Google Maps & Places has always been the playground of bad actors, whether the computer repair company that got carried away with bulk uploads, the non existent locksmith, the plastic surgeon with fake reviews or the less than savory payday loan folks masquerading as local businesses in an effort to get customers. In the legal scheme of things there were mostly deceptive and only occasionally criminal but heck they were “just trying to make a living”. 🙂 But leave it to the SEO business to really lead the dive to the depths of depravity in the Maps world.
There have been several tales of extortion reported in the past few weeks that describe holding a businesses listing in Maps “hostage” until some form of payment is received.
From the Google Forums:
My business has a couple address that are both listed and claimed in google maps. However, if you do a search of my domain name, you will see three pages of results, all but two of which are wrong.
The wrong listings have a bad phone number, random business name, and random address, but it does list my company domain. These listings have already been “Claimed by owner” so we cannot go in and fix them.
This was brought to our attention today by a phone call from a “marketing expert” who pointed out this problem and how it could get us banned from google. When we refused to pay him to correct the problem, he threatened to flag our real listings and get them removed/penalized if we didn’t pay him. This person obviously created about 25 fake listings with my domain in another Google Places account before calling to point out this “problem” and is holding the ability to delete them hostage… There is no way for us to correct the listing.
And this report from Webmasterworld (Hat tip to Andy Kuiper, an SEO Analyst in Vancouver):
This has happened to two companies that I work for in the past 6 months. Wondering if anyone else has seen the same…
A bunch of negative reviews are posted in Google Maps for a particular company. About a month after the posts, the company gets a call and is told that the negative reviews can be removed for a fee… typically $400. We have been flaging the reviews, tey it seems to take google forever to even take a look.
If nothing else, Maps never ceases to entertain but these reports indicate a new form of criminality. It seems that Google’s current reporting mechanism and customer support structure of the “report a problem” link and the forums is woefully inadequate to deal with this sort of problem. How would you handle this situation if one of your clients was being extorted? Should Google create some communication mechanism to deal with this?
The ALOA (Associated Locksmiths of America, the locksmith trade group) has recently posted the legal filing from a lawsuit initiated by a locksmith in Arizona. The complaint for violations of Arizona’s laws preventing misrepresentation of “the geographical origins or location of the person’s business” attempts to
1)Get an injunction against the offending locksmtih (Atlas Locksmith Soltuons among others) and
2)Require the attorney general to “take over the crimianl and consumer fraud aspects of the case
It is interesting that a local locksmith, in his frustration, is “going after” the attorney general to do their job of enforcing laws on the books. It will be interesting to see if he manages any success in either convincing the AG or perhaps embarrassing him to take on the case.
At the bottom of the filing it notes: Charley requests donation to his legal fund because he feels the expertise of an attorney is now needed.
It seems a little late in the process to think about hiring a lawyer but heck, better late than never. Good luck Chuck! For more information about Chuck’s quest you can visit his website.
From the filing: Continue reading Locksmith Mad as Hell -Sues AZ Attorney General to Enforce Law
Last week, as a result of some upgrade to the Maps, things were pretty flakey. Most of the weirdness was fixed that day but QR codes remained non functional into the later part of this week. Apparently the Google url where the QR codes were being directed: http://maps.google.com/m/place/… was not working properly and not being redirected.
Whatever the problem, it has now been repaired and QR Codes seem to once again be functioning.
I spend a lot of time reading about and writing about the Local Search industry so I am not sure how this one slipped by. I was poking around the BBB of San Jose and came across a notice of government action indicating that Merchant Circle had settled an allegation of unlawful marketing practices from the Santa Clara District Attorney. A quick check showed that the settlement occurred in May of this year. From the release:
Agency: District Attorney
Description: NEWS RELEASE
MERCHANTCIRCLE PAYS $900,000
FOR UNLAWFUL MARKETING PRACTICES
Santa Clara County District Attorney Dolores A. Carr announced today her office has settled a consumer protection lawsuit against WYBS, dba MerchantCircle, an internet social networking company for small businesses. The action arose out of an investigation by the District Attorney’s office.
The District Attorney alleged that from 2006 to 2008, MerchantCircle engaged in improper automated telemarketing campaigns which violated California “live voice” requirement for automated calls. Some of those calls also contained unverified statements that the MerchantCircle website had reviews, ratings, or video footage of the recipient business.
