Lead Gen Spam: Bad for the Consumer, Bad for Business, and Bad for the Local Ecosystem

Mike: Heading off to Atlanta for two days of speaking and a few days with my wife and daughter but, as always, I have a few minutes to “squeeze you in” for this week’s conversation. Always the high point of my week. 🙂

David: Yes, thank you for finding the *tiniest* of spots in your calendar for me, Mike. It’s nice to always talk with you, of course.

Mike: I thought we could talk about Lead Gen Spam at Google (and around the Local Ecosystem), as that has been on my mind a lot. I ended up calling a ton of the listings in Maps and actually had a lot of fun listening to their “story.”

David: I can tell. You were prolific last weekend, and I spent a good chunk of my Sunday morning coffee diving into your research. While you’ve been banging this drum for years, it feels like the problem is, at best, as bad as it’s ever been, and may be getting worse.

Mike: Just so our readers know, lead gen spam is the act of creating bogus listings, at scale, on Google (and Bing, etc.) that all ring into a call center for the purposes of aggregating and selling leads to agencies and individual businesses. In one case I looked at, the scammers replaced the call center with a fully automated call tree.

Most of the businesses at the far end of the chain are either clueless or willfully ignorant about the actual source of the lead.

David: In most cases, it’s hard to blame unsuspecting business owners, but given Google’s historical rejection of legitimate call-center numbers within GMB, you’d think they’d pay a little closer attention to illegitimate ones.

As our friend Joy Hawkins pointed out, it’s particularly egregious in such a YMYL industry as drug rehab.

Mike: I get that I spend a lot of time looking at the underbelly of local search and to some extent you find what you look for, but from where I sit, the problem is worse than it has been since the era of egregious Locksmith spam.

It appears that some bad actors have found a vector to populate massive numbers of listings into Maps with great speed. When you combine that with local VOIP numbers, outsourced call centers, and businesses eager for leads (like lawyers), this “niche” has really “taken off.”

Many of these lead gen listings in Google Local are in fact verified. That implies a level of both savvy and perhaps even insider connections to be able to get these many listings into the system.

David: The vulnerabilities within Maps have (I guess?) ebbed and flowed over the years, but as you point out, some of the newer technologies around phone number deployment and rotation make it easier to scale and fulfill those exploits than ever.

Someone (or multiple someones) seem to have created a new MarTech category: GMB Exploitamation.

We talked about a similar theme almost exactly a year ago, but fake verified listings should be the easiest abuse of all to police.

Not least because you’ve already done most of the work for them.

Mike: Yes, and it doesn’t seem that much has happened since then. To be fair, these listings are not just at Google. If anything, Google’s entrenchment as the monopoly in this space has increased their responsibility to deal with this issue.

David: An honest, not-snarky question: are other platforms, such as our usual punching bag Yelp, invulnerable to these exploits, or do they simply not drive enough consumer interactions to bother with?

Mike: Yelp seems to have a better, if not perfect handle on the situation.

David: I’m glad to hear that. Perhaps this becomes the tip of a spear they can use to attract consumer market share, instead of waiting for regulation of Google that may never come.

Mike: But I found plenty of examples at Bing. I guess a free listing is worth getting into Bing despite the low return. I assume they are just leveraging all of their other architectures.

David: So back to the example of Yelp—clearly this problem can be handled by smart forensic engineering. Google is just not prioritizing it? What do you think will be the tipping point that would actually trigger a significant response?

Mike: Absolutely. We keep hearing that they are training their AI systems to identify these things. But we have been hearing that for going on 10 years now. So either “Rank Brain” is very stupid or, more likely, they just have not applied enough resources to the problem.

David: It’s interesting that you bring up Rank Brain here. I’m not sure it’s a precise invocation, but it does get me thinking that this is one of the few entry points on the Knowledge Graph that’s actually open to user-generated content.

There is a level of curation happening at the sources of (all?) other nodes of the Knowledge Graph, and machine learning doesn’t for example all of a sudden allow new NBA teams to appear or new actresses to star in non-existent movies.

Mike: Google has long relied on trusted partners like InfoUSA for curation and validation of these entities, but something has changed.

Hubris?

David: Via Reserve and the Agency Partner program, Google has opened up to an unprecedented number of potential contributors, all within the last 18-24 months. It’s within the realm of possibility that overconfidence in those partners is to blame in some measure.

Mike: Or just a lack of care in vetting some of those partners?

But the real issue for me is that Google Maps is really like a public utility, and Google is not doing enough to protect the consumers of that product.

There is significant harm in the deception of the consumer, the blocking out of legitimate businesses, and the possibility that the consumer public will lose trust in the whole, creaky house of cards.

To some extent the issue is worse than “fake news,” where a consumer can switch which paper they read. Here there is little alternative for the basics of navigation and discovery.

David: As a die-hard Apple Maps user, there is an alternative, but I trade off the inferior product for a more privacy-oriented experience. But to your point, there is no longer enough competition in the Mapping space for real consumer choice.

Mike: I used to think that (a ton of bad) publicity would ultimately lead Google to fix this problem. I no longer think that and firmly come to the conclusion that regulation is a dire necessity.

David: Obviously there have been cases where errors have led to real changes at Google, but it’s bizarre that the publicity you and others have generated around fake, exploitative listings aren’t treated with the same urgency.

The Microsoft/Internet Explorer case certainly sets precedent for regulation to force Android to stop coming pre-installed with Google Maps. But the resources required to develop a feature-competitive web browser are a tiny fraction of those required to build a feature-competitive map, as a company even with Apple’s resources learned the hard way.

Mike: Maybe you wouldn’t agree, but rather than spend the many billions of dollars to build an alternative mapping product, it is likely cheaper and better for society to just acknowledge the monopoly status of Maps and put in place civic protections that guarantee our safety and protection from these scams.

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After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider.  He’s the former founder of GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.

Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp, a feedback and reputation platform, and LocalU, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at his blog and does a twice-a-week podcast about Local marketing. 

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Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either davidmihm@gmail.com or mike@gatherup.com, or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

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