by Dan Austin
What's This All About?
Spam is a never ending problem in Google Map Maker, and this is an introduction to what spam is and how to remove it from Google Map Maker.
What The Heck is Spam
Spam is any malicious or abusive misuse of Google Map Maker or other Google Maps products resources to promote illegal or unethical businesses, organizations, boundaries, lines, or E/POIs (Establishment/Point of Interest) that violate Google Maps, Places, and Map Maker guidelines. This includes multiple listings of the same business, manipulating categories or other place details by deliberately misspelling, mischaracterizing, or misleading the reviewer or customer with the intent to deceive, defraud, and promote a listing, and general defacement of Maps. Since spam is not always easy to characterize and detect, it frequently falls into the ‘I know it when I see it’ category, and requires specialized techniques and resources to find and eliminate it.
Why Should I Care (Or What's In It For Me?)
Spammers are often operating illegally, and without thought to the suffering they cause their ‘customers’ and other legitimate businesses. They clog Google Maps with tons of bad edits, and make it difficult not only for the person using Maps to find what they’re looking for, but also drown out the legitimate businesses that are struggling to make a living in a difficult economy. It’s very hard to stay in business when you’re competing with hundreds of spam businesses, a dozen of which can closely surround a lone marker, and usually all of them are being operated by the same spammer. The legitimate businesses that played by the rules, paying for licensing and insurance, seeking out professional training and developing considerable expertise in their field to be the best they can be at their job, which benefits you, are the most affected by spammers. Spammers just don’t care, and will always take the easy way out, avoiding all the rules and regulations that come from living in a civil society, evading responsibility, taxes, and liability which means at some point, it’s going to come out of your pocket. Spammers also greatly impact customers by overcharging, or operating unsafe equipment without proper training, and providing defective parts, greatly increasing the risk that either the customer or the customer’s belongings will suffer extensive and frequently expensive damage. In many cases, this is the intent of the spammers, who want to pad their bills by ‘fixing’ the damage they cause, from drilling out locks that normally take minutes to pick to installing faulty and cheap garage door components that will have to be eventually replaced with quality components. Ultimately, the customer has to fix the problem, at considerable expense, which is wasted time, effort, and energy that could be better spent on other activities. While they can recover, having encountered the spammer through Google Maps and Places will certainly negatively affect their perception of Google, and diminish their desire to use arguably the best map product available.
Spammers violate our collective sense of fairness and honesty, and their activity runs counter to the Google principle of Don’t Be Evil.
Why did You Get Involved, and What Have You Done So Far?
It was mostly by accident. I noticed some locksmith listings that didn’t seem right (marker in the middle of the intersection, funny characters in the name, that sort of thing). All I could think was, this doesn’t look right. Imagine my shock when one listing led to another, from Map Maker to Place page to review to website to government database and back again...It wasn’t so much the snowball as the avalanche effect, since there were, and are still literally hundreds, if not thousands of spam listings, and I continued to read, gather resources, and communicate with other mappers and Google staff in an effort to identify and remove locksmith spam, which has since spread to other sources of spam. I went through the process of removing all the locksmith listings I could find, using several different sources, including the spammers themselves, and directly pulled down hundreds of listings, until recently, when the editing locksmith restrictions took effect, and I could no longer delete them directly. I just report them now, and keep an eye out for new or existing spam.
To tell my story, one locksmith hired a private detective to find out who I was (I could have saved him the trouble, since I didn’t bother to hide my identity on Map Maker or the forums). No, no one came to break my legs, but he was absolutely convinced I was a competitor, and wanted to confirm his suspicions (he was wrong), and called me by phone to talk to me. He also had his employees deny nearly one hundred of my edits in Map Maker with multiple fake accounts in an attempt to block any further deletions of his listings, and negotiated a temporary ‘truce’ (which has since expired) to leave his listings alone in exchange for not denying any more of my edits. This was back in the day when it was both easy to delete locksmiths, and easy to deny any edits. I reluctantly acquiesced and took the opportunity to gather as much information as I could about him (I didn’t have a P.I., just a Google) and his locations, and subsequently marked for abuse/deleted all his locations that I could find. I don’t know his real name (all he would confirm was that he was Israeli-American) or even where he’s located, but it made quite an impression on me, as that was my first direct experience dealing with organized crime.
