At the beginning of last week, I started to notice posts in the Google Help forum and I received emails from a number of correspondents that their records had merged with nearby competitors. At first blush they appeared to have all of the symptoms of hijacked records however after lengthy, ongoing communication with Google it appears that these merged records are being conflated by Google.
Despite having the Local business Center to provide authoritative information to a business listing, Google for a number of reasons and in a number of situations has always merged some business records inappropriately. The merged records will take on parts of one record and parts of the other in a somewhat willy nilly fashion, the url of one business and the telephone number of the other for example.
Typically these are two businesses at the same address or sharing a phone line. Sometimes the data mixup is from an upstream provider and Google will take the upstream provider’s information as more accurate or important than that in the Local Business Center. In the past Google has advised to slightly modify the two addresses so that Google could do better at distinguishing the merged records. In the case of the bad data coming from upstream data providers, it was necessary to track down the bad data and have it changed or face remergers on a regular basis.
Google Guide Joel described the issue before the recent rollout and snafu: “This is how our system works by design. Businesses that are the same address / location are merged. In general, it’s the right thing to do. However, we’ll take your concern as feedback. We want to improve these systems and are actively looking at doing this in the right way. In the meantime, there’s no way to force an immediate fix to the issue.”
For some, Google Maps has become the ultimate Kafka like nightmare of late, as Google is now merging records between nearby competitors just because they are in close proximity to each other. Apparently the merging algorithm has changed and Google is now merging records that have nothing in common other than being in the same map sector and a similar business profile.
One of the owners of a recently merged records was from a Doctor’s office and noted the following: “Google merged the records for Dr John G Moe and Dr Kenneth Landis and this almost led to a tragic patient outcome this weekend. An emergency room doctor from Kansas tried to contact Dr. Moe to see if a certain drug could be given to our patient. Since the patient was unable to give the ER our phone number, the googled Dr John G Moe. Since Google linked our record, the saw the phone number for Dr Landis and left a message on his answering machine and since he wasn’t on call that weekend, we didn’t learn of the problem until much later”.
Legitimate locksmith’s have been attempting to convince authorities to pursue the illegetimate locksmiths for several years. They seem to have achieved a high profile success in Missouri where the State Attorney General is filing suit against one of the Florida companies behind a significant amount of the mapspam. In addition, the Attorney General “has also taken steps to get AT&T to remove the company’s ads from “The Real Yellow Pages” and www.yellowpages.com”.
“Clearly the Yellow Pages has made lots of money off of this,” said Koster.
The state is suing Dependable Locks Inc., out of Florida, a company accused of flooding the phone book with dozens of company aliases and hundreds of phone numbers.
And the attorney general’s office has given the AT&T Yellow Pages five business days to shut off hundreds of phone numbers linked to the fraudulent companies.
The Attorney General’s listing of related companies had a familiar ring to it and many are still present in Google’s index. “The following are the alternate business names used by Dependable Locks, Inc.”:
–A#1 24 Hour Locksmith
–A 24 Hour Locksmith
–AAA 24 & 7 Day Locksmith
–A Always Available 24 Hour Locksmith
–A Emergency A Locksmith
–A Locksmith Always 24 Hour
–A Locksmith A 1-24 Hour
–A Locksmith 00 24 Hour
–A Locksmith O Always 24 Hour
–A Locksmith Service 24 Hour
–A Locksmith 24 Hour Emergency
–A Kansas City #1 Emergency Locksmith
–24 Hour A Locksmith at St. Louis
–24 Hour A Locksmith
–0 24 Hour Locksmith
As Glenn Y(who alerted me to the above story, thanks) noted in a recent comment on my post Google Maps vs Locksmith Spammers: Spammers winning: “Every person who counts on internet search has a dog in this fight. SEO professionals will need to get involved with the solution, or lose their ability to positively effect search for their customers. This is not about locksmiths, it’s about fraud and search.”
Here is the press conference that has some interesting detail:
I have written extensively about the hijinks in the Locksmith industry and the impact that the massive amount of mapspam was having on the Maps Index quality. Google noted that they had fixed the vector in January and another in March. Google however, when they fix a technical iisue like Mapspam rarely if ever seems to go back and clean up the resultant pollution in the index. It really begs the question: What does fixed mean?
One of the many tactics that the Locksmith industry used was to hijack unclaimed records in other industries (like hotels & restaurants) that had large numbers of web citations and reviews to achieve ranking cred for themselves. Over the past 6 weeks I have received various reports of these listings still showing up in the Local 10 Packs and spotting some myself as aI meandered through Maps.
David Mihm, Local SEO in Portland, sent me an example of a hijacked restaurant listing showing up for the search Restaurant Portland. We quickly (less than 10 minutes each) found 10 additional high profile searches that still are showing the affect of being hijacked by locksmiths. Literally one of every two searches in major metro areas showed polluted results. One can only presume what a thorough review might find. A motivated locksmith discovered that in the Maps records of locksmiths for the top 50 metro areas in California, he found 60,000 spammy locksmith listings.
Here are the searches that included obviously hijacked listings:
Local data is hard enough to get accurate when all the players are honest and focused on that goal. However, leaving this detritus in the index takes the quality to a new low. As I noted in a previous post, when the plumbing breaks you don’t just seal the leak in the pipe you clean up the mess from the broken sewage pipe.
It is time for Google to give the records back to the rightful owners and provide the quality user experience that they so often reference as their standard.
I just hung up the phone with an InfoUSA staffer who called to verify our business record. Never one to miss an opportunity, I think I may have asked him more questions than he was able to ask of me. As my daughter noted on a apron she gave me for my last birthday: “Cooking up good questions for over 50 years”.
1)They attempt to call every business in their list on annual basis.
