What happens if you break the rules set by Google? Should you care about that? This episode covers the main issues that can bring Local Guides into trouble – no matter if they are breaking the rules on purpose or by accident.
Jan Van Haver 0:06
Hello, and welcome to the LetsGuide Podcast, the ultimate podcast for Google Local Guides. This is episode number 6 and the topic of today is ‘Breaking the rules’. So what happens if you break the rules set by Google? And should you even care about that? This episode will not cover everything it all details, because that would take, like, 20 hours – not the targeted 20 minutes – but it will cover the main issues that we’ve seen to bring Local Guides into trouble, whether they are breaking the rules on purpose or by accident. What I always say before every episode is that I have no official connection to Google or the Local Guides program, and I’m emphasizing this even more for this specific episode: everything you hear in this podcast is just my personal interpretation, and it’s based on things that I have noticed, either in Google Maps itself, on social media accounts, or platforms related to it.
Vanessa P. 1:11
Let’s get started.
Jan Van Haver 1:15
The first question you could ask, of course, is: “Well, what are then those rules?” I’ll make sure to put a link in the shownotes to the official terms and conditions, as they are defined by Google on several pages of their websites. But in this episode, I’ll try to summarize them a bit and point out the most striking and important aspects.
Jan Van Haver 1:38
There are a number of general rules, for example about the age: you have to be at least 18 to take part in the Local Guides program. And that’s, of course, because it’s not – there are elements of gamification in the program with the points and levels and so on – but it’s not a game. You have to have some maturity to take part and to take it seriously. So hence, age minimum is 18. Obviously, things like “Do not include hate speech, abuse, obscene language. Do not do illegal things in the program.” That’s quite obvious. Of course also: “Do not upload pictures that are not yours or do not copy existing reviews from other local guides and paste those as your own”. Those would, of course be copyright violations.
Jan Van Haver 2:31
There are also a number of specific Local Guide inappropriate conduct rules mentioned there, and those refer mainly to submitting fake, falsified, misleading or inappropriate reviews, edits or removals. We’ll get into much more detail about that in a bit. Very important as well. And this is mentioned a couple of times on the Google websites: “Contributions to Google Maps must originate from a single Google account, to count towards benefits, and they cannot be transferred between owned accounts”. So that’s very, very important. You have to do everything from one single Google account. And then finally, as a more general rule that Google is providing, they’re also referring to the fact that you must not at any time represent yourself in any way as a Google employee or a representative of Google, or its products or services. That’s the way it’s written down there on the website. And remember that disclaimer, I always put at the beginning or the end of the show? That’s of course related to this specific term, as mentioned by Google.
Jan Van Haver 3:48
Okay, then let’s dive into some detail about this inappropriate behavior as seen by some Local Guides. This has to do mainly, of course, with the content Local Guides are uploading to Google Maps. And as you might have guessed: it’s mainly related to reviews and photos because those are some of the main activities performed by Local Guides. Let’s check out the reviews first. Literal quote from the Google guidelines: “his contributions must be based on real experiences and information”. Makes sense, of course. It also says “contributions should be high quality, which means they should adhere to the guidelines described in the Google Help pages”. And another quote from that page: “It’s in the details. Always include notable information about a place and your experience. Avoid vague generic and repetitive comments like reviews that just say, Okay, good or Yum. Describe the setting the design the vibe, highs or lows and relevant specifics. For restaurants or bars. This could mean for example, saying what you ordered and what you would recommend or avoid. For shops, it could be a description of the selection, a price range, the service and the type of clientele who might like it.”
Jan Van Haver 5:22
In this respect, of course, and specifically, with regards to those one-or-two-word reviews, you have to take into account that there is no real added value to writing a review, which just says “Excellent” if you already gave a 5-star rating. So, if there is no real added value in the review, it’s considered to be spam or at least spammy. So just saying “Okay”, or “Fine” or just giving a description of what they sell, like “Women’s clothes” or “Bakery”, that is considered to have as the only goal – the only purpose behind it – to get 10 extra points on your Local Guides account. And that’s really spammy behavior. So you should definitely not do that. I’ve come across some borderline cases like “Okay services”. Well, yes, it does bring some extra information, but definitely it does not count as a high quality review. That is clear, I think. My favorite quick tip for writing a good review is that you should try to include information that you could only get by being there. For example: “The music was a bit too loud to my taste”, or “This bar has really comfy chairs”. Just try to add a personal note.
