Google Maps: Upsurge in reports of Map Hijackings

Over the past few days there has been a steep increase of reports of legitimately claimed LBC listings being hijacked in Google Maps. The reports (here, here, here & here) all follow the hijacking pattern that Locksmiths widely suffered during the second half of last year. The last of these recent reports, Hotel Hijacking Map Spam or Does Google Suck? is the most recent and happened to a friend of Marty Weintraub of AimClear.

There is a bug where Google has a problem with merging records. They often conflate two records that have similar attributes but usually these two records have the same addresses, or share a phone number and/or have similar web urls. The above examples, while possibly severe cases of merging, show all of the attributes of hijacked records. Given that Google Maps is the ultimate black box, one can only guess at the actual backend processes that occur but it shure looks similar to the mapjackings. Regardless the result to the end business is no less severe. In Marty’s case, he noted a likely 50% drop in visitation due to the problem.

The methodology in the Locksmith hijacking was for the bad guys to create a totally exact duplicate record of the real business in the LBC with but one change, the phone number. The record would be verified via the phone system and over time, this listing would be merged with the original LBC record in the cluster. Because it was more recent the LBC records it would be identified as the authoritative source by Google and the bad guys could change then change the record at will and modify URL etc.

These records when viewed in Maps are characterized by showing the wrong url, multiple phone numbers in the more info view AND multiple Provided by the business owner entries created each time the record was reclaimed via this process.
inn-on-lake-superior

As he notes in his article there are many types of hijackings and mapspam that occur in Google’s wiki world of Maps but the one that is most disturbing to me are the ones, like the Hotel Hijacking Map Spam or Does Google Suck?, that occur to claimed records. Firstly it indicates incredibly malicious intent on the part of the folks to perpertrate the action. Secondly it indicates an incredible violation of trust on the part of Google. A local business has every reason to trust Google & needs to trust Google when they say that claimed records can not be hijacked. This trust is the lubricant of all transanctions in our commercial world and in local this goes in spades. For Google to offer up the platform where that chain of trust can be broken portends the failure of Local Search if it can not be brought under control.

It is possible that these records are just now showing the results of hijacks that occurred before Google closed the vector, they could be new hijack technique or it is possible that there is a new extreme problem of merging taking place within Google Maps. Hopefully, Google will let us know what is going on. Regardless, its impact to the affected businesses is severe.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Google Maps: Upsurge in reports of Map Hijackings by

14 thoughts on “Google Maps: Upsurge in reports of Map Hijackings”

  1. If Google has indeed closed the gaps that lead to these types of spammy hijackings then we will likely continue to see reports of them for some time to come as people discover ones that were already in place.

    Every day small biz owners are discovering for the first time that they even have a listing in Gmaps. Some still discovering there is a thing called Gmaps, let alone their business is in it. 6 months from now there will still be small biz owners discovering this for first time, and some may be shocked to see their listing was hijacked long ago.

  2. @Stever I had considered that issue before writing the post but in both Marty’s case and in this forum post, the folks had been following their records and this change occurred very recently.

    Mike

  3. @Mike, ok got it. Went and read a few of those links.

    It now seems that the merging of records (with only a small number of similar data points, like a phone number) has created a hijacking method that can also be easily inadvertently hijacked as well.

  4. Looking at the Inn on Lake Superior’s details, I wonder what the actual chronology is of the ‘provided by business owner’ data sets. I don’t really understand how Google handles that, in terms of time/order.

    A 50% drop in traffic is certainly a testament to the power of Google local, and a rather horrifying amount of sway over the fate of a business if the listing is hijacked or simply wrong. Sheesh.

    I hope Marty’s article, and yours, will get some emergency attention from Google.

  5. @Stever
    Yes the merged record problem is very evident and being noted with greater frequency. Whether it is happening more or whether it is a function of greater awareness that is hard to tell and the apparent results in the Maps record are very similar.

    Usually though there are two records each sharing some part of the information and there is a common thread tieing the two together. There is a stated sense amongst users that they might have been hijacked by the lawyer on the floor above or the jerk down the hall but it really is a problem with Google’s clustering algo.

    My theory is that the Locksmith Highjackers leveraged this weakness. The question now is why are records that look like they truly have been hijacked showing up again. Did Google close the loop hole, is it a new loophole, or is it a new more malicious merging…. who knows but in the end the smb doesn’t care the cause all he/she knos is that his traffic is plummeting and there record has been messed with.

    @Miriam

    Only Google knows the timeline of these changes and when they integrated more data from each change and ultimately how it happened.

    Mike

  6. @Erik
    Good suggestion. I have reported to Google but did not use that form. Have you used the form with success?

  7. I submitted a change yesterday using that form to fix this highjacked/spam listing . Looks like they corrected the URL and Phone number but still have our competitor as a “business owner” in the Details. It seems to have made a short term fix. I’ll keep watching and see if any further change occurs.

    What are your thoughts Mike?

  8. Let me take you back to June 08-

    That was the first time that we noticed that something was wrong; Our listings got merged with an unknown “Locksmith Company’s” listings.

    Till September 08 (!!) we blamed Google for using an over-aggressive algorithm that brought us to this strange situation that our listings’ details were being controlled by someone else (Google maybe?..).

    After we succeeded in taking out the foreign details, they came back in a different form (different URL/ phone #s, email address, etc..). Then we understood that a real person was controlling our listings.

    After consulting my colleagues we embarked on an experiment that might help us understand the new status of our listings. Well, we succeeded in hijacking our own listings & our spammy competitor’s ones (of course we didn’t proceed with this, we stopped the hijacking experiment after 3 successes & posted this issue to Mike that helped us to open Google’s eyes).

    That’s for the history aspect.

    NOW, I can guarantee to all that hijacking is still an “open issue”! The tactics are the same. How do I know that? Well, Google cleaned up most of our listings in the last 2 months. When we first saw that, we recreated the same listings. After the ones that got cleaned up, came back (we are still astonished from that) the duplicated ones got merged.

    But hey, didn’t Google say that this can’t be done anymore? OK, so they said.. many of our other listings got hijacked again by the black hats in the past month..

    Mike, I’m starting to worry that probably some black hats companies (that are not from the locksmith industry ?) are using the tactics of mapjacking.

    For the many that had their listings changed/ merged, I have 2 suggestion here-

    1. Don’t be naive!! BUT (I think) it’s still too early to determine whether it’s a tsunami of hijackings or some bug from Google end.

    2. Flood the Google Maps Help forum with posts on this issue. And don’t create more listings on top of the ones that got “cleaned” or for the ones that got merged (I did it & Google keeps kicking me out, although I’ve did everything to purify its Maps feature) I think that this will cause harm to Google’s cleaning up procedure.

    Postscript-

    It’s quite hard to me to say it by I must- I’m hoping that many of you good folks can feel what I’m feeling in the last year, when a 1.5 years of legitimate local campaign got crushed by scammers, Google’s lack of ‘listening-help-solve’ the problem & for us been forced to choose – the black side or to the OUT (of business) side.

    & another issue-(if I’m already posting for the first time, here, at Mike’s place)- To all of You that are suggesting to Google to block sites that spam Gmaps- please STOP that! The scammers are using our URLs & national brand name to gain credibility & to smother us even more. The complaints of customers that got ripped-off by those companies are piling up in our entry at the BBB site. We’re clueless for what can be our next steps as the scammers are almost unreachable. PLEASE DON’T ADD OIL TO THE FIRE!!

    & again- I’m hoping that NO one of you will experience what we are experiencing in the last year.

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