Google definitely has a strong vested interest in ensuring that its search results are not dominated by spammy results. That’s why they rolled out the Penguin algorithm a few years ago to combat websites employing manipulative SEO techniques to boost their ranking. That’s also why at the beginning of September they rolled out an algorithm update, dubbed Possum by the SEO community, focused on improving local search results – particularly in the Local Finder and Google Maps.
The problem with all this is that one could come to the mistaken impression that Google has the issues with the Local Finder under control, but I’m sure that Google’s local search team realizes that their recent efforts to upgrade the local results have fallen short. The local results, particularly in Google Maps and in the Local Finder, are still burgeoning with duplicate and spammy results.
The issues affecting the quality of results in the Local Finder and Google Maps can be broken down into three general categories:
- Businesses appearing multiple times in the search results
- Referral centers which are not Service Area Businesses (i.e. plumbers, electricians, etc.) are showing up in the Local Finder results
- Questionable reviews of businesses are widespread
Now we’ll take a look at these various issues and see how Google is trying to tackle them.
Google’s Headache with Duplicates in the Local Finder
To get a feel for the rampant problem of duplicate listings showing up in Google’s Local Finder, let’s start with a routine search that people normally do when they are really stuck, not in a traffic jam, but with a backed up toilet.
If someone located in Manhattan searches for “plumber NYC,” Google serves up a SERP with a Local Pack and a list of organic results. The Local Pack contains three businesses located in the area specified in the search (other factors affect these results as well). When clicking on the “More Places” link at the bottom of the Local Pack, a list of many more local businesses appears in what’s referred to as Google’s Local Finder. So far, so good.
The problem is that inside the Local Finder oftentimes duplicate listings of the same business appear, and in our example of “plumber NYC” the same business appears twice on the first page of the results: the listings have the same business name, same website, but with two different addresses in Manhattan (see screenshot below). The phone numbers are different, but they both lead to the same business (more about this later). So the same business is listed twice on the first page of the Local Finder, and it also appears on Page One of the organic search results. Not bad, eh?
Same business appears twice on the first page of the Local Finder
Google’s Possum local search algorithm which was rolled out at the beginning of September was supposed to deal with such duplicate listings in order to offer more diversity in search results. A few weeks ago, we reported on the Possum algorithm update based on Joy Hawkin’s findings and some of our own research. Google’s aim is to provide a diverse set of business listings, preventing the same businesses from appearing multiple times, but presently the Possum update is a bit shortsighted it seems.
The same business also appears on Page One of the SERP
Understanding Google’s Problem With Duplicates in Local Finder
One of the reasons that Google created the My Business directory was to solve the problem of indexing the physical locations of businesses so that Google can provide search results for people looking for a local service provider. Before such a directory existed, Google had no way to know where a business was located.
Although most businesses list their address on their website, there is no way for Google to index this data since no globally accepted standard exists for the format and location of this data. The data therefore cannot be parsed and indexed (Schema.org is an attempt to create such a standard but its implementation is far from being universal).
With the creation of the Google My Business directory, the technical issue of indexing addresses was solved since there are specific address fields in the form to create a business listing. That being said, the present system does not prevent duplicate listings since businesses can create multiple listings in Google My Business with the same name (as evidenced above) as long as the address is different.
On the one hand, this seems unavoidable because it is commonplace that businesses have multiple branches, stores, or service centers. On the other hand, Google has no way of knowing whether these additional listings are additional branches or additional listings with no real physical presence. I found two listings for the same lawyer in Beaverton, OR. The business name was identical and so was the address except for the way the suite appeared. In one listing it appeared as “Suite 310” and the other was “#310.”
In another example seen below, where I searched for “criminal lawyer in nyc” you can see that the same law office with the same telephone number appears twice in the Local Finder in NYC. This is not necessarily spam because these may be two separate offices operated by the same firm, but since Google aims to create a diverse selection of businesses in the Local Finder, this indicates that, as of yet, they have not been very successful in achieving their goal.
This lawyer appears on page 1 and page 3 of the Local Finder
Second listing of the same lawyer on page 3 of the Local Finder
The Solution to the Duplicates Problem is a Work-in-Progress
Although I have provided examples of duplicates in the search results (and there are plenty more), it’s important to remember that this may be the first release of the Possum algorithm, but it certainly isn’t the final version. Google did not announce or even admit that such an update occurred. Maybe that’s because they realized that it still has a long way to go before it becomes truly effective. Remember that Google has released at least four versions of Penguin, according to their own official announcements. So we can expect further releases of Possum as Google attempts to effectively filter out the duplicates in the Local Finder.
Referral Centers Are Being Represented as Service Providers in the Local Finder
Another major headache for Google is that referral centers are showing up in the Local Finder as Service Area Businesses (SABs). SABs are tradesmen that don’t have a brick and mortar storefront. Instead they come out to the customer’s location. Two popular examples of SABs are plumbers and locksmiths.
