The Google Local Yocal Scam: Suckering Local Businesses with Guaranteed First Page Listings


The scam artists have descended on Google LocalA friend emailed me recently, writing to say he’d “hooked up” with an SEO agency that got him a first page listing on Google.

My immediate reaction was he’d been scammed. I say this because the friend’s local business website is brand new: no links, no authority, no legitimate ranking signals and no chance of ranking organically for his target keywords.

With this in mind, I know there are really only two ways for my friend's site to appear on page one of Google:

Now, there’s nothing wrong with paid search. It’s a legitimate marketing channel and delivers qualified traffic and leads when done right. And if the friend were running a pay-per-click campaign with a qualified pay-per-click agency, I’d wish him the best.

But my gut told me this wasn’t the case. Why? My friend has no money and no marketing budget. And to run a PPC marketing campaign, you need to buy clicks. So my fear was he’d just paid to get his business listed in the Google Local listings.

Why is this bad?

Because Google Local is a FREE service.

Let the Scamming Begin

So I emailed the friend and asked which query his site ranked for on page one. My suspicions were confirmed when ran the query and saw my friend’s website listed only in the Google Local 10 pack. No paid listing. No organic listing.

I finally phoned my friend, and after more digging about the “SEO agency” I learned the details of the agreement. Getting his local business listing added to the Google Local 10 pack cost:

  • $200 initial “start up fee”
  • $20 per month “maintenance fee”

What's worse, he’d signed a year contract.

So to recap, my friend paid a grand total of $440 for an "SEO agency" to fill out a three-minute form for what is a FREE service. That’s one Hell of a price tag for a simple administrative service. And there was nothing special done "SEO-wise" for this listing. The agency used none of the Google Local optimization or local online marketing best practices I'm going to share further down in this post.

I finally broke the news to my friend that Google Local is actually a FREE service. And he felt like he'd been scammed and cheated, which he had. In theory, these companies (and I see them popping up every day now) are building a business on the ignorance of local business owners.

But the point of this post isn’t to judge or call out the guilty. It’s to hopefully enlighten and educate local business owners, so they don't keep getting screwed by the SEO sharks.

Getting Listed in the Google Local Results

Folks, getting listed in the Google Local listings is FREE. You don’t need to be even remotely technically adept to get your business listed. All you need is a computer and the ability to fill out an online form.

And despite the "SEO agency's" claim and service fee for my freind, there is no monthly maintenance necessary. Once your site is listed in Google Local, you can basically set it and forget it.

So here’s how to get set up in Google Local:

  • Go to Google Local Business Center
  • Create a new account (unless you have an existing gmail profile)
  • Click “add a new business”
  • Fill out the required fields

You’re done.

Features of Google Local Search

A few weeks ago, Google added a slick data dashboard to the Google Local Business Center page. It’s a pedestrian version of Google analytics, but still gives the average local business owner who's not aleady running some sort of analytics insight into visibility and search behavior for their business listing.

For example, Google Local listing owners can see how many times thier listing displayed in a search query (impressions) as well as actions taken on the listing, like clicks.

google local data dashboard helps small business owners see how their sites are performing in google local results

Impressions and actions aren't the only data points local business owners can monitor. Top search queries is another key data field.

Google Local dashboard shows search query data for small business owners

By the way, if you're listening Google, click-through rate would also be a nice data point to track as well.

Best Practices and Optimization for Google Local

Business owners should know that getting your ad to display in the Google Local results isn't always a given. Geographic location plays a major role obviously, but there are certian best practices and ranking signals you can employ to give your listing a better chance of getting seen and displaying higher than the competition.

Best practices for optimizing your Google Local listing include:

  • Keywords in the business listing title - Be sure to add website keywords and location keywords to your business "name" field. For example, in the above dashboard, the company is "King Shade & Window" and the keywords are "Boston Replacement Windows," so the company name in the local listing looks like this:

Google local listing for a local business, adding keywords in the company name

  • Get customer reviews - Another ranking signal is customer reviews. Local business owners should ask satisfied customers to submit reviews about their business. Sending out a simple auto-gen email at the completion of every job/service performed, asking for a review and including a link to the review page is a great way to solicit reviews from your customers.
  • Keywords in the categories - Add service categories and target keywords in your categories too (much like you'd do with the old, now ignored "meta keywords" attribute)
  • Keywords in the business description - Again, this is another key ranking factor.

