Google’s treatment for local businesses without public storefronts has never been good, and their suggestions for them have vacillated over time. For service professionals using P.O. box addresses, the situation is confusing, as (it appears) Google penalizes some, but not others. To understand the current situation and understand options, read on.

Google Maps has had a built-in bias for some years against business types which do not operate from a publicly-disclosed office location. Such businesses can include building contractors, roofers, painters, chimney sweeps, locksmiths, electricians, lawncare services, and many more.

Google has often left these companies out in the cold as their algorithm prefers displaying companies’ pinpoint locations, and companies which didn’t want to show their address, did not have that information displayed. Also, their application of rules against roaming local businesses is inconsistent, uneven, and unfair.

Google’s advice on how these businesses ought to market themselves has further caused confusion, as Google has waffled back and forth — resulting in many well-meaning small businesses getting themselves dinged by lower rankings or outright suspension of their listings.

Earlier in Google Maps’ history, most address-less companies could not really appear in Google Maps, because the map designers had not come up with a way of displaying local companies which were not pinpointed. However, they began displaying a sort of “floating dot” for addressless companies after they began absorbing such business listings from data partners.

For example, this listing for a computer service company in Boulder, Colorado, is shown as a red dot hovering over the map area, instead of the pinpoint icon:

Addressless Business Listing in Google Maps

Confoundingly, businesses without addresses were not allowed to add their listings directly to Google back then, so they had to try to add it into the various Internet yellow pages and other data partners which Google might then absorb and display.

I previously reported on how Google Earth’s VP, Michael Jones, had confronted a question about “how should addressless companies get into Google Maps?”, and he’d said that such businesses could rent local post boxes, and use those addresses. A short while later, Greg Sterling quoted Google’s Director of Product Management for Local, Carter Maslan, as saying virtually the same thing:

SEL: What about cases where people want to appear in results for areas where they don’t have a physical location (e.g., a “service area”). Is Google going to address that scenario?

CM: Yes, we will. We currently don’t allow for service areas, but we recognize that many businesses don’t have physical locations and are working to accommodate those businesses. We recommend that businesses without a physical location register themselves as a single business listing using a PO Box.”

I was very optimistic when Matt McGee reported on how Google rolled out Service Areas earlier this year in a limited test to begin addressing the issue.

A few weeks later, Google’s Ari Bezman added a post on Google’s LatLong blog about it, saying that “Not all businesses serve their customers from a brick-and-mortar storefront,” and that some may operate out of their homes and travel around town to provide services. He indicated that the new service area features would allow such businesses to have listings in Google Maps, specifying the areas for which they’d travel to serve, and also enable them to suppress their address location from being displayed.

Fast forward to December of 2010, however, and you’ll quickly find some disparities in Google’s messaging and stance on the matter.

In a recent LatLong blog post entitled “Tips for creating a free business listing in Google Places: business types“, Google’s Lina Paczensky writes (I’ve added bolded emphasis):

“Google Places is meant to facilitate customer interaction with brick-and-mortar businesses and service providers. Therefore, the business owner or employee who is officially authorized to represent their particular business location must have a physical address in order to comply with our quality guidelines.”

The Google Places quality guidelines she’s referring to state:

“P.O. Boxes are not considered accurate physical locations. Listings submitted with P.O. Box addresses will be removed.”

In other words, the very same local businesses which are most frequently going to want to use Service Areas are also ones that traditionally might have preferred to list P.O. boxes in various business directories in lieu of listing their home addresses.

If you are one of the companies affected and every one of your competitors in your service area were treated identically, this situation might be a little easier to take.

However, you don’t have to browse around in Google Maps much before you find listings which use only a P.O. box as address. Here’s an example for the Beltway Lock Service in Houston, Texas — I found this only a couple of pages deep in Google Maps for a search for “Locksmiths, Houston, Tx”:

Locksmith Listing in Google Places Using P.O. Box Address

Obviously, this listing doesn’t comply with the Google Places quality guidelines. Equally obviously, Google has not chosen to remove the listing from the SERPs, even though it would be child’s play to detect any listings containing “PO Box” addresses and remove them en masse. If it’s against the quality guidelines, why are these listings allowed to appear at all?