Jan Van Haver 6:49
When it comes to photos, the main rule is that you should take photos that “clearly and accurately represent a location”. So the images should be relevant, in focus, with proper lights and stuff like this. “If you want to take a picture of a restaurant dish, it should best be shot from above. If you want to photograph the shop front, it should be in landscape mode” – stuff like this. You should also respect the privacy of others and ask for permission or avoid taking identifiable images of people at places like schools and hospitals. For cars, the license plates are often a bit of a problem. So, you know, the stuff that is being blurred out in Google Street View – well, those are the things that you should have, that you should avoid having in your pictures in an identifiable way. The guidelines that also say “Dark, blurry and redundant” – very important word here, redundant – “photos will be removed”. In summary: just post real things about real businesses and be trustworthy. So those are the rules.
Jan Van Haver 8:00
Next step is: let’s check in which ways those rules are broken most often. As mentioned before, uploading fake stuff, illegal contents, making deliberate errors. That’s, of course, things you come across. But the problem I came across the most while researching this episode is clearly: duplicates. For example, with reviews it’s important to point out that – on the Google Local Guides program help site it’s written in bold, so Google wants you to see this very clearly – “Local Guides who duplicate reviews across locations will be removed from the program.” The most astonishing example I came across was a level 8 Local Guide, who had 105 reviews and 105 times the exact same text. Please bear with me, I’ll read the text out loud to you – it will take, like, 40 seconds or so. But it’s really as far as you could get from high quality content. Here it is: “Nice, nice place. Nice place… I have visited this place for several times and I became very mesmerized. ……. I am very happy to visit this place….. Very nice and beautiful place it is….. Very attractive place it is ……………… [the keyboard got stuck perhaps] Very nice place ….”. Well, if that is a high quality review? Not in my view. Not in 100 years. Not in 100,000 years, of course – and the guy should have least also have used ‘flabbergasted’ a few times instead of ‘mesmerized’ as a variation. Just kidding, of course, it couldn’t get worse.
Jan Van Haver 10:06
Also with photos, duplicates is a very big issue. And remember: Google was saying redundant photos are not belonging in Google Maps. So duplicate photos, having twice or more times the same photo for one point of interest is a problem. It’s even a bigger problem if you duplicate photos across locations, so use the same photo, or video – it could also be a video – that is placed on more than one point of interest. And especially for videos this is sometimes justified by saying “Yeah, but you see multiple businesses in this video, so I uploaded it for all of those points of interest”. Not a good idea. You should only upload a photo once, or a video once, for one single point of interest.
Jan Van Haver 11:03
Other problems I’ve seen with photos and videos are just-one-second videos, or very similar pictures, where each picture is taken, like, one step further to the left or to the right from the previous one, or closer or further away from the point of interest. And similar pictures with or without a flash, with or without an artistic effects – by the way: don’t do this at all, that’s not what Google Maps is meant for: just upload plain photos, do not put any artistic effects on them. Also problematic are collections of photos that look really like ‘my visit to city x’ or to the beach or to the museum, or ‘my personal or family photo album’. So: no pictures of kids, no selfies. We covered that, in the episode 3 about selecting pictures: no personal stuff, just pictures of points of interest.
Jan Van Haver 12:07
And another nice one I came across, which is also of course not something you should do, are screenshots. This was a specific person that wanted to prove his expertise in SEO, Search Engine Optimization, so getting higher in the Google rankings in the search results: he just uploaded a number of screenshots – as if you couldn’t fake those with Photoshop. So all of those: do not do it. You could also have duplicate accounts, of course, we mentioned that already at the beginning: you should only have 1 Local Guides account and only use that account to upload your material. I came across one local guide who had about 200 pictures and each of them had one single like. Well, that is, I guess, one of the reasons why Google is insisting so much on having only one account. Because if you have two accounts, you can use one of them to write reviews and upload photos, and the other one to like all of those, because getting likes is also one of the criteria in reaching some of the badges (a topic for one of the upcoming episodes).
Jan Van Haver 13:25
An interesting question is, of course, also: does it make any difference if breaking the rules was on purpose or by accident? Well, let me make sure that you hear this loud and clear: NO, that does not make any difference. You’re supposed to know the rules, read them and check them from time to time – or you could just keep listening to the LetsGuide Podcast of course. But you are responsible for what gets uploaded to your local guides account. So if you have two or more Google accounts on your phone or on your computer, and you actually accidentally use two or more to upload stuff… that’s your responsibility. If pictures that were uploaded already, when you were doing some Local Guides contributions, later on get suggested by Google Photos to upload to that same location, and you say “okay, just do this”. Or you were trying to upload a picture and things went wrong, so you say “okay, I do another attempt”, and in the end, both attempts turned out to have been successful. That way, duplicates get in your contributions, and you are responsible for that. And these technical issues do happen. One Local Guide has reported to me that duplicates can end up in the contributions list for photos, I think it was… up to 14 times. So really be careful and make sure that you know what is happening in your local guides account.
