!

4 Local SEO Tools from Uncle Sam

The US Government is dysfunctional.  Congress is corrupt.  It’s so bad that, even in these times of spiraling deficits, lawmakers are still earmarking precious funds so that Uncle Sam can help you with…your local SEO.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

I don’t know that The Man has appropriated precious resources specifically to help your business grow its local rankings.  But he does have some resources that you might be able to use to your advantage.

Of course, they’re free.  (Actually, you’re paying for them…but let’s not go there 🙂 )

Here are 4 government-issued tools that can come in handy for your local-search-visibility campaign:

 

Tool 1: USPS ZIP Lookup Tool

Is your business in a small town, near a city line, or in a big city with a bunch of tightly-packed ZIP codes?  Better double-check what ZIP the Post Office thinks you’re in (or, for that matter, which city they think you’re in) – before you do any citation-building for your business.

If you don’t “measure twice, cut once,” you’ll probably be in for a nasty surprise if the Post Office lists you at an address other than the one you use for your listings.  Why?  Because ExpressUpdate.com (AKA InfoGroup) feeds off of Post Office address data, and in turn feeds business data to a ton of directory sites where your address needs to be listed consistently across the board.  There will be conflicting info on your business, hurting your Google rankings.  You’ll feel like going postal.

(By the way, I’d known about the USPS checkup for quite some time, but I must tip my hat to Mary Bowling for reminding me by way of her great SMX Advanced presentation / slide deck.)

 

Tool 2:  Census.gov

Want to know more about the people (AKA potential customers) in the city you’re targeting?  The Census is the great-granddaddy of big data.

If you rummage around the site for long enough you’ll probably find out whatever you want to know, but I’d say following two areas are the best starting points:

http://www.census.gov/econ/cbp/

http://www.census.gov/econ/susb/

 

3.  OSHA’s Standard Industrial Category (SIC) Tool

If you’re listing your business on ExpressUpdate.com for the first time, OSHA’s category-search tool can help you pick out the best category to list your business under.  (More detail on this in my recent post on the new ExpressUpdate.)

 

4.  Your city’s local-business directory.

If you suspect some of your competitors are using fake business info – like a keyword-stuffed Google+Local business name or a phony address – you might want to look up their official business info.  From there, you’ll probably be in a better position to draw a conclusion as to what to do about it – like possibly reporting them to Google through the “Report a problem” button on their Google listing, or reporting them to the MapMaker fuzz.

You should be able to find your local-business register by searching Google for the name of your city/town + “local business directory,” “business register,” or “chamber of commerce.”  (Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.)

Do you know of any government-issued resources that might be handy for local SEO?  Anything local-business-related that you wish our tax dollars would go toward?  Leave a comment!

Google MapMaker 101 for Local Business Owners

Google MapMaker is like the NSA: Many people know it exists or at least have heard of it in passing.  But few know much about it or what goes on there.

MapMaker is one head of a two-headed monster.  It’s oddly intertwined with the Google+Local (AKA Google Places) search results.  The accuracy of much of the “local” info about cities and businesses depends on thousands and millions of little changes that people make to Google’s maps.  Many of those changes are made in MapMaker.

These little changes can determine whether your business is listed accurately in Google.  Ultimately, they can determine how visible your business is in the Google+Local search results.  That’s why you should care about MapMaker – or at least know a little bit about it.

MapMaker won’t help you win the potato-sack race with your local competitors.  But knowing about how it works can help you avoid a faceplant that can cause you to lose that race.

The only trouble is that practical, real-world info on MapMaker is hard to come by.  It doesn’t get much attention even in local-SEO circles.

Because of that and simply out of my curiosity, I decided to interview two people who know a lot about MapMaker: Andrew Sawyer and Saikrishna Arcot.

These guys are “Regional Expert Reviewers.”  Also known as “RER’s” or “editors” or “reviewers,” they’re among the people who volunteer their time to make the endless number of changes to Google’s maps – and to the local-business info in them.

I did my best Mike Wallace, and they did a phenomenal job of answering my questions and providing a TON of insights.

To get the inside scoop on how MapMaker affects your business’s visibility in Google+Local and what you can and cannot do with it, read the interview.  You’ll want to pull up a chair for this one.

How would you describe MM to someone who’s never heard of it before?

Andrew:  MM is a way for people to provide their local knowledge to update physical features in Google Maps. This takes the form of parks, roads, shopping malls, rivers, etc. MM is the public editable version of Google Maps that is incorporated to provide accurate and up-to-date information from users.

Saikrishna: Map Maker is a tool for users to either correct incorrect features (roads, business listings, parks, schools, shopping centers, etc.) or to add new roads or features that they may not own.

