Googlebomb Version Two in Action!

As the search engine whose brand name is now also a bonafide verb, Google’s number one priority is to provide its users with a great experience, so that they continue “to Google” their questions, queries and online searches.

Over the years, Google has tweaked its various component algorithms with the aim of providing users with the most relevant, up-to-date content from credible sources.

A portion of this algorithm controls how Google Maps listings are served; the validity of addresses and, until very recently, an open invitation to users to amend map listings via Map Maker. In many ways, this was Google’s geographical equivalent of Wikipedia’s permission to its users to openly edit information entries.

This trust that Google gave to its users was abused monumentally on Tuesday May 19th 2015, when somebody altered the listing of the White House to rank for racist slurs, intentionally directed at President Obama.
Now, this isn’t exactly “hacking”, because the mechanics were in place for this very abuse of trust to take place. Another source of concern is that other sources of hatred online, referencing the White House, may well have contributed to the derogatory comments being fed into the Google Maps listing.

Naturally (and hastily), Google apologised, issuing a written statement and a blog post: “simply put, you shouldn’t see these kinds of results in Google Maps, and we’re taking steps to make sure you don’t,” wrote Jen Fitzpatrick, vice president of engineering and product management at Google.

Pavithra Kanakarajan, product manager at Google, elaborated: “we are temporarily disabling editing on Map Maker starting today, while we continue to work towards making the moderation system more robust.”

This isn’t the first time Google Maps has been hit by what is tantamount to third-party vandalism. In April 2014, the White House was tagged as the lair of Edward Snowden, the American computer professional who leaked classified information from the National Security Agency to the mainstream media.

Again, this wasn’t hacking, but the same misuse of an available function. In the same month, the Map Maker function was abused yet again to tag a location in Pakistan with the logo of an Android symbol urinating over an Apple symbol.

Google’s answer to this has been to repurpose its 2007 “Googlebomb” update, which was aimed at evaluating the validity of anchor text on backlinks. Put simply, if a website about car parts was being linked to with the anchor text “clothes” (or, indeed, something more embarrassing), this fix sought to remove that link, thereby preventing those trying to “Googlebomb” the internet. Do you see the parallel to photobombing here?
In rolling out the same algorithmic logic onto its Google Maps facility, Google has, in effect, started to undo some of the benefits of its recent Pigeon update, which sought to show local listings first. This had a clear benefit for small business owners, who may not have had the budget to invest in pay-per-click (PPC) advertising in order to compensate for poor organic visibility.

The SEO community’s observations echo the above, with Linda Buquet, local search specialist, commenting that results seem to be “more national organic” and “less localised.” What’s more worrying is that there seems to be no recognition of geographical prefixes or suffixes to search queries (e.g. “cake shop Manchester”): put otherwise, Google is simply serving results based on your IP address.

Where to from here? I do think that Google has to resort to a “one size fits all” measure to cleanse map listings of anything offensive or otherwise factually contentious. After this, I’d welcome a resurgence of Pigeon and the ability to “suggest edits”, which are then reviewed by Google. Pigeon as it is—or was—always ran the risk in itself of allowing a business to rank for negative terms if, for example, it received a number of hateful reviews on its Google My Business page.

Our advice for all business owners with a dependency on local footfall and local website traffic is to keep an eye on ranking reports and to chase long tail keywords during this turbulent period. If you find that your local visibility is all over the shop, look to apportion a small budget for some social media advertising or consider venturing into a targeted PPC campaign.

If the above sounds interesting and/or daunting to you, you are more than welcome to get in touch to discuss your situation and requirements here.

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