Without admitting wrongdoing, WYBS, dba MerchantCircle, consented to a judgment entered in Santa Clara County Superior Court requiring it to pay $700,000 in civil penalties and $50,000 in investigative costs. MerchantCircle with also pay $150,000 into the Consumer Protection Trust Fund, a trust used to fund investigation and prosecution of consumer protection law violations statewide. MerchantCircle cooperated with the investigation, has brought its telemarketing practices into compliance with California laws, and has agreed to implement additional procedures to ensure future compliance.
“These penalties should remind any business engaging in telemarketing in California that this state has strict laws requiring the use of an actual person to allow call recipients to ‘opt out’ of the message.” said District Attorney Dolores Carr.“These business are also placed on notice that any statements they make to consumers must be true and verified.”
Date of Action: 5/20/2010
Merchant Circle has been criticized here and elsewhere (here, here and here) over the years but complaints had been quiet of late. No wonder.
Netmarketshare has released their September numbers and mobile browsing has climbed to 2.8% of all browsing and increase of 136% year over year.
In the “battle” between iOS4 and Android they report “although Android devices are rapidly gaining usage share, iOS has 4.9 times the global usage share of all Android devices”.
I look at Yahoo Local rarely and report on it even less. However, my lack of attention to it doesn’t mean that Locksmiths are not interested in playing there. And while this is old news, with Google Places having become a difficult place for them to play, locksmiths have moved on (for the most part) to the next easy pickings. I am sure that the exposure is not as great but a small fish is better than no fish at all and one can still marvel at their audacity.
Jeff Magner of Trumpet Local Media pointed out this search for watch repair in Boulder, co at Yahoo that turns up locksmith spam even in categories as unrelated as watch repair. When you do search on Locksmiths the results are “impressive” with the top 4 listings each showing more than 450 reviews each.
Since Yahoo’s algo so heavily favors review count, they appear to be in an arms race with number 3, Boulder Locksmith Service 24/7 having gathered over 400 reviews since the first of August… a clip of almost 7 reviews a day…. The number of their reviews alone amount to 1% of all households in Boulder. The top 4 listings have procured reviews from over 5% of the households. No small task that. 🙂
Obviously, as Jeff pointed out in his email, this decay doesn’t just affect the locksmith listings but has moved out and is polluting other categories as well. I recognize that Yahoo has other things on their plate. But unless they are going to proactively manage local they should be selling it off to Microsoft as well.
I read the other day in I, Cringely’s Blog that Google had a booth last month at the Online Lenders Association convention in Chicago, a group mostly composed of Payday lenders… you know the ones… they charge ~400% to help poor folks get from one pay check to a smaller one. What Google was doing at their convention I have no idea. This is legal part of American society for which I have little sympathy and less respect.
The article, however, about Google’s involvment reminded me that I had written extensively about spamming techniques in the Payday Loan industry as far back as as 2007. I did a quick search on Google for Cash Advance NY NY and the first result struck a bell for me and seemed oddly familiar. I did similar searches in Buffalo and a few other cities and saw much the same…
While Google’s effort at fighting spam might be criticized, their ability to search and sort my back library is near faultless. It turns out that I had written about this very company in a December, 2007 Searchengineland article titled: MapSpammers Getting More Sophisticated. In the article I detailed their techniques having used the exact same search & company as the example spam. At the time I included a screen shot of the Local results showing their #1 standing. I noted:
The basics of the plan are simple (as originally described at oooff.com):
- Rent a mailing address with forwarding in every major market near the centroid of the city (UPS is one of many that offer this service)
- Obtain a domain name for each city with a relevant “location + service” domain
- Create a website that returns an optimized “location + service” page for the domain
- Enter the businesses in the Google Local Business Center (if you are doing the top 50 metro markets, not such a big deal) note: skip this and the next step if using Yahoo Local
- Enter the PIN numbers when they are forwarded to you
- Get rich quick
The folks at Google have mentioned on several occasions that they frequently allow spam into the Maps index so that it can be used to train and inoculate the system against future spam as they use it to increase their understanding of it. That may be so but leaving this crap in the system to display so prominently actively puts Google in the middle of a vicious cycle of exploitation.
With babies these days, there is a great deal of research that indicates that allowing them to actively play in the dirt is good for them and inoculates their system against a host of potential ailments and creates a dynamic with the bacteria that leads to increased happiness. But at the end of the day, a good parent still brings them inside and washes them off.