 

Under what circumstances would a business owner EVER need to deal with MM personally?  To what extent should a business owner care about what goes on there?

Andrew:  Business owners should take care in using MM, especially if they are looking to use it to gain an edge on their competition. MM should be used by those who feel comfortable using it to make accurate edits that affect physical features. Some reasons a business owner would want to use MM:

Providing an accurate address – Places/Community Edits will abbreviate addresses which is not the format desired for Maps. MM feeds/edits the addresses, road names, cities, states, countries for Maps (some of these are locked from editing). While abbreviations may be rendered on the map, the full name is used and required for addresses.

If there is an issue with an address, a new geolocated point for the address can be manually entered via MM. By adding a point feature in MM with the category “Address” can be used with just the street address (no names of features) to help set where a particular address is. If an address is already present, but uses abbreviate names “Rd.” the full name of the street name/state/etc. should be selected from the drop down when editing to help locate the place.

Checking on the history/troubleshooting their businesses’ feature – Most edits, even those from Community Edits and Google editors, will typically show up allowing any user to view if a feature had anything which would cause issues with bots or other automated edits. Some things that can affect a feature are duplicates/merges, improper name change and/or hijacking another business feature, changing a professional listing (person) to a business feature,  issues finding when and/or who made a change to the feature. The Places/G+L cid# it can be used to find the MM feature associated with the one in their dashboard.

Adding/editing physical features nearby the business – By watching the MM YouTube videos, reading some MM Help Center articles and asking for help in the MM forum you can quickly gain the knowledge to make edits that will provide more detail about the area surrounding a business. Some features that can be added are parking lots, shopping centers, buildings, access roads, paths, etc. Many businesses are located in a shopping center/strip mall/etc. and if the shopping center is added to the map with a boundary drawn on the map features will be associated with the shopping center in Maps. When a business owner isn’t comfortable making an edit, they can always seek out experienced MM users to help/make the necessary changes.

Saikrishna: Business owners should generally stick to Places, since they have a lot of control over their place in Places. In most cases, the only reason a business owner would absolutely need to go to Map Maker is possibly to delete incorrect names that are showing up in Google+ Local.  However, in some cases, if their business disappears from either Places or Google+ Local, they may need to go to either the Places forums or the Map Maker forums or to their feature in Map Maker to find out why their business might have disappeared. If there are sudden changes between what they had and what is there now, or if what they see in their Places dashboard is significantly different from what they see in their Google+ Local page, then they might want to go to their Map Maker feature to see recent edits made.

That being said, there are a couple of features that are in Map Maker, but may or may not be in Places. One of these is the ability to associate their feature with a building. If the business is located inside a building, and the building is mapped in Map Maker, then they can edit their feature to indicate that their business is located in a building. If the building isn’t mapped, they can draw a new building, and after that is approved, link their feature to the building. Currently, this will have no effect in Places or Google+ Local, but I’m hoping that one day, we’ll be able to tell the businesses that are in a specific building.

Some business owners may see in Google+ Local that their addresses were changed to expand all abbreviations and have the suite number (if applicable) places at the start of the address instead of right after the street name. The reasoning for this is that Map Maker has defined data fields for the address line (where the suite number goes), street name, city, state, and zip code, and Places doesn’t follow this format. In addition, when editing, Places / Google+ Local abbreviates where possible, whereas the data (street name, state name, etc.) is not abbreviated. In order to follow this format, the addresses are changed in Map Maker to match existing data.

[Phil: If you’ve wondered why the address that you see when you visit your business’s Google+Local page doesn’t look like it has the same formatting as what you entered in the “Street Address” field(s) of your Google Places dashboard, the above answer explains why.]

 

For whom or what is MM most useful? 

Andrew: MM is most useful for addressing/routing in Maps; changes in MM will eventually affect Maps (this ranges from days to weeks depending on the type of edit and the different iterations of Google the change impacts)

MM is also most useful for making changes to one’s local area to convey the most accurate information; marking a business as closed, adding a new name for a street (or part of one), correcting the location of a business to its front door, etc.

Saikrishna: In my opinion, Map Maker is most useful for general Maps users who have some spare time on their hands, who are fairly familiar with a region, and who are willing to improve features in that region.

In addition to end-users, Google Trusted Photographers also use Map Maker either to add a business that is not already on Maps or to correct information about a business in preparation for a photography tour for the business.

 

Other than editors and people trying to spam Google, who uses MM?  Tell me a little bit about the typical end-user.

Andrew: MM is typically used by people who have a love for maps (Geo majors, Scouts, backpackers), people who rely on maps for their job (public safety personnel, truckers, taxi drivers) and technically inclined people who want to see their “home area” properly mapped in Google

Saikrishna: From what I see, the typical end-user are those who want to make a few changes to businesses here or there.

