The Case for Regulating Google Business Profiles – Formerly “GMB”

Google My Business aka “GMB” (now known as “Google Business Profile”) has monopoly power over businesses, and has little incentive to fix serious problems relating to its GMB platform. Antitrust regulators should examine the GMB platform specifically and require Google to fix consumer problems or face increased regulatory oversight or penalties.

*UPDATE: In November 2021, Google announced that they are officially changing the name of Google My Business to “Google Business Profile”. This name change does not materially change the facts and opinions expressed in this article. We are temporarily keeping the name “Google My Business” in the article as published for better clarity and visibility for those not aware of this update.

This is Not a Position I Come to Easily

I generally take a hands off approach to business, so as I come to this conclusion I cringe at the words I’m typing. In fact, I estimate that this article will ruffle some feathers in the SEO & digital marketing industry. There are a lot of businesses and consultants who make a fine living fixing the problems I cover in this article. Some whom I’ve spoken to privately agree with me, but I imagine many are afraid to publicly criticize Google for fear of what might happen to them or their businesses if Google took a retaliatory response. However, 100% of digital marketers know about the problems presented here and many have experienced them first hand.

Google My Business deserves oversight by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Before I make my case for this, I should clarify what I don’t mean. I don’t believe the FTC should be regulating Google Ads, Google’s search algorithm or any other Google product or service. This is a plea to the FTC to take action specifically and solely on the regulation of the Google My Business platform, and the supporting rationale is based on Google My Business serving as a public utility in place of phone companies and the accompanying FTC regulated phone book directories.

Problems with GMB range from business information that cannot be corrected, editing a business listing that triggers an automatic algorithmic suspension, wait times and delays with business listing reinstatement, successful listing reinstatements that trigger deleted reviews from customers over several years, fake / spam local competitors controlling the top visibility with no consequences, very little competent & timely GMB support… The list goes on and on.

Why do The Problems in Google My Business Matter to the Public?

The two distinct issues outlined in this article impact the public differently, but are both tied to the way GMB administers its platform: 1) GMB business suspensions-in-error, and 2) spam in GMB.

  1. Business Owner GMB administration problems and suspensions-in-error can cost jobs, and create significant consumer confusion. Many people who are looking for a business start their search on Google. If you’ve hired a plumber, a lawyer or an A/C company in the past and search Google for their business & they’re absent you might immediately assume that they are no longer in business or they’ve moved. However, in reality, that business may be in the midst of a weeks, or months-long GMB suspension that is no fault of their own. During that suspension, that business has disappeared from Google Maps and is suffering from a loss of revenue which causes a reduction in their ability to hire or pay employees, a reduction in taxes generated, a reduction in purchasing supplies from local businesses, or problems paying rent or utilities.
  2. Spam in GMB can cause consumer confusion and reduce local spending & tax revenues. In separate yet related problems, the consumer may want to hire a local business and relies on the perception of accurate business listings on Google. The consumer may never know that they’ve hired someone from a neighboring city, county or state until it’s too late or inconvenient to change their mind. This issue can be divided into two sub-problems:
    1. Keyword Stuffing the Business Name: The primary reason that businesses stuff keywords into their business name is so they (typically service businesses) can manipulate local business rankings. When they do this, they actually change the name of their business on GMB by adding keywords to be more relevant to the GMB algorithm and appear at the top of local results. This deceptive practice creates confusion, as well as violates GMB guidelines yet is regularly rewarded by Google (I cover this more in depth later).
    2. Fake GMB Listings: The reason a business would want to set up a fake business listing is to appear local and obtain revenue from a geography they are not physically located in. As an example, when a service-based business from Los Angeles sets up a fake GMB business listing in San Diego, they often purchase goods & supplies, and pay income & sales taxes at local businesses that circulate in Los Angeles. That business owner and his/her employees would likely live in Los Angeles and that revenue circulates into their local economy. This essentially robbed the legitimate local business in San Diego of the opportunity to compete, local dollar circulation and the corresponding tax revenues for their economy, for which GMB facilitated this. Again, this is something that violates GMB guidelines, yet is regularly rewarded.

What is Google My Business?

