Google’s used to battling webmasters trying to “game” their index and achieve rankings they may not necessarily have earned. And to combat this, they’ve created all sorts of penalties to even out the playing field and fight off those trying to take advantage.
But what happens when a small business owner unknowingly breaks a rule and there’s no one around to tell them? How are they supposed to learn the ropes or even know there’s something wrong?
That’s quickly become the topic on a favorite local search marketing blog.
An interesting thread broke out over at Mike Blumenthal’s blog over the past few days. It all started when a webmaster in the Google Maps forum posted that all of his stats in Google’s free business dashboard had dropped to zero. Obviously, he was concerned. Google wasn’t telling him anything so he consulted the forums hoping that someone would have an answer. Luckily for him, Mike took an interest in his situation.
After a bit of research, it was discovered that his Google Local listing included multiple categories and geo phrases in the category fields, causing his listing to be penalized for Category spamming. By simply removing the extra category strings, the listing shot back up into the Google 10 pack and the situation resolved.
Search expert Chris Silver Smith dropped by Mike’s blog to share his experiences with clients penalized for using “overly spammy text strings” in the Category section of their listing. Chris noted that after cleaning them up and replacing them with better category names, he also saw his client pop right back up in rankings. It was also noted that Category strings that are long and spammy seem to be getting penalized more often than short and spammy strings, signaling that perhaps a human review is set off after a certain character limit.
Obviously, the best way to avoid a penalty is to always make sure that you’re playing in bounds. Small business owners should read the Business Listing Quality Guidelines and always stand on the side of caution. Only use the categories that directly relate to your business. Don’t include terms that don’t describe your business. Do not list multiple categories or keywords in the same field, even if you have enough characters to do so.
That said, it’d be nice if Google was a bit more forthcoming when small business owners accidentally stumbled into bad territory. As clear as the Quality Guidelines try to, as Chris Silver Smith noted, there’s still a “serious usability defect” in play.
While the guidelines may instruct to use each category for only a single category, the example directly below the entry field could easily confuse one into thinking it was acceptable to enter more than one category in the field:
“Ex: Dentist, Wedding Photographer, Thai Restaurant”
That example does not make it clear that each category should be entered into a separate text box. This could easily lead a well-meaning, honest SMB into entering more than one category into the blank – filling it up until it reaches the max char length.
And that’s where small business owners rightfully get confused.
Until Google steps up and starts offering more support to small business owners, a lot of us are still using trial and error to see what is or is not allowed. Thanks to the situations above, we know that the best way to include non-categorical information about your site is to put that information directly on your Web site, not to try and add it to your list of Categories.
If you have a question about your own listing, you may want to ask a question in the Maps Help Forum. With any luck, you’ll get someone like Mike or Chris will help you sort it out.
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Great information. You’re right, nothing is clearly described. You have to wing it and hope that you’ve done nothing wrong. I’d prefer to know that I’m doing something correctly from the beginning. Thanks for sharing the info.
With a company the size of Google, I’m not surprised at all by the lack of support. Frankly I’m impressed that Google actually offers so much information through their Insights. However, we just need to keep reaching out to small businesses to help them out. Most aren’t web savvy and getting a Google Local listing is a step in the right direction.
Out of curiosity, how do you think Google SHOULD notify them? Email? An AJAX-like warning when their descriptions get too long or use commas?
Great Post Lisa! Like you said, Google is still catching up with their support on some of their products like the local/maps, YouTube isn’t good either. Sometimes there isn’t even a direct link to actually make contact, they refer you to their support forums.
I think that Google is going to stop all this from happening very fast. They already changed over their Google Adwords guidelines pretty much destroying CPA offers. I can see this is another step that Google will take.
I think that Google should take some time and try to figure out how they could improve the instructions so it will be easier for the user to fill out the form in a correct way.
David Bruce Jr
Respectfully request permission to reblog this post on one of my SEO blogs (with link back of course)
Thanks for the great info, I agree, Google “ought to” tell us when we’ve crossed a line, I’ve learned from this post that if I cross that “excessive” line, at least I’m not doomed… I too used the “you used a custom category” too much. So that’s why I’m not receiving stats from one of my googlemaps listings.
thanks for posting this
I think they need to be using the dashboard they’re providing small business owners a lot better. There should be a section in there that notifies small business owners of any problems and helps them understand what’s going on. They created the analytics information to help SMBs get a handle on their sites. Why not find a way to automate it directly in there?
Thanks for the advice + links, all helps to be on the right side Mr Google.
I agree, all of the instructions should be listed even on the Terms of Agreement page, you’d never know if you’re breaking a rule even when it’s never mentioned.
Things are so much easier, when we can understand.
I think your recommendation for Google Maps to make use of the LBC dashboard for notifying small businesses about problems is a good idea, Lisa.
They do something similar at times via Google Webmaster Tools. Also, I’ve received an email from them for a blog I have once, when it got hacked. I think the email was automated – they suddenly saw all this spam on the blog, suspended it from appearing in SERPs, and notified me. Once the hacking was fixed and the spam removed, I was able to get the block right back in the SERP rankings where it belonged.
it is scary. hard to figure out what is good or bad…
Great post. I will look at my google local business listings right now. Thanks for sharing!
I recently found my site mia from Google Local and this article may explain why. I have added/removed/changed my categories several times and even after removing, many still show up. I think they have been seen as spam though it wasn’t my intent. Very painful for a small business.
Very good information. Thanks for the overview. We’re learning that it’s a slippery slope and it is possible to spam without knowing it.
Great overview – thanks for the post. I’m still rearranging my google local to see how placement is affected.