Spammed, Slammed and Shut, Desperate SMB Closes Down his Places Listing

For the most part Places spam, in all of its forms, gets dispersed throughout the marketplace. The net affect is deleterious but the brunt rarely falls on the same real bricks and mortar shops time after time. Imagine that you lived in a town and worked in a field that has a single (and apparently compulsive) competitor that is willing to go to any lengths to gain a leg up in Google Places. You don’t just suffer a reported closing, or the rare piece of competitor review spam or the odd spam listing but you and all of your honest competitors suffer repeated abuses at scale. A reader in the computer repair industry in Phoenix has experienced just that. Here is his recent letter to me:

Hi Mike,

About a year ago I wrote you and we had some correspondence back and forth about a local competitor of mine who is spamming Google maps with dozens of fake listings and creating hundreds of fake Google users to give his listings great reviews. He would then turnaround and use the same users to give negative reviews to all of his competitors. Unfortunately this is still going on, it really hasn’t gotten any better, it does seem that Google has removed some of the fake reviews now but the majority stay up. His listings get replaced as fast as they are pulled down.

I do want to thank you for all your help in trying to sort this out. You had suggested that we try legal matters or possibly even taking him to court. After enough frustration I have started forming a group of local computer repair owners so that we have a voice loud enough to be heard. Luckily I’m in Phoenix Arizona city of 6 million people so we already have 10 to 15 shops joining us and e-mails were just sent out this weekend. It seems everyone in town has dealt with this guy and has lost business due to him. We are now going to our local attorney general as a group and for the first time they are finally listening to us. Hopefully something will be done.

In the meantime I have one question for you? It seems the only way that [the spammer has] to retaliate against me as with Google maps reviews. The SEO for my website ranks well for about every keyword we need in this area and on the first page for our best keywords, “computer repair Phoenix”.

What I wanted to ask is if we really need our Google places page? It just combines with our listing showing all of this guy’s fake bad reviews. On top of that the guy seems to have a knack at closing our listing at least monthly. Whenever the list in his closed, my website still ranks highly for a number of pages, so [I feel that I] really don’t need the Google places listing.

I have a question about this. If I suspend my claimed listing but do not delete it, will another one simply import into Google maps allowing this guy to continue his game of fake reviews. At this point with Google’s lack of customer assistance in Google places I’d rather not participate anymore. I don’t gain any extra business by it is my website ranks well anyways. I’d love to hear what you think of this, is there any way to make sure that my business does not show up in Google places. In testing today I went in and suspended my listing but I did not delete it. I will follow it and see what happens.

What would you recommend to a client if this happened to them?

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Spammed, Slammed and Shut, Desperate SMB Closes Down his Places Listing by

15 thoughts on “Spammed, Slammed and Shut, Desperate SMB Closes Down his Places Listing”

  1. I recall seeing the comments abt faked reviews for Phoenix computer repair, a year or so ago. Its a function of the dirty side of local business.

    Its too bad…in fact it’s a function of stubborn inactivity on Google’s behalf not to better police this issue in Phoenix and elsewhere.

    Google is a dominant marketing force for too many industries. Dominant over the rest of the web and other sources of media. It has a monopoly of eyeballs.

    When it allows vicious lies to be prominent via not policing the review sections….it borders on illegal behavior..on Google’s part.

    But suppose you eliminate the record. It is WAY TO EASY to fabricate Google Places Records and populate them with all sorts of misinformation.

    It can be done purposefully…and it can be done via uploads into originating data sources….http://www.davidmihm.com/blog/google/verizon-data/

    If an underhanded competitor is going to continue to write endless attack reviews because he/she isn’t stopped…then he/she is going to create false Google Places records if the opportunity exists.

    I would hate to have my business showing high rankings for target phrases…but with that ranking have a G Places Record as part of it that takes me to a wrong address/ a false phone number/ and possibly a competitor’s business.

    I’d hopefully get reactions from Phoenix authorities…then I’d publicize the issue so that it reaches the press. Then I’d try and use that Press awareness into shaming Google into policing the Places Records as they should have been doing for the past year.