Google should take the lesson to heart. In the three years since this exact problem was reported, their baby, the Maps index, has started to grow up and deserves a decent bath.
(To see what Google sees at 118 Fulton St. NY NY)… Continue reading Google Maps and the Payday Loan Industry – Strange Bedfellows?
The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just published their recent results of Online Product Research by American adults. The hghlights:
*58% of Americans now reporting that they perform online research concerning the products and services that they are considering purchasing.
*The number of those who do research about products on any given day has jumped from 15% of adults in September 2007 to 21% in September 2010
*24% of American adults say they have posted comments or reviews online about the product or services they buy,
The numbers confirm Greg Sterling’s long stated Research Online Buy Offline mantra. The number of adults reporting having done product reviews is somewhat surprising to me. Interestingly the reviewers are roughly equally split between men and women and across age groups with some tilt towards white, higher educated and higher income individuals as more likely to leave reviews.
While the research is specifically about product reviews, I think it not unreasonable to think that a similar trend will apply to business reviews.
Last week on 9/23, there were major disruptions to the Places listings in Google Maps with numerous reports of listings not showing, showing the wrong Place, duplicate listings and the QR codes not working. One theory posited on the disruption was that Google was moving Maps to new servers. At the time, Google noted the problems and stated that they had been fixed. Many of the issues did disappear but it appears that there are still problems with the QR Codes not working and returning 404 Errors.
Here is my QR Code from my Dashboard. When scanned it currently directs a user to a 404 Error.
It is an interesting coincindence that in the Online Media Daily today, they are reporting out a 700% increase in Barcode scanning this year noting that “there were more barcode scans performed in a single month starting in July than in all of 2009”. The article went on to note that linking to a web site was by far the most common type of action used by a 2D (ie QR type) code with 85% of them going to a URL . From the report:
Looking at user demographics, the study found that half of barcode users are ages 35 to 45 and skew male, reflecting the smartphone and early-adopter populations. Android was easily the most popular smartphone platform among barcode users, with 45% owning devices powered by Google mobile operating system. Second was BlackBerry (27%), followed by the iPhone (15%), Symbian (9%), Java (3%) and Windows Mobile (1%).
The reason for the Android skew is that the app is a default app on that platform.
Update: Barry Hunter helped me parse the bad URL:
and determine that the problem lies in that fact that this location is not functioning: http://maps.google.com/m/place
If you redo the URL with the /m/ removed, it will work:
It is not clear why Google’s /m/ which is their mobile page is not working and/or why it it is not being redirected.
Last October, Google replaced TeleAtlas as their primary geo data provider with their own StreetView data. At the time, they also rolled out the “Report a Problem” link on Maps. The idea was/is that users could help Google keep all of this Map data up to date. Google’s goal at the time was to resolve each map edit within a month. From the LatLong Blog (bold mine):
So where do you fit into this? Well, we’ve found our users are also remarkable data sources themselves, so we’ve added a new tool to Google Maps that lets you communicate directly with Google about any updates that you think need to be made to our maps. You’ll find this “Report a Problem” link on the bottom right of Google Maps (you can also find it by right-clicking on the map). Has that new highway on-ramp finally opened up? Do we have an outdated name for your local school? … Tell us! Once we’ve received your edit or suggestion we’ll confirm it with other users, data sources, or imagery. We hope to resolve each edit within a month. If you submit your email address, we’ll even keep you posted on our progress.
Well I am here to inform you that, even for Google, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Google is officially in the weeds on processing and absorbing end user corrections into the Maps geobase. Either that or their email system is broken.
I just received this email from Google on a change that I suggested to them on August 16 about a problem with Sunset Fl:
Admittedly, Google has fixed the Sunrise Fl problem. They certainly had enough feedback on the problem (CBS, NBC, AP, CNN, BBC, Time, the forums, the Mayor of Sunrise) but it doesn’t appear that my appeal through normal channels has been heard yet.
“Every hour, our users make over 10,000 corrections or additions to Google Maps, like updating the position of markers or correcting other small errors, and for the most part people are being really helpful to other users.”
Hmmm… no wonder they are just getting around to my request and that I stand in line behind the AP. Perhaps there are limits to the benefits of crowdsourcing.