Understanding Google My Business & Local Search
Google Maps Report a Problem: Does It Work For Local Spam?
Google’s crowd sourced map building and listing has succeeded on a number of fronts at allowing maps and listings to be updated at a pace that no one else in the industry can keep up. While the mapping side has little economic incentive for cheating, the listing side is prime for self serving activities. For some period of time there has been an asymmetry in that it seems that it has been easier for the crowd to create spam than for the crowd to get rid of it.
Dan Austin has been active in the MapMaker community for a long time. He has, over the past few years focused on reporting and trying to remove spam from the system particularly in the Locksmith arena. Here is a case study on his recent experiences with the “Report a Problem” feature; Google’s primary spam reporting mechanism.
After Bryan Seely released the exploits he used to add false and misleading (spammy) listings to Google Maps on Mike’s blog as well as on Valleywag, Google went into full PR damage control and made some changes in how they handle local spam, including ending phone call PIN code verification for new businesses on Places. After reading this statement from Google, I decided to test whether or not the new Maps Report a problem is effective for removing spam:
We work hard to remove listings that are reported to violate our policies as quickly as possible, and to check bad actors that try to game the system by altering business descriptions once they are live on Google Maps. We encourage users to let us know when they see something that might violate our guidelines by using our “Report a problem” tool, found at the bottom right corner of the map. Everyday there are thousands of great edits that get made to Google Maps through Map Maker.
The problem with Report a problem is that historically it hasn’t worked very well for spam, in my three years using it to report hundreds of spam listings. Either the response was too slow (often months), and/or unsatisfactory (i.e the spam remained on Maps). My success rate with Report a problem (reporting a wide variety of spam points of interest (POI), including locksmiths), has hovered around 5%, which is why I switched to more effective takedown mechanisms like Google Map Maker (MM) in order to remove spam. Unfortunately, MM itself has become more problematic, with the introduction of GLEs (Google Listing Editors from Places), who are now reviewing edits to claimed listings. They have systematically degraded the effectiveness of MM to the point that it’s now impossible to remove many spam POIs, no matter how obvious, as they have been denying almost all edits (including spam removals) to claimed POIs, or closing the spammy POIs instead of removing them (a business that doesn’t exist can’t, by its very nature, be closed).
Moreover, after Places segregated Service Area Businesses (SAB) that hid their address from MM, many spammy POIs disappeared from MM altogether, making those impossible to report as well. It also broke the reporting mechanisms on Google+Local Edit detailsfor SABs, which uses MM to report edits (and the Classic Maps Report a problem, which also used MM). Here’s an example of a spam SAB with the address hidden that can’t be reported in either Google+Local or MM:
Aron Locksmith: https://plus.google.com/103220027599977382429
Clicking on Edit details leads to this error page (which is the same for all SABs on Google+Local that hide their address):
The reporting mechanisms on Google+Local for SABs have remained broken for many months now. Google has shown no inclination to fix it. Arguably the simplest solution to make it work again is to return SABs to MM (making the address visible inside MM) and continue to hide the address on Places, in order to allow crowdsourcing to verify business listings, since this was the state before SABs were hidden, and it was very effective at identifying and removing spam POIs. Business addresses are a matter of public record, and since Google doesn’t verify the actual business address except by sending a PIN card to that address (which is presently easily bypassed by filing a change-of-address at the local Post Office, or paying someone to receive the card and message the PIN code to the spammer), it will allow anyone to verify the listings for themselves and report and remove them, which is the intent of these reporting mechanisms. Moreover, the original reason for hiding SABs was to prevent people from showing up at the business location (often a private home) if the business only came to customers.
Since volunteer mappers frequently focus on not only their specific geographic area, but the type of edits they do, they’re much more effective and efficient at removing spam POIs than either Google’s own workforce or the general public, since they become progressively more efficient at doing so, and can often remove spam listings in bulk, greatly improving the quality of Maps listings. Provided that there’s effective oversight on Google’s end, this is a mutually beneficial relationship for both Google and the prospective spam fighter (often a local business looking to even the odds). Increasing the confidence in the reporting mechanisms will enable more people to actively participate in crowdsourcing verification.
