Local SEOs: Don’t Play These Google Games

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Since search engines first appeared on the internet, website owners have been playing the SEO game, fighting for the #1 spot for money-making keywords. Just like those old 80s video arcade games you saw in Stranger Things 2, people spent a lot of time, money and hard work trying to get the high “score,” so they could proudly see their name (or, in this case, their website) on that first spot of the screen. Often, though, these victorious moments were short-lived. The next time you went back to the arcade to play the game, you just might see someone else’s name (or site) in the number one spot with a new, record-breaking high score.

This 80s video arcade analogy is a great way to explain why some people are still trying to “game” Google by using sketchy SEO hacks. But when it comes to ranking and SEO strategies, it’s not smart to play with Google if you want your site to have long-term SEO success. Here’s why…

Shall We Play A Game?
In the early days of the internet, it was easy to “game” search engine results so your website ranked on page one. Just like War Games, the Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy movie where a computer asked (in a very polite, computer-like voice), “Shall we play a game?,” all you had to do to rank high was play some black hat SEO games, like keyword stuffing title, description and keyword meta tags, adding a bunch of keywords to your website that were the same color font as your pages’ background color (the search engines could see the list of keywords on your web pages, but the people visiting your site couldn’t), include keywords in anchor text links, buy backlinks, setup doorway pages, reserve several keyword-rich URLs and then setup multiple websites that contained virtually the same keyword-stuffed content so several of your sites could dominate the first page of the SERPs, etc.

By “gaming” the system using these black hat strategies, more than likely you’d see your website listed on the first page of search results for at least some of the keywords you were targeting.

So up until around the end of 2003, search engine rankings were extremely easy to manipulate, then things started to change and it became more difficult to rank.

Those SEO gaming strategies worked for a while, but they don’t work now.

Over the years the search engines – especially Google – have gotten more sophisticated and they no longer want to play games with you. In fact, playing those types of “black hat” SEO games can actually get you or your clients penalized, or worse yet, blacklisted from Google entirely. (I’ve seen businesses go out of business, literally overnight, because they finally got caught for their shady SEO antics.)

In my opinion, trying to game Google today is not worth the risk. Yet every day I see examples online and talk to digital marketers, agencies and businesses who are still trying to trick Google.

Whether you’re optimizing your client’s business or your own, here are a few local SEO games you should STOP playing with Google.

Don’t Setup a Virtual Office
Google wants to make sure you’re a real, legitimate business – and consumers want to know that, too. That’s a BIG part in the trust factor for both Google and potential customers. Trust can be broken very easily by making stuff up. Here’s an example.

The other day I was talking with an SEO who set up her client with a virtual office address in Google My Business (GMB). The problem was, her client really worked from his home office, which was not in the center of the major city in his area – his home was in a suburb just on the outskirts.

This SEO knew that historically, unless a business was physically located in a major city, it would be difficult for him to rank when people searched for the business type and the major city (i.e. “Attorney Clarendon Hills” vs. “Attorney Chicago.”) The only solution she could come up with was if her client actually had an office in the large city.

This SEO believed she was improving his chances of being found by having him set up an office with another attorney in the large city. However, Google already knew about his home-based business address (because he had an unverified listing there.)

They thought their bases were covered, so they were both very surprised when he suddenly got a notification saying that his “fake” listing was suspended. It turned out that a competing attorney knew this attorney never went to the office address on his GMB listing. Now, this SEO thought she was doing everything right: when you called his “office,” a shared receptionist would answer the phone, there was even a business sign in the elevator, but in real life he did not work out of that office – and his competition knew that and they were able to report him to Google. (Again, it all goes back to the “real world” and “trust” factors.)

After a few takedowns, he was banned by Google and now cannot do anything but use the listing at his home address. Additionally, all the reviews he received at his “fake” address also were removed — but 60% of those reviews were fake, too. (Perhaps that’s a topic for another article!)

Now, Google is getting more savvy and generous with proximity searches. That means that businesses in the ‘burbs have more of chance of showing up when searches are done for the big city (especially when searches are done on mobile devices close to the city limits.) However, if you do decide to set up an office in a “large” city for the sake of your Google My Business listing, make sure you have your business name on a placard somewhere on and in the office building, your company’s name should also be on the entry door itself – and the sign must always be there (no taking it down.) Also, someone must be there at the office during stated office hours.

Don’t Keyword Stuff A Business’ Name
A business’ name in a Google My Business listing should be the real, legal business namenot the name you want your client to rank for. When you’re setting up your client’s business in Google My Business, this is not the time to get creative. That means if you’re working with an attorney and the attorney works in a law office as a sole practitioner, her GMB business name listing should just be her name, “Susanna Smithson.” It should NOT be “Susanna Smithson, Best Criminal Lawyer in San Diego.”

