Google Penalizing Category Spamming – What are the Standards?

There is another possible reason for the stats to drop to zero over night on the Local Business Center Dashboard: You’ve been penalized for category spamming . The new penalty, first noted by Chris Silver Smith last week, dings your listing and causes it to loose standing precipitously. It does not preclude you from editing your listing in the Local Business Center.

A user in the Maps forum posted about a preciptious drop in his listings in the Google Map Help forums last week. Upon investigation it became obvious that his listing included multiple categories and geo phrases in the category fields. Removing the category cramming and geo phrases immediately (as in 30 minutes) brought his listing back into 10 Pack view.

Here are some examples of his choices to fill a single category field, which when removed returned his listing to the 10 Pack although in many fewer searches:

los angeles arabic classes, los angeles german classes, los angeles hebrew classes, los angeles japanese classes, los angeles persian classes, los angeles russian classes, los angeles korean classes, los angeles latin classes, los angeles thai classes

Clearly having multiple phrases on your category fields offers the possibility of your listing being returned on many more searches. For a business that doesn’t bother to read the guidelines or that is looking to gain a temporary advantage, it is easy to abuse Google’s categorization options.

The Google Maps Listing Guidelines as they relate to categories cramming and spamming are as follows:

• When entering categories, use only those that directly describe your business.
• Do not submit related categories that do not define your business. For example, a taxi company might properly categorize itself as “Airport Transportation”, but it would be inaccurate to also use the category “Airport”.
• Also, please use each category field to enter a single category. Do not list multiple categories or keywords in one field.

Interestingly while the poster was penalized, his close competitors had multiple categories per field but without the geo phrases and did not receive the penalty.

So it raises the question of what exactly can go into the custom category fields and what behaviors you would recommend? Does Google’s lack of enforcement imply tacit acceptance or support for category cramming?

Chris Silver Smith noted the following in an email conversation that we had on the topic:

It may indeed be arbitrary, but if we’re talking about algorithmic detection, then they’re rapidly applying penalizations only when able to detect them, and then also penalizing manually the instances that are brought to their attention.

Geographic terms would be relatively easy to detect in category fields through automation, compared with valid categories, yet overcrammed. They’re probably adding more automated detections as they’re able to identify common patterns.

Could also be that they might run detection scripts and then review all listings which are in violation of the algorithm. They might allow listings that are not egregious to pass, such as the language class you mentioned.

They’ve sorta created a problem for themselves in this area, since the Category fields have room for so many characters — it rather encourages small, inexperienced businessmen to add in MORE words and length than are found on average in biz category names. If they wished to reduce abuse, they could easily do so by once again moving to a formal, set list of biz categories to choose from (hopefully much longer than their earlier list), and then they could get rid of the free-form category fields entirely. They could also stand to better tutor small businessmen as to what Categories are, and point them to some of the standard lists of categories as an example of what could work.

In inimitable Google fashion and in a way that is sure to annoy every SMB from here to California, they are penalizing some violators of the guidelines and not others. This seems to be the case even when close competitors are participating in this and other behaviors in violation of the guidelines. What exactly would you recommend that a client do with custom categories?

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
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45 thoughts on “Google Penalizing Category Spamming – What are the Standards?”

  1. Clearly the example you give above is pretty spammy, however I would like to take a vote. In your opinions, is this spammy as a category for a DUI attorney in Denver

    denver dui attorney

  2. But what if this company actually does provide language lessons in that specific language? It looks spammy but if he does provide that specific service how is he to make people aware?
    If he just says “Learn a Foreign Language in Los Angeles” then that pretty much could be anything from Arabic to Sign Language to even a Computer Language.
    My experience with Google, Yahoo and even Bing’s local listings are that if you are not specific in your search phrase then you wont get the best result for your search.

    1. @Mike

      Very good question. I will be running a poll this afternoon for all to give their opinion

      The question becomes how many and much. Certainly listing 10 languages can be helpful to the user. The question is: What will Google do?

  3. For reasons like those you’ve listed above, Mike, I think you just have to do what Google says – pick a couple of categories that match relatively well. And, then, use your website for the kind of long tail optimization you’re talking about: los angeles arabic lessons, los angeles gaelic lessons etc. I just don’t think Google wants people to use the categories in this long tail way. Their stance on this may actually be a weakening of their own index, but if that’s their policy, I’d have to stay to follow it, even if others are spamming.

