Spam Listings: How to Fight Back Against Local SEO Spammers
The beautiful thing about SEO is that everyone gets a fair shot at reaping its benefits. However, some businesses don’t always play fair and resort to black hat SEO tactics. Local spam listings are a clear (and all-too-common) example of this…and local spam is especially prevalent in the personal injury space.
According to a BrightLocal survey, 59% of marketers believe that local spam has increased.
It has gotten so bad that we’re now past the point of focusing on our own “white hat” strategies. It’s time to take a more proactive, hands-on approach to tackle these spammers.
Luckily, there are some tried-and-tested ways to fight back.
In this guide, we’ll dive into:
And everything in between.
Let’s check it all out.
Why You Should Be Fighting Local Spam [3 Benefits]
Making a profile on Google My Business (GMB), Google’s online business directory, is a critical step in local SEO.
By creating a GMB listing, you can set up a solid online presence for your business and attract more customers.
Unfortunately, some businesses use spam/black hat tactics to skirt the rules and rank higher in local search results. Some examples of these tactics include stuffing keywords, creating fake reviews, and building multiple listings (more on this later).
The worst part? Most of the time it goes unnoticed, so they are successfully gaming Google’s algorithms.
More marketers are now realizing the threat of spam listings and taking matters into their own hands.
In fact, according to a Whitespark survey, “removal of spam listings” is a top local ranking factor – ranked at number 9 out of 50 factors.
In an episode of the Personal Injury Marketing Mastermind, when asked about how she’d help grow a personal injury law firm, Joy Hawkins, founder and CEO of Sterling Sky, said:
“We find it’s a mixture of content, links, and what we call ‘spam fighting.’ That’s what I want to say are the primary things that we focus on for personal injury lawyers.”
You should also follow suit and play your role to curb this ever-growing practice.
If you’re relatively new to the concept of local SEO, it may be difficult to see why you should worry about fighting SEO spammers.
To help you understand why it’s important, consider the following benefits:
1. It Improves Your Odds of Ranking in the Google Local Pack
When someone looks up a service or a product, Google sometimes provides a list of 3 nearby local businesses that might help.
They’re shown in what’s known as a “local pack,” which shares their names, locations, websites, contact details, and other relevant details.
Here’s an example of a local pack for the search query “personal injury attorneys”:
Google pulls all of this information from the GMB directory.
They choose and rank businesses based on factors like:
- The overall relevance of the business description in regards to the keyword/search query
- The proximity of the local business to the person searching for it
- The quality of the business, determined by customer/client reviews
Your goal should be to shoot for a spot in the local pack. That’s a sure-fire way to get noticed and attract more clients.
However, there’s a lot of competition out there and not nearly enough business to go around.
Plus, real estate availability in the local pack is very limited.
While there’s nothing you can do about that, what you can do is to try to eliminate some of the competition that’s using spam tactics to rank higher.
According to BrightLocal, 77% of marketers think that GMB spam makes it much harder for local businesses to rank in the top results.
Eliminating those spammers will improve your odds of showing up in the local pack.
2. It Helps Create a Level Local Playing Field
The worst part about local spam listings is that they ruin the game for everyone else and discourage those who play by the rules.
In the worst cases, they may drive other law firms and attorneys to resort to those unfair tactics, as well.
By fighting back against local SEO spammers, you’ll actually play a role in creating a level playing field for not just yourself, but your peers too.
If everyone starts reporting these spammers and calling them out on public forums, we’ll eventually create a digital landscape where deserving businesses that abide by Google’s guidelines are rewarded.
3. It Creates a Pleasant Experience for Your Audience
Last but not least, fighting spam listings can help deliver a positive online experience for your audience.
The goal isn’t to stop people from looking at the listings of your competitors.
It’s to ensure that you stick to a genuine and honest process, associate your brand with a high standard, and do what you can to stop irrelevant spam listings from showing up.
If a large number of people come across spammy law firm/attorney listings that don’t deliver what they promise, they’ll eventually form a negative perception of our industry, in general.
In the long run, this may prevent people from trusting other legit establishments such as yours.
How to Determine if a Listing is Spammy
How can you actually tell if someone isn’t playing by the rules?
This is an important question to consider because we want to avoid reporting anything that’s authentic.
