A Real-Life Experience with Locksmith Mapspam

MIHMORANDUM NO. 447 | July 9th, 2009Reader Comments (10)

A very interesting discussion broke out on Twitter last Friday as a result of this comment by my friend Lisa Kinnard (@LisaKinnard), who works for a performance-based ad network in Kansas City:

“Ok locksmith man, my cats r makin a ruckus locked up in the bathroom. Good thing this isn’t a time sensitive issue. Tick, tock, tick, tock..”

Yes, that’s right–lovely young women actually do need locksmiths from time to time, as Andrew Shotland joked in April.

Immediately intrigued, I responded with a flippant remark about the “locksmith on every corner” problem that Mike Blumenthal has highlighted so frequently over the last several months, thinking that Lisa surely would have found a better solution.

I became even more intrigued after a tweet from Anaheim, CA florist Cathy Rulloda about the lack of citations for ANY of “Rain or Shine” Locksmiths’ 20 Kansas City locations.  As I was doing more investigating, I asked Lisa if she would be willing to share how she went about finding her chosen locksmith (emphasis below is mine).


I started by doing a search on google.com using my iphone. The query was “Locksmiths 64111

I just randomly picked one and touched the phone number on the screen of my iphone to call. A guy answered and I told him I wanted my locks changed, gave him my address, and he said he’d be here in 25 – 45 minutes. That was at 9:17 AM.

In the meantime, I googled “Rain or Shine Locksmith” from my desktop computer, but couldn’t seem to find a relevant result, so I then googled the phone number that I’d originally called, which was (816) 278-9580.  I clicked on the “Independence Locks & Locksmiths” because Independence, MO is somewhat near KC, and was taken to this page.

Because there were so many results, I used the ‘find’ function in firefox and typed in the phone number. That showed me that it was, apparently, located on Roanoke Pkwy, which is .9 miles away from me.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I later went back and looked at the address on google maps satellite view, and, sure enough, the only buildings on that stretch of Roanoke are apartment buildings (see first photo). There are no businesses.

(In addition, if you click the sixth link down on the results for the phone number search, you are taken to an error page which states: “Sorry, we couldn’t find robandeekansascity.com”. Robandeekansascity.com is an expired domain relating to finding schools and colleges in KC. eh?)

At 11:05 am, I got two phone calls, one right after the other, from (908) 316-1351, but I didn’t answer, because I’d decided by that point that I didn’t want to do business with them anyway. I didn’t even get up to see if anyone was at my door, because I was on the phone dealing with another issue, and I just didn’t care, frankly. :) I’m not sure how accurate that “wherecall.com” site is, but it makes it appear as though that phone number is a landline in NJ. The man left a garbled message about “this is the locksmith calling about changing your locks, please call me back @…”


Anyway, as I mentioned, Cathy Rulloda did some research of her own, and directed me to this excellent post about the print Yellowpages as a source of mapspam in the florist industry.  It would not surprise me if the PYP were the culprit in this case, too, as a quick search on YellowPages.com revealed a number of listings near Kansas City.  Other primary sources  like Superpages.com and even infoUSA showed no results.

Mike recently highlighted efforts by the attorney general of Lisa’s home state, Missouri, to bring down locksmiths falsely advertising in the Yellow Pages but clearly the fruits of his labor have not yet been borne out.

Lisa’s experience just highlights SO many problems that continue to plague Google Maps:

  • vulnerability to blatant spamming
  • bad data from “trusted” providers
  • reliance on proximity to centroid (or in this case GPS location on iPhone) as a primary ranking factor
  • the foolishness of tying service-category businesses like locksmiths to a physical address

One wonders why Google doesn’t, temporarily at least, refrain from showing 10-packs for locksmith-related phrases (or other problem service categories like carpet cleaning and payday loans) until they’ve got the Maps algorithm fine-tuned.

Sadly, it’s clear that despite their recent efforts to tighten down on locksmiths, they’ve got a long way to go in combating malicious mapspamming.  But before we all go bashing the Maps team too hard, pay attention to two factors at play here:

  • Lisa, a savvy online marketer, used Google Maps in a way similar to how the general public will use it within three or four years–clicking/calling Local businesses based on an iPhone search.  She trusts Google Maps as any member of the general public is right to do, but without advanced knowledge of the Locksmith mapspam problem, it wasn’t easy for her to sort the spammers from the legitimate businesses.
  • It took 30 minutes to an hour’s worth of research on Cathy’s and my part just to figure out the culprit in this case & where they were able to get into the system.  Clearly manual research and investigation is not a scalable solution across thousands of instances of mapspam.

Now, the one thing Google has in its favor is (likely) hundreds of these reports from the forums to aggregate and pick up on certain patterns as to where the vulnerabilities lie…but it’s still not a task I would envy.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

10 Responses to “A Real-Life Experience with Locksmith Mapspam”

  1. MiriamEllis says at

    Awesome post, David. Great step-by-step view of one woman’s process. I think, if one needs a locksmith at this point, one is safer to ask a friend for a recommendation than to use Google. You’ve highlighted so many of the reasons why. Really great write-up.

  2. Ash Nallawalla says at

    Has any Google person, e.g. Matt, been questioned about map spam at a search conference? A variation of this is to use phone extension numbers for a business and then being creative about the physical location.

  3. Cathy says at

    Great article, David and thanks for the mention.