Google My Business (now known as “Google Business Profile”) is the platform that controls a business’ displayed name, address, phone number, website address, description and other business information shown in the map section & business listings on Google. A business listing can either be triggered to display on Google when a search query has local business intent (such as a local service type of search eg. plumber, dentist, lawyer), or a business is searched by name. In either scenario, either one or multiple businesses are displayed in the GMB mapped portion of the results screen. If someone is looking for your business by name and your listing is not present, it can be easily assumed that the business doesn’t exist, or that it has closed.

The GMB business listing results, and accompanying algorithm that trigger GMB listings to display on a search results page may share some DNA with the Google organic search result algorithm, but it behaves separately and autonomously to Google paid ads and Google organic results, (a distinction Google discusses here), thus effectively making it a separate entity governed by its own separate policies under the Google umbrella. It is very common for a business to appear prominently (known as the top “3 Pack”) in the GMB section of search results when a consumer is searching for a local business provider. However, that same business’ website might not appear prominently in the “organic” section of results (or vice versa) because the algorithm that controls GMB business listings is different from that of the algorithm that controls organic results. This might sound like common knowledge to digital marketers, but I believe it might be an unrecognized important legal distinction and something regulators might not necessarily understand.

What’s the Problem With GMB?

GMB has had multiple & varied problems for a very long time. The primary benefit to business owners is that it controls 100% of everything you would see on Google when looking for a business; it’s the one place a business owner can get all their critical business information in front of any new or previous customer. It’s the same way phone companies had a phone book that was Federally mandated by the FTC to be published and distributed in the territories & zones they operated in. The primary difference now is that no entity is regulating the operations of Google My Business and so there is no incentive to fix the longstanding known problems.

The problems associated with GMB are so rampant and ubiquitous among the digital marketing community that there are numerous websites & forums dedicated to answering questions from business owners and marketing consultants on the best ways to use Google My Business and navigate the common issues that come up:

What’s the reason for all of these forums and websites? Mostly, it’s because GMB is very poor about addressing the very real concerns and problems that business owners have with the implementation, control and arbitrary suspensions-in-error (removals) of their business listings through the GMB platform.

I have written about Google mistakenly suspending thousands of businesses in the past here, or the embarrassingly poor execution of their spam removal efforts here. The Wall Street Journal even wrote about GMB’s spam problem here and how Google derives profit from this problem. This is not new criticism for GMB, but it has not prompted them to improve either.

Navigating a Business Listing Suspension on GMB

Once suspended from GMB, a business essentially disappears from Google. The business’ website (if they have one) might appear naturally down in the organic results if a customer searches their name specifically, but their critical business information: name, address, and phone number are no longer presented as an option or even as an open business. Google’s published policy is to not tell a business owner why they have suspended their business listing, nor will they inform the business owner as to the specific action to take to reinstate the business listing.

How does a suspension of your business listing on Google happen? It could generally be from one of the two following reasons:

  • A business listing violates Google’s guidelines (quality issues or suspicious activity)
  • A business is reported as closed, spam or fake by Users

One of the most common reasons for a suspension given is that the business’ name, address or phone number does not match public records, the business’ website or other aggregated information from the Internet. The most common solution is that the business owner must submit photos of their storefront, signage, or other proof points to show that they are a legitimate business that’s physically located where they say they are and that they’re open to the public.

It sounds like a somewhat simple process, annoying as it might be, but for many it can take weeks or months of back and forth Emails with overseas third party GMB administrators who are generally not helpful because they are paid to follow Google’s specific guidelines to the letter. The weeks or months of absence from Google My Business could be enough to significantly financially harm or potentially bankrupt a small business.

It’s obvious to me that Google has the capability to properly curate and administer the world’s business listings, the problem is that they really have no incentive to do it in a competent manner because A) it’s not a profit generating part of their business and/or B) they’re not regulated to do so. Google essentially has no sense of responsibility to businesses even though Statista estimates that Google controls over 92% of the search market.

The Reinstatement Process is Severely Broken and Can Easily & Significantly Harm a Business

Much of the content on the above-mentioned websites & forums revolve around navigating how to get a business reinstated after a suspension action from Google My Business. GMB has outsourced the reinstatement process to a non-US 3rd party, of which you can’t call anymore as you once could, and who’s not allowed to provide any information about why your business was suspended or what to provide to reinstate your listing. One just has to search the endless threads on the subject, or read the perpetual posts & comments on the GMB Facebook page or Twitter feed.