Google’s local results are supposed to directly connect people with local service providers that have a name, a “face,” and who have a good reputation. People searching for a plumber should not be misled by seeing referral centers listed as plumbers. This is misleading. They don’t know who the service provider is until they are referred to them by the call center, or even worse, only when they show up at the customer’s doorstep.
In the original example of “24 Hour Plumber NYC,” I did some research to find out whether this was a plumber or a referral service. I called the telephone numbers of both listings in the Local Finder, and they both end up at the same referral service. You don’t reach a particular plumber who operates out of the address listed in the Local Finder. They ask you where you are, and then connect you with a plumber whom you have no clue about. The reviews on this listing are supposed to give feedback about a specific plumbing service, but seemingly no such plumbing service exists – it’s a referral service.
I might add another interesting finding in my research about this “plumbing” service in NYC. When I looked up the addresses (remember they have two separate listings), using Google Street view. I discovered that the locations seemed unlikely places for any business, let alone a plumbing service to work out of. They both look like completely residential buildings (see screenshots below).
329 Broome St. in Manhattan – Does this look like a location for a plumber’s shop or even a referral center?
The same plumbing business gives this address 333 E. 46 St. as its location. This looks pretty residential
Google’s New Initiative to Clean Up the SABs in the Local Finder
As reported by Barry Schwartz on SERoundtable, Google has launched an initiative to ensure that the businesses appearing in the Local Finder are indeed service providers and not referral centers. The initiative involves requiring SABs to go through an additional verification process before they can be listed in the Local Finder. Right now Google is testing out this new verification process in the city of San Diego, and it is limited to locksmiths and plumbers. Some of the techniques used in the new verification process are spelled out in Google’s Advanced Verification Policy, and they appear to be quite comprehensive:
“The advanced verification process combines internal signals, publicly available data such as state and professional license registrations, and information from Pinkerton, a provider of corporate risk management services. For the business owner, the check includes inquiries into Social Security number validity and, where applicable, professional license validity. At the company level, the check includes inquiries into business registration validity, evidence of fraudulent or misleading behavior on Google, and where applicable, professional license validity.”
The extent to which this initiative succeeds in weeding out referral centers remains to be seen, but two questions come to mind:
- This is definitely a costly program for Google to individually verify each service provider that wants to be listed (particularly if this becomes a global initiative), how will Google cover this cost?
- If this initiative is not successful, Google will have to go back to the drawing board. What are the alternatives?
Questionable Reviews on Google My Business
Besides the issues of multiple listings and referral services in the local results, there is also a big question regarding the veracity of the reviews appearing in the Local Finder. Using the same example of the business named “24 Hour Plumber NYC,” if we take a look at the reviews of this business, we discover that there are definitely some reviews which look questionable.
The first review on the NYC plumbing service was written by a person who sings the praises of 24 Hour Plumber NYC telling the following personal story:
I did some research on the reviewer, and it turns out that he runs a marketing business in California. His business provides internet marketing services, search engine optimization services, etc. Is it questionable that a person running a marketing firm in CA is providing a review of a New York plumber? I leave that for you to decide.
Another review was written by a person who also had only the best to say about 24 Hour Plumber NYC. He had an equally interesting story to relate about this plumbing service:
Looking this reviewer up, I found that he is the owner of a digital marketing company based in Tennessee. On his LinkedIn profile he promises to generate more leads than a business can handle.
You shouldn’t think that plumbers are the only ones who need positive Google reviews. Locksmiths and other service providers need them as well. See below the very positive review this person wrote about a locksmith in Chicago. He relates the story of how he got locked out of his car while on a trip to watch a Cubs game and how the locksmith got him out of the bind.
Here’s a review the same person wrote for a maids service after creating quite a mess at his friend’s house while visiting in Vancouver, BC.
I could go on with a myriad of examples, but I think that it suffices to say that Google has a major problem on their hands with the business reviews. The original intent of the reviews was to allow consumers to provide useful positive or negative feedback on service providers but often the reviews are being used to pump up business. I am not sure whether a purely technological solution exists to this problem or whether Google will have to manually review or somehow verify reviews.
Conclusion: Google Will Continue to Invest Heavily in the Local Results
Google realized long ago that the smartphone would overtake the desktop and become the center of people’s online activity. They also realize how central their local results are to their success in taking advantage of the enormous mobile potential.
Google is investing significant resources to improve their local results in general and the Local Finder and Google Maps in particular. I am sure that we will see further revisions to the Possum algorithm to increase its efficacy and once additional verification processes have been worked out they will roll them out on a larger scale. Although many obstacles remain to clean up the local results, it’s clear that Google sees this as a critical goal for them.
For SEO professionals dealing in local search, the takeaway should be that on the one hand it’s crucial to stay up to **** on all the developments to take advantage of changing requirements and standards (such as the verification requirements) and at the same time its always important to remember the fundamentals of producing quality content and proper execution of SEO techniques.