Of all the nasty, contemptible things to do! It's not bad enough that there are reprehensible individuals out there spamming their local competitors' profiles with phony negative reviews, but things have just reached a new level of low with the idea of reporting your competitors' businesses as closed.

Is this the outcome of a wounded economy in which normally ethical people have become desperate or simply the activity of criminal types who would be up to no good, even in better economic times? I don't know, but I know that when Mike Blumenthal blogged about a reported closure on the Google Place Page of one of his favorite clients, and a simultaneous reported closure of another business in the same industry and town, I felt genuinely bothered. These tactics bespeak an intent to harm that deserves to be taken seriously, and I strongly urge Google to take notice that local business owners and the marketers they hire are playing hardball in Places, making the implementation of mighty safeguards a must.

Don't miss Mike's post, including his suggested fix if a listing gets falsely reported as closed. And one can't help but applaud Mike's efforts to illustrate the problem by getting a closed message posted to Google's own profiles in California and Massachusetts. And take special note of the growing comments on these posts. Apparently, there are marketing firms out there offering to 'nuke' competitors in the local listings, and if this is the way they are doing it, they have certainly come up with an atrocious business model.

What Google Should Do

According to Mike Blumenthal's experiment, it takes just two reports of closure to get a 'closed' message implemented into a Place Page. I do have to wonder if Google takes into account the 'quality' of the profile reporting closure (i.e., if Mike did this from his own accounts, the amount of edits he has made might make the threshold lower than it would be for weaker user profiles) but regardless of this, I think it is plain negligent that this can happen without any notification to the verified listing owner. Unclaimed listings...well, they are kind of on their own, but shouldn't a business owner who has taken the time to create/claim and verify his or her listing at least be given the privilege of notification if such a major action is taken on their Place Page?

Reports of closure should trigger an automatic email to the owner, asking them to respond as to whether their business is actually closed or not. If Google receives no reply after a reasonable amount of time, then they can proceed as they see fit, but if they receive a response affirming that the business is still open, then this should trigger a manual review of the accounts from which the business was reported closed. Some spammers will leave little or no trail, but others do and their accounts should be permanently banned. While this certainly won't prevent spammers from simply creating more accounts, it will be a pain in their neck and a signal that Google is intolerant of wrongdoing.

What Local SEOs Should Do

If you're on retainer with some of your clients, regularly checking their listings for false closure reports is going to be a smart idea. Otherwise, be sure to remind clients to check their own listings regularly at the close of your contract. I will not be surprised if we start to see more and more reports of false closures in the Google Places Help Forum. And, I must say that I think this is one of the few instances in which you would be fully within your rights in blowing the whistle on the the authors of such reports or marketers who are selling such services, if you are able to track them down.

business karma

What Unethical Marketers Or Business Owners Should Do

There are many forces at work in the world. In the struggle to earn a living, anyone can be tempted to take a wrong turn. Plain and simple: reporting an active business as closed in an effort to deprive it of its visibility on the web is lying. If you are selling business listing take-downs or are taking steps to erase your own competitors' listings from visibility in Google Places, you are doing something that most people would find unethical, and which courts of law might deem illegal. Will resultant short-term gains make up for your ultimate loss of confidence in yourself to make your living honestly? If the only way your business can survive is to lie and cheat, you are not actually experiencing success.

And then there are the concepts of karma and what-goes-around-comes-around to confront. Even people without set religious values of any kind have often observed that, eventually, cheaters get what's coming to them. Do you actually want to do business in a world where one of your competitors can erase you from something as highly visible as Google Places? If you are promoting these kinds of activities, how will you handle it when the pigeons come home to roost on the roof of your own business?

In so many ways, Google is to blame for leaving invitations to unscrupulous behaviors wide open in their system. I find it absurd that I can report my local library closed and turn my community upside down when thousands of people are falsely messaged not to come in to check out a book that day. Google can do better than this.

But until they examine their own problems and take them seriously, it is up to every participant in the Local business scene to set the tone of interactions, commerce and competition. By setting a duplicitous tone, you are fouling your own nest and threatening the entire future of Local. If no one can trust the listings, no one will use them. And then...where will your money come from? Think it over.


August 15, 2011





Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.






Comments(17)

I had reasons to suspect my main competitor as being the guy behind the closing of my business's listing, which resulted in a lot of damage to traffic. What's surprising is that I actually got him to admit to closing my listing. He made up a story about it being an accident, but I'm no sucker. Since he admitted to this by email (from his business account), I would consider taking him to court or retaliating. Perhaps the best retaliation would be to advertise hard in his area and put him out of business.

It's unfortunate that some marketing companies/competitors would stoop so low to take out the competition. This kind of black hat, unethical behavior is exactly why the rest of the SEO industry has a bad reputation. I hope more business owners see this warning and take extra care of their local listings.

Well worth another click to go today and see how an official Googler replied to this - and how an SMB did in response too....

....sigh....

Jim

Well said, Sonia.

It's really disheartening to hear this -- but not surprising. Big banks and the wealthy are now always rewarded for cheating, stealing, and evading taxes. Most people who go to university appear to go to get vocational training that will earn them money more than to get a well-rounded education that might make the world a better place, as well as earn them money. And education budgets are cut all the time all over the place. School boards now pick and choose between pseudo-science and real science. Cheating in schools is rampant, right down through the elementary levels -- and among elementary teachers. And to my way of thinking, if the education system has gone bad, the core has gone bad.

Sorry to be so cynical. I am very sad and troubled by all this.

Arghh! Sorry Miriam! I know you're not Sonia.

@Miriam...

have you seen this site yet - http://www.fairsearch.org/

pls do click...it's interesting as h**l !!!

