NY Times Exposes Gaming of Local Business Listings

Fahrenheit Marketing in Design

The New York Times recently published a story exposing call centers posing as local locksmiths inundating Google Maps and displacing actual local businesses. The problem with the call centers is that many of them are involved in unscrupulous business practices. Of the 3000 locksmith results in Seattle, very few are believed to be legitimate businesses.

Locksmiths are an interesting service because most people don’t need one until they have an emergency and at that point, they lack the time to read through reviews and compare vendors.  Typically, people call one of the first listings that comes up in search and often that business routes to a call center that could be in Florida or India. There is a level of trust that people put into their search results because if something ranks well in Google, it can’t be bad right?

We decided to see if the same problem existed in Austin. If you Google “austin locksmith” you get quite a few local results, but how many are legitimate?

– Multiple results don’t list a physical Austin address on their sites
– Multiple results redirect to landing pages on other domains
– Multiple locations have map addresses that don’t resolve (in other words, they are completely fake)
– One result lists 6 locations in the Austin area, none of which are actual storefronts; instead they appear to be locations for UPS stores with slightly modified addresses
– One company is apparently located inside the Omni Hotel

If Google was to strip out lead generation sites from both PPC ads and the first page of results, you would be left with 3 or 4 actual sites. It’s a difficult problem to tackle because many of these sites are built and optimized through large companies with enough link building and experience to easily beat actual local competitors. In the Times article, one business owner even confirmed that same sentiment when he went to a local search firm for assistance optimizing his site.

To rank in Google maps, you need an address, phone number, optimized listing and citations (ie other sites/directories on the web confirming your business presence). Local business owners often lack the ability to manage and gain citations and may not have an optimized local business listing. Thus, call centers and lead generation companies with established processes and vast resources have an easy time outranking them.

How can consumers detect a legitimate business as opposed to a lead generation site? Here are some simple tips:
– Ignore a business that doesn’t list a physical address on their web site
– Read reviews, people who feel they were ripped off won’t be shy about sharing their experiences
– If the business does list a physical address, go to Google Maps and look at the address using their street view mode, if you don’t see a storefront, they probably don’t exist
– If you’re still not sure, call the business and ask for their physical location in Austin, most call centers will hang up at that point
– If you call the business number and their rep answers the phone by saying “locksmith” instead of the business name, it’s a call center