  4. Yes one does have to do what Google says. I think one also has to consul clients to take a long term, sustainable approach to their listing….an approach that won’t result in their being banned at some point down the road…

    But even here, as Mike Belasco points out, what is spamming? There are many ways to interpret Google rules that seem to comply and yet may be dinged by them.

  5. Miriam, I am a little surprised to read your thought that a geographic keyword in a category would be spam. Certainly multiple instances in ONE category box like the one Mike highlights would be. But as you say, including a geographic modifier, if it’s THAT germane to your business that you would spend 20% of your ‘category juice’ on it, would surely improve Google’s own index?

    Perhaps the problem is spammers creating phony locations and then going after different geographically-centered categories with each instance…

    1. @David

      I am not sure that Miriam is saying a category of City + Specialty is spam…she is saying that Google sets the rules…. We really don’t know how granular nor picky their algo is nor what their opinion is of the geo categorization that you speak of.

      A clarification on their part would go a long way.

  6. But, chances are they will make everyone run tests to see of location+keyword in a category box will ding them, help them, or stay the same.

    Just giving out the information freely would be WAAAAY to easy and non rewarding for the local search industry.

    Google loves when people figure it out. And has great dissapointment when they dont. Like with link sculpting when Matt Cutts finally addressed the issue. He mentioned they were waiting for people to figure it out, but no one did.

    My Proposal….everyone stop doing any local search research. Let the industry collapse and then google will have to share their knowledge to promote better usability. Its genius!

  7. Hi Mike – it sounds like the guidelines themselves are clear enough; the questions about standards arise from citing examples of violations that we have not yet addressed. When you see those listings that run contrary to the guidelines and that appear to have gamed search result ranking, that should not be interpreted as our tacit endorsement of practices like category stuffing or adding geographic terms to categories; it just means we have work left to do. The best way to include non-categorical information about the specialties of a business is via the web site for the business; the Description and Additional Details fields in LBC are also alternatives.

  8. Carter, thanks for stopping by Mike’s blog.

    With respect, I do not think that it is at all evident that the “guidelines themselves are clear enough.” The examples that the LBC currently uses to guide businesses (Dentist, Wedding Photographer, Thai Restaurant) contain two fairly specific modifiers (wedding and thai) and no indication of how specific is too specific.

    The stuffing example above is a clear violation as it goes against the third guideline that you have spelled out. Given that categories seem to have such an influence on your algorithm, though, when using geographic terms has not been specifically discouraged, I find the use of the word “gamed” a bit inappropriate. Most of us want to recommend strategies to businesses that are going to benefit them in the long run. This seemed to have a clear benefit; I’ll certainly stop recommending it from here on out now that we know your position.

  9. Hi Carter

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Thanks for clarifying Google’s point of view.

    Many SMB’s are like 3 year olds. If something is easy, the competitive demands are great, the penalties are slim to none & the standards are erratically enforced, they are unlikely to follow the rules. If they even bothered to read them. They just think that they finally figured Maps out.

    In LA, at least, category cramming is very prevalent and while your penalties against geo spamming will be noticed, I am sure that cramming will continue until it is prevented.

    Thus you have put the SMB in the position of knowingly or not having to choose to violate your rules or loose income because all of their competitors are doing it.

    Hopefully, the work you have left to do in this regard will be done quickly.

    That issue aside, I much prefer the penalty ‘ding” to the “System Error – check back in a few…”

    Thanks again for stopping by.


  10. As Mike mentioned from my earlier comments, I contend that the category entry fields contain way more possible characters than what are reasonable lengths for most category names.

    On top of that, there is a serious usability defect in the instructions if Google desires this to be clearer to SMBs. While the guidelines may instruct to use each category for only a single category, the example directly below the entry field could easily confuse one into thinking it was acceptable to enter more than one category in the field:

    “Ex: Dentist, Wedding Photographer, Thai Restaurant”

    That example does not make it clear that each category should be entered into a separate text box. This could easily lead a well-meaning, honest SMB into entering more than one category into the blank – filling it up until it reaches the max char length. I think we see that happening with the language lessons classes in Mike’s example.

    Carter’s warning is apt — I rarely would assume that someone getting away with some sort of guidelines violation would be any sort of tacit approval on Google’s part. However, in the case of one client who called me in to fix his penalization, he had previously stuffed all sorts of junk into the category fields, and once the guidelines were updated he eventually got dinged. For him, it was very confusing as to why he got dinged, since everything he put into the fields involved keywords which accurately described his business.

