You Offer 10 Services and Serve 10 Cities, So You Create 100 City Pages? Why City-Page Proliferation Is Dumb

You want to rank for a bunch of keywords in a bunch of cities.  You don’t have a physical location in each city – which makes you ineligible for Google My Business pages in all those places – but you figure you can “optimize” as many pages you need.  Your competitors do it, so why shouldn’t you?  What have you got to lose?

Let’s say own an HVAC company in the Dallas area.  You offer 10 main services and want to reach customers in 10 cities.  You crank out 10 city pages for “heating repair,” with page names like:

/heating-repair-dallas-tx
/heating-repair-fort-worth-tx
/heating-repair-plano-tx
/heating-repair-arlington-tx
/heating-repair-richardson-tx
/heating-repair-irving-tx
/heating-repair-garland-tx
/heating-repair-mckinney-tx
/heating-repair-denton-tx
/heating-repair-grapevine-tx

Then you need pages on AC repair, so…

/ac-repair-dallas-tx
/ac-repair-fort-worth-tx
/ac-repair-plano-tx
/ac-repair-arlington-tx
/ac-repair-richardson-tx
/ac-repair-irving-tx
/ac-repair-garland-tx
/ac-repair-mckinney-tx
/ac-repair-denton-tx
/ac-repair-grapevine-tx

 And so on.

Before you know it, you’ve got 100 pages.  (Or maybe you only offer 5 services and in 5 different cities.  That’s still 25 pages.)

All the pages are nearly identical, except you swap out the city names and keywords from page to page.

Like the microsite strategy, the cities x services = number of pages strategy is shortsighted and likely to end in one kind of failure or another.

In a minute I’ll tell you what I suggest you do instead.  First, here are the problems with your rapidly reproducing pages:

  1. Even if the 100 “city” pages aren’t too good and you just squirt them out, it’s still a lot of work to build them all.
  1. What if you make a mistake in your master copy and want to fix it? Whatever it is, do it 100 times.
  1. It’s hard or impossible to incorporate the pages into your navigation – and not annoy visitors.
  1. It’s hard or impossible to incorporate the pages into your internal linking – and not annoy visitors.
  1. Do you at least want the option of writing and building the pages in-house – without spending so much time on them that you drop the ball on everything else?
  1. Google’s “Doorway Page” update – meant to keep useless “city” pages out of the search results. Now, those pages still pop up too often, so to me Google hasn’t been too serious about running them out of town.  But if and when that changes, you don’t want to be the one to find out first.
  1. What if the pages don’t rank well? Then what?  How will you make 100 pages more informative and in-depth?  What if you conclude you need to rustle up some good links?
  1. What if they rank well but don’t get any traffic? What is your plan to make more people click through to those 100 pages from the search results?
  1. What if they get traffic, but the traffic doesn’t convert? You’ll need to make 100 pages convert better.  You wanted those city-service permutation pages because they were quick to pump out.  Do you have time to fix 100 failures?
  1. What if you want to rename the pages or rework the URLs later? Lots of redirects and/or updating your internal links.
  1. What if some customers see 5 pages that all look the same except for the city? Are they more likely or less likely to call you?
  1. Do you want to be able to point customers and would-be customer to those pages easily – and verbally, if you want to?
  1. Do you want competitors, marketers, and customers alike to admire how you market yourself, or conclude that you’re just another hack?
  1. Your competitors have probably sunk to that strategy already. What makes you think you’ll do the same thing they do but enjoy more success than they’ve had?
  1. If your competitors haven’t cranked out 100 city pages yet, and they conclude your pages work great for you, how will you stay ahead of them when they follow your lead?

 

Enough for now about what you shouldn’t do.  Here’s what I do suggest:

  1. Have an in-depth page on each specific service you offer. Have some blurbs on your service area, and link to your pages on each city (see point #2, below), as appropriate.
  1. Have an in-depth “city” page on each of the main cities you serve. Apply my 25 principlesThis spreadsheet may help, too.

The idea is your service pages should have plenty of “city” info, and your city pages should have plenty of info on your services.  If you offer 10 services and serve 10 cities, that’s 20 pages.  Much more manageable, and it’s at least possible you can make each one good over time.

