How Google Is Making Spam-fighting Even Harder
Most of us know which industries are the biggest culprits within the Google spamming circle, but are you aware of the advantages scammers are able to take, thanks to Google’s rules? Contributor Dan Foland shares some of the worst examples, how they have managed to slip through the net, and the impact they have on legitimate local businesses.
I’ve been in the local SEO industry for more than 7 years. When I began my career, most of my clients were physicians and businesses of all sizes. Everyone in the local SEO industry is most likely aware of the spam issues that have plagued Google’s local business platforms since the beginning. However, it wasn’t until I started working in the ultra-competitive legal industry that I realized just how bad the problem is.
Which industries are the biggest contributors to GMB’s spam problem?
In my experience the biggest perpetrators are law firms and local service area businesses (SABs). But it certainly doesn’t end there! I love digging into spam, so leave a comment below if your industry is similarly filled with it.
In my current position at Postali we offer legal marketing services, such as SEO, exclusively to law firms. So it didn’t take me long to see just how bad the spam problem really is.
People are often surprised that one of the most esteemed professions is also one of the dirtiest when it comes to breaking the rules. Not only are these law firms breaking Google’s guidelines, but they’re also breaking ethical guidelines that every attorney must follow. Check out my previous article, Google My Business and Legal Directory Tips for New Law Firms for more information on the ethical guidelines.
The biggest problem isn’t that there is spam, it’s that spam ranks and works so well.
GMB Spam in the Legal Industry
For example, if you’re in Los Angeles and you’ve been injured in a truck accident, it would be reasonable for you to search “truck accident lawyer.” The problem is, you’re likely going to see spam show up first.
The first three non-paid listings are all complete spam. In fact, 6 of the top 8 results are fake businesses altogether or keyword-stuffed spam. Legitimate law firms in the area are likely losing out on millions of dollars, and unsuspecting victims are being sent to shady lead generation companies, scammers, or lower quality law firms.
As another example, let’s say you’re arrested for DUI in Los Angeles (which may have caused the truck accident above…). It’s likely you would search for “dui lawyer,” “dui,” “dui Los Angeles,” etc.
When you do, you’ll almost certainly get a result where a large majority of the listings are spam. Many of the listings are completely fake. Some are using fake addresses, and some are slyly adding keywords to their business title.
For example, here are the first five organic results for “dui” in local listings:
Two of the listings are completely fake, and the other 3 appear to be faking their business location. In fact, 18 of the first 20 results are complete spam, keyword stuffing, or using a fake location. It’s not only people getting arrested for DUIs that have a problem, it’s clear that Google also has a huge spam problem.
GMB Spam and Local Service Area Businesses (SAB)
The local service industry is just as bad, if not worse, than the legal industry. Service area businesses, such as locksmiths, HVAC technicians, movers, etc. have known the value of showing up first to potential clients since way before the internet was even invented.
It was a common tactic to name a business “A1 Locksmith” to show up first in the OG search engines: telephone books. Now, many SABs and lead generation services resort to spammy tactics to show up first in Google.
Many local SEOs will tell you that keywords in your business title is one of the top GMB rankings signals. There’s likely no better proof of this than the local services industry. For a service area business to show up high in the 3-pack or Google Maps it’s seemingly a necessity to have keywords in your business title.
Do a search for “locksmith,” “movers,” or “HVAC” in your area. Here in beautiful Columbus, Ohio, 14 of the top 20 listings for “locksmith” contain the keyword “locksmith” and all but one has “lock” in their business title.
Google doesn’t do a good job of preventing and cleaning up spam, which creates an environment that incites legitimate businesses to use the same tactics.
The below screenshot is one of my favorite examples of Google not detecting or preventing obviously egregious spam.
Google actually allowed someone to put that entire word cluster as their business name.
Many SABs naturally have keywords in their business name e.g. “Smith and Sons Moving”. However, keywords in the business title being such a strong ranking signal leads to shady lead generation services and businesses creating fake listings and business names like “Best Columbus Ohio Movers” to compete with legitimate businesses.
How Google Makes Spam-fighting Harder
One might think that Google would be doing something about the spam problem on GMB. After all, Google wants to show its users the most relevant results, right? Unfortunately, Google has actually made it harder for us to find and fix spam-related issues.