    Google should really consider enabling a flag in LBC to notify the owner as to what is going on for some cases such as this where it’s otherwise not apparent why the business was abruptly not found in SERPs. I can totally understand why Google would wish to not give a notification in cases where they felt widespread, multi-listing spam was going on. However, even Webmaster Tools has been giving some notifications in cases where they felt the website owner may’ve unwittingly done something that ran afoul of guidelines.

  11. Chris, those seem like very sensible recommendations. We definitely agree that the examples Google currently uses confuse rather than clarify. Perhaps a more detailed tooltip is in order…

    Your point about character limits in category fields is also well-taken. Even a novice HTML coder like myself could implement that change–Carter, let me know if you need a contractor for that project 🙂

  12. Google is probably thinking is that geo-modifiers are unnecessary, since they already have your brick-and-mortar business address.

    If they know where you are located, there’s no reason to add your city name into the categories. They’ll show your listing based on the distance of the searcher.

  13. I think there are a couple good points not made yet here:

    1. How the heck is a small business without clear examples going to know what’s going on? The guy who discovered this is lucky to have Mike on the trail because I’m darn-well sure nobody from Google contacted him and said “hey pal, your poor choice has rendered you hosed”.

    In this instance, we have ambiguous direction and a total lack of real communication – typical (monopolist) Google behavior.

    2. Let’s say Small Business X discovers the problem and not wanting to anger (the arrogant monopolists) Google decides it’s worth pointing out bad behavior of others.

    What avenues does said business owner have? Per an email from one of Carter’s colleagues (with, as yet, no return on my follow-up (in typical arrogant Googler fashion) question):

    The maps support forums (Problems and Errors or For Business Owners) are the best way to report these issues right now. This kind of data is very useful as we work to improve local search. We’re always working to make it even easier for users to give us this feedback, but for now, the forums are the way to go.

    Are you f’ing kidding me? I’m going to go PUBLICLY narc on my neighbor and not expect any kind of retribution? Please!

    I apologize for my ranting but even after a real, face-to-face, human exchange with one of these arrogant monopolists from which I expected a real answer I still get the same BS answer and we’re still acting as FREE customer service for the monopolist Google.


  14. @David & Chris

    The user interface issues and usability issues have been present in the LBC from day one. The poor feedback when entering field content, the bad instructions….need I go into the error messages that I so love?

    For a product that is meant to be self serve it is anything but, my blog is an example of them having launched a career with their coding. 🙂

    Google has lots of bright people and have received this and similar feedback in the past. So it is always interesting to me that we are in a position that we need to keep reminding them of basic design issues.

    So the question for me is why?

    I understand the release early and reiterate often but the LBC seems to be release early and rarely reiterate.

    They have lots of folks that understand these issues, they have lots of coders, they have lots of $.

    I don’t buy Will’s evil monopolist theory. Every business would be a monopolist in our current system if they could. Monopoly status is achieved either via innovation (think Singer Sewing machine) or chicanery and theft (think John D Rockfeller)…but regardless we live in a system that rewards the super profits of a monopoly position.

    Which brings me back to the question of why Google has not fixed the very basic interface issues that continue to plague the Local Business Center?

  15. Mike & David,
    Sorry I’m tardy in chiming back in. David, what Carter said:

    “The best way to include non-categorical information about the specialties of a business is via the web site for the business”

    I had gotten the feeling that this is how Google feels about this. Obviously, stuffing a single category with multiple terms looks spammy, but like you, I do not feel that it is terribly clear what Google would consider above-board in terms of long-tail-ish categories. I’m afraid the guidelines don’t make it clear to me and maybe you or Mike understand them better than do I.

    In the absence of a clear understanding, I’m left with gut feelings that Google Maps is for broad categorization and websites are for both broad and long-tail SEO. Does that make more sense? Carter’s quote has tended to reinforce my gut feeling about this.

  16. Miriam, my comment wrt websites would be that, at least at the moment, they don’t have much influence over the Local algorithm. Would you say Google should stop showing 10-packs and stick to traditional search results for longer-tail queries, or increase the importance of website characteristics in the algorithm?

    Regardless, I am still of the strong belief long-tail categories should be helpful to both searchers and businesses. And thus Google. You only get five, after all…so if you’re spending 20% of your juice on a long-tail phrase, that niche product or service by definition represents a core of what you do.

