Category Archives: Google Places (Maps & Local)

Comments, research and information about Google Maps (Google Local)

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:

11/2009
Guideline
11/17/2010
Guideline
02/08/2012
Guideline
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.

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?

411 Locals Back in the News

411 Locals has been implicated in widespread Places listing sabotage and accused of threatening an SMB. Well they are back in the forums with this recent report of their widespread spam. You can’t keep a good black hat down.

Poster HoskinsRick noted a range of examples of spamming that shared a number of features; keyword laden business names, either superpages or keyword focused domains, Place Page updates that referenced the address or domain name, plenty of fake reviews, royalty free photos and spot-on centroid locations:

Placentia Accident Attorney
Accident Attorney Raleigh
Accident Attorney Hartford
Accident Attorney Irvine
Accident Attorney Oklahoma City
Accident Attorney Oklahoma City
Accident Attorney Indianapolis
Accident Attorney Philadelphia

Centroid Spam - click to View Larger

I can not say with 100% assurance that all of these are from 411 Locals but I called the first 4 or 5 on the list. Most of those forwarded to the same unanswered cell phone message. The one that didn’t was clearly not located where the business listing indicated. And LAWYERPLACENTIACA.INFO (and several of the other domains of the domains did but no longer do) resolved to 411 Locals.

411 Locals is no small actor and they are rumored to use a number of “dirty” tactics including closing competitive listings and changing descriptions just before month end with keyword heavy focus so that they showed a higher temporary ranking in client. I have spoken with several of their ex-clients (those that would speak with me as a number refused any comment) and they reported overly aggressive and threatening tactics. It is speculated that they have worked on 16,000 business listings and could have as many as 8000 active clients. While Google is certainly aware of them and has implemented some changes at scale to mitigate their efforts, clearly they are still active.

Have you run into them in any way? Have you seen their listings or spoken with previous clients?

Is Google Intentionally Trying to Minimize the Fact that These are Ads?

Like many people, I have a less expensive, older LCD display at home that works just fine. With one exception. It makes Google Ads look just like a genuine search result. Obviously a screen shot doesn’t capture the “failings” of my typical display so I took a shot of the screen using my iPhone where you too can experience the lack of contrast. There is absolutely no distinction between the Adwords Express Ad and the local result. And the Adwords advertiser has the temerity to fake their reviews to boot.

But even when the yellow highlighting is visible, it might not really convey the fact that these are ads. My daughter, 19 and a reasonably savvy consumer of technology, asked me last week what the yellow meant. One assumes, in a company that tests things so much the decision is not accidental.

Do you think that Google makes the ads obvious enough?

(Click to view my bad photo of my LCD screen larger)

Why Bricks & Mortar Retail Will Continue to Get Harder – Mobile Price Comparisons

Pew Research just released a report on The rise of in-store mobile commerce that looked at how Americans used their phones to assist with purchasing decisions this holiday season. In aggregate 52% of users relied on their cell phone to either check with a friend, look at product reviews or check pricing online. Younger users were significantly more likely to do so than users over 50.

It means that any store selling commodity retail products can look at significant price pressure from this behavior. It also means that even “super stores” will be under continuing pressure. The likes of Staples, KMart, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble and others are likely to see significantly less profitability and be under threat.

From the report:

More than half of adult cell phone owners used their cell phones while they were in a store during the 2011 holiday season to seek help with purchasing decisions. During a 30 day period before and after Christmas:

  • 38% of cell owners used their phone to call a friend while they were in a store for advice about a purchase they were considering making
  • 24% of cell owners used their phone to look up reviews of a product online while they were in a store
  • 25% of adult cell owners used their phones to look up the price of a product online while they were in a store, to see if they could get a better price somewhere else

Taken together, just over half (52%) of all adult cell owners used their phone for at least one of these three reasons over the holiday shopping season and one third (33%) used their phone specifically for online information while inside a physical store—either product reviews or pricing information.

Is Google Reducing the Local Search Result Footprint?

