Yahoo Local Mapspam now appearing near you

I have not paid much attention to Yahoo Local over the past few months. It isn’t as interesting to me as Google, it lacks the intriguing technology of the Local Business Center, its algorythms seem simpler and it generates less traffic and thus plays less of a role in my client’s sites.

The simpler input and verification procedures make it painless and quick for a business to get listed in the Yahoo Local database and rank fairly highly. Apparently though, that simplicity can lead to Mapspam as well. While the Mapspam on Yahoo is not as widely spread as Google’s was, it is harder to spot, there are fewer options for reporting it, and Yahoo seems less willing to pull it down.

The folks at the FloristDetective.com have been doing a number of pieces on the tricks and tactics of non local order takers in the florist business. Many of those practices are border line actions that imply that a florist is local without actually stating it…like getting a local exchange phone number that transfer to a head office who knows where. These are clearly deceptive practices but once they get the local phone number, the data flows through the phone company to Google and Yahoo and the presumption on the engines’ part is that they are legitimate local listings. They will frequently show up in Google with a pin but no address associated with the listing.

Recently though, RealFlorist.Flowerchat.com have uncovered more obviously deceptive listings in Yahoo where the entity will fabricate an address that is close to the city center (gaining ranking cred), provide a very relevant fabricated business title with City + Florist in the title (gaining more ranking cred) and adding a number of reviews (gaining still more ranking cred) to jump to the top of the local rankings for a popular search term in the larger cities like New York Florist, Los Angeles Florist or San Francisco Florist.

In each of the above cases there is clear evidence on the web that the local address is fake. In the spirit of journalistic integrity I called a number of other local florists close to the listed florist to see if there was a florist located at any of the above addresses and uniformly the answer was: No.

Here is the evidence for just one of the bogus listings, on the search for New York florist at Yahoo (note the distance, name and phone for the first local result):

ny2.jpg

Langdon’s is in fact located at 62 Reade St (see photo) however 60 Reade St. is not a florist but a shoe store. When I called Langdon’s to verify that there was no florist next door to them, they thought I was nuts (in typical NYC fashion), but confirmed that there was in fact no florist next door. A telling search is to search on the “(800) 444-9079 + New York, NY” or “(800) 444-9079 + Los Angeles CA” where you see some of their other lisitngs:

LocalLisitngs.jpg

Calls and Google Streetview analysis showed a McDonald’s for the San Francisco Florist listed on the Yahoo San Francisco Florist search and similarly a blurry federal building for the Los Angeles Florist search. Although both locations “proved” to be very close to the city center.

Unlike Google, Yahoo’s Terms of Service clearly seem to prohibit this type of listing:
You agree to not use the Service to:

impersonate any person or entity, including, but not limited to, a Yahoo! official, forum leader, guide or host, or falsely state or otherwise misrepresent your affiliation with a person or entity;

upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, “junk mail,” “spam,” “chain letters,” “pyramid schemes,” or any other form of solicitation, except in those areas (such as shopping) that are designated for such purpose (please read our complete Spam Policy);

Yahoo’s policy further prohibits:

intentionally or unintentionally violate any applicable local, state, national or international law, including, but not limited to, regulations promulgated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, any rules of any national or other securities exchange, including, without limitation, the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange or the NASDAQ, and any regulations having the force of law;

It appears that this practice is in fact illegal in 22 states. (see story on PA here). The article on Pa notes:

According to a news release from the governor’s office, the law, Act 164, prohibits a supplier from misrepresenting its geographic location by listing a fictitious or assumed business name in a local telephone directory that:

fails to list or identify the locality and state of the supplier’s business; and
forwards or transfers calls to a business location outside the calling area covered by the local telephone directory; or where
the supplier’s business location is located in a county which is not contiguous to a county covered by the local telephone directory.

The irony is that Yahoo provides even less of a forum to report these listings. Their only forum is an apparently unmoderated suggestion box. Although Yahoo does allow the public to “edit” the record and indicate that the business has “closed” or is no longer at the address stated. It appears that the local folks in the florist business have posted negative reviews but…if the Yahoo alogo works anything like Google’s and ranks based on volume of reviews, this would be very counter productive.

