Local SEO Spam Tactics Are Working: How You Can Fight Back
Posted by Casey_Meraz
For years, I’ve been saying that if you have a problem with spammers in local results, you can just wait it out. I mean, if Google cared about removing spam and punishing those who are regular spammers we’d see them removed fast and often, right?
While there are instances where spam has been removed, it seems these are not fast fixes, permanent fixes, or even very common. In fact, they seem few and far between. So today I’m changing my tune a bit to call more attention to the spam issues people employ that violate Google My Business terms and yet continue to win in the SERPs.
The problems are rampant and blatant. I’ve heard and seen many instances of legitimate businesses changing their names just to rank better and faster for their keywords.
Another problem is that Google is shutting down MapMaker at the end of March. Edits will still be allowed, but they’ll need to be made through Google Maps.
If Google is serious about rewarding brands in local search, they need to encourage it through their local search algorithms.
For some people, it’s gotten so bad that they’re actually suing Google. On January 13, 2017, for instance, a group of fourteen locksmiths sued Google, Yahoo, and Bing over fake spam listings, as reported by Joy Hawkins.
While some changes — like the Possum update — seemed to have a positive impact overall, root problems (such as multiple business listings) and many other issues still exist in the local search ecosystem.
And there are other technically non-spammy ways that users are also manipulating Google results. Let’s look at a couple of these examples.
It’s not all spam. Businesses are going to great lengths to stay within the GMB guidelines & manipulate results.
Let’s look at an example of a personal injury attorney in the Denver market. Recently, I came across these results when doing a search for trial attorneys:
Look at the #2 result listing, entitled “Denver Trial Lawyers.” I originally thought this was spam and wanted to report it, but I had to do my due diligence first.
To start, I needed to verify that the listing was actually spam by looking at the official business name. I pulled up their website and, to my surprise, the business name in the logo is actually “Denver Trial Lawyers.”
This intrigued me, so I decided to see if they were using a deceptive logo to advertise the business name or if this was the actual business name.
I checked out the Colorado Secretary of State’s website and did a little digging around. After a few minutes I found the legally registered trade name through their online search portal. The formation date of this entity was 7/31/2008, so they appear to have been planning on using the name for some time.
I also reviewed their MapMaker listing history to see when this change was made and whether it reflected the trade name registration. I saw that on October 10, 2016 the business updated their MapMaker listing to reflect the new business name.
After all of this, I decided to take this one step further and called the business. When I did, the auto-attendant answered with “Thank you for calling Denver Trial Lawyers,” indicating that this is their legitimate business name.
I guess that, according to the Google My Business Guidelines, this can be considered OK. They state:
“Your name should reflect your business’ real-world name, as used consistently on your storefront, website, stationery, and as known to customers. Accurately representing your business name helps customers find your business online.”
But what does that mean for everyone else?
Recently, Gyi Tsakalakis also shared this beautiful screenshot on Twitter of a SERP with three businesses using their keywords in the business name:
It seems they’re becoming more and more prominent because people see they’re working.
To play devil’s advocate, there are also businesses that legitimately sport less-than-creative names, so where do you draw the line? (Note: I’ve been following some of above businesses for years; I can confirm they’ve changed their business names to include keywords).
Here’s another example
If you look closely, you’ll find more keyword- and location-stuffed business names popping up every day.
Do you think this business wanted to rank for Near Me searches in Denver? Maybe it’s just a coincidence. It’s funny, nonetheless.
How are people actively manipulating local results?
While there are many ways to manipulate a Google My Business result, today we’re going to focus on several tactics and identify the steps you can take to help fight back.
Tactic #1: Spammy business names
Probably the biggest problem in Google’s algorithm is the amount of weight they put into a business name. At a high level, it makes sense that they would treat this with a lot of authority. After all, if I’m looking for a brand name, I want to find that specific brand when I’m doing a search.
The problem is that people quickly figured out that Google gives a massive priority to businesses with keywords or locations in their business names.
In the example below, I did a search for “Fresno Personal Injury Lawyers” and was given an exact match result, as you can see in the #2 position:
However, when I clicked through to the website, I found it was for a firm with a different name. In this case, they blatantly spammed their listing and have been floating by with nice rankings for quite some time.
I reported their listing a couple of times and nothing was done until I was able to escalate this. It’s important to note that the account I used to edit this listing didn’t have a lot of authority. Once an authoritative account approved my edit, it went live.
The spam listing below has the keyword and location in the business name.
We reported this listing using the process outlined below, but sadly the business owner noticed and changed it back within hours.
How can you fight back against spammy business names?
Figuring out how to fight back against people manipulating results is now your job as an SEO. In the past, some in the industry have given the acronym “SEO” a bad name due to the manipulative practices they performed. Now it’s our job to give us a better name by helping to police these issues.
Since Google MapMaker is now disappearing, you’ll need to make edits in Google Maps directly. This is also a bit of a problem, as there’s no room to leave comments for evidence.
