Millions of Fake Google Business Listings Validates Apple’s Cautious Approach to Maps

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Apple Maps has been somewhat unfairly panned as a second-rate mapping service next to the behemoth Google Maps, which to be fair did have about a seven-year head start on Apple’s initiative. However, Google’s focus on data collection and its desire to turn Google Maps into all things to all people may in fact become its downfall, and it’s definitely serving to validate the more measured approach Apple has been taking to improve and verify its own data for Apple Maps.

A new report from the Wall Street Journal has just revealed that Google Maps has become a hotbed of what can only be called “mapping spam” as millions of fake businesses have been created on the service over the years, seemingly with the intent of misleading users by unknowingly directing calls to competitors, or possibly even outright scammers.

The Journal cites the example of a retired federal employee, Nancy Carter, who attempted to locate a repair service on Google Maps — one she had used before — only to be visited by a man claiming to be a “company contractor” who showed up in an unmarked van and then attempted to charge her double the normal rate for what later turned out to be a shoddy repair, and demanding immediate payment via cash or a personal check. Carter later discovered that the repairman had “hijacked” the name of the legitimate business that Carter thought she was calling, creating a Google Maps listing for it with his own phone number instead. The man also returned to Carter’s home several times, demanding payment for the shoddy repair which she had to have redone after his initial visit.

Google’s ubiquitous internet platform shapes what’s real and what isn’t for more than two billion monthly users. Yet Google Maps, triggered by such Google queries as the one Ms. Carter made, is overrun with millions of false business addresses and fake names, according to advertisers, search experts and current and former Google employees.

The Wall Street Journal

This incident occurred three years ago, and yet Google is seemingly unwilling or incapable or stemming a tide of completely fictitious business listings being created by outright con artists. Of course, as the Journal notes, the listings are profitable for the advertising-driven Google as well as the miscreants behind them, so Google may not be strongly motivation to fix the issue.

Google’s Problem

It’s in Google’s best interests to have a large database of local search queries available to feed the Google machine, and right now, the search giant, which handles 90% of the worlds online search queries and makes $116 billion in revenue from that alone, seems to be showing a preference for quantity over quality — especially when advertisers behind fake listings are willing to pay for more prominent placement.

The Journal conducted its own investigation into fake business listings, discovering a widespread and serious problem. In one case, right in Google’s hometown of Mountain View, California, a search of a dozen addresses for personal injury lawyers found only one connected to a real office, while others pointed to places like Viennese patisseries. In some cases, these are legitimate businesses sprinkling additional listings for themselves around town, basically pretending they have dozens of branch offices in order to appear in more location-based “nearby” searches. In other cases, these are outright scammers attempting to compete with legitimate businesses, like the one Ms. Carter encountered.

Experts say that there are hundreds of thousands of such listings appearing on Google Maps each month, and while Google claims to be policing these listings to some degree, saying it catches many before they even appear, clearly the search giant isn’t doing nearly enough. Online advertising specialists that Google itself points to as “deft fraud fighters” have estimated that there are as many as 11 million falsely listed businesses active on Google Maps on any given day.

Business Listings on Apple Maps

While a cynical viewpoint would suggest that Apple Maps is avoiding this issue simply as a result of its lower popularity — the same logic that’s been posited for years as to why Macs don’t get as many viruses — the fact is that Apple also does considerably more to police business listings, and of course is more concerned about providing accurate data to customers who are actually buying its products than it is to those who are willing to hand over advertising money for priority listings.

In fact, there is simply no way to pay for a business listing on Apple Maps. Normal iPhone users can suggest businesses, which are verified by the Apple Maps team using the best information available, and any business owner can register and/or claim their own business by creating an Apple ID and using Apple Maps Connect. Submitting or changing a listing, however, triggers a validation process that involves contacting the listed number as well as making sure that it actually matches other publicly available information for the business, and it may take days or weeks before a new business listing appears on Apple Maps.

Apple also maintains stricter policies on the kind of businesses it will accept, along with data quality guidelines for Maps listings. For example, Apple will only accept businesses with physical locations that can be confirmed, which means that those operating from residential homes or those with temporary locations are unlikely to get onto the map even if they’re otherwise legit. Business must also have official, published phone numbers that Apple can verify through other sources, such as directory services or the business’ legitimate and established web site.

Further, regardless of how long the business has been established on Apple Maps, even the most innocuous edits such as business hours don’t go through immediately — everything is submitted to a review process, which, according to Apple, uses a combination of automated and manual human verification. Updates can sometimes take up to a week to be validated, but that may be a small price to pay for ensuring that the data is as accurate as possible, and definitely a reasonable tradeoff if it prevents the wild west of business listings that Google Maps seems to have become.


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