    Its actually pretty pathetic that one even has to go to this extreme to try and get Google to do something they should be doing….but often the only way to get them to act is to shame them in the media!!!!

  2. @Earl
    It is a nasty environment and Google’s inability to control it has resulted in real damage to real businesses. Unfortunately because of 47-230 of the so called Communications Decency Act (an Orwellian name if there ever was one) Google’s action or in this case, lack of action, is protected behavior. So while you might call it immoral, unethical or inappropriate, it is not illegal.

    Hopefully his organization of other computer dealers will take the public road and shine some necessary light on this activity. Part of the issue is that these shops fear individual retaliation more than they fear the affect of this bad actor on their reputations. I have encouraged them to take a visible public stance and even legal efforts to put an end to this. It would not be tolerated in any other medium, it should not be tolerated on the internet.

  3. I think you are giving the beleaguered business owner the right advice, Mike, and at the same time, I think Dave is raising a crucial point. If the bad competitor is willing to spam reviews, he is certainly capable of creating fake listings if the good business owner decides not to participate at all in Places. I would be wary of closing the account.

    I am wondering what would happen if this grassroots group that the business owner has now assembled wrote a joint letter to the business owner in question, under the guidance of a lawyer, pointing out his suspected misdeeds and asking him to correct the situation. Perhaps he would be embarrassed into better behavior? But, perhaps there would be a legal backlash from this…hence, the need for legal counsel before doing anything.

    I’m really sorry to read of the unfair experience from which this business owner is suffering. Not cool!

  4. I am not a lawyer but I was very impressed by the successful small claims lawsuit against Honda recently.

    Perhaps if each owner with a case that they could document would individually file a small claims court suit it could result in many of the cases being won simply because of the defendant not showing up in court.

    The sheriff’s office would probably assign a single deputy to all of the claims that were won.

    It would probably be a good idea to have a lawyer be available to help with the process.

    It could end up being very effective at a low cost.

  5. @Miriam

    I think when things get this bad you and there is no way to even the playing field then the courts and the legal system (with a good media campaign) are the way to go. In a court of law the rules are set and not subject to the whims of the cranky, crazy or unpredictable. It may be costly but it would seem less costly then losing customers.

  6. The situation your reader experienced is unfortunately not a unique one. More and more of these examples are appearing on the Google Places help forums every day, public cries for help. Perhaps not to the extreme that this gentleman in Phoenix experienced it but that shouldn’t be the limit either.

    Googles advice is to treat it as a genuine review and leave an owners response. Further actions could be to flag the review as inappropriate or to report the review violation after having flagged it as inappropriate. But in the mean time this single false or these multiple false reviews are right there on your listing page. And as we all know the removal of these reviews, if it occurs, can take several weeks.

    These are all weeks in which there’s a false negative reflection of your company. We’re dealing with a process which simply requires more attention. Especially considering the impact these negative reviews can have.

    As accessible as we want it to be, perhaps Google Reviews require a bit more authentication or verification. And I’m just pitching ideas here but what if receipts would include a code that would allow actual visitors and customers to leave a review. You would receive genuine reviews from genuine customers.

  7. @Alex Weiss Interesting idea alex, I wonder how well that would work – certainly want to hear about this if anyone give it a try. As to the troubled business owner, have you tried confronting this individual in person and asking them what their problem is? Maybe a little face to face will set them straight (without any threatening intentions of course). Another idea might be to respond to the negative feedback in a genuine manner, addressing their fake review as if it were real, but indicate to potential viewers that the reviewer is biased based on an “opinion” that has no basis whatsoever.

    Look forward to seeing some feedback on the 2 points I suggested.

  8. For a short time we were offering a service to create a Google Places Page on behalf of our valued website and SEO clients as part of our subscription Webmaster service.

    Given Google’s lack of respect for the SMB market illustrated by this disastrous instance and their entries of competitors ads where and how they choose, we have stopped supporting their cavalier and callous attitude to the rights of our valued SMB clients.