[Phil: Hey, maybe you could make it onto this list.]

 

Can people also use it to create “personal maps?

Andrew: MM should never be used to make personal maps, that should be limited to “My places” in Google Maps.

Saikrishna: Actually, if users want to create a map that only relates to them, but is not for anyone else, or the feature they are adding is personal or private, they will need to use My Places in Google Maps instead.

 

What type of person generally becomes a “trusted” (AKA “Regional”) MM editor?  What does it take to become one?

Andrew: Regional Expert Reviewers, those with enhanced publishing powers for Review (not edits), are typically selected from the most active editors using MM, in the forum and demonstrate a commitment to reviewing/mapping in accordance with MM guidelines.

Saikrishna: A trusted Map Maker editor should be familiar with Map Maker guidelines and know how to do things in Map Maker. He/she should also be familiar with his/her area enough to be able to review other people’s edits.

 

Has someone ever hired you specifically for your help in fixing a MM problem?

Andrew: No, as a MM user and RER I feel a personal obligation to help people map in a way that improves the map and is in accordance with Google’s policies. While I already have helped many people on the MM, Google for Business and other forums fix problems for free, I am available for consultation.

Saikrishna: No (unless you count those asking for help on how to do something in the forums).

 

How do MM problems usually come to your attention?

Andrew: I learn of “Problems,” which I define as bad data, from my own personal use of Google Maps and MM, friends who tell me they can’t find an address/business or that it’s mislocated, the MM forum, the Google for Business (“Places”) forum, the Local Search Forum, and news articles.

Saikrishna: Mainly through both forums and Map Maker itself. I typically edit businesses in my area and sometimes find problems with features.

 

What kinds of local search -related problems have their roots in MM?

Andrew: Merges and/or duplicates.  This is one of the big offenders I see with business owners claiming a feature thinking it is “Dentistry Unlimited” because that’s what the primary name on Maps said it was, or marking that feature as a duplicate of the existing “Dentistry Unlimited” feature associated with a claimed feature in Places. Google allows dentists to have ‘Professional Listings’ as a way for people to locate the doctor directly instead of the business; unfortunately people or bots will place the business name in the name of the feature instead of the person’s name which sometimes will be modified in a manner that conflates the professional listing with a business listing.

Because name changes to businesses, etc. require closing a feature and creating a new one, bots will mistakenly add information to what should be a professional listing but has been claimed by someone representing a dental practice. This is especially problematic when someone retires and another professional comes into the same practice and the same professional listing is used. Business owners and others should take the time to check a feature’s history in MM to go all the way to the beginning to see if it was improperly renamed or marked as a duplicate in a manner that would present problems with bots.

Saikrishna: If their business is not appearing in the search suggestions, it may be that the business has been marked as a duplicate of another feature or marked as closed. However, this could be attributed either to Map Maker or to Places, as a bot there may have marked a business as a duplicate of another.

If their business is not appearing in Maps at all, then it could be that their business was removed, either from Places or Map Maker.

 

What checks can a business owner perform in MM to tell whether there’s a problem that affects his/her business?

Andrew: See earlier comments [answer to question #2].

Saikrishna: A business owner could check to see if there have been major changes to their feature (if their feature is removed, marked as closed, or marked as a duplicate of another feature). These three changes could be an indication that their place may no longer be searchable in Google Maps. If their feature is removed, it may be because the feature was in violation of Places guidelines. If their feature is marked as a duplicate, or if your feature is not appearing at all in Maps, then I would recommend going to either the Map Maker forums or the Places forums.

 

If a business owner has concluded that his/her business has a problem in MM, what course of action would you suggest for that person?

Andrew: Business owners should only turn to MM when using the Places Dashboard is ineffective or MM is better at accomplishing the desired result (in accordance with Places and MM guidelines).

For business owners wishing to use MM, the best course of action is to start their own thread in the MM forum, including the city/state/country in the subject line. They should describe their issue in a factual manner (avoiding blame accusations, etc) and being straightforward about their business and the feature.

The MM forum is largely user-to-user, and more experienced users like myself only have a certain amount of time and energy to contribute. If someone is being belligerent and/or shady they are likely going to not receive as much assistance as if they were honest and forthcoming. I have helped give people advice on how to bring their non-compliant features into compliance because they were able to provide me the information I needed to give them proper advice. Others, I just moved onto the next person and/or just reported their feature to Google for internal review.