Any drawbacks of the “cities x services = number of pages” strategy that I missed?

Anything to say in its defense?

Any examples of great or hideous city pages?

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!

Lipstick on a Pig: Google Places “Report a Problem” Requests Now Rejected Even Faster

A couple days ago, Colan of Imprezzio Marketing reported that the next-to-useless “Report a problem” feature in Google Places had been revamped.  I was excited.

After all, Google made it easier to specify what problems a listing has, which in theory makes it easier for Google to clean up the local results.

My excitement was premature.  In the wee hours last night – when only muggers and cats are awake – I flagged down a Google Places page that belongs to a dentist who’s no longer practicing at that location.

80 minutes later my edit was rejected.  It used to take the stiffs at Google a whole day to make a bad decision.  I guess on one level I appreciate the speedy verdict.

So I tried another angle – which maybe I should have tried from the get-go.  I told them the name of the page isn’t compliant with Google’s new rules (which it isn’t):

Two-and-a-half hours later they rejected the edit.  Even though I cited Google’s own guidelines to explain why the name of the listing needed to change.

Sure, Google has made the “Report a Problem” interface nicer, but the real problem remains: Google’s crowdsourcing approach to quality-control has failed.  Legitimate edits and reports don’t get approved.

Between Google’s doubling-down on outsourcing “support” and its recent shortening of those call-center hours, there’s little reason to believe Google will get serious about data-quality any time soon.

What’s Missing from the Google Places Quality Guidelines?

The rules governing Google Places (or “Google My Business”) have never quite done their job.  They’re thick, short on examples, and wide open to (mis)interpretation.

The Google Places Quality Guidelines doc doesn’t even contain all the rules you need to follow.  Between the scattered letters of the law, gray areas abound.

It’s harder than it used to be to mess up and get a Places penalty, and the rules are slowly getting crisper.  But you’d still better understand and follow the rules, or your visibility to customers can go up in a puff of smoke.

Worst of all, it’s never clear how serious Google is about enforcing the rules – not only in terms of which rules are enforced, but also in terms of what happens to business owners who disregard them.

Maybe it’s only fitting that Google’s local-business guidelines are a mess.

But Google’s mess is your problem.  You need more than a basic understanding of the rules if you want to navigate the rubble and stay out of trouble.

Nobody understands the rules as well as the 5 Google My Business Forum Top Contributors I’ve asked for guidance: Mike Blumenthal, Linda Buquet, Joy Hawkins, Colan Nielsen, and Nyagoslav Zhekov.  (Technically Nyagoslav isn’t a Top Contributor anymore, but he knows the rules as well as anyone.)

I asked them a two-part question:

How can Google’s guidelines be more helpful?  What would you add or clarify?

They dissected the rules and left the guts hanging out on the table – just for you.

Read on if you’d like a crisper understanding of Google’s rules, fewer run-ins, and better local visibility.

 

 

Mike Blumenthal

At the highest levels there are several issues with the Google Local business information quality guidelines.

First and foremost is that since Local is now part of Google Plus there are additional rules and guidelines that apply but are not explicitly stated in this document. The business needs to also comply with the rules of this document: https://www.google.com/+/policy/pagesterm.html and nowhere that I can see is that stated. The second set of rules is at least two clicks away from these guidelines but in reality there should be one set of rules not two.

Secondly the rules are not uniformly enforced. Either the rules should be enforced or they shouldn’t be there. Let’s take this rule as an example: “Your title should reflect your business’s real-world title”. These spammy names are often approved and then even when they are reported they are hard to get removed.

Thirdly the outcomes of rule violations should be explicit and consistent. That is not the case with these rules. In the worst case not only is your listing banned but you can lose your YouTube videos as well. I do not see where that is mentioned at all in these rules.

Fourthly the rules often chose ambiguity rather than clarity in the face of reality. Are virtual offices acceptable? Or are they not? In the case of the rule that states, “Your business location should be staffed during its stated hours” it makes sense that Google would want a user to be able to find a person when they chose to visit, but does that make virtual offices acceptable or no? (See issue #2 as to how Google deals with this question.)