I’d conjecture that if the listing has been around for some length of time in the databases of various business listing aggregator services that Google has partnered with, they may be choosing to trust those listings above newly-submitted business listings.

However, from the viewpoint of address-less businesses which are trying to get listed in Google Places, this is not a fair situation, and Google is not treating businesses equally.

Much as with the legal fine-print of software usage licenses, busy people will often skim or not read guidelines and instructions. So, it’s no surprise that there are many dozens of Google Places Help questions regarding businesses which got penalized from using a PO Box address.

While it’s easy to dismiss these people for not being careful in following the written rules, a bigger question in my mind is why Google allows them to submit their listings containing “PO Box” character strings, when it would be so easy to detect and alert the user as part of regular submission form verification.

For some of these people who may have read our articles on Search Engine Land over time on local marketing, this may also be confusing. As you can see, we’ve quoted Google representatives a number of times in the past as stating that people without brick-and-mortar business storefronts should use PO Boxes.

Also, it’s sort of insulting to a business owner to imply that their business is of unacceptable quality because they use a post box — post boxes have been in use since 1635, so the practice was well-established before Google and the Internet existed. This is why that part of the guidelines is simply nonintuitive.

If a business does not have a street address, such as a home address, which they might use for verification purposes, it’s not particularly fair to require that they disclose that to Google, nor is it fair to make them have to contract to use another street address just to get equal footing in Google with their competitors.

Even more irksome, the guideline appears to penalize the honest businesses more than the spammers or less-ethical businesspeople. I’ve run across a number of cases where people have set up completely fake addresses in order to achieve placement in Google.

Some instances involve using addresses of existing shopping centers or office buildings, while in other cases people have gotten addresses in parks, cemeteries and random places along streets. (Mike Blumenthal has also reported on one address hack that can allow people to obtain listings using a fake address.) I’ve further received complaints from businesses which have been edged out of search results with numerous listings based on false addresses.

Consumers are noticing in some cases, too. One reviewer in Google Maps writes, “Owner was rude when I asked about their false address listings in Google Maps all over town!” In that instance, I viewed the Street View picture for the business’s street address location, and found a new apartment building under construction. While it’s possible the building was completed since the photo was shot, I suspect there’s no locksmith housed there at all.

Finally, as icing on the cake of frustration, the issue is further exacerbated by Google’s lack of clear messaging when a business unwittingly submits a listing with a PO Box address. A number of possible results are described in the Google Places Help Group, including suspension of the account or having the listing pushed down very low in the search results.

The listing may be accessible via extremely specific search queries that only would apply to them, such as search by business name, but be otherwise absent from more general search requests. Without clear messaging around the penalization treatment, there are probably quite a few businesses which don’t even realize they didn’t follow the rules or may assume they’re not ranking well because of other factors (quite a few small businesses might submit their business listing and then only check to verify it’s still there by searching on their business name and city).

I’m very conscious that Google is trying to fix multiple issues involving burgeoning spam problems, but the uneven persecution of listings with postbox addresses has only pushed spammers into finding more innovative means to obtain faux addresses while penalizing well-meaning businesses who truthfully disclose their actual PO Box business address.

It is difficult to try to limit false address listings from brokers who may be pretending to be local businesses — I totally get that.

However, Google needs to do a few things to improve the situation.

The first, simplest step would be to add a basic few lines of Javascript to their submission forms to warn people from providing listings with P.O. Box addresses, and block them from submitting such listings which will only get penalized. It’s just ridiculous to invite people to submit their listings only to block them from appearing in SERPs when you could tell at the inception if it’s got an obvious and easily-detected problem.

Second, Google should equally penalize all listings founded upon P.O. Boxes if they’re going to penalize for this at all – not hard to detect and flag. (In fact, if they would halt displaying all of the business service categories that are frequently address-less, then it would create more equal footing for those companies to compete in the non-local search results. If you can’t handle the local business listings for a category, don’t show just the fraction of listings that meet the arbitrary rule.)