Below you will find an example of an attorney who has at least two Google My Business listings, each with keyword descriptors that shouldn’t be there:

Now, you may find that adding keywords to your GMB business name works and you are ranking higher because of it. But just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it. Nothing lasts forever, and when it catches up to you, you can kiss any “hard earned” business goodbye. It’s best to play by the rules right from the start.

However, if you do choose to change a company name simply to add keywords to try and rank better, know that the perks will be short-lived. Someone will eventually report you, your Google account could potentially be banned (that includes your IP address) and your business could be forced to start from scratch in Google’s eyes. It’s just not worth the risk.

Another example of a potential pitfall to keyword stuffing your business name is this: Let’s say your listing gets a hard suspension (it’s no longer displaying on Google Maps) for some reason and you try and get a reinstatement. Do you really think a Google My Business Top Contributor or anyone at Google support is going to want to help you when they find out that the name of your business does not match the Secretary of State’s records or your business’ signage?

Warning: If you put your service keyword in your Google My Business listing, then you just might see higher rankings — as stated in this thread on the Local Search Forums. But, be warned: this tactic can get you removed from Google Maps when you are caught!

Also, don’t set up multiple GMB listings to try and get more exposure. It looks bad to the people who are searching and eventually Google (or one of your competitors) will bust you for it — and that ain’t pretty.

Don’t Get Fake Reviews
Getting online reviews is not only important to potential customers, it’s also important to Google. According to BrightLocal’s Local Consumer Review Study:

  • 97% of consumers read online reviews for local businesses in 2017, with 12% looking for a local business online every day
  • 85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations
  • Positive reviews make 73% of consumers trust a local business more
  • 49% of consumers need at least a four-star rating before they choose to use a business

Every business would love to have all 5-star reviews and most despise the one or two negative 1-star reviews that occasionally pop up. However, Google has some pretty strict guidelines for the people leaving the reviews and for the business owners themselves.

First, make sure your clients are aware that giving customers an incentive for leaving a review is against Google’s guidelines. So you never want to bribe customers by offering them something in exchange for a review. If you get caught (and you will get caught), then all your reviews will be suspect and can be removed.

“Conflict of interest: Reviews are most valuable when they are honest and unbiased. If you own or work at a place, please don’t review your own business or employer. Don’t offer or accept money, products, or services to write reviews for a business or to write negative reviews about a competitor. If you’re a business owner, don’t set up review stations or kiosks at your place of business just to ask for reviews written at your place of business.” — Source: Google’s Review Guidelines.

Also, never pay somebody to get or give reviews for you. Hiring a company to give fake reviews is just plain crazy. A business might get away with it for a while, but it only takes a few reports or someone to go to the GMB advertiserscommunity.com forum to report it and you’ll be in BIG trouble. Once reported, a Top Contributor (TC) will look at the reviews in question and will determine, by looking at patterns of behavior, whether or not it is part of a review network.

It’s pretty easy to spot the patterns of spammy and fake reviews.

Pro Tip: Respond to all negative reviews — even the pesky one star, no comment reviews.

Look at it through your potential customer’s eyes. (Here is a great example pointed out by Joy Hawkins.) Everyone gets bad reviews. Everyone has bad days. Not all customers walk away happy. Potential customers know this.

If you get a negative review, try not to take it personally and work on getting more reviews from satisfied customers and highlight them in Google My Business Posts.

There have even been studies conducted that suggest a slightly lower score than 5 stars is preferred over a perfect score.

It’s Surprising, But People Are STILL Playing Games
It still shocks me that these “game playing” strategies are still going on – by agencies, SEOs and businesses. There are still companies out there that try these outdated strategies thinking they will trick Google and be rewarded with the high score and be crowned the winner. And surprisingly, many agencies encourage this type of trickery as well.

Just remember that Google is watching you. Every major Google algorithm update is usually preceded by long periods of testing, machine learning and human monitoring by Google. Just look at the recent Possum update (which enhanced proximity as a major ranking factor) that was then fine-tuned by the Hawk update. And that Advanced Verification and Local Service Ads were essentially created to combat people who were trying to scam the system.

If you really want to help your customers, do not play games just to make a few extra short-lived wins. Focus on providing great service and good things will happen. Report your competitors if they are trying to game the system. And, above all else, remember that Google forgets nothing.

Ben is a Google My Business Top Contributor, passionate about Semantic Search and Google Plus. Also, an experienced veteran in SEO and social since 1994. Co-founder of Steady Demand which works with agencies and businesses to find engagement and develop content for Social Media. Ben has a passion working with businesses, helping them solve the most complex of issues in Internet Marketing and Local Social/SEO. Ben is a featured author at the Local Search Forum, Co-Owner of Local Search Dynamics G+ Community and is always available to help.