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Google Places “Report a Problem” Label Expolited By Spammers

New York Times’ in a blog post highlighted how easy it is for local business owners to become victims cyberspammers reporting a business as closed. “On Google Places, Coffee Rules Lounge was listed for a few days as “permanently closed” on Google Maps. During that time, anyone searching for a latte on a smartphone, for instance, would have assumed the store was a goner,” reports NYT.

On Google Places, a typical listing has the address of a business, a description provided by the owner and links to photos, reviews and Google Maps. It also has a section titled “Report a problem” that allows Google users to report “this place is permanently closed” with the click of a button. If enough users click it, the business is labeled “reportedly closed” and later, pending a review by Google, “permanently closed.”

While this feature does help remove closed businesses from the Google Places database, it also opened the door to unscrupulous spammers and abuse. Anybody (e.g., a competitor, angry customers, or disgruntled employee) can report your business as closed, and you might not know about it for hours, days, or even longer – which can mean lost business as searchers tend to believe what they find on Google.

Google’s rivals, like Bing and Yahoo, have versions of Places — called Bing Local and Yahoo Local — and these let users report a business as closed. But neither has anything close to Google’s traffic, which means they are the scene of far less mischief.

To explains the Google Places algorithm, Mike Blumenthal recently reported Google’s Mountain View office as closed using the “Report a Problem” feature. A short time later, Google’s own place page reported the search giant’s Mountain View office as closed.

Blumenthal offered the only workable remedy:

“… keep an eye on your listing and as soon as the ‘Reported to be closed’ flag appears report via the ‘Not True?’ link while logged in as the owner of the listing that it is in fact open. Then immediately head over to MapMaker and approve your edit and the flag will instantly disappear. The problem is that a motivated spammer, using multiple IPs and sock puppets can keep you hopping and it isn’t clear that Google will automatically put an end to the tomfoolery.”

Because Google doesn’t have a verification process for businesses that are “reportedly closed,” the company would neither discuss its review process nor reveal how many businesses have been erroneously reported as closed.

Thus far, Google’s only attempt at remedying the situation is to inform a business owner when a business is flagged as “permanently closed” via email.

In a September 6 blog post, Google said they are “working on improvements to the system to prevent any malicious or incorrect labeling. These improvements will be implemented in the coming days.”

Also, for those businesses flagged as closed, Google gives the option to select “Not true?”

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