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.  

G+ – Google Local Divorce Mop Up – Who Got the Kids? Not Sure But the Orphans Have Been Nuked

The estrangement and ugly divorce of Goggle Local from G+ is finally, finally ending with the mop up of the last remaining remnants of the marriage; those many, many G+ Local Pages that got created in the wild passion of their joining.

What always seemed like an unnatural union started going south in 2015 or so. Since then the assets have been split, what functionality Google Local needed from Plus, they created,for the most part1, on their own (improved Insights, Posts2, review links3, description field4 ). This has been a long time in coming with Google having started some of this process in mid 2015, maybe earlier.

Sometime in the last quarter, I received a number of emails from concerned business that Google stopped auto-creating Google Plus pages when a new listing was created in the GMB. Over the past quarter Google apparently nuked the many G+ Pages local pages that were auto created but never used.

In what appears to be a final (or near final… who knows what dependencies5 still exist?) resolution Google has started sending out email alerts to businesses that have not been active on Plus that their pages will be removed if the business does not post something to the page within 30 days of receiving the email.

Email sent courtesy of Group Insurance PDX, an employer benefits consultant in Portland.

1 -One feature that has existed in G+ but has yet to make it over to the new Google local is a mechanism for communicating with a review poster. While this was possible with G+ none of the posters ever read their G+ so it didn’t work but the feature is one well worth re-capturing.

2- The nail in the small business use case for G+ was the fact that the posts were hardly included in search. This small change would have provided a meaningful use case that would have kept Plus alive in the SEO and SMB communities. Posts has become both a great branding tool as well as an effective call to action in the SERPS.

3- By making the review link able to be auto generated and based on Google’s Places ID is one of the factors that has allowed Google to surge ahead in the review race. They are garnering somewhere between 5 and 20 times the volume of reviews as Yelp or Facebook.

4- Description field? WTF?

5- One area that is not clear is whether a solid G+ presence will still be able to influence local search results by impacting relevance.  


Early Bird Pricing Extended for LocalU Advanced in Austin – April 12, 2018

LocalU has decided to extend our Early Bird pricing until 3/16.

Previously set to expire on 3/8 – the special $699 pricing is available to everyone until 3/16/2018 at midnight.  If you’re bringing a group of 3 or more, you’ll receive an extra $50 off per ticket – lowering the price to just $649 per person!

There is all new content so if you have been before there will be new learnings.

This event is a can’t miss if you want exclusive access to industry thought leaders who include David Mihm, Cindy Krum, Mary Bowling, Joy Hawkins, Mike Blumenthal, Joel Headley, Aaron Weiche, Ed Reese, and Allyson Wright and Marissa Nordahl from Google.

Reserve your space today – you wont regret your attendance!  Here are the details:

When: Thursday April 12th, 2018 from 8:00am – 4:00pm (Lunch & Coffee/Snacks are Included)

Where: at the Canyon View Events Center. 4800 Spicewood Springs Rd Austin, TX 78759

Who should attend: Anyone who wants to be in on the most cutting edge Local Search & SEO Tactics

Networking event will take place Wednesday April 11 from 7-9pm: at NXNW Restaurant & Brewery – Stonelake – 10010 N Capital of Texas Hwy Austin, TX 78759

Hotel Deal – We have negotiated a special rate with Candlewood Suites Austin Arboretum-Northwest 9701 Stonelake Blvd, Austin, TX 78759.  Use this link for special $119 per night rate.

Back to the Future: Google Rolling Out Business Descriptions in GMB Dashboard

Google, in going way back to the future, appears to be rolling out the ability of a business to enter a business description that appears in their Knowledge Panel.

Dave DiGregorio pointed out on Twitter that there are already help files in place.  And he shared the various screens.

Somewhere in the dim, distant and convoluted past of Google Plus Local, Google dropped the ability for a business to fill out a description field. Initially it disappeared from the Knowledge Panel and was Plus visible only and then removed all together.

GMB entry screen
View from the Dashboard
How description appears in the Knowledge Panel


Who’s Really Behind Fake Online Reviews?

Reviews, reviews and more reviews.

Jason Brown of ReviewFraud participated in an interesting investigative news report on fake reviews. He wrote about it on his blog: Bulletproof Digital busted selling Fake reviews to NBCLA.  Here is NBC Southern California report:

Who’s Really Behind Fake Online Reviews?

Jason also covered an interesting story in the review space that doesn’t seem to die, Review solicitation and blackmail  about a small SEO firm in Colorado that was threatened for blogging about a review company in the space.

