Roads to … nowhere?

Google Maps admits its business listings are riddled with errors and outright fraudulent entries.

The news reports hit fast and furious this week when the media got wind of the millions upon millions of “faux” business listings on Google Maps, thanks to a new Wall Street Journal exposé.

It’s true that there are a ton of map listings displayed by Google on search engine results pages, but the latest estimates are that there are more than 11 million falsely listed businesses that pop up on Google searches on any given business day.

That number may seem eyebrow-raising, but it’s hardly “new news.” Recall the reports that date as far back as a half-decade — to wit:

  • In 2014, cyber-security expert Bryan Seely showed how easy it was to use the Internet’s open architecture to record telephone conversations and create fraudulent Google Maps listings and locations.
  • In 2017, Google released a report titled Pinning Down Abuse on Google Maps, wherein it was estimated that one in ten fake listings belonged to actual real-live businesses such as restaurants and motels, but that nefarious third-parties had claimed ownership of them. Why do this? So that the unscrupulous bad-actors could deceive the targeted businesses into paying search referral fees.

Google is owning up to its continuing challenges, this week issuing a statement as follows:

“We understand the concerns of those people and businesses impacted by local business scammers, and back in 2017 we announced the progress we’d made. There was still work to be done then, and there’s still work to be done now.  We have an entire team dedicated to addressing these issues and taking constant action to remove profiles that violate our policies.”

But is “constant action” enough? Certain business trades are so riddled with fake listings, it’s probably best to steer clear of them altogether.  Electricians, plumbers and other contractors are particularly sketchy categories, where roughly 40% of Google Maps listings are estimated to be fraudulent entries.

The Wall Street Journal‘s recent exposé, published on June 24th, reported on a search its researchers conducted for plumbers in New York City.  Of the top 20 Google search results returned, only two actually exist where they’re reported to be located and accept customers at the addresses listed.  That’s pretty awful performance even if you’re grading on a curve.

A measure of progress has been made; Google reports that in 2018 it removed some 3 million fake business listings. But that still leaves another 11 million of them out there, silently mocking …

More raps for Google on the “fake reviews” front.

Google’s trying to not have its local search initiative devolve into charges and counter-charges of “fake news” à la the most recent U.S. presidential election campaign – but is it trying hard enough?

It’s becoming harder for the reviews that show up on Google’s local search function to be considered anything other than “suspect.”

The latest salvo comes from search expert and author Mike Blumenthal, whose recent blog posts on the subject question Google’s willingness to level with its customers.

Mr. Blumenthal could be considered one of the premiere experts on local search, and he’s been studying the phenomenon of fake information online for nearly a decade.

The gist of Blumenthal’s argument is that Google isn’t taking sufficient action to clean up fake reviews (and related service industry and affiliate spam) that appear on Google Maps search results, which is one of the most important utilities for local businesses and their customers.

Not only that, but Blumenthal also contends that Google is publishing reports which represent “weak research” that “misleads the public” about the extent of the fake reviews problem.

Mike Blumenthal

Google contends that the problem isn’t a large one. Blumenthal feels differently – in fact, he claims the problem as growing worse, not getting better.

In a blog article published this week, Blumenthal outlines how he’s built out spreadsheets of reviewers and the businesses on which they have commented.

From this exercise, he sees a pattern of fake reviews being written for overlapping businesses, and that somehow these telltale signs have been missed by Google’s algorithms.

A case in point: three “reviewers” — “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” — have all “reviewed” three very different businesses in completely different areas of the United States:  Bedoy Brothers Lawn & Maintenance (Nevada), Texas Car Mechanics (Texas), and The Joint Chiropractic (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina).

They’re all 5-star reviews, of course.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” won’t be found in the local telephone directories where these businesses are located. That’s because they’re figments of some spammer-for-hire’s imagination.

The question is, why doesn’t Google develop procedures to figure out the same obvious answers Blumenthal can see plain as day?