Third, Google should work on rolling out a solution which may allow local businesses to use P.O. Box addresses if they so wish. It’s not clear to me why Google would not show post boxes and just encourage them to suppress address and choose service areas — since it hasn’t stopped the spammers, stop punishing the innocent along with the guilty. The difficulties for businesses which are traditionally address-less have been extant in Google for too many years at this point — the problem truly should merit higher levels of prioritization compared with rollout of new features.

If you are a business that is dealing with this issue, there’s not a whole lot of options at present. You could set up an additional mailbox somewhere else other than the U. S. Postal Service office near you — there are mail services which provide a street address matched with a suite number which would satisfy the rule by not containing the apparent “poison pill” of the “P.O. Box” character string. (Unfortunately, this is not a solution for many businesses located in rural areas where there are no alternatives for postal box services.)

You could also try to partner with another, related business for permission to use their street address for local marketing purposes. For instance, a plumber might be able to persuade a hardware store to allow him to use their street address, and painters might partner with a paint and wallpaper shop.

Finally, you could choose to wait out the situation or hope that Google might eventually accept your address despite it running counter to their rules. Perhaps they will finally accommodate PO Box listings. If you’re negatively affected by this, outline your situation in the comments on this post.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Local Search Column

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About The Author: is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw. Follow him @si1very on Twitter.

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  • http://docsheldon.com Doc Sheldon

    A very timely piece, Chris, and well presented. Many of us have clients in this position, and quite often find ourselves in this situation for our own businesses. Google’s inconsistency just invites more abuse, and exacerbates the problem.

    Obviously, this isn’t the only area in which Google treats some sites differently from others, and I realize that some issues aren’t as easily addressed (or as high a priority for them) as we might think. Still, I think the steps you outlined would go a long way toward eliminating a lot of the incentive for abuse, and would help provide better search results for the users.

  • ebpowel

    As a GIS professional, I feel this issue should be viewed from a strictly technical point-of-view: If an address, defined as a physical location (spatial information) derived from geocoded address information, does not exist, the business CANNOT be placed on a _map_ using the geometric primitive of a point (a single set of {x,y,z} coordinates with no area nor volume). “Service areas”, as the name implies, uses the 2-D concept of an area (or polygon) and would more appropriately contain such information, but would stored using a different mechanism are far more challenging to create automatically.

    This should, in no way, impact the ability of such a business to be found using a keyword search (e.g., business type, location) assuming that the appropriate location keyword(s) is/are registered with the search engine.

    Seems to me this article makes a mountain out of a molehill.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    ebpowel, you’re just a little bit behind on the historical timeline for this.

    In general, I’d agree that you can’t place a pinpoint on a map for an item which does not have location coordinates. This was exactly how Google Maps operated initially.

    However, Google has increasingly transformed the product into also operating as an online business directory. So they’ve trained consumers to search for businesses using maps and using the regular keyword search interface, including for businesses which traditionally might not have a physical location such as tradesmen like plumbers, electricians, contractors, etc. This is a case where the technical evolution of the product has happened very rapidly, affecting everyone’s ability to process and solve some of the dichotomous dilemmas which result.

    Back to the point: people are searching for and expecting to find the businesses in the interfaces paired with the maps. I don’t consider it a big deal whether the business is displayed by icon on the graphic map, necessarily — the more important issue is whether the business is allowed to be present in the Google Places database, and allowed to rank equivalently along with other similar businesses in the same category.

    You’ll have to forgive the slight blurriness of terminology used — because when we say “Google Maps”, we’re talking about the entire interface which pairs listings of items along the side of the map with the graphic map itself.

    It’s not at all a molehill — there are many thousands of businesses affected. Consumers may not be able to select from the full number of options for the service they’re seeking, reducing competition in the marketplace, and perfectly fine businesses struggle with getting presence in the paradigm. For a sense of scale, try to estimate how many businesses operate via post office boxes, and you’ll quickly see that this is not a minor thing at all.

  • ebpowel

    “the more important issue is whether the business is allowed to be present in the Google Places database, and allowed to rank equivalently along with other similar businesses in the same category. ”

    Other businesses that operate in retail/professional services (e.g., have a actual storefront that a customer is going to visit for some reason), is the actual location of the business actually important? As an example, the contractor who installed my windows last summer was based at the other end of the state. The location of their shop/factory was really irrelevant since we are within their service area.

