Google should be issuing a mass warning right now, but in lieu of that, I'm going to. If your business is listed in Google Maps or you are simply a Maps user, do yourself a huge favor and read this post. Just when you thought tactics couldn't get any slimier on the dark side of Local, they have. Weaknesses in the Google Maps system are letting in a new breed of slithering, low-down criminals who have decided that going into the extortion business is a fine use of the gift of life. Let me make you aware of what's going on.
The Specific Scenario
Several people have shown up in the Google Places Help Forum recently reporting a similar dilemma. Case in point was a limo business owner who posted this story:
My business has a couple address that are both listed and claimed in google maps. However, if you do a search of my domain name, you will see three pages of results, all but two of which are wrong. The wrong listings have a bad phone number, random business name, and random address, but it does list my company domain. These listings have already been "Claimed by owner" so we cannot go in and fix them. This was brought to our attention today by a phone call from a "marketing expert" who pointed out this problem and how it could get us banned from google. When we refused to pay him to correct the problem, he threatened to flag our real listings and get them removed/penalized if we didn't pay him. This person obviously created about 25 fake listings with my domain in another Google Places account before calling to point out this "problem" and is holding the ability to delete them hostage... There is no way for us to correct the listing.
In the days following this initial report, it looks like Local Search Expert Mike Blumenthal helped bring attention to this awful situation both within the forum and on his blog where he posted about it. A Google employee named Cecelia tuned into the story and the 25 fake listings summarily disappeared.
The business owner is as in-the-dark as the rest of us as to what exactly happened here, but bizarrely, he reports that he is still being harassed by the extortionist 'marketer' via telephone. Other Places Forum members are suggesting that the limo business owner post the name of the unsavory company who has done this to him, and while that might be interesting information to have, it will not solve the overall problem because this practice is not being confined to a single case or a single bad guy.
As Mike Blumenthal's above post mentions, a report was recently published at Webmasterworld stating that clients were being contacted by extortionists to remove false negative reviews that had been published about their businesses in Google Maps.
Such claims have been made in the past about major entities like Yelp and Merchant Circle recently had to cough up close to $1 million in a lawsuit hinging on illegal marketing practices. But what we have here is not coming from the misguided business ethics of large corporations - rather, it appears to be the bright idea of petty crooks and thugs who fancy themselves Depression Era gangsters, demanding protection money. And herein lies the almost impossible unwieldiness of the problem.
You can combat a large company's mistake. A legal ruling on a bad practice generally takes care of it. But how do you combat millions of potential criminals, all of whom have been given the power to create false business listings and write false reviews, holding the reputations and earnings of legitimate businesses hostage, as a means of making money? I certainly don't know how, and I'm very doubtful as to Google's ability to control what begins to look like a monster they and their local data peers have created. A hand edit of a single case, as cited above, solves the limo guy's problem, but it does nothing to address the problem at large.
At the very least, I wish to use this article for two purposes.
1. To warn you, personally, that this is going on.
2. To agitate for Google issuing a mass email warning to all claimed businesses that this type of extortion is happening. PayPal issues warnings about potential scams. Google should do it, too.
What Should You Do If An Extortionist Contacts You?
Here is my advice. I would play dumb. I would respond something along the lines of,
"Oh, dear. I'm so concerned about this. I'll have to go look at my listing to see what happened. Could I have your name and number so I can call you back? What company did you say you were from? Thanks so much for letting me know about this."
I would then go to the Google Places Help Forum and report the problem with a title something like:
ABC Marketing Company Asking For Money To Remove False Listings
And I would hope that Google picks up the ball from there.
What do you think? Does this advice seem good to you? What would you do if someone published 25 fake listings for your business, filled your profile with false negative reviews and then phoned you asking for money? I'd like to know.
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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