GMB allows SABs to hide their addresses
One of the easiest ways to detect spam is by looking at the address of a business. Since many spam listings aren’t actual businesses, they have to find a place that allows them to use their address for verification. When Googling the supposed business address, it’s usually easy to tell if the business is actually at the location they claim.
Now, Google allows SABs to hide their addresses from public view. Thus, they’ve removed one of the best ways to spot fake listings.
GMB now allows users to hide their review history
Like many websites that allow reviews, (e.g. Amazon) Google also has a fake review problem. It’s extremely hard to get fake reviews removed unless there is clear evidence the review violates their guidelines.
The best way to spot fake reviews was often to look at the user’s review history, as you could browse it for detectable patterns.
For example, it was common for fake review user accounts to rate similar businesses all over the country. (How many car accidents can one person be in?) It’s also common for fake review accounts to review the same businesses as each other. If a business had 20 fake reviews and each of the reviewers all rated the same businesses, there was no doubt they were fake.
Now, Google has given users the ability to hide their review profile from the public. This makes proving reviews are fake exponentially harder.
Google closed their ‘Spam and Policy’ message board
As a Google Product Expert, I’ve spent countless hours sifting through and responding to user reports of spam and other policy violations on the Advertiser Community message board. Users were able to interact with Google Product Experts (formerly known as Top Contributors) to get help and feedback when their competitors were spamming the market.
However, Google recently closed the Spam and Policy message board, making it harder for users to get answers and help for spam and policy-related issues. Instead, we have to point users to Google’s Business Redressal tool, where there is no communication from Google on when, or if, action has been taken.
Why is Google making it harder to find and report violations?
I’ll acknowledge that I see the reasoning behind allowing SABs to hide their addresses. Many of these businesses are run out of homes, and they often don’t want their home addresses visible to the public. However, I wish Google would have simultaneously found a better way to find and deal with fake business locations.
I can’t say the same for allowing users to hide their review history. Why remove the ability to look at a user’s review history? Privacy? I doubt it. Google doesn’t require users to use their real names like Facebook does when creating an account, so privacy is already applicable.
Google is allowing technically anonymous users to say just about anything they want about a business without giving other users or business owners a way to see or prove it’s fake, other than the context of the review. This hurts legitimate businesses and incentivizes shady businesses to break the rules.
I also fail to see any legitimate reason for Google’s closing of the ‘Spam and Policy’ message board. The Spam and Policy message board was primarily manned by independent Google Product Experts, a unique resource for Google. Product Experts are able and willing to filter through and respond to all of the reports. Gold Product Experts are able to escalate issues directly to Google when necessary, and Google didn’t need to spend time on non-issues.
Why wouldn’t Google take advantage of such a valuable resource? Product Experts are the best in the world at sifting through and finding spam/policy violations. They spend countless hours volunteering; it seems irresponsible not to use them.
Some, in the SEO community, speculate that these changes are to lessen the public criticism and visibility of such a glaring problem. We may never know the true intentions, and for now only Google knows.
Fortunately, not all is lost. There are still ways to deal with and report spam.
The first way is to use the ‘Suggest an edit’ feature. When you run into a business that isn’t following GMB guidelines you can suggest an edit right on the violating business’s listing.
Your edits will usually go into ‘pending’ mode, but it’s possible that your edits are immediately approved or denied. This outlet isn’t fool-proof, and has some issues itself, but it’s a good place to start.
The second, and newest option, is to submit a report via Google’s Business Redressal tool. When you submit a report, a Google employee will manually review it. You won’t be notified when or if any action is taken, but it’s nice to know that actual humans are reviewing your reports.
Check out this resource for more information on the Business Redressal tool and how to best utilize it.
Google My Business is light years behind where it should be when it comes to effectively dealing with its spam problem. Not only is it hurting users and legitimate businesses, it’s creating an environment where it basically forces legitimate businesses to break the rules just to compete.
Google needs to utilize the vast resources at its disposal and finally find a solution. Unfortunately, there’s no sign it’s going to be fixed any time soon.
Questions or comments?
I’m always interested in hearing about experiences or answering questions. Feel free to leave a comment or question below, or shoot me a message on Twitter @DanFoland.