  17. Let me get this straight. Google Search decides to interject Google Maps Local Business Results into the top (generally) of the search results displacing other search results downward on the page so all other results are in essence lowered in value. They announce the guidelines for businesses to follow when they claim their business and select their categories, they give 250 characters per category and never say really say what is or is not allowed, then they begin to enforce some of the rules (actually the rules do not say you can not use geo-phrases) and drop selected businesses off the results, but allow some other businesses to remain that are violating their guidelines (multiple listings for a single market), then they state that they “still have work to do”. Unfortunately, this is not a game that should be allowed to be a real life work-in-progress…this is has a real impact on businesses and ultimately people’s jobs. I do not believe that Google needs to tweak this but will ultimately need to address several fundamental issues. Certainly, they will need more guidance then the few words shown in their Business Listing Quality Guidelines.

    I know Google has done a great job on many things but this seems half-baked and not ready for prime time which is exactly where they put it. The only reason they are not hearing a stronger outcry is that it is almost impossible to actually communication with Google. This combination of immature product placed in a prominent position of a critical business tool with little-to-no feedback mechanism is a not good. Really, really not good. My strong suggestion is for them to suspend this while they review what they have learned, develop real standards, and begin to enforce them, or at least move it to the bottom of the first page of results where it will still be first page but not as critical to the overall search results. The current approach is not working and is being adversely impacted by gaming / spamming.

  18. Hi David,
    I’m in complete agreement with you regarding the minimal influence of websites on the Maps or 10 pack algos. That being said, a website has so much more ‘room’ for content and optimization…so far beyond the limit of 5 keyword phrases. I do think Google should attempt to show 10 pack data for long tail terms, to a certain extent, when the tail is only a few words long, but beyond that, I just think Maps is too phone-book-ish to get really detailed with. Maybe my opinion on this is based on the kinds of businesses I’ve worked with and Maps allows for greater refinement with certain kinds of businesses?

  19. We’re learning with you on the changes we need to make. We first enabled free-form entry of Categories in order to help businesses accurately describe the type of business they are – e.g. “my business is a _________.” – where the blank could now include new, more precise types of businesses like “Hookah Bar” instead of just “Bar”. Even though that flexibility opened opportunities for spam/abuse, the majority of people used it to help improve search results.
    I’ll ask that we take another pass at clarifying the guidelines, since the feedback on this thread (from well-intentioned people trying to do the right thing) is evidence that guidelines are not clear enough. The guidelines may always have a degree of ambiguity due to the nature of spam; but they should never be surprising to anyone trying to improve search results in a way that s/he would be proud to show customers and competitors.

  20. Carter

    Thanks again for reading, listening and interacting.

    Clarifying the guidelines is always helpful and clearer will guide some if not all. My take away however from this conversation is not that the guidelines are the primary cause of the confusion, nor will clarifying them necessarily fix the situation….the process of entering a record in the LBC is much more dialectical than that.

    The tension occurs due to the lack of refinement in your interface. The SMB interacts with the LBC, either with or without professional advice, in such a way that even if the guidelines were totally clear would make decisions/errors that would then be amplified by the algo or stifled by unclear outcomes generated by the backend.

    In fact your example is a case in point. I recall that the category “Hookah Bar” generated a “Flagged Waiting for Content Check” message that caused the listing to sit in limbo for who knows (well you probably do) how long….with no suggestion for the user as to the cause and no timeframe given for resolution.

    In that case the guidelines worked perfectly well but the LBC did not.

    To me the LBC and the guidelines need to move forward together, in lock step, providing a clear and simple path for success and compliance.

  21. Carter,

    I echo the thanks of others for interacting with this blog. I am sure that you will get this right but in the meantime this is really painful for some of us small business owners that have worked hard at getting ranking and paying for clicks just to see it all diluted by the local business results which are easily gamed. Please, either (1) suspend the product, (2) quickly beef up guidelines and the enforcement, or (3) move it to the bottom of the page while you work out the major kinks.

    These kinks have probably well documented by others. But as a small business owner dependent on Google for a large portion of business, I still am unsure what the real goal and vision is for the local business results. From my narrow perspective, the following needs to be readdressed:

    Locations and Markets – Do I need a physical address where business is conducted to be included in local business results? Is this a bricks and mortar only product and if not why do you care about physical locations? What does it mean to do business in a market? How do you define a market? If I have multiple location in a market how do I claim all of them but not use the multiple locations to stuff / distort the results? Or is this allowed so I should I go rent several mailbox locations in all the cities that I want to do business.

    Sub-markets – If I physically am located in one “city” within a larger market, should I show up in results from the larger market (which probably has more searches)? Should others physically located in the larger nearby city (market?) show up in results searches involving my smaller city? Should those that do not have a “real place of business” show up at all?