Jan Van Haver 15:00
A logical next question is, of course: what happens if rules are being broken? Well, Google is quite clear about this. They mention it in several places: “Google may remove a local guide from the program at any time in its sole discretion”. There are two levels, however: your account can be suspended, or it can be removed. But none of those have a prior warning. And we’ll get back to the distinction between those two in a minute. There is no warning because it’s not the Local Guides team itself who is suspending accounts; it’s really bots who are doing this. It’s not clear at this point, if there are any triggers that would set this off, or any thresholds for having, for example, duplicate pictures, or a specific number of one or two word reviews. It’s unclear what’s happening and how many times this is happening because the Local Guide with those 105 hundred identical reviews I was referring to earlier, is not yet suspended. I researched this, I found this a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve checked again: the account is still there. And another Local Guide, however, who had only 40 pictures, and only two duplicates was suspended. But perhaps there were other reasons, of course. We can only see what happens with the photos and the reviews. Perhaps there were other problems with the account, no way of telling that, of course.
Jan Van Haver 16:30
Some say that submitting your application for ‘Local Guides Connect’ is a trigger – that the fact that you send in your application triggers a review of your account – and has created a number of suspensions. Possible; we are still waiting for confirmation – which will probably never come, of course. The Dutch Local Guide living in the Canary Islands Jeroen Mourik (you might know him from the weekly Facebook Live meet and greet sessions on Sunday – you should really try one of those, It’s very, very interesting; you can find all the info in the ‘Local Guides World’ group on Facebook), so Jeroen has an interesting theory: in the default reply that the Local Guides team sends when you reach out to them when your account was suspended – we’ll cover that in just a minute – they say they will look into it within three weeks. So they need to make sure that the amount of suspended profiles to be checked is manageable within that timeframe. Should they launch the bot on all accounts they might come up with a flood of suspended accounts which is simply not manageable within three weeks. So they run it every now and then – that’s Jeroen’s theory – on a subsets of the accounts.
Jan Van Haver 17:58
By the way, suspension can also be triggered if a review you wrote is reported as bad quality, or fake, or whatever, by a business owner. You have to realize: those business owners, the businesses, they bring advertising money to Google. So their concerns probably get a higher priority than the Local Guides concerns. I’m not sure if this will happen already when just one business owner is reporting one of your reviews. I really didn’t find a lot of these cases, but just a few. But you should be aware that it is possible, that this happens. And it’s definitely, all in all, a very good source of finding spammers that deliberately post fake, or let’s say, paid-for reviews.
Jan Van Haver 18:48
Now that you know what will happen, you will probably want to know how to react then, if this should happen. Well definitely not: create a new account to be able to go to Connect again, the official forum where a lot of Googlers are quite easily reachable. (If your account is suspended, you also have no access to the Connect platform). But please do not create a new account to do this. It’s specifically mentioned on the website by Google: “Do not create or use multiple accounts to evade our policies or bypass blocks or otherwise subvert restrictions placed on your account. For example, if you’ve been suspended for abuse, don’t create a replacement account”. Much more clear as that it can’t get, I think. If some, possibly all of the things that we have mentioned above, apply to your account, what you should do is: start making the corrections. Which means for duplicate photos… just remove them. Remove the duplicates from the point of interest and if you’ve added one picture or video to multiple points of interest, remove them from all of them, except for one of course, which is the most appropriate one. Also remove similar or redundant pictures. Remember that we talked about pictures taken with one step to the left or one step to the right of the previous one; pictures with children; selfies; stuff like this: delete all of them.
Jan Van Haver 20:27
If you have spammy reviews, well, there are two possibilities: either delete them, or elaborate. But if you elaborate, do it truthfully – it has to be of course about places that you have visited. Remember, the most important thing: be trustworthy. Yes, doing all this will cost you points, because if you remove a review or remove a picture, the points you received for those will go away. Yes, this might bring you down to a lower Local Guides level, but that’s what you need to face: if you’ve done something wrong – on purpose or not, doesn’t matter – you have to correct it and you have to bear the consequences. Once this is done, you can reach out to the Local Guides team on Twitter (just mention @localguides) or on their Facebook wall and wait. Usually what I see on Twitter, is that they reply within sometimes hours, sometimes days. If you post something in the weekend, don’t expect to hear from them until it’s Monday again because the team is not working over the weekend, of course. Then you receive this standard reply which says “okay, we’ll look into it’s in and get back to you or possibly not within three weeks”. There’s actually on Connects, now that we’re on that topic, there’s a good post on this entire topic which is called ‘Why was I removed from the local guides program’, a post written by the Google team itself, and I’ll make sure to include a link to that in the shownotes.