    Contractors in general really don’t need specific location tags – they are coming to your location to perform the work. As such, if their pages are laid-out to contain the service area (county, city, etc) they should be located based on the keyword search.

    If there is an aspect to the spatial database to contain “service areas”, that would almost require the business to submit a service area map to Google. Otherwise, Google would have to guess based on Cities/Counties serviced and use a buffer/dissolve approach – a computational and thus time intensive task.

    It almost becomes a chicken-or-the-egg type problem – how is Google to know what they aren’t told?

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    ebpowel, I think you’re missing the points, because you’re perhaps not up on what’s already going on in Google Places/Maps.

    Google allows businesses without physical addresses to appear in Google Place Search and in Google Maps. They allow businesses to specify “service areas” – polygons overlaying the areas where they offer service. They also will allow those businesses to suppress the display of their street addresses. So, this is established.

    Also, they allow those contractor-types of businesses which traditionally do not operate out of storefronts to have listings in Google Places/Maps. So, what you’re arguing is a nonissue — Google already displays businesses that don’t have addresses, and they display businesses based on proximity and self-disclosed service areas.

    The question/point of my article is: Google displays some companies which have only PO Boxes, while new companies that try to register with them are disallowed from ranking. So, this is not fair. They also are allowing companies with no street address location to be displayed — so long as they don’t use a PO Box address. There are plenty of companies appearing and ranking which use private mailstore addresses which display a street address and suite number — while there is not actually a physical storefront operated by the business.

    So, the issues at hand are: Google needs to apply their rules fairly and evenly for local business listings, and they also ought to really find a new way to police for businesses trying to set up false location listings. They should not blanket-deny businesses merely due to them using PO Box addresses.

    Sorry if I somehow did not make all this clear in the article itself.

  • http://annalytical.com Anna Bourland

    Another side to this issue would also be consideration of those who share locations. There are several reasons people do this – a couple examples are multiple real estate agents in the same office, or people who are sharing a space, such as a photographer and a wedding planner. The trend of sharing work spaces has been increasing. As Google “Maps” becomes less of a mapping service and more of a business directory, it needs to account for lack of brick and mortar address, and businesses sharing the same location.

  • http://www.coinso.com/ PureSheer

    Good stuff, Chris!

    As a Google Maps high-level-friction user from the Locksmith industry, i can say that we used to use PO boxes (heaps of them). After we saw that Google does not except them anymore & kicking out our listings, we’ve inserted the USPS physical address. Along with the company name- we got all letters & it worked fine.
    The reason Google doesn’t treat everyone equally is pretty much clear to me (at least in the Locksmith field): In order to be above Google’s radar you shouldn’t create many listings with the same domain (yes, yes, I’m talking about heavy spam like we “all” locksmiths are doing). Google cleaning up listings that shares the same domain. Hence, even after we used the USPS’s physical location, we got kicked out b/c Google ‘linked’ between all our listings throe the domain.
    BTW- that’s why you can still see listings with PO boxes in their addresses & many other addresses like abuses.
    Google “kicking-out” algo knows how to read amounts of URLs & not PO boxes (in most cases).
    Of course, using UPS or other store’s addresses (even if you have their premonition) is still considered as spam. The guidelines says it clearly.

  • http://www.Weberest.com Weberest

    The problem with the businesses serving customers at their locations like movers, plumbers etc. is huge. We have great problems with Google’s guidelines and I think that there is another approach to be taken for all those businesses. I think pinpoints are not a good solution at all. Maybe displaying the coverage area or even not displaying the map will be a lot more appropriate.
    Definitely treating these two completely different types of business operation the same is wrong and the user experience is not as it is supposed to be. I see a lot of scam listings against in guidelines especially with the moving companies breaking the guidelines and reporting the problem to Google is as if I am writing a letter to Santa.
    Also the pinpoint proximity of such businesses makes people prefer the closer location which I think has nothing to do with the quality or cost of the service.. so once again it is not the best approach. In my opinion Google has to rethink these scenarios and come up with a new way of displaying these results – maybe something completely new..

