Google Local Business Hijacking: Microsoft Acquires Yahoo, Becomes Escort Service

Steve Ballmer Edits Yahoo

Mike Blumenthal has been diligently covering how local listings can be hijacked in Google Maps. He’s also been frustrated that Google doesn’t seem to be fixing the local hijacking problem. So, to illustrate the problem, he’s posted how he took over Microsoft’s business listing — turning it into Microsoft Escort Service — and how those from Apple, IBM, Coca-Cola, GM among others are also vulnerable.

This came out of an email conversation Mike and I had earlier this week, about whether Google is doing enough to police the community editing that allows such hijackings to happen. We both agree that they aren’t. I know Google’s aware of the issue. I know they are working on it. But much more effort should be devoted to solving it, given how prominent local listings now display in Google.

I had my own fun. As the screenshot shows above, I took over Yahoo’s listing and did what Microsoft so far has been unable to do: make Yahoo a Microsoft company.

Yahoo’s listing has not been claimed by Yahoo, which is why I was allowed to edit it to my heart’s desire. Using a fresh Google account (that I didn’t need an email address or anything to verify my identity to start), calling myself Steve Ballmer, I took over the listing:

Yahoo, A Microsoft Company

The screenshot above shows that the company name had been changed. However, I also changed the business telephone number (switching it at one time to Google’s) and the address. The “View history” link in the popup box shows all the changes to the listing, and you can see everything my “Fake Steve” did here.

The changes all appeared within seconds after I made them. Most I only left up for a few minutes, although last night I let the company name change sit for at least four hours.

As Mike has been documenting, florists, locksmiths, payday loan companies and others have found their listings hijacked in this manner. Another company comes along and edits the listing so that the URL, phone number and company name might all lead to their own company, not the original one.

It could be worse. Edits can only happen to business listings that are not claimed. If a business claims a listing, which involves having Google either sending or calling the business with a special verification code, then only the claimant can edit the business information (anyone can still provide reviews about a business, however, as should be the case).

I wondered if I could “claim” Yahoo by changing its phone number, then getting the verification sent to me. Nope. While the edits were visible to searchers, the original business number and address remained the same when I went through the claim process. So, at least that part of Google Maps listings seems secure.

Similar to Wikipedia and prominent topics there, you can imagine that community edits to a prominent business should get quickly spotted and corrected. I don’t expect that my Yahoo change — or Mike’s change of Microsoft to “Microsoft Escort Service” — would have survived long. But edits to smaller businesses are clearly going undetected.

Solutions? The most secure would be to not allow community edits to unclaimed businesses at all. I lean toward wanting that, even though I recognize that there’s a lot of incorrect business information out there and that the small businesses themselves are failing to fix things themselves.

More creative might be to allow community edits but let them only go live after other trusted community members approve them. Right now, anyone making an edit is considered a “community editor.” Let’s have two classes: “community contributors” that can make suggestions and “community editors” who can approve them.

Easier monitoring of changes would help. Currently, I see no way to monitor all the changes that happen to Google Maps. Allow people to subscribe to a feed of all changes or filter all changes by geography or business class. Let more eyes see the patterns and make it easier than now for them to report abuse.

Also, make it easier to pop-up a business into its own page (I had to hack the URL to directly link you to the Yahoo listing above). That would help to see the history of edits to a place.

Meanwhile, businesses, protect yourself. Claim your business listings! And Google, to help, put the “Claim Your Listing” option in the original pop-up window, not as something that happens only if you click Edit. And for those who click on “Claim Your Listing,” take them to a help page that fully explains the process (I’ve looked — you don’t seem to have one) rather than taking them to a page to login or create a Google Account.

Postscript: Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but a reader pointed out that the Google Local Business center has now gone down for “routine system maintenance:”Google Local Business Center

It’s about 2:15pm Pacific time as I add this postscript, so hang in there if you’re trying to verify your listing.

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Features: General | Google: Maps & Local | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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