I first noticed this yesterday where every search for “storage + city” returned a 3-pack result regardless of the city that was searched (ie storage Toronto, storage Detroit, storage Miami etc etc etc ). This was true even on international searches like storage Paris, Fr.This change apparently occurred about two weeks ago and despite doing a range of searches both logged in and not, the “storage + city” never returned a Blended Result nor a Pack other than the 3-Pack.

While this search result was strange enough, today at least, many search results that were returning 7 Blended results or the 7-Pack are now returning many fewer pinned results.

So my questions for you:

1)Are any of you in the storage business and how long have you been seeing this 3-pack only result?

2)For all of you, are your local searches now returning fewer pinned results in the main SERPS?

Loci 2011: Gib Olander

Gib Olander currently serves as Vice President Market Development for Localeze and frequent speaker at search marketing conferences. Localeze is a leading provider of business listing identity management, which includes; collection, organization, validation and distribution of merchant content. This content is widely used in the local ecosystems and the data is the foundation of place information at a large number of sites including Bing, Facebook and Twitter amongst others.

From this vantage point, Gib sees the industry dynamics from the inside out, providing useful insights to many in the industry.

******

While my day job keeps me out of the day-to-day practice of optimizing local listings or sites, I still dabble at night to stay dangerous. So I have to give a shout-out to all the in-the-trenches practitioners who write articles counseling on the tactics of local search. THANK YOU for sharing your knowledge as you have saved many of us countless learning cycles.  Local search is in an interesting position as we kick off 2012, so it is important to share some of the bigger trends coming together to change the local landscape as we know it.

I’ve used this stat a many times in 2011 but it is more important than ever in 2012! Global smartphone usage set to hit 50% by 2013. Smartphones are outpacing PC sales and, according to Greg Sterling’s comScore mobile review, mobile advertising is ready to take off.

So my guess is that most of the readers of this blog (like me) are avid smartphone users (if you’re not GO BUY ONE RIGHT NOW).  Think of all the things that you do with this device – and think for a minute about your life without it. So now go wipe the sweat off your brow. It’s ok, you can keep it.  My point is we aren’t the typical user today.  We are early adopters, but once you start using a smartphone you never go back. If the numbers are correct, and the smartphone-using population does in fact double, look out because our little local world is about to explode.

I believe this dramatic shift in smartphone usage is going to lead towards “commerce” instead of advertising, or in support of advertising, so GrouponNow and the Foursquare partnership is going to be huge. We have to enable SMBs to manage the cost of sales with a new look at inventory management and provide tools to reach potential customers during the slowest times of day.

Panda rocked the directory world and is creating the need for authoritative content – who wrote the content, when and why are starting to be a more important again.  More content isn’t going to be the answer, it’s better, more authoritative content that will be king.

Another major change is the evolving world of apps. Being found when searching on the big PC is only part of the answer or equation now. The apps landscape has introduced us to some of the promise of the semantic web. Siri is amazing. The long tail has a new meaning in local and with mobile shoppers being likely to buy within hours, as opposed to PC searchers who take weeks, this local mobile fragmentation is ripe for the smart to gain an advantage as the traffic continues to segment.

But maybe the most important article of the year from my perspective was about a key acquisition by Neustar! For those that didn’t know that TARGUSinfo (now Neustar Information Services) was the parent company of Localeze, the future is bright, with loads of innovation coming in 2012.

Google Places Myth: Linking to Your Places Page

I wondered if either of you had ever written an article (or seen a good one) on the merits of link building to a Place Pages. This is widely mentioned, of course, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything attesting the merits of the practice. – Miriam Ellis 

I see this piece of [mis]information being repeated and passed around local circles. Here is the response that I gave to Miriam as to my thoughts about the practice of linking to your Places Page:

This is a myth that has been spread around for years and is total poppycock.

Place Pages are search results. They are perhaps more static than some search results but there is no more substance to them than any Google search result.

Places Page have no authority status nor any status as a document and they are not indexed. Thus sending a link to them is like linking to a web page on Venus. It essentially passes link juice into the ether.

I can see no merit in passing a link to it.