    Not sure I agree with you about it being foolish to tie service-category businesses like locksmiths to a physical address. It’s a free listing and they are all permitted to list one legit place of business in Maps. Any come-to-you type business that wants to appear in additional areas can purchase ads.

    Lisa’s intent was to find a locksmith located in her zip code so he/she could arrive at her home quickly. She would also likely pay a lower charge to a company with less travel time. The location of the service provider was an important part of her search.

    From the phone number trail it appears Rain or Shine Locksmith is just a new name for the spammers targeted by the Missouri AG.

    BTW – never did hear how Lisa’s kitties escaped from the bathroom. :)

  4. Jim Rudnick says at

    Hi David…
    I too have been following this whole issue and it’s surely interesting, and your take on the whole city-center GPS item is VERY interesting….will continue to monitor same. Oh, and g.ca is in lock-step with g.com too…..as we monitor both for the LOCAL 10-pack for our own clients….

    :-)

    Jim

  5. David Mihm says at

    Thanks for all the comments everyone. Didn’t expect this to be such a popular post!

    @ash – I do NOT think that Matt C. has been questioned at a conference about Mapspam…he occasionally leaves comments on Mike Blumenthal’s blog, but I’m not sure how involved his team is with the Maps team.

    @Cathy, I guess you and I will agree to disagree on this one :D …I think tieing to a location is a bit silly in terms of ranking because it openly encourages behavior like what Rain or Shine is engaging in. My suggestion to Google was to incorporate the idea of a service radius so that the actual physical location didn’t matter so much as the service area stated by the business. Perhaps in the particular case of locksmiths, the distance from someone’s house does make a difference. But if a customer wants someone who is close to their house, they will still be able to see the provider’s address via the map pushpin. Meanwhile, if I am looking for a roofing company, or an insurance agent, or a golf course, etc. any of those kinds of businesses could be ~an hour away…I just want the *best* one…

    @Jim yes, as far as I can tell Google Maps’ infrastructure is largely the same around the world, they just pull from different primary data providers depending on the country. Yahoo does NOT work in this manner.

  6. Abby says at

    Dear David,
    Interesting post! One thing that disturbed me in your article- lots of businesses, including locksmith companies, have their main office address in their own private residence. I don’t see any problem with that, if this is a legal business with all the lisences required & the manager decides to have his office in his residence, so he is allowed to advertise this address as the business’ address. In this case, when you search for a locksmith, for example, you’ll find its physical address as an apartment. It’s not necessary a spam!!! There are many ways to check a company’s legitimacy, such as finding it as a member in some associations that their purpose is to identify the nature, location, and ownership of the business, and clearly disclose all policies, guarantees and procedures that bear on a customer’s decision to buy or use their service.

  7. PureSheer says at

    It’s good that Lisa knew how to choose the Locksmith company, otherwise she (& her kitties) were, almost, forced to pay hips of money for that service!

    The problem consumers & legit Locksmith companies (like the ones I’m representing) are facing today, are much more complicated- We’re advertising our locksmiths, contractors & business license in our sites & listings. The spammers are not only using our brand name & URL to gain credibility & presence but when customers are asking for their license – the scammers are giving them OURS! (guess who need to ‘absorb’ the sheer amount of complaints in BBB & ALOA- WE DO).

    Google is reacting so slow & inefficiently to the Locksmith mapspam, that now its need a ‘federal level’ solution.

    One update- I started to alert Google Maps for this Locksmith mapspam 1.5 years ago.

    Not much have been done. recently, we’ve aligned our Google maps campaigns with their new guidelines. 2 days ago 65% of our new, aligned listings got cleaned up from the Maps.

    Just wish I had 10s of thousands of listings like my spammy competitors have, that way I wouldn’t get so hurt from this clean up….

    PureSheer, frustrated at the Google Maps wilderness of justice & Customer Care..

  8. David Mihm says at

    PureSheer, unfortunately it sounds like a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Curious that knowing the problems in this industry, Google wouldn’t reach out and ensure that all locksmiths were listed/cited in ALOA first before even choosing to display a result…it certainly would have kept Rain or Shine out of the index, who appear only to have gotten in through a YellowPages listing.

  9. PureSheer says at

    David,
    Just wanted to share this info with you (i shared it with Mike earlier)-

    What do you think?
    Scenario-
    Now- no locksmith’s (with any related keywords) can be created.{believe me- no matter what we tried- NO OPTION!!!}. this is unprecedented!

    Next step- a great clean up will be made in the locksmith industry.

    Then, a new regulation will be issued (for all industries)- verification by postcard/ payment per listings or something like that.

    Our business performance decreased in 40% since that happened. Some of the main national wide spammers’ sites & listings are live & active.

    Frustrating.

    We are on the edge..

  10. Imprezzio says at

    So I think it’s great that this particular locksmith didn’t get away with spam. However, recently, I’ve been running into a TON of online marketing companies that charge for Google Maps and get their “clients” up by excessive keyword stuffing in the titles and descriptions. They also steal businesses’ addresses and pretend they are theirs to get their business listed for big cities they’re not located in. What do you do when you run across a company like this? I mean, I used to love Google maps and now I hate it because I find that the businesses there are not even legit half the time. In particular, I work with the insurance industry a lot, and if you do a search for “auto insurance” + any major city, you’ll see what I mean. Is there a way of notifying Google about companies that are doing this? In the end, won’t it be the businesses that sign up with them that suffer/get punished since it’s their information that’s being used in a bad way?

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