To ensure that you’re targeting spammers, and not wasting your time reporting (or unintentionally hurting) legit businesses, run a local spam audit.
Here’s how you can do that:
Familiarize Yourself with Google’s Guidelines on Representing Your Business
If you’ve never run a local spam audit, we recommend first reading and understanding the guidelines of Google My Business on representing your business on its platform.
The guidelines are fairly clear and explicit (you can read them here), so you just need to look out for businesses that don’t abide by them.
The following is a summary of some important rules:
- Your business name should reflect the name you use in the real world (office-front/building signs, business cards, directories, etc.) and online channels (your website, social media, etc.).
- A business must share an accurate physical address from where it operates. Google uses this information to recommend establishments to nearby searchers. PO boxes and virtual addresses are not allowed.
- A business must serve its customers (in-person) during the stated business hours. If a customer can’t reach them during those hours, they’re in violation of the guidelines.
- Google explicitly states to be upfront and honest about what you do as a business. Providing inaccurate, low-quality, or unclear information to mislead users is strictly prohibited.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, so we recommend reading Google’s guide in its entirety at least once.
Quick tip: Bookmark it so you can easily access it whenever you want to double-check something while running an audit.
Run the Audit to Look for Common Red Flags That Indicate Spam
Once you have a fairly good understanding of Google My Business guidelines, run the audit to find local spammers within your vicinity.
To do this, simply do a Google search that indicates local intent.
Some examples include:
- Colorado personal injury attorney
- Personal injury attorney New York
- Philadelphia personal injury law firms
- Personal injury attorney near me
Type in the different variations of your queries (combined with different locations), then start looking at the results in the local pack (click on “View All” to expand the list and see more businesses).
Keeping the GMB guidelines in mind, you should keep an eye out for these common red flags:
1. Stuffing Keywords in Names
Google uses different local SEO factors to decide what to display in the search results.
One of those factors is the use of keywords…but the exact way Google’s algorithm works is an industry secret.
However, marketers long ago realized that the search engine tends to favor listings that have local keyword(s) in their names.
In a GMB ranking study, we also found a correlation between top-ranking businesses with the usage of relevant keywords in their titles (and descriptions).
Unfortunately, to rank higher in the SERPs, some businesses jam local intent keywords in their names – even when they’re not their legally registered business names.
Considering that, if you come across unoriginal names like “Delaware Personal Injury Attorneys” or “Wyoming Law Firm,” there’s a good chance that you’re looking at spam listings.
However, it’s still a bit too early to report them.
To confirm your suspicions, investigate some more to determine if they’re legit. That’s because some businesses are naming/renaming themselves to specifically target local intent.
Here’s an interesting example (not related to personal injury law):
While such names may not sound very appealing, there’s no rule that says businesses can’t do that. As long as they use their actual names, they’re in the clear.
Here are some tips to make sure a name is authentic:
- Visit the website of the business and see if it’s consistent with their logo and the content on their website.
- Call them on the number mentioned on their GMB listing. If they answer with a completely different name or something vague like “law firm,” it’s more likely that they’re jamming in keywords.
- Go to the address they’ve shared on their listing and check out the name on their sign, if they have one.
Do as much research as possible on your end before you report.
2. Pretending to be a Law Firm
Another common red flag you should be wary of is a business pretending to be a law firm.
Frequently, these are lead generation companies that mask themselves as law firms, marketing agencies, or other businesses.
These scams try to collect contact details of users with a form on their website, which they then sell to other companies for a profit.
Not only is it a blatant violation of Google’s guidelines, but it’s also unethical…and coming across such spam listings is more common than you think.
According to Joy Hawkins, this is especially common in the personal injury space.
However, it’s difficult to tell what these lead generation listings look like, so we recommend keeping an eye out for businesses with no reviews, as that’s an easy red flag to spot.
Visit their website and see if you’re welcomed by a form that asks for your details right off the bat.
If that’s the case, dig deep by visiting their physical address and/or calling them to see if they really are a law firm.
3. Using a PO Box
As mentioned earlier, Google doesn’t allow businesses to specify PO boxes as their physical addresses.
That’s because it’s possible for anyone to rent out a PO box/mailbox and, according to Google, businesses that use PO boxes may be illegitimate and pretending to be something else.