In the past I have opined on the ability of these local data sources to provide reasonably accurate results and generally improve their quality over time. I hadn’t really thought about spam and the incredible monetary incentives to pursue it. It’s non fattening, its sorta of legal (its not clear that the laws cover Yahoo), it certainly is not actively discouraged (and some would say it is encouraged) by Yahoo (and to some extent Google) and obviously profitable. In a very short time, it could make local results useless, particularly in businesses with an affiliate model like FTD.

Maybe I could write a Get Rich Quick Guide to Local, create a dynamic late night infomercial and if I can just get listed in every major zip code, and retire at 55.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Yahoo Local Mapspam now appearing near you by

21 thoughts on “Yahoo Local Mapspam now appearing near you”

  1. Thanks for the AWESOME article…

    It’s getting harder and harder these days for the consumer to really “know” who is “local” and who is not. Hopefully Google and Yahoo will figure out a fix, and want to use it someday.

    Thanks again for the great article!!!

    BOSS

  2. Mike: You are providing a service to the consumer and ultimately the search engines by featuring these examples of abuse of G Maps and now Y! Local.

    As a consumer I have immeasurably better service by identifying specific brick and mortar services where I live and where I generally have flowers delivered. The business becomes accountable, the vendor doesn’t lose the significant amount of affiliate cash to the advertising source and the results tend to be better. I’ve learned that over many years.

    I suspect many consumers have learned that as have the florists.

    Its discouraging to see how easy Yahoo has made it to create a free source for deceiving customers.

    As we have seen from Google and your reporting, dropping a geo oriented onebox into organic listings is an incredibly powerful way to generate business.

    Yahoo is simply making it easy to encourage practises that ultimately deceive the consumer.

    It is discouraging to see that Yahoo doesn’t even get close to approximating Google in terms of establishing a way to dismantle this type of deceptive information.

    As to the example of florist in the city closest to me, the same type of false advertising is in place with a non-existant address and a slew of what have to be fake reviews for the fake business.

    I hope the post you’ve printed catches the eyeballs of Y personnel because currently they have established a system that encourages consumer deception.

    Dave

  3. Hi Boss-

    Yes it is hard to tell who is local and who isn’t..at least from the local directories.

    You would think that the problem could be solved in an algorythmic fashion if there is a will by the major search engines…Google’s phone/post car verification process is a good example of a technical solution that has been a strong deterent…although even it has not been fool proof in certain local markets.

    Mike

  4. Dave-

    yes the highlighting of local data on the main search result page seems to have significant power on certain searches in certain locales.

    I only see Yahoo results in my logs a fraction of the ones from Google but I can imagine that the searches on “Los Angeles Florist” or “Nw York Florist” have got to generate a significant number of calls.

  5. Mike –

    Thank you for the thorough coverage of this florist mapspam technique. Let’s hope Yahoo seriously addresses the flaws in its system.

    The Real Florist Blog has added Part 2 today about a different approach to spamming Yahoo Local – via a coordinated campaign using local remote call forwarding, banner ads in Y local and yellowpages.com, and user review spam.

    Seems there’s more than one way for companies to look local in Yahoo when they’re not.

  6. Mike:

    The other specific thing that was striking in the article was the fact that there are laws in 22 states specifically banning the “spirit” of this type of advertising if not the specifics, in that the laws are probably written to ban hard cover yellow pages, and have not addressed, as yet, marketing over the web.

    As a consumer of florists, I can vouch for the difference in dealing directly with florists rather than buying through some type of order taking aggregator.

    Hard cover YP carries lots of vendors of all types that advertise with a phone number but no address.

    It is a consumer fraud issue to varying degrees for a wide variety of businesses, services, and products. It will be interesting to see how this is policed.

    Additionally, Yahoo’s weak, transparent Local ranking system is incredibly easy to game and not currently policed at all. It is rediculously easy to generate a large quantity of fake reviews and use that element of the algo to move a business to the top of the Y Local rankings.

    Its a weak system that is easy to manipulate, is subject to violating the spirit, if not the specifics of current laws, and is not policed or monitored currently.

    Thanks for the exposure.