Cerberus - The Mythical Multi Headed Creature
The one argument I have seen is that Google would increase the authority and thus rank of your business if the Place Page associated with that business has more authority. The reality is that Google has numerous tactics for correctly associating your Place Page with the most authoritative page (your website) for your business, not the least of which is the Places verification process. But even if you haven’t verified Google has numerous techniques (and patents) for associating the two successfully.

In fact not only do I see no merit in the practice, I see some harm in it. I have seen several SMB websites where the website links to their Places page directly from the main content area of their home page. The net affect is to dissipate page authority that should be passed along to interior pages of your site.

Like Cerberus, this myth has many heads, and like most myths seems to live on despite reason.

Catalog of Current Bugs in Google Places and the Google Places Dashboard

A number of contributors to the Places forums (Treebles, Helmut, Nyagoslav, Linda Buquet, myself) have assembled this first shot at a list of known bugs in Google Places and the Google Places Dashboard. Google is not currently publishing such a list and until they do, this list might help you understand if what you are experiencing is a known issue or not.

My hope is that by putting these in a single location it will save some of you time and/or frustrations as you experience the problem. This list is not comprehensive as we have not yet catalogued all bugs. If there are some that we have missed please add them as a comment and we will put them in our next update. Please include a reference link to the report in the forums. All of these issues are known to Google.

Date/Area Affected / Issue Reference URL Additional details
01/17/12 Places & Places Dashboard: Places Page Totally Disappear from both the Places index and the dashboard Places Forum Post Other reports here, here, here & here This does not seem very widespread but it is serious.
01/13/12 Places: Google adds the category “emergency” to
virtually all doctors & dentists Places listing whether they provide
emergency care or not
It appears to have happened concurrently with the 01/12/12 index push and is likely caused by bad source data
01/12/12 Places: When an owner response to a review exceeds 4094
characters Google responds with the meaningless error: Server error. Please
try again later.
Blumenthal’s Blog Comment I tested this & verified exactly where the bad messaging occurs
01/10/12 Places Mobile: Owner response does not show on iPhones Places Forum Post
01/06/12 Places Dashboard: Hours do not support 24 hr businesses Blumenthal’s Blog Comment Email from Google Support: “The underlying issue is that the system is not taking 12am-12am as valid operating hours” and “After speaking with our technical team members, your hours may or may not be listed as 12am to 12am after the next index push. There is the option not to display hours, which may be better suited for a 24 hours business, such as yourself.” Comment by Helmut: its a matter of the gl & hl-Parameters I believe. For German
listings Place supports 24 hour format.
12/29/11 Places: Owner can’t claim an unverified verified listing.
He will not -as used to be- get the three options “edit”,
“suspend” or “not my listing”
Places Forum Post
12/15/11 Places: Phone number is missing or replaced with Fax number on public facing Places page Places Forum Post
12/15/11 Places: Owner can not respond to reviews if the listing is
claimed into two accounts
Places Forum Post report in the German help forum as in URL-column -
as well as in the English Forum: here. This is an old problem that showed up first in 9/10 here. According to Google it is because there are two account holders and the one trying to answer is not the dominant one. However, given that the problem seems to pop up periodically in clusters it is possible that somehow the secondary account is automatically given prominence.
12/14/11 Places: Owner Review Response disappears Places Forum Post This can occur if the listing is claimed into more
than one account and the other account becomes dominant. Apparently though it can happen to any listing and it happened to Barbara Oliver where the
response just disappeared.
12/01/11 Places: Hours do not update on Place Page in timely fashion It, like the description, requires an index push to
change. Since that can be up to 6 weeks out, the feature is not usable for seasonal changes in hours. I experienced with Barbara Oliver in Buffalo
NY
11/28/11 Places Dashboard: Places Dashboard Stats show 0 Impressions & 0
Actions
Places Forum Post Fix in the works
11/10/11 Places Dashboard: Owner can’t claim a verified listing. The used to be working phone lookup method will not find the business Places Forum Post Europe This is only in certain European countries?
11/01/11 Places Dashboard: Photos don’t work when you try to add photos using a
link from another site
Places Forum Post Public comment from Google- All: We’re working on long-term changes to photos and photo uploads. It’s going to be awhile, so in the mean time, I strongly suggest you upload photos via your listing and manage them from your Picasa Web account.
09/01/11 Places Dashboard: South African Google Places doesn’t work (for 3+
months now)
Places Forum Post Google recommended using the verification
troubleshooter in these cases.
Places: reviews disappear & associate with the wrong
cluster
Places Forum Post Vanessa did a great summary of the bugs & other issues that are currently affecting reviews.
Places: Categories show 10 categories when claimed into two
accounts
Can be resolved via “report a problem”.
It is another artifact of allowing a listing to be claimed into more than one account
Places: A duplicate listing is created IF the claimant
changes too much basic information at the time of change
Feature Or Bug?
Places Dashboard: Preselected State gives error that State does not
exist when creating a new listing
Fix coming
Places Dashboard: Search for an already existing listing bug When a person tries to search for a listing using
the phone number (via the add new business page), the page reverts back without any result, unless they have chosen the correct area language.