Furthermore, Google wants to create a positive search experience for its users. They want to provide users with highly accurate information; this includes physical business addresses.
If you come across a listing using a PO box or a mail service, consider reporting it to Google.
4. Having Virtual Offices That Aren’t Staffed
Google only allows businesses with a physical address that are staffed to create GMB listings.
This means that law firms with virtual offices and absent staff during the stated business hours are not eligible to make listings.
Watch out for listings that share addresses of co-working spaces or virtual addresses. Call them during the stated business hours to see if someone answers.
5. Creating Duplicate Listings
In an attempt to show up in the local pack, a law firm or attorney might create multiple listings.
Google only allows multiple listings if two or more businesses that you own share a single address. All businesses must have unique tax IDs, separate phone numbers, and must be staffed during business hours.
If your business has multiple locations, a location group/business account is recommended.
Keeping all of the above in mind, if you find two or more listings with the same physical address, it could be a red flag.
Call their numbers and see who answers. If it’s the same person every time, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a spammer.
6. Having Fake Reviews
Finally, spammers also leave fake 5-star reviews to increase their odds of showing up in the local pack.
Here are some easy ways to spot them:
- See if a listing has vague 5-star reviews that don’t say much about the actual experience. For example, reviews that only say something along the lines of “excellent service” or “very satisfied,” with little to no context.
- Look for a single or handful of good reviews among many bad ones. The chances are that they’re fake.
After you spot a potentially fake review, click on the Google account that was used to create it and head over to “Reviews.”
If that account only has one review, there’s a very good chance that it’s fake and should be reported.
At times, spammers also use these fake accounts to leave bad reviews on their competitor’s profiles, which is another thing you should keep an eye out for.
How to Fight Local Spam
Now that you know which classic red flags to watch out for, what should you do to deal with an SEO spammer?
Here are some common ways to fight back:
Suggesting Edits to Business Names on Google Maps
If you come across a listing with a fake business name with keywords stuffed in, you can start by suggesting an edit on Google Maps.
To do this, first, go to Google Maps and search for the business/listing you want to edit.
On the panel to the left, scroll down until you see the “Suggest an edit” button. Click on it.
When you click on it, you’ll be prompted to either change the name/details or close or remove the business. Click on the first option.
On the next screen, you can edit the name.
At this point, you can also report the category (if it’s some other business pretending to be a law firm) and the location (if it’s using a fake address).
Once you’re done, click on “Send.”
What happens next?
Depending on how old and “trustworthy” the account you’re using to make these edits is, the changes (if accepted) may take several weeks to go live.
Reporting the Entire Business Directly to Google
In addition to suggesting an edit, you can also lodge a formal complaint using Google’s business redressal form.
The purpose of this instrument is to enable users to report fraudulent/spam activities on Google Maps that violate their guidelines.
Google introduced it as a replacement for the GMB community form.
The business redressal form asks you for your general information, along with details of the fraudulent activity and the Google Maps URL of the business (not their website – this is really important).
It also asks for additional files (screenshots, pictures, etc.). Make sure to provide as much evidence as you can to create an airtight case.
Reporting Fake Reviews
If you see any potentially fake business reviews on Google Maps, you can report them to Google.
To do that, follow these steps:
- Go to Google Maps and head over to the profile of the business with a fake review.
- On the left panel, under the business name, click on “X reviews” (where “X” is the total number of reviews that the business has).
- Scroll down to the review you want to report. Click on the three-dotted menu to the right.
- Click on “Report review.”
- On the new tab that opens, select an appropriate option from the list.
Once done, click on “Report.”
Escalating it Using Other Channels
If nothing else works, try a public forum.
Gather and share as much evidence, including screenshots, emails, recordings, etc.
Remember: don’t expect immediate results when fighting spam listings, as it may take well over a month for Google to process your complaints.
In the worst cases, simply filling out the redressal form won’t do. You’ll need to go the extra mile to get Google’s attention.
The key is patience. Make sure to use an established (i.e., not brand new) account that Google trusts to lodge your complaints and reports.
To learn more about fighting local spam, we recommend listening to episode 27 of the Personal Injury Marketing Mastermind podcast.