Finally – and this has much to do with the My Business Dashboard and the lack of precision with which phrases are used in various situations – I think that whatever happens to a listing, Google’s “penalty state” should be clear and it should relate to some stated rule. However in the case of the penalty state “Suspension” that could just mean that the listing is still active in a different account that you control (or not) and could just be due to the fact that it is against the rules (but nowhere stated) that a listing can no longer be verified in multiple accounts.

From where I sit it is long past time for Google to have a single, consistent, clear (and single) policy that articulates the obligations of the page owner and the penalties they will suffer if they are violated. And if they are imposed they should be done with explicit and specific language so that the problems can be fixed.

 

 

Linda Buquet

1st I want to offer up some of the reasons that I think the guidelines are as vague as they are.

Many of the rules are purposely vague, because I think Google feels like if they totally spell everything out and draw a firm line in the sand, it just gives the spammers a road map of exactly what to avoid. Additionally there are so many different types of business cases. In one case XYZ would be allowed, but in another it would be a clear violation. So it’s just hard to spell everything out without painting yourself into a corner.  The guidelines are so much clearer than they used to be though – so we need to give the team credit for that.

It’s funny though, because some of the guidelines and unwritten rules I’m going to bring up, the new Pigeon algo does not seem to mind as much and it even seems to be rewarding some of the spammy behavior. But that bird has not landed yet and the algo is still in major flux, so I’ll bring the issues up anyway. Because hopefully when Pigeon settles in, it will be a more fair algo to honest businesses that do play by the rules.

What specific parts of the guidelines could be clearer?

The rule that says “Your title should reflect your business’s real-world title.” That one is way too vague and subject to interpretation.

It really needs to be spelled out better, but again there are so many types of issues that come up, that I’m not sure how to best explain in Google’s brief, subtle style. I guess the easiest would be to say “it must be your DBA.” But then spammers would just get a DBA for their KW stuffed name. And then again on the flip side, for a legit business the DBA might be some formal version of a name that’s never used publicly and it’s an established company that’s well branded with the less formal name. So again, tough call and part of the reason I think maybe that guideline is so vague.

Spammy listings with keyword stuffed names are way too prevalent and when reported often don’t get dealt with. It’s like they either don’t have time or depends on who looks at the spam and how well they are training.  But for the reasons I mentioned in point #2 it’s tough to keep the spammers in line, yet give legit businesses the flexibility that is sometimes needed for various business situations.

One unwritten rule – well it’s not even really a rule, but it causes problems, is to avoid redirects.  It’s just common sense and best practice – but business owners often don’t think of it and even pro consultants sometimes miss this as well and it can cause ranking problems. (Although this is another thing that changed with Pigeon, and currently one version of Pigeon does not mind too much.)

Google HATES re-directs! Redirects in general (not so much in local), often take the user to an adult or malware site or somewhere else they did not intend to go. When I do ranking troubleshooting, one of the things I always double check is whether the URL on the Google Local page is correct. Sometimes www version is entered, but redirects to the non www version. (Or vice versa.)  Or the url is healthysmiles.com, which is the nice new branding domain they bought. But when you click it, it redirects to drsmith.com, the original aged domain. So they are not only using a redirecting URL, but they aren’t direct linking to the URL that is mature, has authority and ranks.

Another unwritten rule is excessive city and keyword repetition in the description. For awhile you would get a rank penalty if you mentioned city 3 times in the description. That’s another thing that seems to have loosened up with Pigeon. Some listings with pretty spammy descriptions are ranking on top now unfortunately.  But hopefully that won’t last.

The last guideline issue I hate to even bring up because it’s so problematic and has been beat to death, often by me – is the “hide your ass”… err… I mean, “hide your address” rule. 😉

I totally understand Google’s reasons for that guideline. They don’t want a user finding a business on maps, driving across town, only to find an apartment with no one home – because service area business owners are normally out servicing clients. But this one guideline was so poorly executed and has caused problems on so many levels, it’s just hard to fathom.

