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Understanding Google My Business & Local Search

Google Mapspam – a violated Public Trust?

Update 8:00 am EDT 8/24/08: As of this morning Google seems to have pulled the main page OneBox results noted below but the deceptive listings still appear in Maps. The search phrase local STD testing, Tulsa is still returning a Local Onebox.

Update 8/25/08 10:00 am EDT: Google has stopped showing local results on the search phrase local STD testing, Tulsa but the bogus listings are still in Maps.

Google Mapspam has been an ongoing problem for Google. In attempting to allow easy listing of large numbers of locations via bulk upload, Google Maps has allowed a large number of exploitive listings to appear. These listings are annoying when they unfairly compete with legitimate local business. They are down right troublesome when they exploit folks in need of help.

To Google’s credit, they recently started a public forum for reporting of Mapspam. On August 19th, a posting to that forum caught my eye as it demonstrated all that is problematic with Mapspam in its use to exploit vulnerable populations with less than forthright information. To Google’s shame, they have not acted on these reports in a timely fashion.

This particular mapspam shows up on the phrase “local HIV testing + Locale” throughout the west, midwest and south often dominating the Local OneBoxes. Here is the Mapspam in question on the search local Hiv Testing Tulsa:

I asked Charles Loosen, an HIV educator in Washington State what his ethical concerns were with these types of listings. His answer ranged the gamut of concerns from selling a needed public service that is usually free/low cost to privacy issues. Here is his repsonse:

Hey Mike,

From a best practices perspective, we prefer to connect people as
directly with affordable testing services as possible. HIV/STD
testing is heavily subsidized in most health districts throughout the
nation. This makes sense because prevention and early intervention
are inexpensive compared to the cost of treating systemic infections
or outbreaks.

I do have a problem with charging for these types of tests, however I respect AAR’s right to make money while providing services. HOWEVER, AAR does not appear to be the lab that is directly providing services, and they appear to actively misrepresent where their partners are located. AAR’s telephone representative said they process payments for AAR’s partners.

Because patients are not given a privacy practices notice at the time of payment over the phone, I have serious concerns about AAR’s compliance with privacy standards and confidentiality requirements.

Personally I would never establish a financial relationship with a payment processor for medical services until I had an opportunity to ensure my name and other personal information was guarded.

I hope that answers your questions, please let me know if you have any followups.

Best,

Charles Loosen


It appears that this is not the only company engaging in this practice. The search “Local HIV Testing Houston” brings up another company engaging in similar practices. They appear to have at least 1800 in Maps.

In providing local information in Google and Google Maps, Google has assumed a public trust. That trust makes the assumption that the listings are accurate and reasonable. This seems to be particularly true with the provision of health care information. Google, in assuming the role of public information provider, should be held to a high standard as to whether they are providing truthful information. In this case, they have not met that standard.