Google excels at blocking individuals who try to “game” their Local and Plus products. There is, however, cause for alarm about those who submit fake businesses to Google Local. Potential exists for serious black hat techniques with these products, making them ripe for abuse.
The destination pages for “Google Places” were subsumed into the Plus social platform starting in May 2012 (plus.google.com) and are now “Google Plus Local.” Many SEOs have documented the pervasive problem of those who manipulate Google Local results with fake reviews for businesses. However, thorough research of search engine results pages (SERPs) to detect actual fake businesses and entity submissions to Local has not been done, to my knowledge. Further, a brand with a name that is an exact match to a popular keyword can be made to rank on Google Plus. The ease with which this can be accomplished has not been sufficiently documented.
To research Google Local and Plus trends and abuses of Terms of Service, I started with 170,000 results from Google Search where the landing page was a Google sub-directory or sub-domain (this includes all their products, excluding YouTube). All data for research is from SEMrush and reflects Google SERPs from the last 30 days. The data set used here was gathered by creating a SEMrush Custom Report.
I set out to demonstrate the presence of fake or “made for Google” entities created purely for lead generation on Google Plus. The examples below have telltale signs of businesses that are either bogus or exist purely to achieve high SERP rank for contact information.
An easy way to obtain a business name that is an ‘exact-match’ to a keyword is to pay for a “Doing Business As” (DBA) certificate. Paying for a DBA certificate costs less than $50 in many cities, but some examples I used may not have even done that. Having a brand name that matches a particular popular search term is done by some unknowingly.
I also found it necessary to dig deep to go beyond a mere suspicion to a high level of certainty. For every very questionable business, I found another that looked fake, but was in fact legitimate. Of the four examples below, I list one that looks questionable, but is probably valid.
To find those gaming Google, I parsed Google Plus “money” keyword rankings (read: very high Cost Per Click (CPC) if one were to purchase in AdWords) and compared them with accounts that looked suspicious. As suspected, “old-school” keyword spamming contributed to high ranking on Google Plus. These are the same keywords that brought small fortunes to those who could rank a phone number or URL on any landing page that was policed and otherwise unsuccessful (e.g. Viagra, Cialis, asbestos, etc.)
Some words are more difficult to police because they are very common, but also extremely profitable for companies (and law firms) doing lead generation. These include “loans” and “DWI.” Further explanation of my methodology below*.
Are bad guys behind these Google Local accounts?
“SEO Consultant London”is a Local page that was verified according to Google (there is no “is this your business?” link). Good luck finding an actual company with this name. This SEO company verified their business, has a name they know will drive traffic from the SERP, but does not bother linking to their website from their profile page? I doubt it.
[caption id="attachment_10358" "aligncenter" width="489"] A screenshot of cache via SEMrush.com. Note: another benefit of ranking on Plus for a local business is the phone number is listed in the SERP citation. People may call directly from the SERP without bothering to visit this dubious looking Plus account.[/caption]
“Made for Google Local” business names drive leads via phone and messaging on Google Plus Local. I did not take the final step and call or contact these businesses. For conclusive proof, you can authenticate if they are registered or legitimate by simple research into business licenses or filings for corporations. Or, call the phone numbers they list in their profiles. I did neither.
A “business” named “Austin DWI Lawyer” lists its address as 13200 Pond Springs Rd Austin, TX 78729. Google shows them getting 2,180 views. The cost could have exceeded $421,000, had this firm used paid advertising to attract that same 2,180 views. The AdWords CPC for this term is not cheap: $18.82! Again, there is no website listed for this account. Attorneys operating with no website? Doubtful.
On Google maps, this business is now marked as “closed,” and 10 days after I found the SERP for this Local page via weekly updated SEMrush data, it’s now dropped from the top 20 results. My projections* show monthly CTR from the SERP is about 32 for them. Their profile page looks very empty, as are other presumably spammy examples. But their presence on Google Plus adds a high level of credibility, since people assume Google must be thoroughly tracking the veracity of real businesses.
The number 1 SERP for medical malpractice lawyers Austin TX (still ranked #1 at time of writing) is a company called “Medical Malpractice Lawyer.” By my estimates, this ranking also brings an average of 32 people a month to their Google Local page.
This may seem like a long tail keyword, but 32 CTR to a page per month is respectable traffic; especially when the AdWords price for this would have been, on average, a whopping $28.76. This company also has no links to a website. Its postal address is different from the above “Austin DWI Lawyer.” On Google maps, the address seems to be for an office park.
The last example is "Affordable Loan Company."
The “business name” on Google Plus Local shows views totaling 4,551. This company is listed with an Alaska address. On their profile, their business category is “Loan Agency,” and their hours — which would need to be submitted by an “owner” to Google — are listed as 9:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m. on weekdays.
Again, no website is listed for the business. This is the company that made me pause; it’s very possible they stumbled onto a good thing by having a “brand name” match a popular search, and are reaping the benefits on Google Plus.
Look at the building in the picture! This could be a very real, very small and run-down business. The letters below the address read, very simply, “Affordable.”
[caption id="attachment_10359" "aligncenter" width="536"] Is Affordable Loan Company real?[/caption]
*Further information on research methodology
SEMrush uses a proprietary algorithm to judge which SERP positions, numbers 1-20, drive the most traffic to domains. Almost one-fourth of these 170,000 impressions are in the top 1-20 positions for google.com domain SERPs, and 39,407 are on Google Plus.
With the subset of Plus pages, I used Slingshot’s CTR curve to judge estimated traffic per search position for 1-10 and 10-20 via a study by Optify.
SEMrush looks at percent of traffic to a domain, and for Google’s domain, there are too many head (short and popular) search terms that are below 1 percent to have accurate results for this research. This predictive model of traffic percentage based on SERP position allowed me to compare the many <1 percent of traffic to all Google product web pages.
Parsing folders in Google Plus (and its subset Local pages) for posts, communities and account profiles, I found the vast majority of head keywords are ranked where they should be. Most of these are accounts for branded keywords — well-known companies or people. This is also evident with the way Google Search ranks Twitter profiles.
What do you think? Are people gaming Google Plus? I'd love to see your thoughts in the comment section!
Eric Van Buskirk is an SEMrush Senior Account Manager in North America. He is also the publisher of Tweet Philadelphia, a blog about the intersection of social and SEO. His last article for SEMrush was "Beyond the Tool: Using Custom Data Reports from SEMrush." Feel free to reach out to Eric at (855) 814-4510, ext. 509 or by email at Eric.firstname.lastname@example.org.