I should point out that Google Places no longer appears to be actively enforcing hiding addresses for SABs, and many spammers ignore it anyway, since they’re focused on micro-targeting for local searches, building up a dense network of false listings in a large geo area in the hope that both Google’s algorithms as well as the searcher will choose the nearest listing rather than the most legitimate (it’s impossible for a legitimate mobile listing that follows the rules and hides the address for their one listing to compete with a spammer who puts up a multitude of listings in the same area).
After confronting the somewhat confusing and oversimplified interface for Report a problem, (here’s an alternate pathway), I reported a series of five spam POIs in the Denver, Colorado area, which was the subject of much discussion on the Google Places for Business forum leading up to the media revelations:
This is the note I added to all reports, in the Other, Notes field (I left everything else untouched):
Locksmith spam. Not licensed in the state of Colorado. Keyword spammy name. See: http://www.sos.state.co.us/biz/BusinessEntityCriteriaExt.do https://www.fairtradelocksmiths.com and http://www.findalocksmith.com/search.aspx
In order to verify the business listings, I used three authoritative databases, which I’ve organized into this verification spreadsheet for the whole of the United States (and parts of Canada), sorted by state and other factors (although geared toward locksmiths, it’s suitable for verifying almost any type of business, and is a good starting point. For example, lawyers can be easily verified by state bar association websites, contractors with state contracting licensing websites, bail bonds with bail bonds licensing websites, etc. Each type of commonly spammed category usually has its own database that can be found through a simple Google search.) It took me less than 30 seconds to check all three databases for each listing.
1. http://www.sos.state.co.us/biz/BusinessEntityCriteriaExt.do (State licensing)
3. http://www.findalocksmith.com/search.aspx (ALOA sponsored database of registered locksmiths)
I use a two-step process to verify spammy business listings:
1) Check business name:
- Does it comply with Google Places Quality Guidelines?
- Is it a real business name (that includes DBAs (doing business as))?
2) Check business address:
- Does it comply with Google Places Quality Guidelines?
- Is the business address real?
- Does the business address belong to the business in question?
- Is the business co-located with another, implausible business entity (i.e. locksmith at 7-11)?
- Is it occupied by another unrelated business?
- Is it a virtual office or private mailbox (which can be usually done through a reverse search of the address or visually inspecting the map to see if the business is sharing the same suite number with multiple other entities at the same location).
- If a shop, is it visible on street view or satellite view?
Depending on the kind of business, I might also call the neighboring businesses or local licensing authorities to verify their existence rather than the business itself. (Google’s preferred means of verification is calling the business in question, which is ineffective, since the spammers have already been trained to deal with Google’s call asking whether they’re spam or not.) I also have specific verification processes for different kinds of spam–I might investigate when and how they were created, and even what type of business model it is. (By way of example, locksmiths have different patterns of spamming than lawyers.)
At the time I used Report a problem (March 2, 2014) this was the total number of locksmiths in the Denver, CO: 674 results. Realistically, there’s less than 20 legitimate locksmiths in the whole Denver metro region. I chose five at random. After the first two pages, it’s almost all spam anyway:
These are the five listings I reported on the same day, with various screenshots verifying the listings:
LAZ Locksmith: https://plus.google.com/109987688942743754291
Expert Denver Locksmith: https://plus.google.com/110504812142952822533
Arvada Locksmith: https://plus.google.com/113455288867033294546
Locksmith of Denver: https://plus.google.com/102381619064268592406
Jimmy Locksmith: https://plus.google.com/111157112611709506482
During the time I reported them, Google suspended the email reports that normally accompany reports, namely:
1) Report received, which can take 24 to 72 hours to show up (which is much slower than it used to arrive in my inbox).
2) Action taken, which can take months to never to show up.
