Is Google Stupid or Do They Choose Not to Solve the Local Spam Problem?

In the conversation on my article about the divorce settlement between G+ and Google Local, Maurice Smit made this comment:

People sometimes ask me why Google can’t do certain things. There is a misconception that the people at Google are so savvy that they can do almost anything. As local marketers we know better, don’t we?

Wouldn’t it be easy for the biggest and smartest searchengine people to catch crap on the map? NO it is not apparently….

My answer:

As you know, I have explored that question for a long time.

The short answer is that they are savvy and could solve the problem but choose not to do so.

The long answer…

There are 88,110 employees at Google. Roughly half of which are engineers1 from the top institutions in the world. So on one level they are savvy.

But, and this is a big but, they have a corporate culture that is inculcated with certain values that prevent them from wanting to solve certain problems or perhaps unwilling to do so.

As you saw in their spam research paper, they view the problem of local spam from one of scale and relevance. This very limited POV effectively blinds them to the hyper local reality on the ground. The algo is god and that puts the damper on putting real, trained humans on the task2.

Another issue within Google is their cost accounting. Maps and organic search are surely responsible for the massive income of Adwords and yet internally Maps and Local are seen as a “free” product3. Thus any infrastructure and engineering time used for the purpose of spam abatement is viewed as an above the line, gross profit impacting, variable expense rather than a long term investment in the future of the company3.

The corporate culture also has two values that impact these outcomes… projects and products are an outcome of small teams with full, independent control AND Google has a strong desire for these team members to move to different divisions and gain more experience on a very regular basis. Within that is the ethos of build quick, release early and reiterate until it’s proved to be useful or a failure and then cut the cord.

The former means that the Maps team comes up with something like Q & A and forget to tell the GMB team about it4.

The latter means that if there were someone that was interested in say, review spam they would be encouraged to move onto another team in another division in a very short time frame. Months not years. So not only is the person with the interest gone, but their institutional knowledge is to some extent lost as well5.

The ethos of release early, iterate often and test means that 1)bugs are part of the landscape, 2)it might be updated soon in some sense but 3) that it might just as likely be cut from herd before the market even knows the product exists6.

To a large extent #craponthemap is the perfect example of the type of problem that Google COULD solve but chooses NOT to solve for both individual AND corporate reasons.

What is obvious to us, the impact of spam listings and spam reviews on legit local businesses, is perceived as a gnat on the butt of an elephant by the Google Gods. Only rarely does the sting of the gnat generate enough pain that someone looks up and says oh, maybe there is a problem… take down that specific spammer so the gnat goes away7.

All of this exists within a context of Google success at generating a profit and becoming a monopoly. From a corporate point of view, if not ours, they are doing something right to be that profitable. Their status of being a super aggregator monopolist means that they can create these problems but as long as the problems have no material economic impact, they can ignore them.

I, being ever hopeful, have encouraged, embraced and highlighted other gnats in the hope that a swarm can both identify more problems with the product AND garner more of Google’s ADD rattled attention.

Its been a long slog8. And it has become clear during that journey that Google has made an active decision, as much as they are capable of doing so, to not solve this problem any more than they already have, IN THE CURRENT CONTEXT.

But Google, as the monopoly hegemon, is a context creator. The final outcome may end up being something like Local Services Ads, where the monopolist creates a new market from which they profit by putting trust back into the broken system they created. Ironic eh?

1 – This strong engineering focus creates a certain class bias in and of itself outside of the corporate culture. While some engineers may have come from working and small business backgrounds, by the time they have run the gauntlet of a place like MIT they have become entitled representatives of their technocratic status. When I visit Google I am struck by the very obvious class differences within the organization.

2 – Their trust in the algo means that problems need to be able to be solved at scale. Many times, spam is widespread but so hyper local that it defies an algo based solution. From the point of view of Google these are “edge cases”. They certainly make enough money to put people on these edge  cases but that would deny their own strongly held belief about the algo. And cost money, god forbid.

3- While this appears to be true, it is the sort of “white” (or not) lie that companies tell themselves to excuse their lack of willingness to solve the problem. And the internal accounting whether intentional or not puts the incentives in the wrong places to solve this problem. In many ways, Google has created a public utility in the form of Google Maps but shifted the costs of the local spam onto the consumer.

4 – While small, independent teams can make great products, the lack of minimal viable features needed in the important context of local is astounding. How could a product like Google Q & A be released with no functional way to communicate to the business about a new question?

5- This has long been an issue with Google but I must say that they are doing better on the remembering front than they used to… it still leads to costly (to the local business) re-dos as products come and go and come again but it is better than in the 2008-2012 time frame.

6 – This often leads to Google spending time on interesting products only to nuke them due to lack of business uptake. It also means less engineering resources for solving problems with the existing product set (review spam anyone?). This creates a distrust on the part of the business to adopt new features which feeds back into the Google process leading to the feature being nuked. A very weird dialectic.

7 – I have been told, and it is perhaps apocryphal and perhaps not, that Google has a team that just looks for problems that are appearing in the press and are authorized to solve that immediate problem to avoid further bad press…. the “proverbial hand job”. The issue might or more likely, might not see a long term systemic solution.

8- When I say a long slog I mean a long slog. I started writing and critiquing listing  spam in 2008. In some cases Google fixed the problem. In others, like locksmiths, they just threw up their hands and it still exists today…10 years on. With a solution only just now on the horizon, Local Services Ads.  

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Is Google Stupid or Do They Choose Not to Solve the Local Spam Problem? by

22 thoughts on “Is Google Stupid or Do They Choose Not to Solve the Local Spam Problem?”

  1. It’s frustrating that I spend 20% of my time reporting backlink schemes (of which little seems to be getting dealt with lately) and GMB spam/fake reviews. C’mon Google…. you can do so much better. Please read Mike’s words and these comments – we are folks that care about a level playing field for all. It really is in your best interests.

  2. In referencing the money google makes and alluding to just how much of it might be attributable to local and maps (although Mike the percentage of clicks on our ads that show in maps is fairly small)…but the mere fact that there is so much local advertising and it must have a HUGE impact on their bottom line–that might have some impact on their decision(s) to simply not fix things in local.

    Our sites decided to advertise long ago. We simply wanted more shots at more visitors. That was the thinking.

    It has worked to date.

    But getting back to never fixing “anything” easily or quickly in google local/maps/GMB : well they might have found that the more mistakes, errors, problems in GMB/local–the more smb’s decide to advertise.

    We don’t really know. We have ZERO insights into the volumes of searches google gets and how and where those searchers click (if at all).

    Adwords REPS are much faster and more responsive than any reps google has ever had for GMB/LOCAL/Maps. ALWAYS.

    Possibly–just maybe google might have discovered that the more it makes life hard on the local/GMB/Crap side–the more businesses will advertise and/or competitors give up on getting crap cleaned and just advertise.

    Who knows?

    I think its plausible if only because after years of advertising–Google will stick it to you if you don’t pay close close close attention. They aren’t sweethearts.

  3. To me, Dave’s comment sounds very logical:

    “Possibly–just maybe google might have discovered that the more it makes life hard on the local/GMB/Crap side–the more businesses will advertise and/or competitors give up on getting crap cleaned and just advertise.”

    Gee, that would be diabolical. Wouldn’t it? 🙁

  4. All this goes to show that words and meanings matter. It’s a bit like having to understand and define the word ‘evil’ in context to Google’s view. Their long-standing motto of “Don’t Be Evil” can be torn apart if you don’t know what they determine to be evil or not.

    This is a good example of how things go wrong when there’s a lack of true and fair competition in a marketplace.