The Long and Winding Tale of Trying to Fix a Merged Listing

This person posted this detailed log of his efforts to resolve his merged business before the new unmerging repair process was in place in the Google Help Forums. He had previously posted this information at Linda Buquet’s blog as a counterpoint to her article about improving Google customer service. It very much reinforces the issues that Matt McGee had and is having with his wife’s listing.

He suffered the unfortunate  but all too common reality of attempting to fix a merge prior to there being a formal process. He witnessed the results of having too many inputs into the system. While it is much easier now, it points out the near heroic efforts that an SMB will make to get this squared away and how the lack of a clear process from Google dramatically increased both his and their costs. And he still has a merged listing.

********

PROBLEM:
We have had a Merged Google Places listing with a competitor since 9/12/11 that has yet to be fully resolved.

Our Places page:

Our correct information:
Morris Law Firm, P.A.
111 Second Avenue NE, Suite 515
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
(727) 388-4736
(877) 353-8408
(727) 388-9639 (Fax)
criminalattorneystpetersburg.com

BACKGROUND:
We are a law firm (please don’t hate us) in a large office building with a Suite number for a physical office.  A Competitor that practices the same type of law, in the same building and has a different Suite number that refers to a mailbox (PO Box).  They do not have a physical presence in the building (note that we believe this to be a violation of Google Places terms of service).  We believe that the similarity in address information, phone number, firm name, and category information caused the Google algorithms to merge our listings (and continue to merge our listings).  Also note that we are an AdWords Express customer.

HELP REQUESTED:
We are requesting any help available to get this issue resolved once and for all.  We are happy to provide any and all information to help identify the issues and even act as a case study for Google and those interested to help others in the future.

INFORMATION:
We have compiled the following timeline to explain the chain of events, actions taken, and results to date:

9/12/11
ISSUE:  We first realized that our Places page had been merged with the competitor. Competitor information replaced ours for the page title, URL, phone number, pictures (with our pictures), and address information as well as “Comments from the Owner” and “Reviews from around the web” and “At a glance” information.
ACTION: Panic set in. We attempted to make changes (ill-advised) in our Dashboard that resulted in having to be re-verified through a post card.
STATUS: Our listing showed different combinations of our information and our competitors.

9/27/11
ACTION: Contacted Google and later received an email stating the listings would be separated and would take several weeks to see the changes.
STATUS: Listing reverted to our URL and address, phone number still the competitor’s.

10/19/11
STATUS: Listing reverted to our phone number, pictures of the competing business went away. “Comments from the Owner” and “Reviews from around the web” still from competitor.

11/9/11
STATUS: Merged again.  Listing information same as 9/12/11 above.
ACTION: Emailed Google support.

11/9/11
STATUS: Received email from Google “Important: Your listing on Google Places will soon be updated” that contained competitor’s business information to be updated in our listing.
ACTION: We followed the instructions in the email to reject the pending change (Places Dashboard, Edit…Submit).  Emailed support and received reply saying they would look at it.

11/10/11
STATUS: Exact repeat of 11/9/11 above.

11/15/11
STATUS: Received an email from someone on the Google AdWords Team that consulted with the Google Data Quality Team and who was working to de-merge the listings.  Told that it would take a “few” weeks.  Later the same day the only merged data is “Reviews from around the web.”