:-)

Jim

Hello Mike,
Thank you for sharing about your personal experience with what you felt was a malicious closure. It's pretty amazing that you got your competitor to admit he had done this. I agree...and accident seems unlikely, but at least he told the truth in the end. Let's both hope he knows you're onto him and won't pull any more cute tricks. I'm sure you'd much rather spend your time serving your customers that trying to protect yourself. Best of luck!

Hi Nick,
Yes, I do hope many local business owners will see this topic and realize that Google is not going to protect them in this regard. They've got to be their own guard. Thanks for stopping by!

Hi Carol,
Thanks for clarifying about 'Sonia'. That threw me for a second :) I'm afraid your cynicism is well-founded. When people at the highest levels of commerce and government get away with cheating...they certainly aren't setting good examples. Sad but true.

Jim,
Whoa, I had not seen that website. That is really interesting! Worth blogging about, eh?

I just got my business on google places and hope that I dont experience these unethical attacks. Hard to believe how low come people can sinck.

Thanks for the heads up.

Chris

Advertise hard and drive that turkey out of business Mike!

Great points in the post on account security and suggested SOP for Places violations.

What these subhuman leeches don't realize is that their efforts are misdirected, if not at least unbalanced. If they are to 'win' anything - or at least compete - concentrating mostly on the competition will always leave them short.

A little competitive analysis sure, competitive compulsion equals inferior products, service...and probably location.

I lost a client because I would not employ such unethical and intentionally malicious tactics they were actually requesting.

Hearing about this sort of thing is honestly despicable and unfortunately, it's another bullet point for the Google Places team to add to their Problems List. I personally don't know how Places would actually counter this problem, however, leaving it open to the public to report a business closed, was asking for trouble in the first place. Obviously, not everyone in the General Public indulge in ethical practices, which is unfortunate, but true.

Personally speaking, perhaps it's better that only business owners can report a listing closed through the listing's respective Places Account, at least for now. However, if an owner does not report a business listing closed through their account, then there is a very slight chance that a new business listing at the same location could experience merging issues. Sigh! They really need to sort this out!

SEO is definitely a field where it's easy to find shady behavior. It's upsetting that people lack morals and go to the extent of claiming that competitor businesses have closed but it doesn't surprise me. What makes me happy however are comments like Mike's because it shows that there are still people out there who are passionate enough about their business and reputation.

We actually had someone in our area hit all the competitors in his industry. It's a very online review and portfolio dependent industry and a city of ~1.2M. We figured out who it was because *every* shop but his had a slew of negative reviews, and *every* shop but his was marked as closed. That meant he showed up as the only shop in that industry in town. Plus, the usernames were all variations on the shop owner's or his employees' names. Pretty obvious who done it.

...and after being reported by every shop that was hit with the "closed" hammer, he's still listed.

Miriam,
Sad, Sad Sad but this is not because of the economy. There are cowards out there who hide behind the anonymity of the web to do you harm. We had one of these SEO companies try to put us out of business. Guess what we are doing better than ever and they are out of busienss. We told the truth, told our story and did not retaliate. I feel so very sorry for the small business who has this done to them. Times are hard enough and there is a huge volume of traffic to be gained from local now. I personally do not trust reviews online anymore. I have a few other online business and I recieve an e-mail at least once a week offering to provide me with a 'review' service. The stakes are high in local now and Google needs to act to ensure they do not need a local spam team like they have had to have to SEO for a long time. Set Matt Cutts on it I say....he will sort it out.

I absolutely agree to Ms. Miriam Ellis, I think its a negative side of accessibility available to people in this growing social virtual world, which is though so disheartening, very difficult to avoid or stop.

I absolutely liked the "concepts of Karma" which you have talked about. Its never too late to start realizing about a external force which governs everyone all the time..

Thank you for this wonderful article, I absolutely loved the way you have expressed your views.

Thank you for the heads-up. I agree that the karmic implications are not worth any short-term boost you think this black-hat tactic might give your business.

I think it's a little silly and naive to start calling out black hat SEOs and marketers relying on their sense of ethics. This has nothing to do with business being slow, or people trying to make ends meet. This is a conscious decision by a large (much larger than people think) segment of the online marketing industry choosing to engage in black hat tactics to make money. Pure and simple. They don't care about your professional ethics, and the only karma they recognize is money coming in for doing what they do.

Now, doing this IS grounds for civil suits. If you can identify the culprit, you will win the case. And it's a pretty hefty fine, typically, though it depends on your location. There is also talk about launching a class action lawsuit against Google to provide identifying information for anyone who makes edits to a claimed business listing besides the listings owner. Short of that, if you believe you have been the target of malicious attacks, you can file a John Doe suit and subpoena Google for identifying information. Be prepared to spend time and money, as Google is infamously recalcitrant when it comes to revealing that kind of info. It's worth it if you can hang in there.

This is the only way this practice (and other, far far worse ones that white-hats don't generally talk about, and that it seems most white-hat marketers aren't even aware of) will ever stop. These people are in it for money, and nothing else. Hit them in their wallet, and they'll move on to something else.

Thanks to everyone for the great comments and for sharing your personal experiences with this!

Fionn - Yes, your assessment of this as cowardly rings true.

Alex - I really can understand your comments about it being 'silly' and 'naive' to hope for ethical behavior from people with a crooked bent, but people are capable of change, and sometimes they do actually break with past bad decisions. Am I confident this will happen? Not excessively, but I don't exclude it as a possibility.

Fully agree with you that the legal aspects of this need to be better understood and made absolutely clear. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your take on this. You've clearly given it good thought!

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