My advice to service area businesses is to read that section of the guidelines with a fine tooth comb. And when in doubt, don’t even risk it. Just hide your address, if you value your listing.

 

 

Joy Hawkins

The rule that I see broken the most is to do with business location.

Virtual Offices – Google doesn’t say anywhere specifically that they are against the guidelines and the rules are extremely grey.  They simply state:

Do not create a page or place your pin marker at a location where the business does not physically exist.

Many businesses will get virtual offices so they can have a presence on Google Places in multiple cities. The business owners would argue that virtual offices are a real representation of their business since they will travel to them to meet clients and drop off paperwork for clients there. So the question is always “how often”? If a business only drops in to their virtual office once a year, is it okay to have a listing for it?

Although I would like to believe that not using a virtual office on Google Places is the way to go, it seems that no one is enforcing this rule, if it is even a rule at all. Businesses using PO Boxes get taken down all the time but listings using virtual offices are everywhere online currently and don’t seem to be disappearing at any substantial rate.  I can see why lawyers constantly use virtual offices. If it gets them more business and Google isn’t enforcing this grey area, what is the risk?

 

Appointment-Only Businesses – it is also an unwritten rule that Google wants appointment-only businesses to hide their address

The idea behind this is that they don’t want people randomly showing up at someone’s house if they aren’t there all the time accepting business. A perfect example of this would be a massage therapist who has clients come to their house, but only if they book an appointment first. Listings that fall into this category will get suspended for not hiding their address but yet there is nothing written explaining to them why it needs to be hidden. (Recent example here.)

It should be written in the guidelines that suite numbers belong on the second address line. I’m constantly seeing businesses put them on the first address line which often causes the address to not carry over correctly to MapMaker and can cause mapping or ranking issues.

The category rule should be removed since custom categories no longer exist, so it’s irrelevant.

 

 

Colan Nielsen

I see a lot of business owners and consultants asking why the photo displaying in the Local Knowledge Graph, Carousel, or in the info card in the new Google Maps isn’t the main profile photo they set-up for their Google+ Local page. Nine times out of ten, the profile photo that they are using is of a logo, text, stock photo, or something not related to the business. Google addresses this specific issue in the Photo Guidelines, but it’s a little hard to find (https://support.google.com/business/answer/3060029?hl=en&ref_topic=4540086).

Google says to:

Represent the real-world business location. Google may choose to favor real-world photos over logos or stock images.

How would I rephrase that? I’m not too sure. It’s not that they aren’t clear, it’s just that the user has to go on a treasure hunt to find the guideline.

One component of the Google+ Local page that Google doesn’t even mention in the guidelines is the business description (or “introduction,” as it’s now referred to). There has been a lot of debate as to whether or not Google uses the description as a ranking factor. The subject of the business description rarely comes up at the GMB Forum but it’s a fascinating part of the Google+ Local page that gets a lot of attention amongst us consultants.

What makes this even more interesting is the influx of incidents where Google My Business Support reps are giving out ranking tips related to the business description. (Check out the great post that Phil wrote on the subject if you haven’t already.)

I’ve always found the wording on one rule interesting – it’s classic Googlespeak:

Do not provide phone numbers or URLs that redirect or “refer” users to landing pages or phone numbers other than those of the actual business.

This one has a dual meaning. I’ve discussed this one with Joy and Linda on several occasions and they tend to agree. Interpretation at face value is clear; don’t link to a URL that isn’t for your business. Reading between the lines it could be telling us not to use a URL that redirects, period. We know that Google doesn’t like sneaky redirects, so I think it’s a smart move to play it safe and try to avoid using redirects on your Google+ Local page, period.

I also think it’s interesting that Google still lists the “is, not does” guideline that applies to custom categories, which don’t exist anymore with Google My Business. My guess is that they haven’t removed it because a small % of listings are still in the old Places Dashboard. However, like all Google guidelines, perhaps there is some hidden reason for leaving it up. According to the guidelines:

Categories should depict what your business is (e.g. Hospital), not what it does (e.g. Vaccinations) or products it sells (e.g. Sony products or printer paper). This information can be added in your description.