I haven’t received an Action Taken email in over six months. The last set of Action Taken emails was over the summer of 2013, when I received a large batch (over 100+) of Action Taken emails in the span of a few days while Google was clearing out a backlog of reports. No actual action was taken on any of them (I verified by clicking through the Maps link embedded in each one).
Without the normal email notification, it makes it impossible to confirm whether Google received this set of reports at all, or whether my reports had anything to do with the removal of the spam POIs. For all I know, Google may have completely suspended Report a problem while they cleared out another backlog of spam reports, and the spam POIs that I reported had been reported many times before (as is often the case). Or they may have been hyper-responsive to any incoming spam reports while they waited for the media response to die down, hoping that if they immediately acted on a report, they could prevent the media story from escalating and going viral.
Prior to the introduction of the new Maps, Report a problem fed directly into MM, enabling you to track reports as they moved through the system, as they were attached to your MM profile. Google made the decision to isolate the new Maps Report a problem mechanism from MM, so with the exception of the two emails and checking the Local URL periodically, there’s no way to track the progress of your reports. You can’t see who reviewed it, and you can’t appeal their review, unlike in MM, which has mechanisms that allow you to do so.
I gave Google one week to process the reports. These are spam reports, so it should take them no more than one minute to verify each spam listing, and they should have a sufficient workforce, based on the average volume of reports, to manage the incoming reports and process them quickly. I also based my week long estimate on the average response time to Map Maker spam reports and deletions, which take, on average 72 hours (three days) to respond to either edits or reports.
I should point out that the response time from MM reports (which is a separate process) have gotten much longer, mostly due to the fact that MM Google Reviewers now have to go back over the reviews of their counterparts at Places, the previously mentioned GLEs (Google Listing Editors), who have been making an unusually high number of poor reviews in Map Maker, creating twice the work at twice the cost.
Google removed all of the spam POIs within one week, with the exception of Jimmy Locksmith.
I re-reported Jimmy Locksmith on March 11, 2014, and received a Report received email, which indicates Google turned the email reporting system back on:
They still have not taken Jimmy Locksmith down. As of this posting, it remains active, despite clearly being spam.
From my observation of this process, I’ve concluded that Report a problem has gone back to not working again, and that my initial successful reports were an anomaly. Although four out of five were successfully removed, I can’t definitively attribute it to Report a problem. There are multiple reporting avenues, including Map Maker, and active spam fighters in the Denver region who are reporting and removing spam, so it’s just as likely that someone else reported and removed it via MM (or Google removed it internally in a spam sweep unrelated to my reports). It’s unfortunate that Report a problem isn’t working, as Google has little interest in managing the local spam problem beyond modest damage control, and although the spammers can no longer verify their spam POIs via phone, they can certainly use the mail to add new listings through Places, like Royal Lockout Service:
As a DIY kind of service, it’s the end user who is forced to report the spam that Google initially approved. There’s no reason Google can’t make the reporting mechanisms more effective, faster, efficient and transparent. As I’ve shown repeatedly through my own efforts, it’s easy to find and verify spam listings, it’s quite another to have them successfully and quickly removed.
Finally, I should point out that Google had promised four years ago (the actual video dates from May 6, 2010) to fix the verification problem, which will improve both their response to spam reports as well as reduce the amount of spam still being added to Maps, and since then, they’ve done little about it other than appease the occasional media critics with self serving PR statements, even when confronted multiple times in the interim.
Ultimately, if Maps Report a problem doesn’t work for you, you can use the following resources to report scammy listings or ads, since spammers have often committed a wide range of state and federal crimes:
Postal Inspection Service (PIS)
What has your recent and past experience been with Maps Report a problem or other reporting mechanisms?
Do you have any examples of spam listings that you’ve reported repeatedly and haven’t been taken down?
What do you think Google needs to improve to make the process of verifying listings and removing spam better and more efficient?
Have you ever needed to bypass the Google bureaucracy and if so, what did you have to do to get spam taken down?
Have you ever felt compelled to spam just to compete with the spammers?
What’s do you think of Google Places phone and postcard verification methods?
What’s your spam story?
Please discuss in the comments below. I can answer any questions you might have.
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