Local SEO – Google’s War on Spam Intensifies

To appear prominently in Google’s local business listings is to pave the way for stellar performance. All local businesses want to reach the top of page one, if not break into the local pack – the Holy Grail for smaller businesses. 

Unfortunately, this collective desire to outperform competing businesses leads some down a rather dark path. Spammy local SEO has been rife for some time, but has only recently made its way firmly into Google’s crosshairs. 

Quite simply, what may have propelled you to the top of the rankings five years ago could today see you booted out of the rankings entirely.

The Negative Consequences of Spammy Local SEO

One of the few things all local businesses have in common is their desire to achieve maximum online visibility. Google Maps in particular has become the go-to for the 21st-century consumer, looking for products and services in their vicinity.

But the sheer extent to which people have attempted to abuse Google Maps over recent years he’s quite extraordinary.  Illustrating the severity and extent of the issue, Google recently shared a blog post with some fascinating facts and figures about Google Maps and Google Business Profile spam.

“Every day we receive around 20 million contributions from people using Maps. Those contributions include everything from updated business hours and phone numbers to photos and reviews,” wrote Google, going on to state that more than 100 million suspicious business profile edits have been blocked, protecting at least 100,000 businesses from potential harm.

“As with any platform that accepts contributed content, we have to stay vigilant in our efforts to fight abuse and make sure this information is accurate.”

Here’s a breakdown of just a few of the most eye-opening facts and figures from last year alone:

Whichever way you look at it, the figures from 2021 alone make for impressive reading:

  • More than 7 million fraudulent business profiles permanently closed
  • 8 million fraudulent business claims declined
  • 95 million reviews removed for breaching terms and conditions
  • More than 190 million photos and images blocked or removed
  • 12 million fake business profiles blocked from being created
  • 1 million accounts permanently closed for violating policies

“Thanks to a combination of machine learning and human operators, we continue to decrease the amount of content seen on Maps that is fraudulent or abusive – in fact, it’s less than one percent of all the content that is viewed on Maps,” proclaimed Google.

“Today, we’re sharing more about how we kept irrelevant and offensive information off of Google Maps throughout 2021.”

As a result of its efforts, Google has revealed that its Maps facility is now approximately 99% spam-free. A figure which should give anyone considering a black-hat approach to local SEO much-needed food for thought. 

Google’s Local SEO Pet Hates 

Competition among local businesses can be quite ferocious, but the key to getting ahead lies in taking things back to basics.  Or at least, completely ousting the kinds of spammy tricks that worked great in 2017, but could cost you your reputation today.

Google has made no secret of the kinds of local ranking signals it loves and hates. Where a local business finds itself in Google’s firing line, it almost always tends to be one of the following reasons:

  1. Location Keyword Stuffing

Using the footer (or another part) of a page to stuff in as many location-based keywords as possible is a bad idea. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, and one that Google’s indexation system can spot from a mile away.  Suffice to say, you won’t get away with it.

By all means, include all the location-based keywords you like in your content – if they’re relevant to the subject matter, and used in the appropriate ratio. Just don’t make the mistake of cramming vast lists of place names with no context on any of your pages, as chances are it will propel your rankings in entirely the wrong direction.

  1. Claiming Virtual Businesses 

Even today, it’s surprising how many business owners are unaware that Google My Business listings are exclusively for physical businesses.  Or to put it another way, you can only claim your GMB listing if your company operates from physical premises and you do business directly with customers. 

For example, if you run an online store and do not invite customers to your workplace, you are still technically running a virtual business. Even though you have physical premises with an address and a telephone number, you still do not qualify for a local listing on Google. You can attempt to claim your business and you may be successful, but it will only be a matter of time until Google shuts you down. 

  1. Spammy Business Names 

Google has also made clear its zero-tolerance policy on spammy business names.  In a nutshell, this means that you will not get away with a GMB business name crammed with keywords, or anything that isn’t a true representation of your business.

In Google’s own words:

“To help customers find your business online, accurately represent your business name. Your name should reflect your business’s real-world name, as used consistently on your storefront, website, stationery, and as known to customers.”

“Including unnecessary information in your business name is not permitted and could result in the suspension of your Business Profile.”

  1. Using a PO Box or Forwarding Address 

Much as it may seem unfair, Google adopts a fairly heavy handed approach to business that list their postal address as a PO Box. Smaller businesses have used PO Boxes for countless reasons for years, but it is nonetheless for something that goes against Google’s guidelines. 

Their take on the whole thing is that if your business has physical premises and an address, it should also have a standard postal address. If you use a PO Box address where the address of your business should be, you could find yourself being penalised.

If not, receive that gut-wrenching notification from Google that your business listing has been suspended.

  1. Uploading Fake Reviews

Admittedly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate real reviews from their manufactured counterparts.  There are even businesses operating online that specialise solely in writing fake reviews, which when gone about the right way can be surprisingly convincing.

Even so, it’s not something Google is just sitting back and watching play out.  Quite the contrary, in fact, as Google’s crawlers are becoming increasingly capable of detecting fake reviews, and taking action against those responsible.

The trouble is, it can take little more than a single fake review to permanently damage your reputation.  Even if Google itself doesn’t pick up on your fake reviews, your target audience might. It’s a risk that simply isn’t worth taking, as the consequences could be catastrophic and irreversible.

  1. Duplicating Content on Location Pages

Creating separate pages for every location you want to target is another entry in the book of tried and trusted SEO tricks. It’s also one that can work wonders, and provides the perfect opportunity to enrich your site with relevant content of the highest quality.

But that’s exactly where so many businesses go wrong, having attempted the easy option. They create a single location page, duplicate the text across dozens of other pages, and simply alter the location name. Or perhaps, spin a handful of words here and there, in a vain attempt to trick Google’s crawlers. 

Truth is, duplicate internal content will not necessarily harm your SEO strategy, or pave the way for a penalty. At the same time, it won’t help your SEO strategy in the slightest, and could lead to the pages in question being ignored entirely by Google. 

  1. Listings with Fake Locations

Last up, it was once possible to create a whole bunch of GMB listings for any single business across multiple locations. The theory is that the more listings you had, the higher the likelihood people would find you, and click through to your main website. 

Sadly (for those concerned), this is one of the main spam tactics Google has set its sights on abolishing as of late. Google Maps was flooded with millions of perfect location listings over recent years, of which the overwhelming majority have now been removed.

This can be a particularly dangerous tactic to attempt, as you run the risk of all your business locations being removed from the listings. Not only will all of your fake locations be shut down permanently, but so too will your actual business. A heavy price to pay, courtesy of a tactic that hasn’t been effective for some time.

For more information on local business SEO or to discuss any aspect of your SEO strategy in more detail, call anytime for an obligation free consultation with Tait Pollack.

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