    Dave

  7. Hi Dave-

    Yahoo does allow the public to “edit” the spamming local record and indicate that the business has “closed” or is no longer at the address stated. It is not clear, what Yahoo does with that information once a business has been tagged as not at the local that they state.

    Mike

  8. Just tested and noticed this little nugget with regard to Yahoo! Local.

    With regard to rankings, Yahoo! Local has 2 methodologies; Importance and Location.

    The Importance ranking is the one seen in the one box or via Yahoo! Local. It appears to be the default ranking.

    A user can opt to rerank services via distance from the centroid point for the town/city chosen or the address chosen.

    If one opts for rankings by distance, vendors without an address are ranked higher than vendors with an address.

    That actually gives preference to vendors/websites that enter their information into Y! Local and are definitely not local and definitely don’t have addresses.

    That aspect of the Y! Local rankings really does a disservice to local businesses.

  9. “If one opts for rankings by distance, vendors without an address are ranked higher than vendors with an address.”

    That appears to me a conscious decision to “follow the money” ala the Yellow Pages.

  10. In the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me department, a fellow florist (B&M shop in Butler, PA in business since 1998) tried to update his business hours in Y Local and received a notice that their listing was pending deletion because they have ‘no physical location’. Detials with screen shots.

    The email stated “Yahoo Local has been designed for businesses with a physical presence. Listings must represent businesses that offer local offline services and promote a physical location. Online businesses can find Yahoo! advertising options through our search Marketing products…” (emphasis mine)

    Meanwhile, over the last few days Y Local (along with yellowpages.com, switchboard.com and AOL Yellow Pages) has added 1-800-Flowers’ listings (which feature local phone numbers that remote call forward to 1800Flowers.com’s call center) to cities all over the US. See Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis for examples. See any ‘physical locations’?

    According to their own corporate site, 1-800-Flowers does not operate any stores or franchises in those towns.

    Mike’s last reply got it right – “follow the money” indeed.

  11. Once again, I see cracks (oh no!! you heathen) in the top down search process.

    The only answer to local search reliability is with a local HUMAN presence that can constantly update local content. Technology alone is not the answer. And the cost for local search under the current regime of players and business models is too prohibitive.

    Stay tuned. HomeandRoad will ride to the rescue.

  12. Richard-

    I appreciate your confidence and comments (although your self promotion less so). While there are cracks in all of the local search products, in a capitalist world capital most always wins out…and google, microsoft & yahoo have no shortage of that….there is room for some extremely inventive and well run niche products (yelp, zillow etc.) but even the best in those niches (like technorati) have less margin for error, less brand recognition and a shorter financial rope with which to hang themselves.

    Good luck with your venture.

    Mike

  13. Gosh, Mike,
    I came to this several days late but am so glad I read this. The phone number clue is something for every SEO to be on the lookout for in local…but I guess, even if we find it, there isn’t going to be much we can do about it with Yahoo!.

    It’s a very good bit of detective work you’ve done here, and I really appreciate how you researched this.

    Miriam

  14. Did you know that Google lets you move the pin on your location? I just wonder how this would impact the problem as well. I noticed that they had my location wrong, and it let me move my pin.

  15. Are you asking if a blackhat bad guy could move their business closer to the center point thus increasing their rank? Google puts pretty sever restrictions on how far a pin can be moved and allows others to correct it as well. It wold seem to not have too much impact.

    Mike

  16. Hi Mike, I have an HVAC client who has a brick and mortar business in Frankfort,Il (suburb of Chicago). A few months ago one of the largest HVAC companies in Chicago (official heating & cooling company of the Cub’s, Sox and Bears) started showing up in Google searches in Frankfort. I have no problem with that but the address that they used to get listed in the town is a small vacant strip mall, there are no open businesses at that address. They have used a phone number that is associated with several locations in the Chicago area. Every HVAC business owner in the area is very upset that this large company is scamming the system and taking business away from them. I have reported the problem to Google (two months ago) through the “report a problem” link on the bad listing but the listing is still active and I never headr back from Google. This company also subscribes to Googles Yellow Tag Enhanced Listing program (maybe Google is letting them bend the rules). Are there any other avenues I could open to report this problem to Google and fix this problem?

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