Spam on Google Maps is big business. Spammers build networks of fake businesses across the country in a scheme known as "rank and rent." These fake listings receive real calls from unsuspecting customers whose information is then shopped around to the businesses that actually perform that service.
The Dark Alleys of Google My Business
How do spammers create these networks? Google, after all, has become more stringent over time with their verification processes. Postcard verification requires a valid mailing address that matches the listing, making it more difficult to create fakes, but that hasn't eliminated spam.
In fact, an entire industry has sprung up around the postcard process, with verified listings on sale for as much as $250. Pick a city, and they'll receive the postcard for you and verify the listing.
These spam services don't stop at simply selling verified listings. Reviews are a pillar of GMB ranking, and those are on sale as well.
Lead generation is the "get rich quick" goal of building these networks. Once a listing out-ranks legitimate businesses, they can collect the calls that come in and resell the info to local owners that actually provide the service.
Some categories, like garage door repair, are absolutely overrun with this kind of spam. This has pressured Google to enact ever stricter measures, such as their Google Guaranteed program, which requires hard proof in the form of licensing or insurance info.
How to Find Local Listing Spam
GMB spam can range from "rank and rent" listings like we saw above, to businesses with a single legitimate listing that create fakes in other locations. These fakes are created so that they can rank across a larger area.
The common theme with all of these listings, however, is that they aren't able to meet with clients or customers in that location. Google wants users to be able to trust that what they see on the map are businesses that they can visit, and their guidelines for GMB reflect that desire.
Spam listings frequently use residential or virtual office locations.
How can we spot these kinds of addresses, aside from spending tons of time viewing each from Google Streetview?
Luckily, the Postal Service maintains a database that we can use to identify residential or virtual office addresses. We can utilize that information to quickly find suspect listings in our area.
Given an address, the USPS can tell us whether an address is residential or commercial. Furthermore, they can also tell us when an address is owned by a "receiving agent", or a third party that is authorized to open mail for their customers. In our case, that will frequently be virtual offices that receive mail for their off-premise tenants.
SmartyStreets is probably the most accessible way to get this data. The single address validation tool is free and provides the data that we need for spam hunting.
Now that we have the necessary tools, let's walk through an example from the legal category, in the Sacramento area.
Proximity is a hugely important factor in local search, and so some owners are tempted to establish satellite locations that will help them rank higher across a wider area. These satellite locations often solely exist to boost search rankings, and aren't a place clients or customers could visit.
Edward A Smith Law Offices (otherwise known as AutoAccident.com) has a primary location that ranks well, and as you can see below, it's possible to verify that they do indeed occupy the listed address.
But there is another listing by exactly the same name, at a different address on the opposite side of Sacramento. Dropping into Streetview for this address reveals only a plain office building without signage, so we'll have to dig a bit deeper to figure out what's going on with this listing.
Commercial Mail Receiving Agents
The USPS allows authorized private companies to receive and open mail on behalf of their customers. This makes services like iPostal1 possible, where you register an address and receive mail, but never physically visit that location. Virtual office companies like Regus often provide mail forwarding services.
Because they can provide a commercial address, mail forwarding, and sometimes have a receptionist on staff, businesses will often turn to virtual office companies such as Regus when they want to open a satellite location.
Virtual office locations, although not specifically banned in the Terms of Service, face a much higher chance of suspension because of their strong association with spam. These locations are typically easy to find if you perform a Google search for the exact address. If I take the above address as an example, I can see that the top result is a Regus office.
Although a Google search turned this Regus location up pretty quickly, you can also use the SmartyStreets tool to double check your results.
Taking the same address as above, we can see that SmartyStreets confirms that this location is registered as a CMRA.
In this case, renting and listing a virtual office is a violation, because the business already has a primary location that is listed.
Reporting GMB Spam
Once you've identified the spammy listings you'd like to remove, you'll need to report them so that Google can take action. The Google My Business Redressal Form is the proper channel to report fake or spammy listings. You can report listings one at a time, or upload a spreadsheet to report multiple listings.
Here are some tips if you are submitting a spreadsheet.
- Always include the CID to make it easier for the reviewer to pull up the listing in question. You can use the free Google Review Link & Place ID generator from Brightlocal to get the CID.
- Include links to any proof you might have, such as the Regus office location page like we saw above.
- Screenshots are nice to have, but include them as links instead of pasting them directly into the spreadsheet.
- Keep your submissions under 100 listings. This is not a hard cap, but huge submissions are likely to meet with less success.
- If reporting multiple kinds of spam (i.e. keyword stuffing and fake locations), break these up into separate submissions.
Once you've submitted, prepare to wait a few weeks. Even if you are successful in having some listings removed, Google won't inform you of this, so checking back on these listings is really the only way to keep track of them.
I hope some of these tips can help you up your spam fighting game! This is a never ending battle, but for some clients, it can definitely be worthwhile.