It would be great if Google provided clarification on Virtual Offices, Regus Executive suites, and similar types of setups in the guidelines. We know that Virtual Offices are a no-no, but there are many different types, so it would be nice to have an official word on what is allowed and what isn’t.

I think that Google needs to put more emphasis on the importance of verifying a Google+ Local page with an account that has an e-mail on the company’s domain – e.g. listing@Google.com. In fact, Google did address this at the top of the guideline page until very recently. In fact, it wasn’t until just now that I’m noticing that it’s not there anymore. (Are you seeing the same thing?)

Two questions that seem to come-up a lot lately at the Google My Business Forum are:

1: “I entered my verification pin and it doesn’t accept it!”

The GMB Dashboard seems to be particularly sensitive to any edits that are made during the time when the business owner is waiting on the pin to arrive. Historically, it was normally only changes to the NAP that would invalidate the pin, but there are reports that editing any piece of data would void the current pin.

2: “My listing fell off the first page, help!”

This has been very common since the Pigeon left its nest. One quick way to tell if the drop is related to Pigeon is to do the search from Google.ca. Since the update hasn’t hit Canada, yet, you can see a pre-Pigeon result.

 

 

Nyagoslav Zhekov

I think the number one thing that is missing in the “Local Business Information Quality Guidelines” (talk about a mouthful of name) is examples. This is obviously not a legal document and as it is targeted to a very large and diverse group of people, I have always felt like it should be less formal, and more actionable.

In addition, the examples provided within the guidelines are actually rather confusing. I myself cannot make full sense of the following examples:

Examples of acceptable titles with descriptors are “Starbucks Downtown” or “Joe’s Pizza Delivery”. Examples that would not be accepted would be “#1 Seattle Plumbing”, “Joe’s Pizza Best Delivery” or “Joe’s Pizza Restaurant Dallas”.

At the same time, an example of a guideline that could use a few examples is the following:

Only businesses that make in-person contact with customers qualify for a local page on Google My Business.

It tries to tackle the problem of online-only businesses, but the explanation is insufficient for an average reader to understand what is meant.

Another problem is that the guidelines have originally been written heavily from a user’s viewpoint, with little thought given to all the different scenarios which they were supposed to be covering – business relationships (for instance, mother-daughter businesses), types of businesses, business operation practices, etc. They have never been fully rewritten and parts of them wouldn’t make sense to someone that enters the world of local search today. A notable example is the following categories-related guidelines:

Categories should depict what your business is (e.g. Hospital), not what it does (e.g. Vaccinations) or products it sells (e.g. Sony products or printer paper). This information can be added in your description.

This rule is useless with the current dashboard, as custom categories are not allowed anymore, and the pre-approved categories pool has been cleared of all the categories that were naturally against this rule.

Based on these imperfections, common misconceptions have occurred over the years. One of the longest withstanding ones is that ONLY local area phone numbers are allowed as the primary phone numbers for listings. Another, more recent one, is that it is required for each practitioner within a practice to have unique phone number. While both of these (having a local area phone number as the main phone number and having unique phone numbers for each practitioner within a practice) are good practices, this is not always possible and is most certainly not obligatory.

Overall, I feel like the quality guidelines should be rewritten through and through, and the emphasis should be on the business owners (because they are supposed to be targeted to them), and not the end users.

Huge thanks to Mike, Linda, Joy, Colan, and Nyagoslav for their insights, and for being Virgil to my Dante.  You’d be wise to follow them on your social network(s) of choice, and even wiser to hire any of them for help.

Any questions – or Guideline gripes?  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!

Real Names Not Needed for Google+ Reviews: Smart or Stupid Move?

Google no longer requires reviewers to use their real names when reviewing businesses on Google+.

This is a complete turnaround of the policy Google has had for the last few years.  It’s the latest step in Google’s long push to get more Plus users, mostly for data-mining purposes.

As you can tell from the comments on Google’s announcement, people are torn on whether this is good or bad.  There’s also a good discussion at Linda’s forum.

Is it good or bad to be able to leave an anonymous Google+ review?  Overall, I think it’s bad.  But I’d like to lay my thinking out piece by piece.

