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It’s Not Just News: Google Is Having Trouble with Fake Biz Listings Too

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Google has faced intense scrutiny lately amid accusations they’re helping spread falsehoods and half-truths across the web. I know what you’re thinking and no I’m not referring to “fake news,” I’m talking about a different section of Google’s search results – local business listings.

In a blog post last week, Google representatives touted the results of a new study as evidence they have taken significant steps to address the issue of fake listings. The study, co-produced with the University of California-San Diego, examined more than 100,000 fake (or abusive) business listings on Google Maps from June 2014 to September 2015.

According to the study, Google blocked 85 percent of abusive registration attempts before the listings ever appeared on Maps. The study focused on the 15 percent of listings that went live and were subsequently suspended for deceptive, misleading or harmful content. According to the study, less than 0.4 percent of listings in the United States were abusive over the 16-month study period, and the percentage of abusive listings dropped 70 percent from its high-water mark in June 2015.

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Google’s study is fairly comprehensive and goes into some further detail about how fake listings have spread online. To help understand the issue, let’s take a look at a few major questions about fake listings:

What exactly are fake/abusive listings?

According to Google’s study, fake listings are a “blackhat” (deceptive) search engine optimization technique where illegitimate or unethical businesses set up local business profiles “to siphon organic search traffic away from legitimate businesses and instead funnel it to profit-generating scams.”

How big of a deal are they?

The impact of fake listings varied by industry. In the study, 10 industries accounted for almost 70 percent of fake listings with on-call and on-premise businesses impacted the most.

More than 40 percent of abusive listings were related to on-call services, most notably contractors like locksmiths. Since these types of businesses usually conduct on-demand, one-time services, they’re ripe for hit-and-run online scams.

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A 2016 article from The New York Times highlighted how one such scam worked. Using a variety of methods, illegitimate businesses circumvented Google’s mail and phone verification to register listings. These listings were connected to call centers often located in other states or countries. When consumers called the number from the listing, they were routed to a call center that dispatched low-skilled employees. The call center would quote a relatively low price range on the phone. Afterwards, the contractor would claim the job was more labor-intensive than originally thought, charging consumers three to four times the estimated cost.

Reputable locksmith companies have fought back against the practice. Earlier this year, 14 locksmiths filed a lawsuit against Google and fellow search engines Bing and Yahoo. The contractors allege the search engines have turned a blind eye to abusive listings in an effort to sell advertising. According to the plaintiffs, abusive listings dilute organic results, forcing legitimate locksmiths to pay for advertising if they want to show up on the search page.

What role should Google (and other search engines) play in curbing the issue?

Legally speaking, the search engines are probably in the clear. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides immunity for internet companies that publish content from other parties. This is important because Google’s business model is largely built on other people’s content. Think about it; when you “Google” something, Google usually doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead, their algorithms aggregate and rank what they feel are the best answers from other sites.

But, as the hoopla surrounding in the 2016 presidential election showed, the public is just as likely to blame companies that disseminate third-party content that’s deemed “fake” as they are to point the finger at the content’s creator.

In Google’s defense, their guidelines explicitly prohibit this type of behavior. However, the company can’t completely block many of these methods as it would prevent legitimate business representatives from verifying listings. And Google’s verification process can already be extremely frustrating and complex for any type of company – legitimate or otherwise. Just check out the Verification section of Google’s Advertiser Community; there’s roughly 4,000 threads from frustrated users just trying to get their listings live.

So, Google and their co-defendants/competitors are forced into a tough spot – having to balance between protecting searchers/businesses from deceitful companies and providing a friendly user experience for representatives that manage listings. It seems like Google is off to a good start but still has some work to do to strike an ideal balance. One thing is for sure, the bright spotlight on fake information online gives Google plenty of incentive to keep working on solving the issue.

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