From this point on, I started following trends. Through doing my own research I found out about these spam locksmith networks.
The names on the whois will often be in differ language characters, or anonymous profiles. The information in the feature will frequently be misspelled. The websites will tend to be basic templates filled with typos and cut and paste virtual telephone numbers and false addresses. They tend to avoid any pictures of the business that might identify them, which means the pictures are all jacked from the web (a Google image search usually confirms that). The Better Business Bureau (BBB) logos and Associate Locksmiths of America logos are always dead links, they may not provide the actual license number they claim to have, and calling the (VOIP) number leads to a remote call center where they may not know which location you’re calling about (since they’re operating multiple locations from one call center, they don’t want to tell you where they actually are, and they don’t always know which pretend location you are calling for or from). They will tend to operate in large cities like NYC, LA, Atlanta, Chicago, and Miami.
Where do they like to hide on the map?
Spam like hide at post office boxes, private residences, apartment complexes, center of postal/zip codes, center of city or other geographical/political boundary, and middle of major intersections. They often do not list any physical address or list a bogus/fake address.
What Kinds of Spam Are There?, Who Does It, and What Do I Do About It?
Spam falls into several different categories. These range from easy to identify and delete, to hard to detect and even more difficult to remove. They're further explained below:
1) Deliberate defacement of Google Maps. This includes adding false places, such as roads where there are none, or altering the features of an existing business because it’s ‘funny’ or because the person who’s doing it is angry at the business, and is the equivalent of vandalism and graffiti. This is relatively easy to remedy and detect, since the changes can be compared and contrasted with the last edit, and if there’s something ‘off’, satellite images can be consulted, the website can be looked at, or a general Google search can turn up the origin of this defacement. Common malicious editing includes changing the name to something inappropriate (Google to Gaggle), moving the place marker to somewhere remote from the original location, drawing a road in the middle of a forest, or altering the details like the telephone, website, address, or name in such a way as to direct potential customers to another business. Sometimes the intent isn’t malicious so much as ignorant, with the mistaken assumption that adding content to Google Maps, regardless of its nature, is perfectly acceptable, as a Google Reviewer (GR), Google employee (G), Regional Expert Reviewer (RER), Google Listing Editor (GLE), Google Automated Moderator bot (GAM) has to review and approve it anyway (what is regarded as the trust but verify approach). Deciding whether something is malicious or ignorant is a difficult judgement call, but it’s always wise to err on the side of caution, and where possible, politely ask the Mapper to undo the edit rather than denying it outright, or ask them to give an explanation as to why they think this feature is justified in the comments, or explain to them what they’re doing wrong with a link to the appropriate Help section, so as to encourage them to make higher quality edits on Google Maps (and confirm or deny your suspicions, if necessary). However, if the edit comes from Google Maps, or is clearly malicious or insane, it’s perfectly acceptable to deny the edit, and explain that this feature isn’t appropriate for Google Map Maker. Reviewers also have the option of reporting an edit for spam/abuse, which is highly recommended in any instance where the edit is malicious, and reviewers can select from several options explaining why this is abuse, ranging from maybe it’s spam to it will adversely affect the owner. It’s important to find the right reason, and add a comment explaining why this is spam/abuse. Spam/abuse reports will be automatically forwarded to the team at Google that examines these kinds of listings, and they will hopefully act on them and remove them in a expedient manner so as to ensure that customers aren’t deceived as to the nature of the listing. It also alerts Google Reviewers, who are responsible for approving the majority of the content, that something is amiss and requires additional attention.
