What Should Google Do About Mapspam?
The first widely reported Google Mapspam (and see here) clearly highlighted the potential and pitfalls for local search. Mapspam is a relatively new phenomemon, where black hat SEOs are spamming local search and map listings.
It also raised a number of questions for Google, and for the search marketing industry:
- Will spam define local’s future?
- How should Google respond to verified reports of Mapspam?
- Is Google’s abuse reporting mechanism adequate?
- When and what technical changes will Google make to prevent future abuse?
- How can the integrity of maps data be guaranteed?
- How should the growing number of small businesses using search marketers pick the right company and interact with them?
- How effective is maps-based marketing?
- Can Google maps expand to fulfill the legitimate business need expressed in spam?
The last question intrigues me most. Can and should maps be expanded to somehow allow this sort of broad local targeting where a single fulfillment office with a toll-free telephone number offers service in every town and village across the land?
If you examine the issue from the perspective of the searcher, there are two different questions being asked of maps:
- What is address/phone/direction for a local business?
- Who provides a certain service in this local?
Maps do a reasonable job of answering the first but is much less well suited to answer the second. The abuse occurred because TechPros and their search firm (with Google’s unwitting help) wanted to do something that maps is not really designed to handle. TechPro’s search firm bulk uploaded records for every US zip code to Google maps. Their local records included an toll-free number and an imaginary street address. Their listings were returned in the Local OneBox for a significant number of rural towns and were listed inside of maps fairly highly for a number of larger metropolitan areas on the broad search term “Computer Service + City, ST”. In an interview, the CEO of TechPros acknowledged that the promotion was extremely successful.
The current maps model has an implicit expectation that each listing has a physical location that can be plotted to a map location. The Yellow Pages model, on the other hand, requires only that a business offer up a non-toll telephone number. Thus any business—whether having a local presence or not—could list a phone number in the Yellow Page Directory . The Yellow Page pay to play model obviously limits which businesses participate at this level.
From Google’s help files :
Q: Can I add my business if I don’t have or don’t want to show a street address?
A: At this time, we’re only accepting submissions from businesses that have a street address or a P.O. Box. Please keep in mind that the address you enter in the Google Local Business Center will be the address to which your PIN mailer is sent, and the address displayed in Google maps results.
We understand that not all businesses have an address or want to publish it, and we’ll keep this in mind as we work to improve maps.
Another assumption that Google maps makes is that a business primarily serves the zip code in which its mailing address is located. Thus there are a certain subset of businesses that can not be listed in Google maps or at least can not be listed in the areas that they actually service. These businesses (at least the larger of them with larger budgets) could have been listed in the Yellow Pages Model. They range from the home based business to the national firm:
- The plumber that works from his house hand doesn’t want his home address listed
- The Dry Cleaner with pick up and delivery to multiple zip codes
- The business that offers regional service or is the only such business in a region
- Any business that provides on-site service
Obviously the approach taken in the reported mapspam to circumvent this limit by listing nonexistent street addresses or P.O. Boxes in every zip code is not an acceptable solution (although a creative and reportedly profitable one). It clearly compromises the integrity of the data set and ultimately will doom the whole exercise to failure if the data in maps is not perceived as accurate.
Perhaps the answer lies in Google offering an additional index to provide the answer the “who delivers what service where” question. I can envision a system where the business, in an extension to the Business Center, could plot on a map or enter a series of zip codes (ala Adwords) the areas they serve. I could image them being displayed in the current maps view as a different sort of pin or possibly on a distinct map. Over time Google will learn which queries are most likely looking for a business location or which are looking for a specific service and deliver the relevant local results.
Whether this information should be presented in a maps interface, whether it should be integrated with map’s truly local data, how it would be presented universally in the main results page are all specific questions that I will leave to others. But whatever the solution, it would need to provide distinct information that is clear to the consumer, easy for the business to generate, accessible to all businesses equally and valuable data for Google to present. It could offer a solution to help us avoid the mapspam that seems likely to ensue.
Postscript: The term mapspam ( a palindrome) was offered up by Cathy who has done extensive reporting on local listing abuses in the floral industry. We are still looking for additional ideas to name, you may become imortal if you coin the phrase. If you would like to submit your suggested name for this new phenomena, you may do so here.
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.
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