    Category – Is a Category just a fancy /new name for search keywords and if not what is the difference? If I identify several related, but distinct, products without geo-modifiers (in the example “arabic classes, german classes, hebrew classes, japanese classes, persian classes, russian classes, korean classes, latin classes, thai classes”), is this spam if inserted as one category? Where is the line?

  22. To answer a few questions quickly…
    today, LBC supports only businesses with at least one physical location. That’s not ideal, since many businesses service areas unrelated to a particular office location; but for now, non-physical-location businesses are best published as web pages that describe the areas you service.
    If your business has multiple physical locations, there is no problem claiming each of them.
    Whether your business should appear in results for searches of nearby cities is dependent on a variety of factors. For example, I’d drive 30 minutes to buy a car but not to get my dry cleaning done.
    Today, a single Category is intended to classify the type of business rather than serve as a list of search keywords. A comma separated list of disjointed keywords in a single Category is spammy since we’d like users to be able to refine their search using a Category.

    All good feedback we’ll factor into coming revisions of both guidelines and the service.

  23. @Carter

    Again, thanks for taking the time to stop by and clarifying the product.

    I am sure that you know that, despite my “occasional” crankiness, I do want Maps to succeed.

    I just want it done faster, with less cheating, better coverage, more details, less mistakes, easier to use and with more meaningful error messages. 🙂

  24. Carter,

    I totally agree re: your dry cleaning / car sales example. Right now there seems to be little interaction between category and radius for relevant results…for instance there is no reason that “golf courses portland” returns only courses within Portland city limits, when all but one of the most popular courses in Portland actually lie in a different city. Hopefully this is an innovation that is coming soon. 😀

  25. First, I want to thank everyone who has contributed feedback on this post. I feel Google’s LBC is one of the best things for a small business as it gives the little guy a chance of getting some online visibility.

    However, I am sometimes perplexed as to what is considered “best practices”. Last week, for some reason, my own listing disappeared. Aside from creating two custom categories including “internet marketing consultant” rather than “internet marketing services”, there was nothing out of the ordinary in my listing. In the additional field I had also mentioned that I was Google Analytics Individual Qualified.

    Even though my listing was no longer appearing, my data in the LBC was still intact without reporting figures. I did a search for my company name and city and did find an unclaimed listing for my business with minimal data and faulty categorization – “Hotels – Web Design” or something very funky like that.

    I went ahead and claimed this listing and re-entered all the data from my initial listing. (including photos, categories, etc.) A postcard is supposedly en route to finalize the claim process.

    I went back to my initial “disappeared” listing in the LBC and removed the additional “Services” field which included “Google Analytics” and just like that my listing re-appeared in the same positions it had been all along. In addition, reporting stats where also available.

    Was I being penalized for including the fact I am a Google Analytics Qualified Individual?

    Now today, I revisited the listings and I am no longer appearing for certain categories or have moved down dramatically in others (Position #3 to #38 for example). Any feedback on my situation would be appreciated.

    1. Use of the word Google is something that historically Google has responded to with the message “Flagged Waiting for Content Check” and then you were left to wonder what for and how long. It could be that its inclusion in a category generated their new penalty rather than the previous flag….it sure sounds like it.

      Ranking issues are not easily addressed here.

  26. Around 6 days ago the statistics on the webmaster for our web site went to 0. I am new to everything and did not fully understand the category thing. When this happened I wen to the categories and reduced them to represent everything the best I could. Now the numbers are still at 0, there is no one to call and I have no idea what to do next. Is there a live person who can explain to me what to do or a site that can help me ? I am new to all of this and made an honest mistake…HELP

  27. In doing some competitive research of other companies in my area, I have noticed that it appears that some listings have more than 5 categories listed on their “Places” page.

    Here is one example of what I am talking about. Check out their list of categories. There are more than 5 it appears by counting the number of categories in the dropdown.

    Is this done by just entering multiple categories in each category box and seperating with a comma, or is this data that has been aggregated by Google from other data providers?

  28. Google indicates that the info in the record was “- Provided by the business owner” so they obviously added that category information themselves. The field is quite long and last time I checked Google allowed you to fill it to the max with content.

  29. We are having an issue with a couple of our clients. On March 18th we saw several clients reported impressions drop by as much as 90% even though we are still showing up under many of our search terms. I don’t believe we are keyword stuffing. Any way to find out for sure?

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