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.
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.
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.
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