Here are the steps you should take to report a listing with incorrect information:
- Make sure you’re signed into Google
- Locate the business on maps.google.com
- Once the business is located, open it up and look for the “Suggest an edit” option:
- Once you select it, you’ll be able to choose the field you want to change:
- Make the necessary change and then hit submit! (Don’t worry — I didn’t make the change above.)
Now, don’t expect anything to happen right away. It can take time for changes to take place. Also, the trust level of your profile seems to play a big role in how Google evaluates these changes. Getting the approval by someone with a high level of trust can make your edits go live quickly.
Make sure you check out all of these great tips from Joy Hawkins on The Ultimate Guide to Fighting Spam on Google Maps, as well.
Tactic #2: Fake business listings
Another issue that we see commonly with maps spam is fake business listings. These listings are completely false businesses that black-hat SEOs build just to rank and get more leads.
Typically we see a lot of these in the locksmith niche — it’s full of people creating fake listings. This is one of the reasons Google started doing advanced verification for locksmiths and plumbers. You can read more about that on Mike Blumenthal’s blog.
Joy Hawkins pointed out a handy tip for identifying these listings on her blog, saying:
“Many spammers who create tons of fake listings answer their phone with something generic like ‘Hello, locksmith’ or ‘Hello, service.'”
I did a quick search in Denver for a plumber and it wasn’t long before I found a listing with an exact match name. Using Joy’s tips, I called the number and it was disconnected. This seemed like an illegitimate listing to me.
Thankfully, in this case, the business wasn’t ranking highly in the search results:
When you run into these types of listings, you’ll want to take a similar approach as we did above and report the issue.
Tactic #3: Review spam
Review spam can come in many different forms. It’s clear that Google’s putting a lot of attention into reviews by adding sorting features and making stars more prominent. I think Google knows they can do a better job with their reviews overall, and I hope we see them take it a little bit more seriously.
Let’s look at a few different ways that review spam appears in search results.
Self-reviews & competitor shaming
Pretty much every business knows they need reviews, but they have trouble getting them. One way people get them is to leave them on their own business.
Recently, we saw a pretty blatant example where someone left a positive five-star review for a law firm and then five other one-star reviews for all of their competitors. You can see this below:
Although it’s very unethical for these types of reviews to show up, it happens everyday. According to Google’s review and photo policies, they want to:
“Make sure that the reviews and photos on your business listing, or those that you leave at a business you’ve visited, are honest representations of the customer experience. Those that aren’t may be removed.”
While I’d say that this does violate the policies, figuring out which rule applies best is a little tricky. It appears to be a conflict of interest, as defined by Google’s review guidelines below:
In this particular case, a member of our staff, Dillon Brickhouse, reached out to Google to see what they would say.
Unfortunately, Google told Dillon that since there was no text in the review, nothing could be done. They refused to edit the review.
And, of course, this is not an isolated case. Tim Capper recently wrote an article — “Are Google My Business Guidelines & Spam Algos Working?” — in which he identified similar situations and nothing had been done.
How can you fight against review stars?
Although there will still be cases where spammy reviews are ignored until Google steps up their game, there is something you can try to remove bad reviews. In fact, Google published the exact steps on their review guidelines page here.
You can view the steps and flag a review for removal using the method below:
What can you do if the basics don’t work?
There are a ton of different ways to spam local listings. What can you do if you’ve reported the issue and nothing changes?
While edits may take up to six weeks to go live, the next step involves you getting more public about the issue. The key to the success of this approach is documentation. Take screenshots, record dates, and keep a file for each issue you’re fighting. That way you can address it head-on when you finally get the appropriate exposure.
Depending on whether or not the listing is verified, you’ll want to try posting in different forums:
If the listing you’re having trouble with is a verified listing, you’ll want to make a public post about it in the Google My Business Community forum. When posting, make sure to provide all corresponding evidence, screenshots, etc. to make the case very clear to the moderators. There’s a Spam and Policy section on the forum where you can do this.
However, some spam listings are not verified listings. In these cases ,Joy Hawkins recommends that you engage with the Local Guides Connect Forum here.
Sadly, there’s not a lot we can do outside of the basics of reporting results, but hopefully being more proactive about it and making some noise will encourage Google to take steps in the right direction.
- Start being more proactive about reporting listings and reviews that are ignoring the guidelines. Be sure to record the screenshots and take evidence.
- If the listings still aren’t being fixed after some time, escalate them to the Google My Business Community forum.
- Read Joy Hawkins’ post from start to finish on The Ultimate Guide to Fighting Spam in Google Maps
- Don’t spam local results. Seriously. It’s annoying. Continually follow and stay up-to-date on the Google My Business guidelines.
- Lastly, don’t think the edit you made is the final say or that it’ll stay around forever. The reality is that they could come back. During testing for this post, the listing for “Doug Allen Personal Injury Attorney Colorado Springs” came back within hours based on an owner edit.
In the future, I’m personally looking forward to seeing some major changes from Google with regards to how they rank local results and how they monitor reviews. I would love to see local penalties become as serious as manual penalties.
How do you think Google can fight this better? What are your suggestions? Let me know in the comments below.
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