By taking these steps, you'll give your business listing a much better chance of:

  1. Getting listed; and
  2. Getting seen by potential customers.

What's more, by following these best practices you'll also be light years ahead of most local business listings. From what I see everyday, many don't follow any of these best practices, so you're sure to distinguish your listing from thiers.

So hopefully, I've helped local business realize they don't need to pay an "SEO agency" to get their business listed in the Google Local results, and I've empowered them with the tools and techniques to make their listings rank higher, stand out and get noticed.

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Chuck Price
Jul 23, 2009

I have mixed emotions about this one. If your friend was ignorant of the Google local program & now he is listed in the 10 pack, is there not a value to this? I believe there is. Is it $200? I'm not sure. We can both agree that a "maintenance fee" is plain wrong.

Jul 23, 2009

I recently paid someone to do this for me too because after looking into it, I just did not want to commit the time to study all the stuff and get it right. I figured there had to be something more involved if there were only 10 businesses listed there. Why would I be one of those ten if there weren't some kind of "knowledge" going on.

Anyhow, I am content. I moved ahead of 5 businesses that were already there and I have been there for 2 months now. I paid more than $200 too - though I did get a few other things added in.

FYI, let's not forget it is not a scam to pay a third party for a service you do not want to perform. There are tons of things I could do myself (some for free), but choose not to. I don't want to do my taxes, change my oil, mow the lawn, paint the kitchen, wash the car, etc., etc., etc.,

It's a choice we make every day. The only deception would be if I had been led to believe I HAD to pay in order to get it done.

I don't get your point here. This is every day business 101. I am a party planner. My clients can certainly plan their own parties w/o my assistance, but they choose not to.

I am not a sucker in any way. I simply did not want to be bothered.

Ken Lyons
Jul 24, 2009

Hey, Pat.
Thanks for commenting.
The difference here is most people don't feel like they've been scammed after they get their oil changed. They fully understand it's something they can do themselves yet choose to trade money for time and hassle. The cost equals the benefit. Both parties are happy. It's a fair transaction.
But in my friend's case, once he learned he didn't "need to" pay an SEO agency to get listed in Google Local, and that all it took was filling out a three-minute form, he felt duped. To me, feeling cheated is not part of biz 101. Neither is paying $440 for a few minutes of work. There's nothing "fair" about this transaction.
I felt it was important to expose local biz owners to this message, to even the playing field, so to speak. I want the small mom and pop stores on a shoestring budget to know they can do it themselves (if they choose) because most have no idea. And frankly, this is what some "SEO agencies" are counting on with Google Local: complete client ignorance.

Ken Lyons
Jul 24, 2009

I think we're on the same page here.
Yes, there's a fair value to getting listed in Google Local.
And if the SEO agency had stopped at the $200 "start up fee," I wouldn't be crying foul.
But the "monthly maintenance fee" and year contract really got me going, and was the catalyst for this post. What's more, what happens when the year contract expires? I've gotta assume they yank his listing or coax him to sign another contract or up-sell to "enhanced SEO." See where I'm going with this?
The whole biz model is built on misleading people, stringing them along and hoping they never "look behind the curtain."
Point being, you don't need to fool people. You can build a nice biz offering legit, up front, Local SEO optimization services without being a crook.

Oct 24, 2009

I have to agree with Chuck & Pat, there is probably good value here based on the end result. You are right, that the agency should be upfront and let your friend know he could do this for free, but if you had not mentioned this fact to your friend it appears he was very happy with the results and the price. That's pretty far from being a scam.

Ken Lyons
Nov 03, 2009

Hi, Arnie.
People who invested with Bernie Madoff were happy too. How did that turn out?
Just because a consumer is blissfully ignorant doesn't mean they're not getting screwed.

Ian - Marketing Difference
Nov 03, 2009

We have the same problem in the UK with SEO agencies offering page 1 on Google using Google Local listings, without mentioning that it is free. There is a post on my blog about the Google Local scammers. i have no problem with people doing submissions on others behalf the issue is the excessive price and the fact they do not declare that it is free to do yourself.

Dec 16, 2009

this is a false statement!!

although the local listing is free doesnt mean your business listing will make it into the top 10 this is where the seo part comes in.

Dave Best
Dec 20, 2009

Like Ian says above there are considerable problems in the UK with scammers offering page 1 Google listings for ridiculous sums of money. Activity such as this is damaging the SEO industry.