Google’s Local Services Ads platform has a problem with spam
There is (or will soon be) a Google Local Services Ads spam problem coming to a town near you.
I primarily run Local Services Ads for personal injury law firms, and most of the problems I’m encountering are in California. Admittedly, I can’t speak for every vertical or geographic region.
How much spam is there?
The spam began in September 2020. But a huge wave of spam hit California in March 2022.
Today? We have a tsunami.
At the time of writing this article, I looked at the “Google Screened” personal injury lawyer results in Fresno, Calif. I did a search for [Fresno Personal Injury Lawyer], and upon seeing the first three “Google Screened” LSA ads, I clicked “More Personal Injury Lawyers.” This presented a list of 100 “Google Screened” lawyers.
I carefully looked through the 100 listings. Of the top 100 “Google Screened” listings, 95% were spam or inaccurate (the results vary from day to day).
Here’s the complete breakdown:
- 1 LSA ad was valid and from a local Fresno law firm
- 4 LSA ads were valid (from firms outside of Fresno)
- 95 listings were spam or inaccurate
Of the 95 spam/inaccurate listings, some firms are using completely false law firm names. But most of the time, these are typically lawyers using virtual office addresses hundreds of miles away from their actual physical location. (Verifying these addresses are virtual / shared offices is as simple as copying their address shown on their LSA ad, pasting it into Google search and looking at the results.)
LSA has four big problems:
Problem 1: Spammy locations – are virtual offices ‘spam’ or ‘inaccurate’?
On their Local Services Ads page, Google informs advertisers:
“Local Services ads help you connect with people who search on Google for the services you offer. Your ads will show up for customers in your service area…”
Unfortunately, when LSA spam or inaccurate listings infiltrate an area, the reach of local advertisers’ ads is often severely limited. In some cases, the spam and/or inaccurate listings are so thick, that legitimate advertisers’ ads stop displaying altogether.
Here’s what Google says about advertiser’s locations:
- On the LSA FAQ page, Google states “While you can have more than one Google Local Services Ads account and location, each location needs to have its own address and be verified by our team.”
- LSA’s platform policies state that “Targeting your ads to areas that are far from your business location, and/or that you can’t reasonably serve, creates a negative and potentially confusing experience for consumers. In addition, attempts to target unreasonably large service areas from a single, or few, business locations could trigger review for subverting our misrepresentation policy.”
Virtual office locations are used by advertisers because proximity is one of the factors affecting the LSA ad ranking algorithm.
When someone opens a new LSA account for a law firm, LSA primarily checks to see if the attorney is registered with the State Bar. Unlike Google Business Profile pages, which generally require some sort of verification such as a postcard or video verification, advertisers can simply enter an address in the region they wish to target.
Every advertiser I’ve spoken with interprets LSAs guidelines similarly and concurs that creating an LSA in a city 500 miles away from where you’re actually located would be creating a non-compliant ad. That said, they could all be wrong.
Google Business Profile guidelines are significantly more specific and state:
- To qualify for a Business Profile on Google, a business must make in-person contact with customers during its stated hours.
- If your business rents a physical mailing address but doesn’t operate out of that location, also known as a virtual office, that location isn’t eligible for a Business Profile.
- Businesses can’t list an office at a co-working space unless that office maintains clear signage, receives customers at the location during business hours, and is staffed during business hours by your business staff.
Indeed, Google Business Profile and Local Services Ads are two separate products.
It is my opinion that Virtual Offices are either spam or, at best, inaccurate. This is open for debate, and LSA support representatives don’t seem to know the answer either; different support reps provide different answers to this question.
The only thing we can be certain of here is that we’re rapidly reaching a boiling point. Regardless of how LSA views virtual offices, I am unaware of Google ever taking any action on them, and neither are most other people.
Problem 2: Fake LSA reviews
Although ads are rotated out frequently, some ads perform better than others. This is because Google has an algorithm that decides which LSAs will display in Google Screened first.
