Google handles more than 90% of the world’s online search queries, generating billions in advertising revenue, yet it has emerged that ad-supported Google Maps includes an estimated 11 million falsely listed businesses on any given day.

According to a special investigation by the Wall Street Journal, advertising and search experts believe hundreds of thousands of new false listings appear on Google Maps each month.

Some of these create fake profiles of their competitors, listing incorrect addresses or phone details, while others impersonate legitimate businesses to lure unsuspecting consumers.

The experts contacted by the Journal said these scam listings tend to be for contractors and repair services, which people often turn to in emergencies without having the time to check their credentials.

A retired federal employee from Virginia is just one victim highlighted in the Journal report. She used Google Maps to search for a reliable firm she had used before to fix her garage door, but a conman had hijacked the name of the legitimate business and listed his own phone number.

He turned up at her door, pretended to be a contractor from the original firm, did a shoddy job and charged almost twice as much as the job was worth.

Investigating further, the Journal found that a search for plumbers in parts of New York City revealed 13 false addresses out of the top 20 Google search results. And only two of the 20 met Google’s requirement that their pushpin listings must be locations open to customers.

Separately, a search for personal injury lawyers on Google Maps produced only one real office out of a dozen addresses provided.

It further appears that the false-listing trade can be a lucrative one because the Journal contacted a Pennsylvania-based “listings merchant”, who said he could place up to 3,800 fake Google Maps listings a day, charging $99 for each one.

Ethan Russell, product director of Google Maps, responded to the report by highlighting the work the company undertakes to deal with the problem.

He detailed in a blog post that Google Maps last year took down more than three million fake business profiles, with more than 90% of them removed before a user could even see the results.

In addition, the company disabled 150,000 user accounts found to have uploaded made-up listings, a 50% increase since 2017, while Google’s own systems identified 85% of the listings removed.

“It’s a constant balancing act and we’re continually working on new and better ways to fight these scams using a variety of ever-evolving manual and automated systems,” he said.

Sourced from Wall Street Journal, Google; additional content by WARC staff