2) Adding listings that clearly violate Google My Business Quality Guidelines. GMB guidelines are helpful for determining the quality of an edit. Again, this is a judgement call, since there are two broad (and sometimes overlapping) categories of spam/abusive content that shady businesses tend to naturally gravitate toward:
- Grey hat business promotion, through sheer ignorance, exploiting what they perceive to be loopholes in Google Places guidelines, or by owners who aren’t certain, but on the advice of a general web search, examining a competitor’s listing, or using the services of a professional SEO specialist, have determined that the technique they’re employing to promote their listing might violate Google’s Place guidelines, but then again it might not (and since it lends what they perceive as a competitive advantage to their business, they don’t really care to find out if it’s acceptable). This includes adding categories that are inappropriate for their business type, inappropriate names, using public or private mailboxes or virtual offices, events of a limited duration and nature (art shows, plays, dances, exhibits, movies, readings, musical performances, political rallies, meetings, and the like that take place at a venue that is hosting them, but isn’t their permanent home, and could be better represented and advertised by the website of the venue, Adwords, or the Place page of the venue), inappropriate content or words added to the description.
- Black hat business promotion (more on this below), including illegal, inappropriate, or unethical categories of businesses, or locksmiths and garage door suppliers, who are usually spammy in nature and use bait and switch techniques to fleece their customers through multiple false listings, tow service operators, who tend to create multiple listings that are remote from their actual business location, carpet and other cleaning services, who use call centers and multiple listings where they have no actual presence, limo and taxi companies, who have listings that use fake addresses or the addresses of businesses that might help promote their listing like a hotel or airport, and movers, who like to move, but not actually indicate where they are moving from. Additionally, positioning a business right on top of the White House in Washington, D.C. is not an acceptable form of SEO, and is considered spam.
Since there’s no clear cut distinction between the groups, this is less an important way to detect them, and more a way to gauge their intent and respond accordingly. Again, the same tools that are available in response to defacement are also available to respond to Google Places guideline violations, with the additional advantage of selectively denying inappropriate features, or correcting them yourself in a subsequent edit, reporting features for abuse, or asking for more information from the editor. It’s important to respond rationally rather than react to what you perceive to be violations, as sometimes what looks like spam could actually be a good edit and since reviewers actions--and Maps and Places listings--have an impact on businesses’ bottom lines, it’s also important to be careful.
What About the Really Bad Guys?
These fall into several Map Maker categories, and require more specialized processes to evaluate.
- Locksmiths, including Key Duplication Service, Keys, Safe & Lock, Lockouts, Locks, Locks’, Locksmith’s, Locksmiths’, Locksmiths■, or other weird variations of ‘lock’. Since all features with the category of Locksmith are now locked, any new feature can be denied by marking it for abuse, and old, existing features can be reported. Not infrequently, they pretend to be either Handymen or E/POI (Establishment/Point of Interest) as their primary category, and have the Locksmith in their name rather than using it as a category to evade the restrictions on creating Locksmith POIs. They are also virtually interchangeable with Garage Door Suppliers, since the same criminal syndicate that runs Locksmith scams also runs Garage Door Suppliers (and Cleaners and Movers). Locksmiths (and other businesses) can be verified through the following websites (feel free to add your own resources). Please note, some locksmiths spammers have licenses in the respective jurisdictions (like Run Local Locksmith), but are considered locksmith spammers because the individual locksmiths they use aren't actually licensed to do the work, and the locations they use aren't actually the location of the business in question. Furthermore, spammers register common spam names (24/7 Locksmith, 1 Twenty Four by Seven Locksmith, etc.) with the state but operate in a legal gray area (tax evasion, unlicensed illegal workers, remote call center, etc.).
While regulations differ from state to state (some states don’t license at all) most spammers avoid the legal niceties to begin with, so they’re often operating without any kind of business license at all. Calling or viewing the websites of the city, county, or state business licensing offices will often turn up discrepancies in the spammer’s legal status. The local Better Business Bureau, the Associate Locksmiths of America, and the state (usually Secretary of State Office that licenses corporations and partnerships) and city business license offices are the best determinant of whether a locksmith is legit or not. Be cautious, because not all locksmiths are spammers, and sometimes car lockouts aren’t considered locksmiths and don’t need to be licensed by the state (like Texas). They tend to position their markers in the middle of busy intersections, near other legitimate locksmiths visible from street view, close to gas stations, office parks, industrial parks, car rental agencies, auto repair shops, and junkyards. There are 1000’s of spam listings in in the U.S. alone.