Here are what I see as the pros and cons:

Pros

1.  It makes it simpler to write reviews of people / businesses who offer sensitive services: divorce lawyers, bankruptcy lawyers, psychotherapists, exterminators, bakers of adult-themed cakes, etc.

Many other sites have allowed anonymous or semi-anonymous reviews; now Google’s one of them.  This is the main “pro” by far, in my opinion.

2.  Full-name reviews will gain value: They’ll be seen as more credible because, in general, they are.  Score one for the business owners who’ve already worked out a strategy for earning those reviews.

Cons

1.  Google is making life easier for spammers, scammers, and miscreants of all stripes.

2.  People will trust Google reviews less, for better or worse.

3.  Fake reviews will be harder to spot.

4.  It encourages one-time reviews.  Writing a review as “John Doe” makes sense when you’re reviewing (say) a divorce attorney.  Not so much if you’re reviewing a hotel.  With this change, Google is encouraging more reviews, but not more reviewers.

5.  Many people still don’t like Google+, and still won’t want to use it.  To the extent those people are your customers, Google’s new policy probably won’t change their minds.

6.  Business owners’ responses to anonymous reviews won’t be as helpful or specific, if they don’t know whom they’re even addressing.

7.  Does this mean reviewers’ profile pictures don’t have to be of them, either?

8.  The sentiment snippets showing in the knowledge graph will become even more of a problem.

Other considerations

Now Yelp looks like the only site that gives a hoot about quality-control.  Not that Yelp is particularly good about QC;  it’s just always been two steps ahead of Google.

I wouldn’t rule out another filter crackdown, once even Google determines there’s too much junk coming through.

Your thoughts?  Any pros or cons you’d add? 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!

Checklist for Keeping Google+ Reviews out of the Filter

Don’t you hate it when your customers’ Google+ reviews get devoured by the hungry “anti-spam” filter?

After all, all you’re doing is asking your customers in a polite and un-pushy way to leave some honest feedback on your business’s Google+Local listing.

They say “No problem,” they go to write you a review…and nothing happens.  They’re frustrated, you’re frustrated, and your reviews end up swimming with the fishes.

It shouldn’t be this way, but it is.  Getting reviews takes some finesse.

I’ve had a lot of success helping my clients and others get the results of their karma, in the form of Google reviews.

That’s why I’ve put together a quick checklist of what are, in my experience, the best ways to prevent customers’ reviews from getting gobbled by Google’s filters.  It’s a quick reference for business owner and local SEO-er alike.

Here you go:
(click to download PDF)

 

Obviously, there’s never any guarantee that your customers’ reviews won’t get filtered.  But if you’re following those best-practices, you’re probably not trying to spam or game the system in any way, and you should end up with the reviews you deserve.

(By the way, if you want even more info, check out my monstrous complete guide to Google+ reviews.)

7 Ways to Kill Your Local Search Rankings without Touching a Computer

There are a million online misadventures that can snuff out your business’s rankings in local search – in the Google+Local (AKA Google Places) search results and everywhere else.

Attempts to spam or deceive Google usually backfire.  You can also destroy your rankings through sheer laziness – like if you never update any of your business information or never bother to understand Google’s quality guidelines.

You may be aware of what online actions can hurt your local rankings.  Maybe you’ve learned the hard way.

But there also are offline ways you can kill your local rankings.  Simply not doing anything stupid or naughty in your local SEO campaign isn’t enough.  You can lose local visibility and local customers without ever touching your computer (or smartphone or iPad).  To be more precise, I can think of 7 ways:

 

Offline Way to Die Online #1:  Relocate, rename, or use a new phone number without updating your Google+Local page or other business listings to reflect the change(s).

By “update” I mean you must do two things: (1) update all your business listings with the new info, and (2) scour the web for listings (AKA citations) that list your old info.  (By the way, doing a free GetListed.org scan can be a huge help when you get to this step.)

If you fail to do the above, you may be OK…for a little while.  After some months a major third-party data source (most likely InfoGroup) will catch wind of the change and create new listings for your business with the new info.

