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.

 

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19 thoughts on “Google Mapspam – a violated Public Trust?”

  1. Hi Mike –
    Want to be sure I understand. The listings in your first example all have the same 800 number, but different addresses. Are there not locations of these businesses at these addresses (like a chain)? I’d like to understand.

    Miriam

  2. Mmm, I should have read the Google thread before asking that question. I’ve just figured it out.

    My opinion, then, is that this is totally unacceptable, particularly considering the gravity of the situation and the service in question. As you say, Mike:

    Google, in assuming the role of public information provider, should be held to a high standard as to whether they are providing truthful information.

    I couldn’t agree more. It’s one thing when we’re talking about pizza. It’s another when you’re dealing with public health. It’s not a ‘game’ anymore. I really hope Google gets on this.

    Miriam

  3. Hi Miriam

    Yes, just the privacy issues in HIV testing are monumental….and for this business to be portrayed as local in such a sensitive area is giving them way to much credibility when none is deserved. If they are prepared to lie about their location one can’t really trust anything that they might say.

    They are actively involved in marketing an activity that many (not so marketing savvy) not for profits are offering for free or very cheap. Just because they understand a little about Google Maps they are being given ranking and one assumes making a profit. There is way too much wrong with the picture. :(

    It is debatable whether it should have ever gotten in the index but now that they are in the index, Google has the spam forum, they don’t even have to ferret out violators. All they have do is take them down. This is not a spam posting that should languish in the forum.

    Mike

  4. I was appalled. What a sick son of a bit*h would engage in such skulduggery? Privacy is paramount and I agree with your concerns. AIDS is a terrible scourge and these guys are trying to make money off of it in a low class way.

    I called the number to give them hell . . . and NO ONE ANSWERED!

  5. We have seen sites who aren’t exactly spamming but are registering PO boxes in major cities so that they come up in the local listings in that city if people type on them. Its almost legitimate spam

    Brian

  6. @mike.

    I realize you appear to be under the impression that attorneys should not have the right to advertise (at least based upon past statements, you appear to think we should rely on warm marketing), but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled differently back in the dark ages.

    My moral authority is in no way compromized. But thanks again for your kind remarks once again.

  7. @Brian
    Last year Google was actually recommending the PO box idea although they seem to have stopped doing so…

    @panzermike

    I most certainly believe that attorneys have every right to advertise. In a capitalist society they have as much right to advise the public of their existence as the next person and to benefit from the fruits of their labor.

    However, lawyers also hold a public trust. They represent naive folks, who often have great needs, in front of a state run judiciary system that is complicated and at times unfair. That public trust should not be violated.

    Lawyer’s advertising as to location and competencies should be truthful. If it isn’t then, in my mind, they have violated that trust. Earning that trust back is a long road.

    As to the email question that you asked of me as to whether I hate attorneys or just you, let me assure you that it is neither.

    I do however have a strong disdain for BS.

    Mike

  8. I went to their site, they also sell insurance as well, obviously they are using the STD issue to sell insurance to the lower income bracket. Years ago I worked for a collection based insurance company (what a low-life feeling it was to work for them, and see their scams, underwriting people they never saw: totally illegal, not saying these guys do, but still if they spam, I wouldn’t doubt they do other things)

    Google wants to be the distributor of information, I say they need to start being a little more responsible in how they collect and display their data. If they don’t, eventually this will spell the beginning of the end, and that deeply wanted Google Killer will finally have a chance.

    Great stuff as usual Mike, thanks!

    David

  9. Hi David

    My sense of their business model is that they just process leads and gather commissions. More of a pure local internet marketing play without adding any real value to the food chain!

    Yes, Mapsspam and Google’s loose control of it is problematic particularly when it exploits those in our society that don’t have enough resources as it is.

    Another example of that is Google turning a blind eye to the PayDay loan business (see here and here (thread 55).

    We live in strange times and Google is at the nexus of that.

    Mike

  10. I saw this letter by Jen, and figured Google may respond faster if they saw it outside of their own site.

    Jen,

    There is a company that has super spammed your Google results page.

    The search terms are any city name + payday loans, payday loan, cash advance, cash advances.
    Type in Los Angeles cash advance
    Type in Baltimore Cash Advance
    Type in Mobile Alabama Payday Loans

    The city does not matter, all I get are spam results.

    The link to the results can be found here:
    http://www.google.com/search?num=50&complete=1&hl=en&suggon=0&q=mobile+alabama+cash+advances&btnG=Search&aq=f&oq=
    http://www.google.com/search?num=50&complete=1&hl=en&suggon=0&q=baltimore+cash+advances&btnG=Search&aq=f&oq=
    http://www.google.com/search?num=50&complete=1&hl=en&suggon=0&q=los+angeles+cash+advances&btnG=Search&aq=f&oq=

    The same company does not even have a real address, they are using the address: Virtual Suite 90058 + Zip Code.

    Its very frustrating for companies with real data. They are taking in many results, 7 of the 10 Google Ten Pack Results, with their fradulent websites.

    Here is the naming convention of their URLS:

    paydayloanslosangelesca.com
    payday-loans-maryland.com
    payday-loans-kentucky.com
    payday-loans-texas.com
    http://paydayloanswestuniversityplacetx.com/

    There website has no local data. They have no real street addresses, and all the sites have the same spammy fe

  11. Hi Mike

    Certainly the Payday loan industry has been prime breeding ground for spammer activity. The industry itself is predicated on a weak premise (400% interest for short term loans) and when you factor in finder fees/affilate model you get a whole crew of middle men exploiting an already exploitive system you really get a mess.

    When you add Google’s early lax approach to Mapsspam and their current slowness to pull this stuff down you get a very volatile environment in which nobody but these sleazy “middlemen” benefit.

    Mike

  12. Did some more research on this.

    So I found this article interesting because I witnessed this first hand. Let me explain. I use to work at a place that did what they did but legally, and we actually helped our patiants with HIV.

    Plan words, they are like a chop shop, they are spamming – Since I read this and came back to it, AAR I do believe has been taken down all completely;

    So good job! but I went further… I start looking into deeper and it got worst!

    Theres one called “aaa non-profit hiv/std testing” (stupid name and obvious spam) They have addresses doubled up, some times they have addresses stacked using a “AAA” and a “AAAA” name. The worst part is they are NOT Non for profit, they donate money to children with AIDS, and they switched the prices on the phone call….BUT they are all over maps with a obvious hacked up site and using other locations addresses.

    Do I just report all this to Maps Jen to get the ball rolling you think?

    Thanks cracking down on map spam!

  13. to correct a spelling error “AAA does NOT donate to the childrens AIDS foundation” like their site says. Checked the nationwide directory, they never heard of these people… ugh! So bothers me. Sick bastards!

  14. Hi spambuster

    Yes I had noticed the AAA crowd but didn’t time to investigate them thoroughly. I am glad that you have noticed them as well….I think the best bet is to report it to Maps Guide Jen, wait for 2 weeks and see what happens. If they haven’t been taken down, repeat as necessary till baked :)

    Local should not become the snake oil salesman of the new millenium and in particular it should not be allowed to exploit those with fewer resources or options.
    Mike

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