Google Places Updates Quality Guidelines on the Use of PO Boxes

Google has once again updated (props to Nyagoslav for first highlighting the change) their Google Places Quality Guideline in regards to the use of PO Boxes in the address field. Once proscribed, they are not again allowed in the second address field only.

Google first added the prohibition on the use of PO Boxes in 2009 after widespread abuses of the feature to create additional locations. In late 2010, after the November 2010 guideline update, they actively began removing rejecting listings that had PO Box in their address. Subsequently they added a nanny bot filter in the Places Dashboard that prevented the use of the words PO Box when creating a new Places listing that gave a Term Not Allowed error if the term were used.

Here is the evolution of the guideline from 2009 till today with the changes highlighted:

Do not create listings at locations where the business does not physically exist. PO Boxes do not count as physical locations. Do not create listings at locations where the business does not physically exist. P.O. Boxes are not considered accurate physical locations. Listings submitted with P.O. Box addresses will be removed. Do not create a listing or place your pin marker at a location where the business does not physically exist. P.O. Boxes are not considered accurate physical locations. If you operate from a location but receive mail at a P.O. Box there, please list your physical address in Address Line 1, and put your P.O. Box information in Address Line 2.

The new guideline is an accurate reflection of the real world use of PO Boxes. In many rural environments in the US for example there is no rural mail deliver and all mail is delivered by PO Boxes. The change will allow these businesses to more easily get their listings approved without the need for a work around or intervention by a Google staffer via the new Troubleshooters.

This rule clarification was the effective, although unstated guideline that was in affect until 11/17/2010. However creative spammers developed a work around exploit that allowed for the creation of fake listings within the city centers. I described this simple exploit in the post Illusory Laptop Repair – A Most Elegant Google Places Hack.

Certainly the change will be welcomed by legitimate businesses that do not receive mail at their address. It will also relieve the Troubleshooter staff in Mt View of a tedious work freeing them up to solve less tractable problems. Hopefully Google has put in place adequate safeguards to prevent the widespread abuse that previously existed.

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Google Places Updates Quality Guidelines on the Use of PO Boxes by

22 thoughts on “Google Places Updates Quality Guidelines on the Use of PO Boxes”

  1. Thanks for the mentions, Mike.

    I suppose the nanny bot will still keep rejecting listings that contain PO box anywhere else except in address line 2 (as it was up to now). However, this addition removes one more pain in the back parts for many small business owners.

    I am also interested in your opinion regarding the addition of the pin marker moving as an against-the-guidelines act.

  2. A more refined best practice for PO boxes – much obliged to you both for publishing the update.

    Where do we go after the new troubleshooter still doesn’t fix the issue?? (rhetorical)

  3. @Chris
    To Bing 🙂

    I thought that you had covered it well.

    Certainly it is significant that Google is publicly calling out the tactic and putting folks on alert that have abused the Pin placement. Usually it takes some time for an algo update to the filters to see the new guideline put into action. They can’t occur soon enough in this situation.

    Perhaps in addition to filtering out this activity, Google will also (and more importantly) deemphasize the value of the centroid!

  4. hmmm, what about the folks giving a false address in the centroid and then getting verification post cards via the PO Box address? Some are even getting the PIN postcards delivered to PO Boxes in other cities. I think it may exacerbate that problem.

  5. Great point Mary. Maybe Google has figured out a way to validate a level of trust towards the physical address before allowing this change. I do wonder if this will impact ranking similar to a hidden address? Looking back I cannot imagine Google just allowing it without having its guard up. We shall see.

  6. Mike,

    I share Mary Bowling’s question. What is to stop black-hatters (any kin to mad-hatters to you suppose?) from exploiting this to list fictitious physical addresses and get verified at a real PO Box address?


  7. Mary, John, Jim,

    Regarding verification of fictitious addresses near the centroid, I think the question is:

    Well, wasn’t it possible up to now, too?

    And the answer is obviously “yes”. With this rule what Google does:

    1) Making it legitimate for all the businesses (no matter fake or real) to verify easily their addresses in case that for some reason they cannot receive mail at their physical location.