  5. In 2005’s film starring George Clooney “Syriana”, there is a scene in which some top oil company executives are talking about different and rather sordid strategies they can implement to gain control of an oil pipeline, and that way, the entire economy of a producer country. At the end of the dialogue, one of them, to answer his interlocutor, who questions those strategies, says: ‘ Hey! We are talking about oil, aren’t we? ‘

    So basically, if any of us, ordinary people with average intelligence, as you say, can notice and believe G’s strategy in local aspect works that way, no doubt it’s something they, dedicated in body and soul to their business, had already noticed. In fact, they’ve probably even measured the real impact of the strategy in question, and it’s true that crap in local / GMB side generates more revenues from advertising through businesses that give up the fight and simply decide to advertise more.

    No doubt is Machiavellian … but probably, it’s very possible.

  6. Mike: I reread the piece and focused on your notes: Comments based on experience and observations made over virtually the entire period for Google Maps/Local/GMB. (did I miss another name????).

    Upon reading note 7 I immediately flashed back to a blog post by Miriam from early November 2008 which covered the difficulties in getting emergency phone numbers for hospitals and hospital emergency phone numbers:

    It was a critical find. Google Maps and google information was providing wrong phone numbers to vitally important phone numbers for emergency health issues.

    You updated on that concern in a post in late June 2009:

    Late 2009: The post title was Is Google Maps Reducing Customer Support

    The update identified that Google’s concern expressed following Miriam’s post and effort to rectify shortly after Miriam’s discovery and article–WAS DROPPED.

    No more special help for vital public health phone numbers!! Google dropped this feature QUIETLY.

    By June 2009 other hospitals were reporting and complaining about these erroneous phone numbers. There was no longer a quick fix or an easy one.

    There it is: One more example of Google’s unwillingness to fix problems dating back about a decade and putting the time frame of this perspective to virtually the entire time Google has had Maps, local listings, and local visibility.

    As I recall the issue DID NOT hit major media/newspapers. I recall others that did. The one’s that did get larger scale media coverage got a quick “hand job” quick fix. Typically they had no where’s near the importance of the hospital situation. They weren’t illness or life and death situations. The one’s that got fixed had been media newsworthy.

    It’s been a decade. Google doesn’t give customer service. In fact they generally turn their noses away from it.

    Oh they do give a form of customer service to people who pay for ads, but for the organic/local/gmb information–very poor service.

    They get away with it. They have been getting away with it for the entire period Maps/Local/GMB has been in existence.

    One of the reasons I suggested that Google might well ignore customer service is that it might lead SMB’s to advertise. So difficult to get attention from Maps/GMB/Local personnel (if there are any). Its easier to grab them when you are paying them something.

    Its a cynical perspective–but Google has shown its a cynical business. They do as little as they have to. Its been a part of their operations for as long as they have been around.

  7. My sense is that the thinking “Google wants more money and thus does X” simplifies the reality to such an extent that it makes it difficult to understand the reality of how they operate.

    Understanding how they operate, while we may not like it, helps us do our jobs better.

  8. After reading your notes I added a second comment referencing issues that dated back to 2008/2009. The articles reference similar occurrences from earlier.

    Google has never focused on customer service or fixated on fixing problems in Local/Maps/GMB in its entire history.

    I suggested the cost/charge/drive you to adwords as plausible simply because it is. Once you register an smb in GMB you will see plenty of encouragement to advertise.

    If you advertise you will find that your site can get adwords visibility where you don’t get it in the GMB/3pac or in the serps. If you don’t pay close attention to your spend Google will jack that cost up without you really understanding of what is occurring.

    I’m in the midst of severely cutting costs on two long running adwords campaigns. Over the years as the costs have gone up I’ve made incremental cuts. Now I’m attacking the entire set of campaigns.

    Costs have dropped somewhere between 20-45% depending on how and against what period I’m measuring. Total volume clicks are going up or staying static while costs are dropping for a variety of reasons. I’ve taken google adwords advisors calls for years. Only once was there a serious response to cutting costs and it was a response that touched on a minimal impact issue.