Last week though was a busy one on the review front for me and around the web as well. I participated in several webinars and there were some other interesting articles.

Video Webinar : The Ins and Out of Reviews and Reputation in 2018 – Local University Join David Mihm, Aaron Weiche, Joy Hawkins & me as we look at the changing roll of reviews. (video + transcript)

Video Deep Dive: A Look at Review Spam with Jason Brown & Joy “The Hawk” Hawkins – Local University – Spam? What spam? Google has yet to get their spam act together against networks buying reviews. We look at the implications. (video + transcript)

How to Deal with Fake Negative Reviews on Google – Joy Hawkins explains what to do when your business is attacked.


Mike B Around the Internet

Here are some articles that I have recently penned or collaborated on this past week:

Google Adds Q & A Notification Option to GMB

Google has added (or has the intention to add) direct notifications of new questions appearing on the Knowledge Panel of local businesses. The option (pre-selected) is available in the settings preferences panel for any location.

That being said, I have the settings on but I have yet to receive notifications of questions that are being asked. Perhaps the setting is in anticipation of sending out alerts.

Local U Advanced Austin – April 12th

I love local and I love LocalU Advanced. We have scheduled our next events for Austin. We will be doing an SMB event there to help fund Celia Bell’s training foundation on April 11th and on the night of the 11th and the day of the 12th we will be doing a full day Local U Advanced.

The speaker line is incredible with Cindy Krum talking how to attack the new opportunities in voice, David Mihm joining us and taking a look at the how agencies and in-house SEOs need to adjust for the coming years and Joy Hawkins will be doing her deep dive into the quirks and issues with Google My Business. And a lot, lot more.

The pricing is currently pre agenda at $549 but it goes up very soon.

Here is a video that was recorded around our last event in Santa Monica:

Google Bulletin – Hyperlocal Community News App in Testing

I was alerted on Twitter by Marc Nashaat, a link builder in Toronto, about a new app from Google called Bulletin. From their page:

Bulletin is an app for contributing hyperlocal stories about your community, for your community, right from your phone. Bulletin makes it effortless to put a spotlight on inspiring stories that aren’t being told.

What’s special about a story on Bulletin? A Bulletin story is…

  • Impactful: Bulletin helps you tell the stories that aren’t being told
  • Open: Bulletin stories are public and easy to discover: on Google search, through social networks, or via links sent by email and messaging apps
  • Effortless: No setup is required to create a story – all you need is a smartphone

With Bulletin you can contribute to local stories and be the voice of your community!

The early access request form appears to indicate that it is initially being tested in Nashville, TN and Oakland Ca. And that Google is primarily interested in testing across a range of mobile devices.

As noted, the content does appear in the index. I experimented with a few URLS until I landed up this one: which surfaced three results from Oakland, two of which have live content dated January 23.

Here is an example from the Woman’s March Oakland:

The page on which it is hosted offers a bold headline, and simple real time display of captioned photos, videos and short commentary in a time stamped stream like presentation. By default the postings appear to be licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Short text inputs laid out as cards
Video is also supported
In the footer there is a call to action for potential authors that goes to the info page and the Creative Commons licensing.

There are a set of guidelines that prohibits the usual suspects ( spam, deception, plagiarism) and a few that I had not seen before like the prohibition against Medical Advice. Promotional content and otherwise copyrighted material are likewise banned. There is the ability to “report” a story as abusive:

As noted by Google the content is surfaced in search and is visible in the index. The title of the event auto populates the Title Tag. Since there is little page content and no meta-description tag there is no content currently showing in the description area other than the title.

Here is the meta information from the page with liberal use of OG notation and the inclusion of authorship:

The implications of this are interesting, if abstract and my thoughts are still forming. Let me know what you think.

Google Local Spam Hall of Shame – The Naming Wars

I have previously noted naming abuses in the jewelry world around Toronto. Every once in a while I attempt to edit them for some rational outcome.

Rational outcomes though are sorely not part of the current Google business name edit world.

I rename, get approved, owner (or seo on their behalf) changes back. Rinse, Repeat. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

Being a Local Guide Extraordinaire, my edits are instantly approved, over and over.  How sweet.

Google is nothing if not consistent.

Either the rules are the rules. Or they are NOT the rules. Make up my mind so I can exit the hamster wheel (OK I don’t need Google’s permission… I might just stop) .


Developing Knowledge about Local Search