In the Wake of Spam Reports, Google Focuses on Brand and Small Business Engagement

You may have heard that several new features were just added to the Google My Business product. (If you’d like to read more about that, check out my post on the Brandify blog.) It’s more likely you’ve heard about the Wall Street Journal piece covering Google Maps listing fraud, which Joe Zappa covered, which Street Fight contributors Mike Blumenthal and David Mihm have discussed, and which was published the same day last week as the Google My Business announcement. Together, these two news items offer convenient bookends about the state of Google’s local product line and about the state of local search in general.

On the positive side, we have a product in Google My Business that continues on a solid trajectory, now several years in the making, toward ever greater opportunities for businesses to engage meaningfully with consumers via Google Maps and related properties. The recently announced feature update, for example, gives businesses greater control over the display of photo content, expands on last year’s “follow” feature by letting businesses send welcome offers to new followers, and officially launches new user-friendly short names to make it easier to share the link to your Google listing, which is useful when asking for reviews. Google has also launched a new website that offers free printed promotional materials and ready-made social posts to businesses using content from their Google listings.

All of these items, and the spirit in which they’re offered, should be welcomed by small businesses and brands, who are benefiting from Google’s desire to build engagement and participation not only among consumers, for whom Maps is well established as the dominant local search tool, but also among business owners themselves. Businesses boost the value of Maps by competing to create the most compelling presence, and they benefit in turn by converting Maps users into customers.

But any competitive opportunity can become ripe for exploitation, and the Wall Street Journal’s investigation reveals to a broader audience what has been an open secret for some time among local marketers: namely, that Google Maps has a significant fake listing problem. (Blumenthal and other industry veterans have been writing about Maps spam for more than a decade.) Particularly in certain verticals, such as accident attorneys and garage door installers, opportunistic scammers have driven a proverbial freight train through loopholes in Google’s regulations, creating multiple listings with false addresses and phone numbers so as to dominate niche markets and drive out competitors. Though Google claims the numbers are much smaller, the Wall Street Journal estimates, based on input from search marketers, that 11 million fake businesses are live on Google Maps any given day.

To be sure, fraudulent business listings have been around since the beginning of local search. Generally speaking, organic local listings have always been a free product, meaning that scammers incur little risk. And from its early days, Google’s free local product has provided a type of identity verification that I’d describe as a calculated attempt to strike a balance between the need for verification and the desire to maintain low barriers to entry. Those lower barriers have always been relatively easy to leap over, a fact that has subjected Google to a fair amount of criticism over the years.

For most businesses, claiming and managing a Google Maps listing merely requires PIN code verification via a postcard sent to the listed address or an automated phone call placed to the listed number. Though not as simple as some sites, where listings can be created merely through email validation, Google’s requirements are far less strict than they could be. Trip Advisor and Facebook, for example, have at times in the past required businesses to upload copies of official documentation, such as a business license, in order to gain access to listings. Google does sometimes exercise stricter measures — there’s a story in the Wall Street Journal piece about an attorney who was required to send video of himself in his offices — but these are exceptions to the rule.

Google’s calculated risk in creating a low bar for verification works out fine in a world where most business owners simply want to gain legitimate access to their own listings, and most businesses do operate within those ethical boundaries. But as we’ve seen elsewhere at this stage in the evolution of social networks, fraud and deceptive manipulation have become a kind of ghost in the machine, dominating darker sectors of the local marketplace and creating an atmosphere of distrust that may eventually prove more broadly contagious. 

All of this is only possible when lots of activity is consolidated on a few platforms. Just as fake accounts attempting to engineer the 2016 election thrived in the vast and complex Facebook ecosystem, so too has Google’s dominance in local attracted its own horde of opportunists, drawn like moths to its flame. Indeed, fraud in local listings is just the latest in a long history of attempts, from link farms to keyword spam, to manipulate loopholes in Google’s regulations and algorithms.

But in the earlier days of local, the damage inflicted by listing spammers was greatly mitigated by the range of options available to consumers, who were free to choose among reasonably comparable local search alternatives like Mapquest, Superpages, Citysearch, and others. Within that young ecosystem, Google Maps was a dominant player but far from the only game in town. Today, Google’s success in local, built primarily on the strength of its core map and navigation product, and secondarily on a range of features for businesses and consumers that now far outpaces any of the alternatives, has pushed its competitors far into the background and has driven many of the smaller ones out of business entirely (anyone remember Kudzu or MojoPages?).

In this light, it makes sense to focus on the need for regulation, as Mike, David, and others have been suggesting. But the polarity is an interesting one. Google’s product development orientation, its roadmap of feature releases, its business model (free products indirectly sell ads), its support infrastructure — just about everything about how Google runs local makes it seem like a private enterprise marketing a consumer product. And it is. But success is gradually transforming Google into something bigger — an unprecedented modern hybrid of monopoly and public utility.

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Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is VP of product strategy at Brandify, and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. Brandify is the publisher of Street Fight.
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