    Whilst we will still “show how” when asked, in no way will will we charge for this service and we give all our SMB’s clear access to the brutal truth of Google’s attitude and actions in a blog.

  9. You might also try your local trading standards office or similar.

    They have been successful on several occasions in forcing Google to do the right thing.

    Trading standards should also be made aware of your competitor’s activity. There’s likely other things he is doing that they can take more immediate action on.

  10. @Rob

    In the US there is no direct government body equivalent of the trading standards office. We have the FTC which is federal and rarely intervenes in these local issues and the Better Business Bureau which is a “market driven” (that is to say scam) outfit that arbitrates disputes. There are very few places to get a hearing even if the behavior IS illegal.

  11. I must say that this is by far the most fascinating post I’ve yet to read on the topic of Google places/maps, and the underhanded tactics used by unscrupulous and unethical competitors to gain a false upper-hand, albeit one that’s very real in terms of its effects on the bottom line of everyone involved.

    Luckily, my business only has a handful of local competitors, and none of them are particularly savvy when it comes to online marketing.

    The question I have is this: Does a Google Places page show up in search if the company is not actively paying for AdWords Express?

    I had to cancel my AW Express campaign because it was draining our budget without resulting in any conversions, and the lack of control over maximum bids, keywords targeted and ad copy was sufficient grounds for me to terminate the campaign. Like the gentleman from Phoenix, our site ranks well locally anyway, although it does appear behind the paid places listings. I wish Google would do a better job of making clear that those are in fact advertisements.

    Anyway, my company has done just fine without our Places page appearing in search (it stopped showing up when I stopped paying for $7 clicks that weren’t converting). Given the dramatic difference in the degree of internet aptitude of our respective industries and locales, I am certainly not advising the computer repair man from Phoenix do as we did and simply get rid of his Places page. That said, we’ve done just fine without it.

  12. The question I have is this: Does a Google Places page show up in search if the company is not actively paying for AdWords Express?

    Yes.

    It is unlikely that it stopped showing because you stopped the AWExpress. The two function independently.

    AWExpress works for some folks and in some markets and industries but certainly not all. Adwords (the full version) when done correctly can provide better results. Getting conversions though often requires AB testing of both ads and of landing pages.

  13. Thanks Mike. After I posted I checked it again, and while it didn’t show up, the Places listings had been moved from the very top of the SERP to after the top-3 organic results for our company’s top generic geo-targeted keyword phrase, two of which (the top-3 natural results) are for our company.

    Thanks for the follow-up. I’ve been touting you/your blog in the forums as well as everywhere else I interact online as the go-to-guy for anything Google Places-related.

    I sincerely appreciate your advice and the phenomenal content you publish that helps so many businesses such as my own.

    I suppose my only local competitor must’ve tampered with my Places page, as I doubt the Google rep did it in retaliation for terminating the (what was for about a month) very lucrative Express campaign.

  14. Mike: I went back to a smb situation which erupted last Autumn and resulted in an explosion of inappropriate reviews: 300+ reviews were generated on behalf of a deli in Birmingham Alabama. It had nothing to do with sandwhiches, hot dogs, sodas or service. It was all about politics.

    The reviews clearly broke some of Google’s Terms of Service. Google was aware of it. Google did NOTHING Search on Birmingham delis now and you will see one deli with over 300 reviews…and the others have between 5 and 30.

    Come on. sandwiches in Birmingham Alabama aren’t going to generate 300+ reviews. :D

    Its no surprise that Google does not police reviews. :D

    I hope the Phoenix smbs are successful in generating legal and publicity responses to the systemic abuses within the google review corpus. On its own Google is clearly not going to do anything.

  15. One way (semi) around this is to use schema for star ratings (with or without a listing). Using schema, stars were added to a non-places listing (see just below place pack) http://bit.ly/x14w3u

    Also, you could fight the bad reviews with schema as well: http://bit.ly/ziiOUG – one star rating might be bad, and the other good, but at least there is some positive rating.

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