2)They verify very little information about the business:
-Primary Business (does anyone have a single primary business?)
It is nice that someone, somewhere is attempting to verify core local listing data. By the same token, they sure don’t verify much information. Why didn’t they ask for hours? Why did they let me only list one primary business function? Do I have handicap access?
I could go on but with very little more energy they could have gathered both more and better information to feed into the local ecosystem.
Update 4/26: It appears that all of the CityVoter.com reviews have been removed from Google. It is a little hard for me to understand how these reviews can be removed so quickly from Maps but can not be updated with equal speed.
I have recently added a new local account, The Option House Restaurant in Bradford, PA, the next town over. I soon discovered that they while they had a new business and a stellar local reputation, their on-line reputation was less than savory .
Sam Sylvester, the dapper 75 year old owner, moved back to his home town after 55 years of world travel, for help & support caring for his terminally ill wife. After her death and with the help of Rosie (his high school friend) as a marketing manager, he embarked on on a whole new life, but this time in Bradford. This spring, he opened a lively pub and cosmopolitan restaurant in an early 1900’s building that he had meticulously restored.
Bradford, PA was home to one of the first oil booms in the US. and in the early years of the 20th century, oil field owners would stop into the Option House for lunch and to trade oil contracts. It became an elegant depression era Vaudeville stop before falling on hard times in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. When it was shuttered it had become a less than reputable bar on the first floor and a flop house on the upper floors.
In a few short months early this year, after months of restoration, Sam opened the restaurant to rave local reviews. It doesn’t take long in a small town like Bradford for an excellent restaurant to become wildly popular. But as I soon found out, after contracting to build a new website, their on-line reputation reeked of sleazy rooms and a disreputable bar. From their Yahoo Local review (here is the Google cache):
Now that this place is under new ownership it has been completely restored to its former glory. Everything has been restored and renovated! This used to be one of the trashiest places in town, and now it is elegant and beautiful!!! You really have to see it for yourself. They now offer fine food thanks to the acquisition of a high end chef from another local business… 5 stars
I have to be fair: I haven’t really been to this place since I was about 23. It seems like a lot of underage people hang out in here. I guess that would be cool if I were underage. when I used to go there a lot, it was great.
There is a bug where Google has a problem with merging records. They often conflate two records that have similar attributes but usually these two records have the same addresses, or share a phone number and/or have similar web urls. The above examples, while possibly severe cases of merging, show all of the attributes of hijacked records. Given that Google Maps is the ultimate black box, one can only guess at the actual backend processes that occur but it shure looks similar to the mapjackings. Regardless the result to the end business is no less severe. In Marty’s case, he noted a likely 50% drop in visitation due to the problem.
The methodology in the Locksmith hijacking was for the bad guys to create a totally exact duplicate record of the real business in the LBC with but one change, the phone number. The record would be verified via the phone system and over time, this listing would be merged with the original LBC record in the cluster. Because it was more recent the LBC records it would be identified as the authoritative source by Google and the bad guys could change then change the record at will and modify URL etc.
These records when viewed in Maps are characterized by showing the wrong url, multiple phone numbers in the more info view AND multiple Provided by the business owner entries created each time the record was reclaimed via this process.
As he notes in his article there are many types of hijackings and mapspam that occur in Google’s wiki world of Maps but the one that is most disturbing to me are the ones, like the Hotel Hijacking Map Spam or Does Google Suck?, that occur to claimed records. Firstly it indicates incredibly malicious intent on the part of the folks to perpertrate the action. Secondly it indicates an incredible violation of trust on the part of Google. A local business has every reason to trust Google & needs to trust Google when they say that claimed records can not be hijacked. This trust is the lubricant of all transanctions in our commercial world and in local this goes in spades. For Google to offer up the platform where that chain of trust can be broken portends the failure of Local Search if it can not be brought under control.
It is possible that these records are just now showing the results of hijacks that occurred before Google closed the vector, they could be new hijack technique or it is possible that there is a new extreme problem of merging taking place within Google Maps. Hopefully, Google will let us know what is going on. Regardless, its impact to the affected businesses is severe.
Why is Merchant Circle buying up thousands of trade name + locale domains?
Over the weekend Nick Reese contacted me to explore what appeared to him, and to me, very unusual domain activity by Merchant Circle. It appears that Merchant Circle has purchased as many as 10,700 domains. These domain purchases have been going on for a number of months and are often in the format of localbusinessnamelocale.com. MC has gone on to create a website for the business based on the unverified Merchant Circle record and appears to have done so without permission or engagement of the business.
The whois records show MC as the admin of record for all of these domains.
Many searches on these trade name domain with locale show the MC result in the One Box (due to Google assigning it to unclaimed records) and in positions one and two on the main results page.
I called several of the business owners, including Art & Faux, to determine whether any had in fact authorized MC to purchase the domain on their behalf. The three owners with whom I spoke indicated that they had not given them any authority to purchase domains in their name nor had they paid MC for a domain.
Is this MC’s newest SEO strategy to gain additional footing on the first page of Google? Are they taking cybersquatting to a new level to gain Maps traffic from the new local focused Google SERPS or are they just giving away domain names to businesses that “forgot” to buy them? I am trying to understand why MC would spend $70,000 on domain purchases, many of which have include the trade name for local businesses.
Heather Hopkins of Hitwise took a fresh look at the numbers over this past weekend. Google has now surpassed Mapquest in monthly visitors.
It is of interest that starting on March 14th, Google Maps shows almost a month of sustained gains while Mapquest shows an equivalent drop. It would be a reasonable to assume that the date coincides with the start of Google’s expanded Local rollout.
Yesterday, Google Maps rolled out a new Local Business Center User Guide. The guide has more specific details about the listing process, the meaning of various messages and an improved interface to the information.