Jan Van Haver 22:14
“Can a suspension be reversed?” is then the question you might be wondering now. Well: yes, incorrect suspensions do get fixed after this three week period or so, provided of course the problems are fixed. Or it is clear that the alleged abuse, reported by a business owner, is in fact not true, and you were just behaving as a good Local Guide. If you’re removed, however, this is permanent.
Jan Van Haver 22:48
A final question I want to address on this topic is: why do some people do this? Well, it’s quite obvious: to reach a higher Local Guides level, in some cases. Think again of this guy with 105 “Nice, nice nice”-reviews. If you make the calculation, it’s 105 times 1 point for the star rating, and 10 points for the review. And another 10 points for making it more than 200 characters (“…” are also characters of course), which makes 105 x 21 = 2205 points. Sounds like “being level … guide in an hour”, which is of course not something that you should do. But it does remind me of the plan I have for an upcoming episode of the podcast which will be called ‘Level 5 in a day’. That’s definitely possible in a decent way. Especially with Connect Live coming up, There are a lot of local guides that want to reach level 5 quite quickly. So you might see some abuse coming from that.
Jan Van Haver 23:59
Another reasons might be that people want to promote their own business or damage a competitor, for SEO purposes for example, or to manipulate the average rating. Suppose you have a pizzeria and you create some extra Local Guides accounts, and give your own place of course a 5-star rating and all the other ones in the city a 1-star rating. Well, your average rating will go up, while the average rating for all the others will obviously go down. Final reason could be revenge. Revenge towards an employer, current or former.
Jan Van Haver 24:41
To finish off, I want to give some advice to avoid problems, because it’s of course better to prevent a suspension than having to deal with it when it’s happened. Check the rules from time to time. Keep an eye on Connect, the official forum, and on the Facebook groups. And keep Listening to the LetsGuide Podcast, of course. Check your contributed photos for accidental duplicates regularly. And then, as mentioned already a couple of times: be trustworthy. For every piece of information, for every review, for every photo you want to add, ask yourself: “Is this quality content? Is this something that could at least help some others?” And by the way, if applying for Connect Live is your main motivation at the moment for contributing to Google Maps, just take your time to clean up your account and focus on next year’s event.
Vanessa P. 25:41
What a great idea.
Jan Van Haver 25:45
In this special section of the podcast, called ‘What a great idea’ I want to point out one of the ideas that was submitted by a fellow Local Guide on ‘Idea Exchange’, a part of Local Guides Connect, the official forum. In this particular case, it’s an idea from a Local Guide called Dror_Shmuel – sorry for butchering your name, if that’s the case – which has (unbelievably) only received one vote up to now, which happens to be mine, of course, as I’m presenting it here. The idea is called ‘Rating score of the last three months’ and it’s quite easy actually. The proposal is that the points of interest should not have just one rating, and average rating where all the ratings given through the years are just, well – an average is taken of them – but that a second average should be made of all the ratings given in the last three months. That would, for example, make sure that a place which might have hundreds of reviews from years gone, which might be very nice, but it’s very bad at the moment. That would lead to a situation where such a place could have an average of 4.1, but the last three months 2.2. Then you know something’s wrong there. And perhaps you should not be visiting this place. As I said, only one vote so far. Please – I’ll include a link in the shownotes, of course – do me a favor: go to that idea on Idea Exchange and click on the Like-button.
Jan Van Haver 27:33
And that brings us to the end of this episode, which was recorded at the end of April 2019. And is of course representing the situation as it is today. Should you be listening at a later point in time, things might obviously have changed. Please do reach out to me if you have any questions or comments, good or bad. You can do this on Twitter, looking for LocalGuidesGuru, or you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find me on Local Guides Connect under my real JanVanHaver. And of course the shownotes for this episode will also be available on letsguidepodcast.com, the homepage of the podcast.
Jan Van Haver 28:26
I still want to draw your attention to the European meetup that will take place in June, in Ghent, which I am also organizing and that is really getting closer-by right now, but it’s not too late to sign up if you still want. But the preparation of that event is going to take up really quite a lot of my time and I do still have a day job in between as well. So I’m planning for the next episode, which will have will have as topic Local Guides Connect, the official platform, to be out not in two weeks, but only in four weeks time. I hope to find you in the audience again.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai