Google Places Hack: Barnacle Marketing Goes Black

Update 8:00 am: Steve points out below that this is not just a hack but a bug in how Google handles the URL from the Places Page. Thus even when a Places Listing points to the specific directory page for a business, the Google SERP can interpret and rank the URL based on the higher level page in the directory. So while it can be a black hat technique, it can also be a Google induced error and the listing owner could be totally unaware of the reasons. My apologies to the Portland Mover that I used as an example.

Whenever Google changes things around, the bottom feeders are never far behind, always looking for angles and cracks in the system. Google Places Search, introduced October 27, is no exception.

It didn’t take the spammers long to find a way to get instant results. It was brought to my attention and the details figured out by Yam Regev (Puresheer). This hack has started to show for front pages local organic blended (LOB?) results across the country. It is easy to spot as the URL associated with a LOB result is usually from deep within a directory and the listing is claimed.

Here is a screen shot for the search local movers Portland Oregon:

Note that in the screenshot above the business links to http://www.123movers.com/movers/Portland_OR/z-97201/s-local_movers/results.html, a general business directory page

The technique is a variation on barnacle marketing that attempts to leverage the strength of an existing directory to highlight your business. While it doesn’t give you any web traffic, it does put your phone number front and center on the main SERPS. Because of this limitation it is a technique more commonly seen in service industries (you know the ones: locksmiths, movers, limos etc) with little or no bricks and mortar.

How does it work?

The Places search ranking algo has always had a strong component predicated on the authority of the website referenced in the Places listing. This was why, as Chris Silver Smith pointed out, a Wikipedia URL was a successful Maps hack.

However with the rollout of Places Search, a generally strong website was not enough. Google had rejiggered things so that more emphasis was placed on not just a strong, authoritative page but one that did well on specific local searches.

To execute this current hack, you need to find a search on which a directory page (or competitors page not associated with a Places listing) shows well organically, typically above the LOB result (See this search as an example- note the high ranking Superpages URL). Take the exact URL and use it in your Places Dashboard. Your listing will take on the relative strength of the organically successful page showing the Title Tags, Description and URL from the poached page but showing the phone number and address of the local business.

It could be that Google is already starting to fix this. I noticed that a search for Locksmith Palo Alto that returned one of these hacked results as recently as January 1 has been returned to its native state (see shot above). But the ability to use the technique to leach benefit from even a competitor’s site should make this gaping hole a priority fix for Google.

Let’s hope so.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Google Places Hack: Barnacle Marketing Goes Black by

20 thoughts on “Google Places Hack: Barnacle Marketing Goes Black”

  1. Mike,

    That’s brilliant. I could see it being used for good rather than Evil.

    There was a Park Slope Optometrist who Yelp has featured heavily in their presentations who was the first I saw doing this. At the time, he was pointing to his Facebook page but is now pointing to the Yelp results page.

    If you’ve got 99 generally positive reviews and a $25.00 gift card for self-identified yelpers it definitiely helps you stand out among the crowd.

    The search: http://www.google.com/search?q=park+slope+optometrist
    The results: http://www.yelp.com/search?cflt=optometrists&find_loc=Park+Slope,+Brooklyn,+NY

    Aggressive? Gray? Black?

    You decide.

    Effective, apparently so.

  2. Hi Mike,

    In the instance of 123movers, this isn’t actually the black hat scenario that it initially seems to be – but an issue with Google’s merge. I recognize this because I’m struggling with a similar issue with a corporate client, with many brick and mortar locations, that is working hard to drive the Places traffic to those pages.

    In my instance, the LOB is using the unique location url I have added into Places for some locations, but for other locations, though the unique URL is in the Places listing, the LOB listing has blended with the corporate site. Strangely, for this second type of scenario, when you click through to the Places page, the unique url that I have added into Places is there.

    The case above with 123movers seems to be exactly the same. The LOB url takes the searcher to the directory page, but when you go into the business’s claimed business listing, the url they have added takes you directly to their listing on 123moving.

    While it would be best if the business had their own website – they are trying to drive traffic to a page that’s unique to them. Google just happens to be connecting the information in such a way that the landing page doesn’t match up. If I were the business owner, I’d be ticked that Google is sending potential traffic to a page where my competitors are listed.

  3. @Will
    It may very well be used for the good of the business using the tactic. I hope they don’t have a long contract with their SEO or the ROI will decline dramatically. :)

    I see two problems with it… 1)it could be used to attach a businesses phone number to a competitors page and 2)It will take the user to another directory when they thought they were going to a business website.

    Since it is certainly meant to manipulate Google’s result, their definition will not be ambiguous as to whether it is gray or black.

  4. @Steve

    Right you are! It is a bug and a black hole… :) That’s interesting.

    It is the same with Will’s example of Yelp.

    That being said, it is easily manipulated.

  5. Amazing stuff Mike :-)!!

    Also, think on the verity of opportunities to hack your competitors organic results. That way the scammer will win twice- 1. They will have their phone # appearing on the 1st SERP without any difficulty nor expenses & 2. The hacked site/ company will be blamed on spamming Google Maps & probably both its true listing & the fake one (which occupies the same URL, of course) will be kicked out of the index.

    Polish your swords, scammers, Google is throwing more fresh meat right at ya!

  6. I continuously wonder about one thing with regard to sites that rely on spammy methods/ and or tricks to get Places/Maps visibility.

    Do these sites and more relevantly the owners of the businesses realize and spend the time to develop even half way decent sites that do the basics in order to attract relevant search phrases.

    Some of those simple basics include some ABC’s including:

    1. Use relevant title tags for your pages
    2. Definitely do keyword research.
    3. Create good content
    4. Make sure the content in one form or another will cover the relevant keywords.

    For local/regional businesses the keywords always have to contain relevant geographical terms. Obviously they must contain terms that reflect the business/industry.

    I was looking at a relatively weak website that is local/regional; is business to consumer, appeals to a niche audience, and is not in a huge market. Here are some things I saw with an emphasis of the value on the long tail: It may or may not be reflected with maps placement on an organic google.com search phrase.

    The site averages something over 1,000 search visits/month–say 30-40/day. Most of the search phrases are reasonably relevant.

    I noted 2 big search phrases that together represent about 1/4 of the search traffic. Both highly relevant. Both generate a lot of conversions.

    But what is the highest category traffic generator? The long tail. In this case I looked at search phrases that generated 1 or 2 visits. That is long tail. Aggregate conversions for the long tail was the #2 conversion source.

    Long tail in the aggregate generally supplies all our businesses/sites with lots of visitors and conversions. Over time we keep finding and adding appropriate long tail content. It keeps adding 1%, 0.5% and less traffic and in the aggregate adds enormous value.

    When you cover this base it frees a site and business from being wholly dependent on lots of factors out of one’s total control including:

    A). Google eliminating your site and visibility for spammy efforts
    B). PPC competition wherein you are in an expensive bidding war.
    C) Intense competition for the couple of most critical phrases.

    and other things.

    Every time I read about one of these spammy methods I wonder if the sites, but most importantly the business owners, don’t realize this, are being sold a bill of goods, or what.

    Get your basic url/site up to snuff. It takes care of a lot of issues!!!

  7. @Earlpearl

    Great points!

    I too see that the very long tail can often equal or exceed the volume of searches of head phrases in local markets… Plenty of room for all comers.

    But it does require the time and energy to create a website…

  8. @Will,
    But buying a check-in seems to be OK (?). Seems like a savvy way to get around the Yelp review solicitation prohibition.

  9. How’d you guys stumble on my trick….. :-)

    Actually…here’s another fun one (that was recently addressed in an update and doesn’t work well) and I am glad as I was competed against a few listingswho were doing this.

    1. Create a listing for a City Name
    2. Set the City Name category to City Center
    3. Wait a few weeks
    4. When the listing has tons of citations and UGC on it, plug in your real categories and a keyword with the city name.
    5. Have a super listing that doesn’t even need reviews to have a major social signal.

    This was “almost” undetectable. The only way I was able to figure it out was by the User Generated Content only showing a mention of the City Name and not the business. Then I found a listing that was being “baked” and put the 2 together.

    Where there is an algo, there will always be loop holes. It still doesn’t change the fact that hard work overtime will prevail.

  10. @Mike R

    Great stuff indeed!
    Also, like the good old time of spam, you can change once a month your URL to other Local verticals, city-sites & even Wikipedia, etc… By that you’ll be able to piling up heaps of citations. After a while, you can change the URL back to your site’s & you got your self an A1 listing.

    BTW, Guys,

    I’m still trying to figure out the LOB weight between the listing it self & the organic position. meaning:

    From my R&Ds, i can learn that a listing, when changing its URL to site you want to hack its organic result, will ‘pull up’ the result (now LOB) into a MUCH higher position.

    I have 2 examples:
    1. I have a listing in Toronto ON that keeps coming & going from the Maps index. My site’s organic position is 12 (top of 2nd page). When the listing ‘comes’ the LOB is 4th in the 1st page!!!

    2. My 1st experiment, when i found out the trick of organic’s hacking by a Maps listing, showed this:
    I wanted to hack (just for the experiment) Super Pages organic result, ranked 8th for the term Locksmith Garden Grove. I just created a listing in Google Maps with SuperPages URL & 3 weeks after that, both my listing & SuperPages result became a LOB, ranked 3rd (& my listing got a Locksmith category!!!!! which is REALLY RARE!!)

    Any other results or thoughts?

  11. @Ted Paff,

    I can’t speak for Yelp, but it does appear there’s less focus on integrity outside of the “editorial” reviews.

    It’s an inherent disconnect between the desire for organic reviews and the need to sell something.

    @PureSheer,

    AWESOME!

    Look for a hand-edit soon :)

  12. @Puresheer

    When you say your site is ranked 12th is that 12th including the LOB or is it 12th on a site like AOL that is more “pure” organic results?

  13. @Puresheer

    I find when trying to ballpark the impact of organic vs Places standing that if you look at a given result in AOL it gives a better sense of a “pure” organic rank of a listing without the apparent influence of the local listings… and might give you a sense of the final weight of organic vs local better

  14. @ Mike,

    When you say “Take the exact URL and use it in your Places Dashboard” you meant in the Website field of your listing or can it apply anywhere like in the Additional details for example. ?

  15. @JoeMurph

    The meaning is to use it instead of your own site’s URL. this way, you’ll be able to hack the local directory or vertical organic result.

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