  • http://www.seomagician.com Phil Busk

    I’d love to see a study of how many people really even look over at the map. I think they see a company that stands out and call the phone number or visit the site. Maybe what they need to provide is a zip code or area code overlay that gives an indication of the general service area of the company. There are plenty of legit businesses out there that either don’t have a physical address or they have two businesses running out of the same office; which is a potential nightmare on Places.

    Your idea to partner with a related company is ok except for the risk of Google blending the two Places pages if indeed the other company has one.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    Phil, you have a very good point about there being a risk of Google blending two companies together who use the same address. We’ve indeed seen this occur before.

    One option for that case would be to specify a suite number when adding the second address, to keep them differentiated.

  • http://www.glocalseo.com GlocalSEO

    Hi Chris,
    You forget to mention one important issue. Now Google rank unverified business listings if that business has organic presence . this is injustice to SMB’s and verified business owner. So many unverified junks are coming from local directory and google ranking those junks because they have organic presence .Google must do something about it.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    GlocalSEO – it is concerning that data from business directories which have inferior listing verification may be feeding into Google. Do you have a particular business category/location combination in mind?

  • Randy Reed

    You can search Google for businesses on a global level address or no. No need to be on Google Maps (Google Places now). When you go to a map program, you are looking for listings on a MAP. Why would it make sense to shop listings on a map that do not have locations? Is it just me? Again, why go to a map to find a business that has no location? It’s a map folks. From a customer’s perspective, driving to a postal box is fairly useless endeavor.

    In California we have a serious problem with locksmiths pretending to be at address that they post on Google Places. When you drive there it may actually be a pizza parlor or an intersection of two streets, some even use freeway on ramps. The state of California requires that all locksmiths be licensed by the state. They also require a real address for the business to be licensed. The state also requires that all advertising for locksmiths must use their licensed address. It is simple here – this means that in California a locksmith can not operate out of a po box or a private mail box. Yet, Google promotes these locksmiths on Google Maps with their fake address.

  • Locksoflox

    Great story Chris. The whole “don’t be evil” doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to providing unfair discrimination against smaller businesses. Neither does it seem to apply when providing an avenue for fraud and scams.

    PureSheer, I think that you’re mistaken. The “locksmiths” that spam google are the ones that attorneys general around the country are successfully suing. You can find information about them at: http://www.aloa.org/pdf/pressroom.pdf

    They’re generally the ones that quote a little old lady 39 bucks to open her condo, then stick her with a 400 dollar bill because they know they can scare it out of her. Most honest locksmiths wouldn’t associate themselves with the spamming “locksmiths” by using the same advertising tactics (tactics which violate consumer fraud laws in many states).

    The spam that you’ve been creating is the reason why the word “locksmith” is currently black balled by google.

    Again, thanks Chris.

  • http://www.sugarfreemedia.co.uk SEOSmith

    I couldn’t agree more. Many of our clients have the same issue and it is very difficult to explain the peculiarities of Google Places. The same also applies to businesses that have 2 offices in different cities. They should be seen as local businesses as they servce the local area but Google makes this very difficult.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    Randy, there is indeed a basic oddity about listing/showing address-less businesses in a map-dominant interface. However, Google has long done it, along with other, earlier internet yellow pages and mapping organizations. I think it’s necessary because consumers have now been trained to use map-based local search interfaces for all local business lookups. The issue is not quite as bizarre with the local listings now being displayed in the regular search results (under Google Place Search) with the map relegated to the right sidebar.

    The issue of Locksmiths and others using false addresses has become critical. As you point out, though, exxing out PO Boxes doesn’t stop them from using false addresses at all. If it’s against local law for locksmiths to display PO Box addresses, Google might be able to incorporate that to supporess those particular listings under new business rules added into their algorithms.

    Locksoflox, I suspect that some perfectly fine locksmiths have likely felt it necessary to try to use the same blackhat practices used by unethical/criminal locksmiths — just to compete. The issues under that business category have escalated by a gargantuan degree!

 

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