For some queries, all first 10 results on Google are spam

The other day, I was looking for the phone number of my hairdresser to make an appointment; it turns out that when searching for the salon's name, Google provides only spam results that aren't helpful and may even end up costing you money.

The story

I couldn't remember the salon's name, but I knew where it was, so I looked it up in StreetView (the salon is in Sèvres, a small town near Paris, France):

My hairdresser in Sèvres

Next, I looked for "franck provost sevres", and I got two things:

  • "Places for franck provost near Sèvres":

Places near Sèvres

Those are interesting and would be helpful, except none of them are actually in Sèvres.

  • A list of web results for my query:

Pages mentionning franck provost sevres

It looked odd: no directory site is present in the results (such as "pagesjaunes.fr", "118218.fr", etc.); instead, there were only a bunch of specialized websites with very specific names:

  • meilleurcoiffeur.com means "best hairdresser"
  • justacote.com means "next door"
  • beaute-addict.com means, well, beauty addict
  • etc.

Checking them out, we find that every site suggests a different phone number for the same salon at the same physical address; here are some of those numbers: 08 99 18 58 xx, 08 99 10 35 xx, 08 99 02 19 xx, 08 99 51 06 xx...

Notice something? Here's a hint: the real number for the salon is in fact 01 46 23 86 xx.

Phone numbers beginning with 08 99 are toll numbers. Calling a number starting from 01-05 will probably be free (or very cheap, depending on your phone company), but calling an 08 99 number will cost you 1,34 euros just to make the connection, plus .34 euros per minute. And this money doesn't go to the salon, it goes to the site that set the number up (with the provider of toll numbers taking a hefty cut).

In short, the sites in Google's first page provide zero value and try to scam you into calling their toll number instead of the real number.

(What's worse, many of these sites serve a different version of their page to Google than to users, where the actual phone number can be seen).

It's a shame these businesses exist, but there's not much we can do about it. But why would Google help them thrive?

In Google's defense

Is there anything that can be said in Google's defense? Actually, yes.

There's no "Franck Provost" salon in Sèvres anymore. It changed its name some time ago (left the Provost franchise) and is now "Fréquence Beauté Coiffure Rive Droite" (a local franchise).

Street View wasn't updated recently enough to reflect the change (which is understandable), but all online directories were, as well as the Google index. So in the Google index, the only pages that contain the tokens "franck provost sevres" are pages from spam sites! (which are probably updated less frequently).

When searching for Fréquence Beauté Coiffure Rive Droite Sèvres one gets, almost exclusively, directory sites in the results, and the correct phone number is immediately available on the results page, without further clicking.

But of course, nobody is going to search like this, because nobody knows the new name of the salon (or if they do, they already have its phone number!)

What to do

Ironically, the freshness of Google's index can cause problems.

It could make sense to have access to some "historical index" ("here's how the results would have looked like last year for this query")? But it would probably be quite confusing.

Retaining changes at the item or semantic level could be helpful. The salon is the same, only the name changed. Google should try to know that, and provide the correct phone number while searching for the old name. (A hard problem, certainly).

In any case, giving so much visibility to spammers and scammers seems very wrong.

Mon, 25 Feb 2013 • permalink