Yesterday marked the two-month anniversary for the official “Report Spam on Google Maps” thread on the Google Maps Help Group. I thought it might be useful to review the instances of spam reported thus far, for insights into some of Google Maps’ vulnerabilities and the implications for local business owners.
A brief history of Google’s mapspam reporting mechanism
Google’s spam reporting tool for web results has been around since November 2001 (according to Internet Archive). But unlike Google’s webspam reporting tool, the mapspam thread is entirely public-at least for the time being.
Prior to the launch of the help group thread, the most effective course of action for local business owners affected by spam seemed to be an email to local search advocate Mike Blumenthal in the hope that he would take an interest and publish it on his blog (which is read by a number of folks on the Google maps team). Mike did indeed publish some of the more amusing and grievous instances but eventually he became frustrated by the lack of a formal reporting method.
Just three days after Mike vented his frustrations in the above-mentioned post, the Google maps team started the mapspam help thread. And even better, maps guide Jen now has help to investigate these reports. Has Google been as responsive to other local business owners as they have been to Mike? Let’s take a look.
Mapspam by the numbers (statistics compiled through August 31)
I compiled the following stats from the information available on the mapspam thread. I visited the search result referenced by each post, categorized it, and noted whether any action seemed to have been taken. While Google did not respond to any of the posts in the thread, it was clear in many cases that an action had been taken to remedy or significantly diminish the effect of what had been reported.
Of the 74 total posts to this thread, 42 of them were attempts to report spam by local business owners. The rest were duplicate reports, discussion of existing reports, or reports posted by Mike Blumenthal. The number of those original reports that could actually be classified as spam is even lower—just 22.
Seven reports (32%) seem to highlight an abuse of the bulk upload feature. Five (23%) indicate instances where a competitor seems to have hijacked a particular business record. Classifying the remaining 10 is a bit more tricky, but all involve false location data of some kind.
Geographically, California and Florida lead the way in mapspam, with five and three reports respectively. There were also a handful of international reports (from the UK, Ireland, Australia, and Denmark).
To date, 12 of these 22 reports (55%) have resulted in action by Google to remove or penalize the offending listings. An additional six reports of algorithmic errors (see “Irregularities” below) have been corrected as well.
Mapspam by category
The notorious PPP (“Porn, Pills, and Poker”) of webspam might have an analog of PLT (“Payday, Locksmiths, and Transportation”) in Maps. That’s an oversimplification, given the limited size of this data set and the frequency of reports in categories like carpet cleaning and internet services. But taken together, this larger set of spam-heavy categories highlights a general vulnerability of a location-based algorithm for service-oriented businesses where physical location is largely irrelevant and/or easy to fake.
21% of all “spam” reported by local business owners thus far (nine of 42 reports) actually involved the conflation of two or more listings with similar addresses or business name. To be sure, these conflated records could be viewed as a weakness in Google’s algorithm but certainly not as malicious attempts to gain additional traffic on the part of the business whose records are conflated. Interestingly, four of these nine conflation reports came from outside the US (the United Kingdom and Australia), which may simply indicate a weaker data set in other parts of the world.
Other non-spam reported involved mis-categorization, out of date listings, and even best practices like including keywords in business titles and providing multiple spiderable addresses on one’s website.
- Local business owners seem to be confused about what actually constitutes spam, but can you blame them? The world of the Local search engines is often confusing even to those of us who study them on a daily basis!
- Google’s creation of a public forum for reporting anomalies in Maps has helped a lot of businesses recover traffic lost via Maps, and has probably helped Google identify weaknesses in its own algorithm as well. The responsiveness of the Maps team has been relatively admirable, even without providing verbal confirmation in the thread that changes have been made. (Of course, business owners whose situation hasn’t been addressed are irate over the lack of response…)
- The on-again/off-again bulk upload feature of Google Maps seems to be a particular favorite tool of mapspammers.
- Local business owners: claim your listing at Google to avoid being victimized by hijackers and to decrease the likelihood of conflation with someone else’s listing. If you don’t have a website, direct your Local Business Listing at Google to one of your listings featuring the same information on another portal, such as Yahoo, Citysearch, or Yelp.
- The large percentage of reported record conflations also underlines the importance of giving Google a strong signal of your business information (i.e. spiderable HTML address and phone number) on your own website. The more closely Google can associate that particular information with your business, the lower the chance of identifying someone else’s business with the same information.
In all honesty, I was surprised that the total number of bona-fide instances of spam reported in two months was so low, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s possible that the quality of Local results has improved dramatically since the advent of the 10-pack in January. However, more likely is that the typical local business owner doesn’t know where to report possible spam. It’ll be interesting to see whether Google will better publicize this thread, perhaps by including a link from the Local Business Center section of Maps Help in the in the coming months, as they do for webspam here.
How to report mapspam to Google
To file a spam report with the Google Maps team, reply to this thread with the following information:
- Your search terms
- A link to your search results
- A short description of why you believe this is spam
Google notes that if they don’t ask for additional information, you can assume that your report has been read and is being investigated.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.