I’ve been writing about Mapspam appearing in both Google and Yahoo search results for some time now. Mapspam is where black hat SEOs spam local search and map listings, and like all black hat techniques, it seems to get more sophisticated as the search engines find ways to combat the spammers’ techniques.
There’s a new species of mapspam that’s particularly obnoxious: affiliate mapspam, first reported at the eClick Performance Blog. With the search engines’ new open policies allowing even non-owners of businesses to edit local business listings, unscrupulous affiliates take advantage of a loophole by editing unclaimed hotel records, changing the URL so that it first points to an affiliate tracking link, and then ultimately redirecting the searcher to the hotel’s official website. This tactic earns the affiliate a referral fee for any reservations made. The affiliate interjects themselves, invisibly to the searcher, between the end user and the hotel, for the sole purpose of collecting an essentially unearned profit.
From the eClick blog post:
Primarily involving large hotel chains, you can see the ease with which an affiliate can replace direct links in Yahoo with an affiliate link in order to benefit from a hotel’s local listing. In the example below you’ll notice that a search on Yahoo Local for “Marriott hotel” that the official site for Marriott New York Financial Center shows as tkqlhce.com.
This link will eventually lead users to the appropriate page on Marriott’s Web site, but not before first being directed through a Commission Junction tracking page.
As noted in the blog entry Yahoo compounds the problem in their Local listing by further masking the record.
The question that eClick raised, So, how many instances of affiliate spam are there on Yahoo Local?, motivated me to do a little research. Just how many times has this particular affiliate pulled this trick?
I presented the query (city + hotel) to Yahoo across 6 major markets: New York City, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, and Phoenix. The query returned 8455 hotel listings in those markets. Of those listings, 46 had fallen prey to this form of Mapspam by the same affiliate. Interestingly, these affiliate links redirect to two other websites prior to landing on the hotel’s reservation site. For example, the link entered in Yahoo:
redirects to long URLs at www.apmebf.com and then www.emjcd.com prior to landing on the Marriott Fairfield Airport Inn in Phoenix. Here is a link to an excel spreadsheet of the 46 deceptive links in Yahoo: hotels.xls
There is a cautionary tale for Yahoo, Google, or any company that allows user generated content in their local product. These affiliate spammers are deceptively providing a “service” that is unneeded and unwanted. Whatever they are making is too much. Milton Friedman may view this as the “efficiency of the market,” but I view it as theft. The victim is the Marriott and ultimately the consumer. Previous types of mapspam seemed to skirt the edges of the law. Affiliate mapspam seems to break the law.
Additionally, this type of affiliate spam raises a number of ethical, legal, and technical questions for Yahoo and any service that allows this type of trade.
- What mechanisms do the search engines have in place to protect these hotels?
- How much has it cost the hotels to date?
- Should the search engines have more readily available reporting mechanisms?
- Who really is at fault, and has a crime been committed? If so, what crime and in what jurisdiction?
- Are the search engines complicit in any potential crime?
- Should there be government regulation of online business listings to address this sort of practice?
We are in a new age where new rules need to be developed. I do not know the answers, but there is a certain urgency to solving these problems. The benefit of the knowledge of the masses may be quickly overshadowed and buried by the activities of the few if something isn’t done about this pernicious form of mapspam—and quickly.
Mike Blumenthal is a student of life, political economy and local search. He writes the blog Understanding Google Maps and Yahoo Local Search and is a partner in a small web design company in upstate NY.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.