- Escort Service. The Escort Services which can be verified on Map Maker by storefront from Street view, business website and other resources can be accepted, provided they're legal in that country. For the listings which cannot be verified, it is advisable to add them through Google Places to ensure correct business verification.
- Lawyer or Attorney. Lawyers usually have only one office, which can be easily verified using state bar association databases, and then create a series of satellite offices using virtual offices, private mailboxes in order to promote their listing in markets not covered by their main office. This is partly a limitation of Google's algorithms, which limit searches to local businesses, and partly because of the competitive market in certain legal segments, notably the ambulance chasing and DUI variety.
- Carpet Restoration Service, Fire Damage Restoration Service, Water Damage Restoration Service, Upholstery Cleaning Service. There are several large spam networks that have flooded Google Maps with hundreds of listings, including Flood Control or Floodcontroller, RestorationVIP or Restoration VIP, Hi Tech Cleaning, USA Disaster Services, Restoration X, and the like. They do the usual bait and switch common to most spam professions, quoting one price, and delivering a limited service that they overcharge for. They tend to be evenly spread across the map, and in really odd, but remote places. Don’t confuse local county flood control offices with cleaning services. They’re obviously different, and a reverse number search on Google will clear that up.
- Garage Door Supplier. Almost as prolific as locksmith spammers, they have thousands of listings clogging Google Maps across the nation, and appear to be closely affiliated with locksmith spammers, often interchanging their listings and categories. They, like locksmiths, like to position their markers in the middle of major intersections.
- Tow Service and Auto Wrecker. Tow services tend to have a tow yard or service center they work out of, usually far outside the metropolitan areas they like to service, so they’ll position many markers all over the city in an effort to keep up with the competition. New York City is a tow spammer’s haven. Unless you can see a tow truck, an office, and/or impoundment lot, it’s spam.
- Mover. Movers will position their abundant markers close to areas they want to service, rather than the shop they operate out of.
- Limo and Taxi Service. They tend to position their locations close to airports and hotels, even though they operate out of a remote location. Since they can owner-verify their listing in Places, they can remove their business address and set a radius for the area that they serve, which is more appropriate than moving the marker next to Hotel Spammerville. If it’s a new listing, and the address is obviously false, you have the option of denying their address or listing altogether, and recommending that they get their place owner-verified in Google Places.
- Bail Bondsmen. Bail bondsmen usually have one or two offices, at the most, but like to sprinkle multiple markers around county and city jails and courthouses in multiple jurisdictions under the mistaken assumption that their clients have access to Google Maps while they’re in jail. Like Limos and Taxis, they can owner-verify their listings and set a radius for the area they serve.
- Contractor. These are difficult to detect, not because they’re hidden, but because there are so many legitimate and not-so-legitimate contractors. Nonetheless, many states require contractors to register their business. Although contractors' services in general can be questionable at times, it’s not really the mapper’s job to ensure that they fulfill their end of the contract. Instead, the mapper's job is to verify that they are properly licensed for their jurisdiction and follow Google quality guidelines.
- Hijacker. Hijackers aren’t a formally recognized category in Map Maker, but they tend to focus on businesses like Loan, Mortgage, Jewelry, Jeweler, and Cable Company categories, and they actively seek to spam legitimate listings by replacing telephone numbers with virtual forwarding numbers, and then defraud customers with a man-in-middle attack, pretending to be the business in question or redirecting the call to their own operation so they can fraudulently acquire customers’ financial information. They also hijack other spam listings and try to replace it with their own listing, parasitically. Comcast is a significant member of this group, and you’ll see their listings appear sporadically on Map Maker, even though most of the ‘real’ Comcast locations have already been mapped. It’s usually easy to verify the business by checking it against the company directory on their main website.
- Resellers and Call Referral. Resellers and call referral are not a category either. They're services that resell or refer clients services for an additional fee on top of what you would normally pay to get the service yourself directly. Comcast, DirectTV, Check For STDs (actual business name), fall into this category. Again, it's easy to verify the business by checking it against the company directory on their main website, or looking at the locations they have listed on Maps and matching them up against what is actually there.
