UPDATE 8/20/2015

In a kind of “I told you so moment” Google updated their maps.  In the article below, I write that they were gonna come down with a huge map fish-slap.  I didn’t realize that it would be this bad, but hey, Google is out to make money. They simply don’t care about your rankings or feeding your kids, etc.

When I wrote the article back in February, I didn’t realize that Google was going to chop off 4 out of 7 results from them map. Sure,  you can click the “see more photographers” button, but that action (Google knows) is very rare indeed.  Here is a screenshot from today.

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Original Article

I think about and write about Google search results quite a bit and how it relates to photographers trying to market themselves on the web. I recently published an article showing that the old wedding directories were again showing up on Google’s Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

Today’s topic is about photographers (and other wedding pros) using UPS boxes to fool Google’s map verification system. Basically, when Google started putting the map results into the regular SERP results, it threw us all into a tizzy. The reason was we’d worked so hard on our SEO to get ranked #1 and all of the sudden there were seven map results above us.  That sucked!

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I literally had years of steady SEO work thrown out the window as seven map results suddenly appeared above my site, pushing me down to the dreaded “below the fold”  My number-one site became number-eight overnight and my traffic suffered for it.

How to get on the map?

Obviously, I instantly became obsessed with figuring out the common thread of those who were listed in Google Maps above my listing on the first page. It didn’t take me long to figure out the pattern and it went like this:

  • Have an address that is very close to city center.
  • Have about 10 reviews on maps (called Google Places back then, but now called Google My Business)
  • Have a very thorough listing on the map including keyworded images, description and appropriate categories.

Once I identified HOW the competition got there, I simply reverse engineered the process and it went something like this:

  • Identify the city center by searching for “charleston, SC” on Google maps. (or whatever city I wanted to win for)
  • Use Google Maps “search nearby” function to identify a UPS store address that is closest to city center
  • Rent UPS box
  • Create listing on Google Maps with UPS box address
  • Google would mail verification postcard
  • Get postcard and enter 5-digit number into the verification system
  • Get 10-15 reviews posted
  • Wait

It really didn’t take a long time to get ranked. Often, in less than 90 days, I would see my listing pop up on the map where I wanted it. I even shared this advice with other photographers who weren’t local to me and it worked for them too.

Google getting wise to our tricks

Today, I did a search in Charleston and saw that there were a couple of photographers with the exact same address:

164 Market Street, Charleston, SC 29401

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In his article, Bill Hartzer writes, “…Google is cracking down on UPS boxes.”  He also shares a follow up letter from Google that states that you’re not to list a business with an address where the business doesn’t physically exist.  Here is the relevant quotes from Google’s letter:

Specifically, do not create a listing or place your pin marker at a location where the business does not physically exist. P.O. Boxes are not considered accurate physical locations.

Check out our quality guidelines at this link to see what types of businesses we’re looking for on Google Maps: http://www.google.com/support/places/bin/answer.py?answer=107528

Like with most server updates, my guess is that this will be a rolling update affecting the larger cities first, then hitting the smaller cities like Charleston. It is much too confusing to try to explain or comprehend how Google’s servers work, but suffice it to say that the main server called “Big Daddy” will send down instructions from on high.  The smaller servers, geo-located will carry out those instructions based on parameters.

At some point in the future, photographers and other vendors using the 164 Market Street address will be eliminated from the maps results as their address comes up matching a UPS address.  It is a simple code to write, so don’t think you’ll get away with it for much longer.

UPDATE 5-8-15 – One vendor gone

As suspected, one vendor has taken a hit by using the 164 Market Street address. A few weeks ago, there were two vendors on the front page of Google using that address and now there is one. Here is the screenshot from today’s Google search for “charleston photographers.”

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