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.