- Dating Service (aka Chat Services). Livelinks, Telemates, Megamates, Lavalife, Night Exchange, Interactive Male, and other related services are telephone call-in chat services. They have no offices for their POIs, but they frequently litter maps in an effort to promote their websites.
- Drug Rehab Center. Drug rehab centers usually have only one or at most a few locations. They often attempt to add additional listings to Map in order to direct clients to their main center. The center should be clearly visible on Maps.
- Check Cashing Service. Usually they attempt to hijack existing POIs rather than create new POIs.
For a good series of public facing web databases to verify listings, use a general search for "business license search" by state or municipality.
Anything Else Should I Know?
If you encounter a mapper who is making spam edits in Google Map Maker, click on their profile in the particular edit, and report them on their profile page.
Try to look through their particular edits to see if they have a history of promoting spam features. Sometimes it’s just a mistake, sometimes it reflects a spammy pattern, such as making a series of small, easily approved edits in the hope that they can build up their trust and approval rating, and slip a spam edit by reviewers. Presently, most spammers operating on Google Map Maker will register a specific account just for a few edits, and then switch to a new account, so it may not be worth it to report them. However, if they’re reported, their account is frozen and they’re prevented from making any additional edits.
A good place to evaluate spam is to go the individual Place pages for places in Map Maker. Simply search for them in Google Maps and read the reviews on the Place page. If they have a series of 5 star reviews, with a lot of typographical errors, names that don’t match the business at hand, or the reviewer themselves made a series of 5 star reviewers for the same type of business across the country, it’s a good bet that this is a spam listing. Spam reviewers on Place pages are also a good way to detect additional spam, because spam reviewers tend to evaluate a lot of spam locations all at once. Simply copy the listing, and find it in Google Map Maker. If you can’t initially find it, try to eliminate parts of the listing, like the address or even the name to see what turns up, because sometimes Map Maker listings don’t match perfectly with their Places counterparts, or the search function won’t exactly turn up that listing.
Avoid confrontation with spammers. Spammers are not nice people. They’re desperate, deceptive, malicious, vicious, and shady. If in doubt, report and allow Google to handle it. This is their livelihood, and they’ll defend their listings with whatever tools they have at their disposal, wreaking havoc on your rating, your edits, and your neighborhood in retaliation for removing their spam. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t be afraid, just cautious in how you approach certain kinds of spam, because like your edits, they take their work seriously, and are upset if something gets deleted. 99% of the time this shouldn’t be an issue, since many of the spammers who previously had accounts on Map Maker have departed to the distant shores of Yelp, Yahoo!, Bing, and Google Adwords(!) leaving us to our quiet world of Map Making, and their profiles have been frozen.
You can set up Community Neighborhood edit review feeds to keep on top of spam in your area. Simply go into Community Edits in the sidebar of Google Map Maker click on Manage Subscriptions at the top and/or Add a neighborhood on the bottom, give it a name like Spam Watch: Locksmiths, center it on the area you want to investigate at the appropriate zoom level, and select either This map view or use the dropdown menu to select an area from the list (including the entire country) and select that, add a keyword (not a category), which can be more reliable (fewer words, the better, singular word is best), click on Next, add or don’t add an explanation, click Next again, and set the email alerts you want either to none (you can check the sidebar at your leisure) or to a specific timeframe that is most appropriate for you. You can add multiple feeds for multiple categories.
When in doubt, investigate! Look through the history all the way back to the beginning. Google the telephone numbers or address. Lookup the whois for the website. Find out who approved it, who edited it, who denied it by clicking through their profiles. Spammers follow patterns, and the patterns tell a story.
If it's marked as Closed already, you can report it as spam, and have the MM team remove it for you.
Spam will never go away. The best we can do is investigate and remove whatever we find, and limit spam’s presence on Google Maps. With enough effort, however, we can greatly reduce their impact, and move the problem to other venues that are less well-equipped to deal with them, increasing the quality and value of Google Maps.