11/21/11
STATUS: Received two (2) emails from Google “Important: Your listing on Google Places will soon be updated” – information in email was correct, EXCEPT that the phone number listed was our secondary toll free number, not our primary local number.  Also received an email from AdWords support stating that, “… the Data Quality Team has split your listing…” and would take 3-4 weeks.
ACTION: We followed the instructions in the email to reject the pending change.

11/28/11
STATUS: Received another email from AdWords support stating, ” the issue was resolved. It is no longer merged with the other advertiser.”

12/14/11
STATUS: Received another “Important: Your listing on Google Places will soon be updated” information in email was correct, EXCEPT it had our competitor’s URL.  Places listing showing “Comments from the Owner” including his phone number, “Reviews from around the web” linked to the competitor, and “At a glance” information from the competitor.
ACTION: We followed the instructions in the email to reject the pending change.  Emailed AdWords support.

12/15/11
STATUS: Places listing completely gone in all searches. Came back much later in the day after performing the Dashboard Edit…Submit. Still some merged data in the listing.

12/29/11
STATUS: Received two (2) more “Important: Your listing on Google Places will soon be updated”  that had all correct information except the phone number.  Competitor’s phone number still showing on our Places listing.
ACTION: We followed the instructions in the email to reject the pending change.

12/30/11
STATUS: exact same as above, 2 emails – again.
ACTION: Emailed Google support. Received a response they were working on it (again).

12/31/11
STATUS: Competitor’s phone number still showing on our listing.
ACTION: Attempted our own Edit this Place action (changed phone number to our correct number) and received a “Google Maps Edit – Action taken” email, though there was no change on the Places listing – still the competitor’s phone number. Also attempted for the first time to use the Google Places Troubleshooter (we had just noticed it as an option), then we received a “[#XXXXXXXX] Google Places for Business Help” email saying they were investigating.

1/1/12
STATUS: Competitor’s phone number still showing on our listing.
ACTION: Attempted another Edit this Place from another Google account.  Got the same “Google Maps Edit – Action taken” email, but still no change on our Places listing.

1/3/12
STATUS: Spoke with competitor who was going through similar Google Places pains.  He was going to move offices as a result.  Said they would be working to change Google Places address info and/or delete their Places page and start over.  Idea of competitor deleting his listing made us nervous as the listings may still be merged. Still wrong phone number for us.

1/4/12
STATUS: Received a new type of email, “Google Maps Problem Report received” – this time from Reporting a Problem on Maps.

1/5/12
STATUS: Received a “[#XXXXXXXXX] Google Places for Business Help” email from using the Troubleshooter. This one has a new timeline, “We have taken the necessary steps to make sure that your business information will appear correctly within 6-8 weeks.” Phone number remains wrong.

1/10/12
STATUS: Phone number correct on our Places listing.  “Reviews from around the web” still linked to competitor.

1/17/12
STATUS: Phone number reverts to being the competitors.
ACTION:  We use the Google Places Troubleshooter and Report a Problem link again.

1/18/12
STATUS: We receive an “Important: Your listing on Google Places will soon be updated” with the wrong phone number information.
ACTION: We followed the instructions in the email to reject the pending change.

LATE 1/18/11
STATUS: Received a “[#XXXXXXXXX] Google Places for Business Help” it says, “Thank you for letting us know about incorrect information showing on Google Maps. With your guidance, we’ve made changes to our data and the updated information is now visible on Google Maps.”  Our phone number now appears correctly.  “Reviews from around the web” still linked to the competitor.  Our Places ranking has been lost, we no longer appear in the 7-pack.

SUMMARY:

– Too many ways to report a problem.
– Changes are happening before we can attempt to stop them using the Dashboard Edit…Submit.
– We don’t understand where the changes are coming from.
– Fixes don’t seem to stick.
– There appear to be duplicative emails sent (“Important: Your listing on Google Places will soon be updated”)
– Support is better, but underlying Merge issues still exist.

Our opinion:
Claimed (verified) business Dashboard information should be real time and override all other information.

Any help or comments accepted and appreciated. Hope this timeline and information is helpful to those out there.