    Google likes your money. I simply think its a plausible suggestion. The simple fact is that their advertising revenues always go up–never down. They do all sorts of things to push it higher. Making life more miserable on the GMB/maps side is probably something that works. I’m sure they have already seen that.

  9. @Dave
    It is an outcome of how they roll…. not of nefarious intentions (other than to be a monopoly)

    It will likely be attached to the GMB in the coming weeks but with the release early and iterate often tactic it was viewed as not essential for testing of the feature. Now that the feature has been vetted it will be in the iteration.

    From where I sit it SHOULD have been part of the minimum viable product spec but wasn’t.

  10. Mike: Upon re reading I enjoyed your comments/incites based on long observation.

    Google hold’s back on grand announcements, especially if they are not “favorable”. All businesses make decisions based on financial considerations (along with other considerations). Google has obviously made great financial decisions. Its ad revenues always go up. Interesting graph->

    Based on observations on our own accounts I think google shifted from its earliest claims about its advertising auction only charging the #1 ranked site in ads as being charged only $.01 cents more than the next ranked ad around 2009-2010. That corresponds to a large increase in ad revenues.

    Do ya think they made that public or got publicity??? NAH.

    However its described to the public or down the ranks I see many google decisions ending up having positive impact on their revenues. Its not a coincidence.

  11. How about this quote from the Youtube, Lyor Cohen, the company’s global head of music:

    “There’s a lot more people in our funnel that we can frustrate and seduce to become subscribers”

    Sounds exactly like what we are talking about here about ‘bugs’ not being fixed fixed in order to get local businesses to pay for ads. Company wide strategy perhaps?

  12. As soon as Google sees a real competitor on the horizon, they’re going to move to solve all those issues.

    Lack of real competitors for them is creating this childish thinking culture. They’ve been feeling invincible so far.

    Until someone else comes along to create a shadow on their profits. That will happen, sooner or later.

    1. @Sergio
      Google did what it did to achieve monoply…. not the other way around. When there were competitors (2006,7,8,9,10,11,12) they did what they needed to do to beat them but that didn’t include fixing spam any more than the did. So if a competitor were to magically appear today, I do not think Google would be motivated to spend more on spam abatement… they would spend more but on ways to convince the public that they want Google more than the competitor.

  13. Ultimately, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Google’s founders could never have known that their erstwhile motto “do no evil” was bound to fail because it conflicts with a goal of achieving monopolistic power. Perhaps that’s why they dropped the motto in 2015. Some fascinating insights and views in this post.

  14. @ewan
    That is a somewhat naive view of capitalism on the net. Almost all of the early online software companies (Google, Amazon, Ebay, PayPal) built their companies with the ideas of 10x better tech, the network affect and a defensible moat. If a business succeeds with those goals and it becomes a hit that directly translates as monopoly…

    All of these companies, Google included, started their lives with the dream that they would become that company… and their “do no evil” was posited within that framework. Their view of do no evil exists within a context that leads to great power which they wield within their own definition of do no evil…and like any corporation that means do no evil unto the share holders.

    1. I believe the motto was intended to apply to the treatment of users but it may have ended up in practical terms applying (only) to the shareholders.

      I usually take things at face value, so you may have a point!

  15. Wonderful post Mike! I stumbled upon this article after my boss and I were talking about the problems review spam is causing. This post was a definite eye-opener on how Google is handling spam nowadays.

    Hopefully, in time Google will solve these problems that are plaguing us. For the time being will just have to spot out and report any “gnats” we see, and go from there.


    1. Liam
      Ah, the optimism of youth. It is refreshing if naive.

      I have been highlighting and writing about spam on google since 2008. In 11 years the problem as never abated and while it has waxed and waned over time, it is currently as bad as its ever been. This confirming my thesis.

      A caution, be sure when you do report the spam, that you do do with an anonymous profile. We have seen some bad actors go after folks who have reported in good faith.

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