Saikrishna: If it’s a simple change (incorrect address number, incorrect marker location, etc.), and their Places Dashboard is correct, then editing in Map Maker would probably be fine. If it is more complex (missing in search results, marked as a duplicate, etc.), then I would recommend going to either the Map Maker forum or the Places forum.

 

The rest of Google’s maps / local search system is notoriously full of problems.  What are the big problems in MM?

Andrew: Bots making edits that combine information from a variety of places into one feature and/or merging features incorrectly. This is predominant on college campuses with the main college feature having the names and phone numbers of departments and organizations added to the main feature.

Saikrishna: Some of the problems in Map Maker (which is also shared in Places) is that a feature may be marked as a duplicate of another feature by either a Places bot or a Map Maker bot when it’s really not, possibly because of similar names or similar phone numbers. This causes the “duplicate” feature to eventually disappear from Maps, and a new feature may have to be created.

 

What are some common shenanigans that some people – particularly business owners or marketers/SEOs – try to pull in MM?

Andrew:

  • Hijacking features of competitors and changing the name or phone number to their own/someone else.
  • Having multiple features at different addresses for one business.
  • Using a UPS store, USPS post office, Private Mailbox location, or Virtual/Rented Office location like Regis as their physical address.  [Be sure to review the list of acceptable locations in MapMaker.]
  • Trying to game the system by making edits/reviews in MM to build trust within MM to gain an advantage. Power users and other experienced editors usually spot these pretty easily and report them to Google. Such schemes usually result in someone having their trust level manually reset by Google or their account suspended/deactivated.

Saikrishna: While this isn’t specific to Map Maker, one fairly common shenanigan is having too many categories. Some businesses type in categories that are not among Google’s list of categories. Some businesses also have the name of the city as part of a category, which isn’t allowed. There are very few cases in which a business should have a category that’s not already included in Google’s list of categories.

Another shenanigan I occasionally see is business owners not entering the proper name of their business in the name field. For example, instead of entering “Remax,” they enter “Best Real Estate Office.” This is not allowed, and may lead to problems down the line in regards to their visibility in Map Maker.

Another “attempted” shenanigan I see is people entering information about the business in the Description box in Map Maker. They may believe that the description they enter will be visible in the Google+ Local page; however, the description box is essentially notes that don’t go anywhere. The description that is in Google+ Local can only be edited in the Places Dashboard.

 

What do you think the average business owner should do with MM?

Andrew: Learn how to use MM before jumping in with both feet; reading the Help Center articles, watching the YouTube videos for MM and reading the forums is a great place to start. Use MM only to accurately fix issues that cannot be done via their own Dashbord or Community Edits (address, name types, or others).

Saikrishna: They can keep an eye on their Map Maker feature to make sure that there are no major changes that are incorrect. If there are any incorrect changes, some of them may be easy to fix, while the others may or may not be able to be fixed.

 

What do you like most about MM?

Andrew: I like the ability to make changes that update Google Maps allowing its users to get directions, locate a business or discover what is around them more efficiently and effectively. As an RER, I also enjoy the ability, to quickly push through edits in order to keep Maps up-to-date as possible.

Saikrishna: I like the idea of Map Maker itself, that the common man can help in making a better map for their neighborhood, either by adding new roads or adding a new store that’s recently opened.

 

How do you see MM evolving in the future?  (Pure speculation is OK!)

Andrew: In the future I see Trusted Reviewer being added for smaller areas (cities, college campuses) to people in those communities such as planning officials, police dispatchers, etc. who demonstrate proficiency in MM to have better control over correcting inaccurate or abusive edits. Currently most RERs have enhanced publishing powers for reviews on a country-wide basis.

 

Any other comments you’d like to add?

Andrew: Android users should go sign up for Ingress, which is currently in beta. It reportedly is a fun game and will help improve Google Maps!

About the MapMaker Experts:

Andrew Sawyer

Google+

MapMaker Regional Editor profile

Saikrishna Arcot

Google+

MapMaker Regional Editor profile

 

MapMaker resources referred to in the interview:

YouTube channel

Forum

Help Center

 

Great posts on MapMaker:

Interview with Dan Austin, a Google Maps Spam Fighter – Nyagoslav Zhekov

Google +Local NAP Info Pulling From Mapmaker (not Places?) – David Mihm

A Step By Step To Recover Your “We Currently Do Not Support This” Location in MapMaker – Mike Blumenthal

What Should Your Business Listing Categories Be in MapMaker – Mike Blumenthal

Google+ Local vs. Map Maker. Is Your Business Eligible? – Nyagoslav Zhekov

MapMaker Bots and What They Do – Mike Blumenthal

Any questions for Andrew or Saikrishna (or me)?  How about a great big thank you to these guys for taking the time to share some insights?  Leave a comment!