Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hijacking Google Maps: It's Easier Than You Think

by: John Sylvester

Over the past week I have seen results for localised keywords return a Google map for organic search. As a test, I entered property searches and found from the list of "property companies", item B on Google's map showing MBK, which as their website's title shows, is a "Center of Fashion Mall & Shopping Plaza in Bangkok Thailand: MBK Center". This is a shopping mall and has nothing whatsoever to do with real estate or property in Bangkok. Except, of course, their premises is a property.

So how could a shopping mall in Bangkok be displayed in the listings of real estate? And why are organic search results being listed in the form of Google Maps? That is for Google to reason and us to find out. So I did.

One of the real estate companies at the top of these lists has deftly registering their website on Google maps for a myriad of related search terms and they now appear in the #1 position for all, even though in organic search they are at the bottom of the page. Tip: change the address.

This process has therefore leapfrogged them to the top of Google search. I also assume that as the other real estate actors begin to notice what is happening, all will soon register their sites with Google maps in order to gain placement. And the quicker they do it (if my assumption is correct that it's first come, first served) the higher they will be listed.

The first thing to be clear about is that Google will initially check your phone number and reference with your registration, but companies that are cheating the system use different addresses thereafter to circumnavigate all verification. They do not check that a company does not have six to ten offices, all with different search terms, next door to one another.

Then I read What a lark they've had with Google.

The author had spoken with one of the florists in San Francisco that had been hijacked in Google Maps and the first thing he noted about this site was that the site owner estimated that his business was off 30% for the weeks of the hijacking. He commented: "That is a significant number that demonstrates the power that Google has conferred on local search."

He continued: "Every small business thinks that if they could only operate like the IBMs, Microsofts or Apples of the world, they would have their act together on these new marketing angles. If like, IBM et al, Podesta Baldocchi were on top of these details they could have prevented this hijacking.

"I wondered if that was in fact the case so I decided to see if some of the major Fortune 500 companies had in fact claimed their records and avoided the possibility of hijackings. Microsoft came to mind first. I grabbed one of their listings in Redmond and was able to change the location, url and their business name. Microsoft even managed to gather a spammy review in its short life as an escort service. Out of a sense of fair play, I changed it back although Google has not yet done so. I wasn't sure that that Microsoft or Google would appreciate my sense of humor."

On the blog he has screenshots of "Microsoft Escort Service", "Microsoft Corporation" registered at 1 Microsoft Way and last, to my delight, "Google Inc" as he discovered in the course of his investigation that "many of Google's local listing had been claimed and locked down, but not all had."

It appears that most businesses had better register and claim their very own Google Map, else someone is going to get in before you them and be at the top of organic search. That is if Google aren't embarrassed enough to end this crazy practice and put Google Maps on Google Maps, not at the top of organic search. That or get the title deeds or rental agreements faxed to them to verify.