The worst part about this rampant problem is the arbitrary nature of the suspensions that I have witnessed first hand, and the selective enforcement of their policies. Most recently I worked with a law firm that has been in their city since the 1970s. We provided GMB with ample photos of the business, signage, suite number and even a signed lease for their office all of which resulted in GMB ignoring our requests and evidence with no reason given. We ended up having to hire a specialized company to assist in the process, which was eventually successful with the reinstatement even though we hadn’t supplied any new evidence or photos.

Another blatant example of Google My Business’ arbitrary & selective policy enforcement is the ubiquitous nature of spam in Google maps. These are businesses that blatantly and obviously break the rules set forth by Google by either operating at location that doesn’t exist, or stuffing keywords into their business name to game the algorithm to deliver their business listing as a result when specific phrases are searched. GMB regularly lets these businesses operate with this violation in plain sight, but requires other businesses to jump through endless hoops to try to get their listing reinstated.

Don’t take my word for it, do a search for a local business category on Google right now (like “City + Business Category”) and expand the local results to view all of the business listings. When you see businesses listed with the city name, category name and keywords listed as their business name they are blatantly violating Google’s policy (unless that is their official business name, which is almost never). Since the business name is so heavily weighted in importance in the GMB local algorithm, those businesses often win top visibility, thus suppressing those that follow GMB’s policy by not engaging in this spammy tactic.

Google My Business (GMB) Has Assumed the Role of a Utility

My experience in advertising started with the phone book. Hard as it may be to believe today, to many businesses if you weren’t listed in the annually released phone book you wouldn’t plan on getting much new business that year. The yellow page directories published by the phone company (often called “Telco books”, not the privately printed phone books like “Yellowbook”) were regulated by the FTC and were required by Federal law to print a business’ name, address and phone number alphabetically in the white pages and in the proper Heading of the yellow pages – called an “SRL” – Service Regular Listing. The phone companies acquiesced to this regulation-required publication and employed thousands of people to administer the process of organizing, publishing and distributing phone books because of the huge advertising revenue generated by the display ads. The juice was worth the squeeze.

Today, phone books are essentially gone and Google has assumed the responsibility of this public utility service and gains the enormous benefit of the advertising revenue (nearly $150 Billion per year), yet bears none of the responsibility to competently administer & display the business information phone companies once did.

Alternatives to Regulation

I personally, (and I believe most digital marketers) don’t want GMB to be regulated by the US Government, but I’ve arrived at this conclusion because the requests of agencies like mine and tens of thousands of business owners have fallen on deaf, indifferent ears for years. Here are some of the solutions that either I, or other business owners and agencies suggest that could solve some of these critical issues:

  • GMB should warn business owners & managers of a pending suspension through the GMB dashboard & Email notification, provide the steps to take to solve the issue prior to suspending the listing, and not remove the listing while the evidence is being reviewed.
  • Allow your reinstatement contractors the flexibility to use good judgement when considering evidence submitted. GMB is often dealing with small business owners who have families & employees to feed, many of whom are not technically adept.
  • If a reinstatement is denied, GMB should provide specific reasons and the actions required to fix the issue(s).
  • While under suspension, GMB should allow the business’ name, address, phone number & website address to be displayed if searched specifically by name until fully reinstated.
  • Charge a nominal fee to administer GMB. While unpopular to some, the business community would rather pay a reasonable fee to reduce spam and offset the administration cost, when the alternative is disappearing from Google’s business listings for weeks or months while having to navigate a murky reinstatement process managed by contractors who have no vested interest in a US business’ success or demise.
  • Spam businesses and business name keyword stuffing is relatively easy to identify. When it’s reported, take action quickly to reduce the incentive for spammers to adapt.
  • Be better. Google previously used the phrase “Don’t Be Evil” in their Code of Conduct. Although that statement has been removed, business owners ask that they still abide by it.

What Can You Do?

If you are interested in supporting this, I recommend that you contact the following organizations:

If you’re reading this and your business listing was suspended and you’re now in the reinstatement hamster wheel, I and thousands of business owners know your frustration. The websites & forums I’ve linked to within the article may be able to offer some help. Unfortunately, unless GMB voluntarily changes their policies, or is forced to change nothing will happen.

About The Author

Doug Bradley
I work with law firms to increase their presence on search engines through website optimization. Marketing a law firm hasn’t been “like it used to be” for a while now and the only guarantee is that it will continue to change. Learn more about my experience here.
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