How A Lawsuit and Subpoena To Google Restored 8 Years Of Local SEO Effort

by Toby

September 3, 2019

Incorrect Google My Business Suspensions

The Last Resort When Your Google My Business Listing Is Repeatedly Taken Down Due To False Spam Reports

This post is about the process we went through with a Google My Business listing to restore it after it had been repeatedly and incorrectly edited with misinformation and falsely reported to Google as spam for violating its guidelines and terms of service. The intent was malicious and designed to harm the business. The results of these harmful efforts were frustrating and financially damaging to the company. I’ve been actively working in digital marketing for 20 years but thankfully this was the first time I’ve ever had to pursue legal channels to stop the shenanigans.

The world of local SEO and Google My Business optimization is a street fight in many niches online. Those three coveted spots in Google’s local pack or on Google Maps are some of the most valuable real estate in any digital space.

Spammy Google My Business listings are prolific in Google Local results and Google Maps (you can read more about the extent of the problem here). Editing and reporting spam listings are a common practice among legit SEOs as helping to clean up the mess and ensure everyone is on an even playing field and adhering to Google’s guidelines (a post here and here outlines that process).

Digitally savvy companies realize the extreme value and importance of ranking in local search and within Google Maps. These same companies invest considerable time and money, by hiring SEO agencies, over long periods to rank high organically in Google and within Maps.

But…

There are plenty of bad actors that want to see your hard-won efforts go away and no longer rank in Google Maps or Google Local Packs. Often these bad actors are competitors that can report false information about your listing to Google to have it suspended. Or they utilize tactics that go against Google My Business (GMB) guidelines to rank their listing ahead of yours – things such as keyword stuffing in the business’ name, stuffing emojis into the GMB profile name to increase CTRs, as just a couple of examples.

There are simple tactics your competitors can use to make changes to your Google My Business profile that could change your rankings.

First, anyone can make edits to your Google My Business profile right within Google Maps. Part of Google Maps is crowd-sourced data.

The specific case I go into below had damaging edits made to its Google My Business profile. Edits such as, updating the phone number to the wrong one, or changing the name to the incorrect name. The saving grace with those types of edits is that if you’re an “owner” listed on your Google My Business profile, notifications of these changes are sent to you as they happen which gives you the chance to reverse the changes back to what they should be.

The second damaging tactic that a competitor can use is to report your GMB listing to Google as not adhering to its guidelines. Often by reporting that your listing is spam in some form, such as:

  • Not existent
  • Duplicate listing
  • Virtual office

Once Google receives a spam report, the unfortunate reality is that Google will often suspend your listing whether the report is accurate or not. Google will put the onus on you to re-verify with them that your business is a legit profile adhering to its policies regardless of how often your listing is suspended or the fact that you have already verified it as a legit profile multiple times with proof.

Here’s an example…

A Short Story About One Well-Ranked Google My Business Listing Destroyed By False GMB Spam Reports

This particular GMB profile had an 8-year history of local SEO established. The profile had been showing #1 or #2 for dozens of some of the most expensive search terms in Google where the average CPC in Google Ads ranged from $200+ to as high as $400 in some cases. The economic hit was hard as a result of the incorrect suspensions of the GMB profile (numerous times) for no reason other than someone repeatedly and falsely reporting it as spam or illegitimate.

From within Google Maps, people had been making edits to jack up this particular GMB profile for years (changes to the name, changes to the phone number, etc)…but these were things we would catch and revert. Google provides no way to lock down a profile unfortunately either.

Then the attacks escalated, and the GMB profile suspensions started coming in. We’d get the GMB listing restored, then within a short period it would be suspended again…this happened frequently over and over in spite of the fact that days before the profile was re-verified.

If you’re not familiar with the process for reinstating your GMB profile, there are several steps. Often it means a phone call into GMB’s support line, reviewing GMB’s guidelines and ensuring that in fact, you are complying and eligible to show your business and then submitting a reconsideration request. The case study I go into below reflected a GMB profile that was always eligible to show and adhered to GMB’s guidelines.

So each time this particular profile was incorrectly suspended due to competitors falsely reporting it, we would go through the typical process to get the Google My Business listing restored which often began by calling the toll-free GMB support line or submitting a reconsideration request online. Sending in pictures and videos of the physical office would often get the suspension lifted and the listing restored within a couple of days. Throughout the course of these suspensions, at one point it got so bad we needed to leverage back-channel support at Google to help escalate the suspension issue and get the listing restored.