And the follow-up question: How soon will Google get serious about banning reviewers who post fake reviews on local search results?  (And not just targeting the “usual suspect” types of businesses, but also professional sites such as physicians and attorneys.)

“If their advanced verification [technology] is what it takes to solve the problem, then stop testing it and start using it,” Blumenthal concludes.

To my mind, it would be in Google’s own interest to get to the bottom of these nefarious practices. If the general public comes to view reviews as “fake, faux and phony,” that’s just one step before ceasing to use local search results at all – which would hurt Google in the pocketbook.

Might it get Google’s attention then?

Is the Phenomenon of “Fake News” Overhyped?

fnIn the wake of recent election campaigns and referenda in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Austria and the Philippines, it seems that everyone’s talking about “fake news” these days.

People all across the political and socio-economic spectrum are questioning whether the publishing and sharing of “faux” news items is having a deleterious impact on public opinion and actually changing the outcome of consequential events.

The exact definition of the term is difficult to discern, as some people are inclined to level the “fake news” charge against anyone with whom they disagree.

Beyond this, I’ve noticed that some people assign nefarious motives – political or otherwise – to the dissemination of all such news stories.  Often the motive is different, however, as over-hyped headlines – many of them having nothing to do with politics or public policy but instead focusing on celebrities or “freak” news events – serve as catnip-like clickbait for viewers who can’t resist their curiosity to find out more.

From the news consumer’s perspective, the vast majority of people think they can spot “fake” news stories when they encounter them. A recent Pew survey found that ~40% of respondents felt “very confident” knowing whether a news story is authentic, and another ~45% felt “somewhat confident” of that fact.

But how accurate are those perceptions really? A recent survey from BuzzFeed and Ipsos Public Affairs found that people who use Facebook as their primary source of news believed fake news headlines more than eight out of ten times.

That’s hardly reassuring.

And to underscore how many people are using Facebook versus more traditional news outlets as a “major” source for their news, this BuzzFeed chart showing the Top 15 information sources says it all:

  • CNN: ~27% of respondents use as a “major source” of news
  • Fox News: ~27%
  • Facebook: ~23%
  • New York Times: ~18%
  • Google News: ~17%
  • Yahoo News: ~16%
  • Washington Post: ~12%
  • Huffington Post: ~11%
  • Twitter: ~10%
  • BuzzFeed News: ~8%
  • Business Insider: ~7%
  • Snapchat: ~6%
  • Drudge Report: ~5%
  • Vice: ~5%
  • Vox: ~4%

Facebook’s algorithm change in 2016 to emphasize friends’ posts over publishers’ has turned that social platform into a pretty big hotbed of fake news activity, as people can’t resist sharing even the most outlandish stories to their network of friends.

Never mind Facebook’s recent steps to change the dynamics by sponsoring fact-checking initiatives and banning fraudulent websites from its ad network; by the accounts I’ve read, it hasn’t done all that much to curb the orgy of misinformation.

Automated ad buying isn’t helping at all either, as it’s enabling the fake news “ecosystem” big-time. As Digiday senior editor Lucia Moses explains it:

“One popular method … is tapping the competitive market for native ad widgets. Taboola, Revcontent, Adblade and Content.ad are prominently displayed on sites identified with fake news, while there are a few retargeted and programmatic ads sprinkled in. Publishers install these native ad widgets with a simple snippet of code — typically after an approval process — and when readers click on paid links in the widget, the host publisher makes money.  The ads are made to appear like related-content suggestions and often promote sensational headlines and direct-marketing offers.”

So attempting to solve the “fake news” problem is a lot more complicated than some people might realize – and it certainly isn’t going to improve because of any sort of “political” change of heart. Forrester market analyst Susan Bidel sums it up thus:

“While steps taken by … entities to curb fake news are admirable, as long as fake news generators can make money from their efforts, the problem won’t go away.”

So there we are. Bottom-line, fake news is going to be with us for the duration – whether people like it or not.

What about you? Do you think you can spot every fake news story?  Or do you think at least of few of them come in below radar?