This will cause your business to have inconsistent info spread all over the web – which itself is a rankings-killer – and may cause Google to create unwanted and inaccurate Google+Local pages for your business (another rankings-killer).

 

Offline Way to Die Online #2:  Get a phony address, like a PO box, UPS box, or virtual office.  Eventually your fake-o address will enter the local-search “ecosystem” (in the way I described above) and you’ll end up with inconsistent business info all over the web, penalties from Google, or both.

(It’s likely that the only reason you’d want a phony address in the first place is so you can try to game Google – so it’s likely your rankings won’t die as a result of your offline actions alone.  More likely, you’ll try to update your business listing(s) with the fake address and end up getting flagged by a competitor or good citizen.)

 

Offline Way to Die Online #3:  Mistreat your customers and get slammed with bad reviews.  This probably won’t have a direct effect on your rankings unless you have dozens or hundreds of scathing reviews, BUT it may affect your rankings indirectly.

For instance, nobody knows for sure whether click-through rate (i.e. the percentage of people who see your business listed in Google and click on it) is a factor that Google takes into account when sorting out the local rankings.  But Google does “know” a bunch of user-engagement stats.  If people simply don’t click on your listing because they see a 10/30 average Google rating, or if nobody clicks your link from (say) your Yelp listing because you have a 1-star average, Google may very well take your rankings down a peg.

Bad service = bad reviews = fewer clicks = low rankings / fewer customers

Also, although “social signals” like Facebook shares, tweets, and Google +1s don’t seem to affect your local rankings much or at all as of this writing, they most likely will become a stronger ranking factor in the future.  If potential customers are scared off by bad reviews, you’ve got fewer opportunities to get social shares.

Most of all, at the end of the day, it’s about getting people to pick up the phone.  You can’t do that very well if nobody clicks on your Google+Local page or website because your reviews reek.

By the way, you get bonus idiot points if you get hammered with bad reviews but don’t write thoughtful “replies from the owner.”  Yes, you can do this: Google+Local and Yelp (and probably other sites that aren’t coming to mind now) let you respond to reviews.  It’s easy to write a reply and takes you maybe 90 seconds.  It’s even easier never to check up on the sites where you’re listed or  simply to live in ignorant bliss, oblivious to the public criticism.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #4:  Hire and fire an unethical SEO.  He or she has access to your Google+Local page or other listings (and maybe even your website), and may do something nefarious or simply not hand over your command codes when you need them.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #5:  Let your domain name or hosting expire (thanks to Chris Silver Smith for this one).  True, technically you don’t need a website to rank in the Google+Local or other search results.  But if you don’t have one, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, because many local-search ranking factors depend on your website.  If you’re in a competitive local market, forget it: Without a site you’ll fare about as well as Lance Armstrong in a polygraph test.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #6:  Never grow your site.  No, I’m not talking about updating the copyright at the bottom of your website so that it no longer reads “© 2002.”  I’m talking about keeping a “static” website to which you rarely or never add useful, non-promotional info that might cause a potential customer to think “Hey, that was handy!”  A static website is a lost opportunity.

Google knows when a website is an online paperweight, and may very well reflect that fact in your rankings.  Worse, if your site is devoid of fresh, helpful info, nobody will link to you, share your site, or give you a juicy unstructured citation or review – all of which are factors that otherwise could boost your rankings.

If you’re going to rank well, your site needs to show signs of life.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #7:  Never check your Google+Local page and other listings.  They say a watched pot never boils.  The corollary is that an unwatched pot can eventually boil over or boil until there’s no water left.

Things will happen to your online local presence, whether you know it or not – and probably not all of those things will be good.  Sometimes you’ll need to fix or remove inaccurate info on your listings, respond to reviews, or double-check your Google+Local page or website is compliant with the Google update du jour.

But you can’t fix problems if you never know about them.

By the way, there’s no offline way to fix most of the above problems.  The solutions involve getting with the times, getting on the computer (or tablet), getting a little bit of local SEO know-how (as you’re doing now!), and getting your hands a little dirty.  That will help you become or stay visible to local customers, and it will help keep the phone ringing.

Any other offline “ways to die” you can think of?  Any questions or general suggestions?  Leave a comment!