    2) Providing a guide to the thousands of SMBs on what to do in a situation like the above mentioned.

    This inclusion is good, imho. It does not solve the problem with fake address spam, of course, but as John mentioned, Google should have something hidden up its sleeve to make this change. And to make it after so long time, I suppose, it is not a coincidence.

    Furthermore, it happens in a time when literally tens of bugs are plaguing Places. It usually mean that some serious internal changes are happening.

  8. Mike,
    I’m so glad you have blogged about this. I noticed this the day before yesterday while answering an SEOmoz question in which I needed to quote the guidelines. It was one of those, “hey, isn’t that new?” moments.

    Here is my question on this: does allowing users to specify a P.O. Box guarantee that Google will actually send the postcards to the P.O. Box? It doesn’t say this in the guidelines, so I want to be sure we are all reading them right. Allowing one to include a P.O. Box as a secondary form of contact does not preclude the necessity of the primary, physical address. I just want to be sure that this change actually means Google will now send postcards to the P.O. Boxes of all businesses that list them on their Place Page.

  9. @Miriam
    Google is insistant on a street address in line one so that driving directions will be accurate.

    Having the PO Box in the second line doesn’t guarantee it but it does make it much more likely. When a business puts a first line street address and then a second line PO Box, the Post Office will attempt to deliver it to the street address and when it is unsuccessful put it in the PO Box. In the US at least it should work most of the time.

    In cases where the use of the PO Box is legitimate due to a lack of mail delivery the Post Office will already know to put it in the box.

    @Jim, John and Mary
    The safeguard that was in Place, the nanny bot was very limited and in the end, as Nyagoslav pointed out, only stopped legitimate users of the PO Box.

    I hope that the message and error feedback in the Dashboard is clear when an SMB puts it in the 1st line.

    I also think that it is likely that Google does in fact have something “up its sleeve” to cut down on the use of the tactic for adding additional locations downtown.

    Time to go rent a PO Box.

  10. The check when Google required a manual verification was that the GP team member reviewing the listing should validate the physical address with Citations and Street View. While that isn’t perfect, there is no validation at all of the physical address if they just get the postcard at an alternate address.

  11. @Jim Aside from citation scrapes and feeds, Google has to obtain its information directly from third party vendors (ie phone carriers) to make this, and other issues, work. I wouldn’t be surprised if they upload MLS data or compare the number of listings previously used at an address.

    @mike Good point. They should have error feedback the same as in the category selection. Same should apply to the use of geophrases in categories and business titles – at least a warning of manual review.

  12. Thanks so much for publishing this update. Clients keep using them and I have to keep correcting them! What is your experience with “po boxes” that are given addresses, such as those by the UPS Store?

  13. @Jeanne

    Boxes that use a street address are a short term work around of Google’s guidelines. They may work for some period but they are always vulnerable to being taken down. If you don’t mind that level of risk they are fine. Hard way to build a business though.

  14. It looks like the last update to the wording was incorrectly phrased. Google has updated the wording to indicate the 2nd address line is for a Mail Stop, Suite #, etc

    “Do not create a listing or place your pin marker at a location where the business does not physically exist. P.O. Boxes are not considered accurate physical locations. If you operate from a location but receive mail at a mail box there, please list your physical address in Address Line 1, and put your mail box or suite number in Address Line 2.”.

  15. Mike I totally agree with you. I have a client who has a main business location, but set up the UPS store boxes in two other states. I have already advised him about the pitfalls of trying to set up a Google Places account with them. Do you think Google would penalize his actual business address listing if he created listing for the other two locations?

  16. Is there an option to re-verify your address with Google Places that helps give you a boost in the local SERP’s?

    Wondering if this is just b.s or a legitimate strategy that works.

    Cheers, Kiwi.

  17. I have clients who use private mail box companies that list their
    PO boxes as suites. I am wondering if Google will find a way to crack this subterfuge and penalize businesses that use it. Two ways I can think of that they could break this ruse are 1) download onto their computer addresses of private PO box companies. 2) Look for addresses of small buildings, in some cases even suites of a building that house many companies.

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