One of the factors influencing the LSA ad rank is reviews. Spammers know this and blast their listings with reviews. Fake LSA reviews are easy to purchase online in the $15 – $25 range.
The Local Services Ads platform pulls in reviews from a Google Business Profile account (when there’s one associated with it – LSA does not require an associated GBP page). LSAs can also receive reviews directly through the LSA platform.
Fake LSA reviews are difficult to identify as the public can’t click the reviewer’s profile. Although, if you look at enough reviews, you’ll eventually see a pattern, notice the keyword stuffing or recognize some of the names.
Problem 3: Fake business names
Another problem LSA for lawyers has is fake business names. It’s possible some of the firms blasting LSA with dozens of listings have a DBA in place. After all, at the time of this article, a DBA in California is only $26.
I’m not going to name names here, but if you look at LSAs in California, you’ll begin seeing the same faces over and over again with different law firm names.
One firm, in particular, has set up a variety of ads under a variety of names using around 17 different lawyers. They now have an enormous number of LSA accounts – probably 200 or so.
The vast majority of the time, if you scroll to the bottom of a Google Screened result and can locate the attorney’s name, you can plug their name into the State Bar site and see which law firm they actually work with.
Problem 4: Overlapping ads and firms ranking multiple times
A problem I am seeing in multiple cities is “overlapping ads.”
“Overlapping ads” is a problem that occurs when one law firm targets the same geographic area with multiple accounts. I’m seeing this in multiple cities.
This can occur either accidentally or intentionally. When a company with 200 accounts or so targets your state, you can rest assured that one business will often take up two or all three of the precious top three ad spaces.
What Google says:
“If your business has multiple locations that serve the same geographic area, Local Services will show only the highest ranking ad in response to a user’s query.”
This is not true.
Local Services most definitely shows overlapping ads and has done so for years. They could indeed be working to fix this, however, ads still frequently overlap, and there’s no good way to inform LSA support about this.
Here’s a screenshot that shows one attorney showing up twice in the top of Google Screened results:
Possible solutions Google could implement
I have heard that Google is working on a scalable solution in an effort to reduce spam. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.
Even if Google comes up with a solution, manual intervention will still be needed, just like on all Google products. Fighting spam will always be a game of cat and mouse.
Here’s what I’ve unsuccessfully tried so far:
- There is a form to report inaccurate content. I’ve used it several times. Unfortunately, nothing has ever come from any of my reports. Ever. I fill out the report, submit the form and then? Nothing happens.
- I’ve called LSA support and informed them of spam on a few occasions. The support reps are unable to help. They simply say that they’re unable to discuss other advertisers’ accounts.
Google could try a couple of things that work well for their other products:
- Address Verification: There is no address verification when a new LSA account is created like there is with Google Business Profile pages (at least for lawyers).
- Spam Reporting: In Google Maps, anyone can easily flag a listing for inaccurate, incorrect, or fraudulent listings. This type of report doesn’t always work, but at least the option exists.
- Complaint Form: Advanced users can report spam or bulk Google Business Profile spam via the oddly named Business Redressal Complaint Form. Having a spam report form, which LSA support actually acts on, is vital in my opinion.
- Help Community: I believe Google needs a help community for Local Services Ads. There’s a Google Business Profile Help Community, a Google Ads Community and a product forum or help community for most Google products. Why is there no LSA help community? While this alone may not stop spam, users could at least bring it to Google’s attention via Product Experts easier.
A call to action
Google tells users that Google Screened professionals have passed extensive background checks and helps professionals build trusted reputations online.
However, local advertisers are having trouble getting their ads seen because Google Screened results are full of spammy listings, virtual locations, non-existent law firms and listings manipulated with fake reviews.
Violations could be manually remedied until a more scalable solution is in place.
End users, advertisers and marketing agencies need a way to report spam where action is taken.
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