But, after numerous suspensions that occurred over a short period, one Google My Business suspension resulted in the listing staying down for 30+ days!

Brutal, and devastating…especially when you consider the economic cost and impact to this local business that had invested 8 years of local SEO efforts – and remember that clicks from buying this traffic in Google averaged $200 – $400 per click and represented tens of thousands of dollars per month in ad spend nevermind the precipitous drop in revenue due to the loss of business! Losing your local search presence cannot be restored completely using Google Ads even if you had the budget to buy the traffic, and of course, there are no other competitive replacements for traffic like this.

This time, however, the typical process of restoring the listing didn’t work. Calls into the GMB team were not helpful, and reconsideration requests were not restoring the profile.

We got the canned response, give it more time. We called frequently, and it was the same general response. Nothing happened.

But for this one particular suspension that had gone past 30 days, eventually someone we reached on the GMB support line restored the profile along with the reviews (sometimes the reviews are not restored at the same time).

But Things Got Even Worse – Now We Were Buried In Local Search (i.e., Local Packs) and On Google Maps

Once the listing was restored, oddly it was now buried in Google Search and on Maps! All prior reinstatements had resulted in restoring the listing to right where it was ranking prior. An old expression of doom came to mind at this point: where’s the best place to bury a body? On the second page of Google.

The profile had lost eight years of local SEO efforts – poof, gone…like snowflakes in a Houston summer.

Using Google Maps on mobile devices to navigate to the business even resulted in users being directed to a competitor. At the same time, the Google Insights dashboard of metrics from within the GMB profile showed that it was now only getting 16% or less of the prior impressions and clicks. The business was gone and nowhere to be found in search or on Maps. This lasted for months!

What had happened?

An explanation from someone at the GMB support line didn’t make sense.

First, they stated it had been down too long (thanks to it not being restored sooner which was, of course, entirely out of our control) and that as a result the original listing was deleted – my thought was, really? Google deleted a GMB profile and its data? Google doesn’t delete anything. And the GMB listing was kept as “suspended” for 30 days in spite of us calling in every other day to check on its status.

Then we reached out to the GMB team via social media for more insight and if they could restore the old listing. They said no they could not. Then they followed up with, how you show on Maps and Search is related to organic algorithms which we can’t control…and then adding insult to injury, they sent us a link about how to optimize a GMB profile. We even reached out to one of the leading search people within Google that interacts with SEOs regularly via social media asking if it was typical to delete an established GMB listing and to have all your local SEO wiped out when reinstating a profile even though it was never in violation of any GMB guidelines…we got no response.

For months, we were now buried in Search and Maps, then…

We Filed A Lawsuit and Subpoenaed Google

Enough was enough. We filed a lawsuit and subpoenaed Google to uncover who was repeatedly and falsely reporting the GMB profile as spam and making incorrect edits to the GMB profile.

The first step in the legal process was to file the lawsuit against “Doe” – an unknown person since we had no idea who was editing and reporting the GMB profile and then from there we could subpoena for the information. Once you know who is reporting the business, you can then update the lawsuit.

An attorney at Google responding to the subpoena told us, there are no recent edits made to the listing. Then we pointed out that the original 8-year-old listing was “deleted” per GMB support and to go back to the original GMB profile for the information.  Thankfully, that worked.

Although there is no way to know for sure, it appears the result of this legal effort restored the original GMB profile along with the local pack and Google Maps rankings we had invested in for years. While we were grateful to be back ranking well, the damage of months with no exposure due to false spam reports was a big hit financially.

Also, when you subpoena Google for this type of information, it first notifies the people that made these edits, or that reported your profile as spam, and then later it sends you the information requested from the subpoena. This fact alone that Google contacts these people in advance to notify them that a lawsuit was filed and that it had been subpoenaed is likely enough to get someone to stop falsely reporting your GMB listing as spam and continuing to make illegitimate profile edits as well.

If this has happened to you, I feel for you! It’s incredibly frustrating, and the channels for recourse are limited. This process is a burden to have to go through, but at some point, enough is enough.

If you need help with this process, feel free to reach out to us.

I appreciate and welcome any comments below.


Need help with your Google My Business page?

If you are having issues with your Google My Business page – false suspensions, not ranking well, reach out to us – we can help.

About the author 

Toby

Toby is the co-founder of 39 Celsius. He has over 20 years of digital marketing experience and has started several different companies throughout his career.

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