Wrecking Local SEO 201 – Do External Links Cause Merged Reviews?

It’s no secret that this auberge de jeunesse in Montreal, the Auberge de Paris (I realize the name is unusual), is a client of mine. For a while now they’ve had issues with their reviews being merged with their sister downtown Montreal hotel‘s reviews.

The problem is that since the youth hostel’s reviews tend to score lower than the hotel’s reviews, on average, the hotel gets lower review scores. The result is that the hotel unfairly gets a bad rap.

(The hostel doesn’t get an offsetting revenue benefit because (i) hostel prices are lower and (ii) the Auberge de Paris doesn’t get shown in the Google universal maps results (in fact, only one youth hostel in Montreal does, oddly enough). )

So what causes these merged review listings?

There are a variety of possibilities, but the one that seems most logical to me is confusing external links. I was recently doing some competitor analysis and found an old link of the hotel’s on a page where its competitors also got links. The link featured the keyword “auberge,” which in French means inn. (An “auberge de jeunesse” is therefore a youth “inn” – a youth hostel.)

Auberge anchor text for hotel - montreal .com

From having been with the hotel for a couple of years now, I know that there are other links of a similar nature elsewhere, featuring youth hostel anchor text. So I’d say it’s fairly likely that this is the causa causans or at least one of several causes.

The implications if this hypothesis is correct, as far as SEO goes, is that competitors could manipulate your search marketing results. They could build/buy links with messy anchor text to

  • merge your reviews with their own (for extra publicity on your branded search terms) or
  • merge them with a business in a different industry and thus reduce your sales as customers get annoyed due to the wrong numbers etc.

Note: I’m not claiming credit for the hypothesis – I believe that Mike Blumenthal said it somewhere only I can’t find where (it might also have been Mike Belasco or Andrew Shotland ?). If you know who’s behind the idea, do let me know in the comments. You’ll get a link like Antonio from Marketing de Busca earned.

Another possibility is the co-citation with other hostels. Like I mentioned, that link is far from being unique. So it’s possible that Google kept seeing http://www.hotel-montreal.com links in a youth hostel context and the co-citation lead it to think that the auberge and hotel are one and the same. Aaron Wall used to see his name offered up in SERPs as a related search to Traffic Power when he got sued by them; his hypothesis is that it was due to many common citations with TP.

A related but slightly different possibility is that the links to the hotel featuring the auberge keywords are often accompanied by the hotel’s pricing. Ergo, it’s really one and the same product just operating under two different names. The cause in this case could be described as a more advanced form of co-citation that is similar to how crawlers look for address info on a website for geolocation purposes. This could be perceived, as Mike Blumenthal suggested, as an attempt to avoid mapspam. “It is possibly a spam control strategy to prevent multiple optimized listings from the same business.”

A fourth possibility is that the two businesses share the same front office. People staying at either the hotel or the hostel check in through the same front office. In fact, both websites cite the same address. Publishing your address on your site is a common local SEO tactic, and this could easily be the source of the trouble.

Except that it’s not up to the Hotel and Auberge de Paris to rectify this problem – it’s up to Google. It would be totally unreasonable to have this small hospitality business add another front office and associated staff just for the sake of changing the address listed on the site for Google. Not to mention that Google is always encouraging site owners to to act like it doesn’t exist. But then, maybe I’m being shortsighted; does anyone have a workaround to suggest/share?

What do you guys think the problem is? If you’re a Googler and you read this, some help/rectification/clarification/separation of the listings would be great. And please don’t tell me to try this in Google groups – that’s proven completely useless. Besides that, if you guys liked this post, you might care subscribe to my RSS feed (link goes to XML, not Feedburner).

Update: I forgot to mention that Mike Blumenthal covered this earlier:

http://blumenthals.com/blog/2008/02/21/google-maps-more-reports-of-merged-listings/

http://blumenthals.com/blog/2008/02/20/google-maps-conflated-records/

Unfortunately, no word from Google on the real cause of the problem there nor have I seen it since. Hello? Webmaster communication effort? You guys there?

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Comments

  1. Do you think sending a link with specific anchor text from the hotel site to the youth hostel site would have any effect? It might be a considered as a "vote" that says, "hey, this other site is more appropriate for the word 'Auberge' than we are." I have no idea if this would work, but it might be worth a try.

    Comment by Willy - May 21, 2008 @ 10:19am
  2. I would suggest that the problem is almost certainly the fact that both businesses have the same physical address. That is certainly preventing them from displaying two instances in Google maps. My evidence shows that Google has been working very hard to integrate physical addresses and proximity into results and having two names with identical addresses is a pretty clear signal to them that it is the same business. I suggest you claim a Google Local Business listing for the hotel using a unique address, something like 901A, rue Sherbrooke E. Assuming the Canadian Post Office will deliver to the address and you verify it, you will at least get into Universal maps.

    Comment by Jonah Stein - May 21, 2008 @ 11:21am
  3. Hey Gab. Interesting problem here, and one that I'm sure is not unique just to your client. Your analysis here seems very well done and in depth, and leads me to believe that the problems cannot be contributed to one reason or the other, but is probably a mixture of all of the above. I am at a loss for good specific SEO advice on this problem, but I'll still see if I can help out. The problem you outline is because there is little visible difference between the hotel & hostel by the SEs. This is where I think you should focus, and may be more of a branding push than anything else. First, I would suggest creating 2 physical "addresses" for the different businesses. I assume that both of them receive mail separately, or if they don't, they should. They may have the same street address, but consider recommending different suite #'s, box #'s, or some other differentiating feature. You can do this and still keep the same front office, as far as I know. Also, I would rebrand both of the titles between the hostel & hotel. The best example I can think of for this is what Courtney Tuttle has done on his blog (http://www.courtneytuttle.com). By branding his site as "Court's Internet Marketing School," he has been ranked highly for the term "Internet Marketing" for a long time. Right now the s of the 2 hotel sites are too similar. Create a marked difference between how the 2 locations are branded, and the anchor text leading to each site will change in the future. Off the top of my head, that is all I can think of for now. I'll mull over this for a while and get back to you if I can think of anything more.

    Comment by Kyle Wegner - May 21, 2008 @ 11:50am
  4. Willy, we used to have that but lost it in a recent redesign. Good idea! Jonah, a pleasure to finally see you here :D. I'll look at what we can do to update the address. As to branding, Kyle you have a great point. I don't know what control I have on that, frankly, but I'll bring it up with the hotel's folks. Also appreciate the point about different suite/box numbers.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - May 21, 2008 @ 12:48pm
  5. It appears to me to be A Google bug based on the shared address/phone number. see these reports: http://blumenthals.com/blog/2008/02/21/google-maps-more-reports-of-merged-listings/ http://blumenthals.com/blog/2008/02/20/google-maps-conflated-records/ Mike

    Comment by Mike Blumenthal - May 21, 2008 @ 5:17pm
  6. Mike, thanks for sharing those. I thought I had linked to them in the post but obviously forgot.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - May 21, 2008 @ 6:25pm
  7. Hi Gabriel, Thanks for flagging this one. This is a tricky case due to the fact that there are two hotels with similar names in the same building, which is quite rare. We don't have a great answer for that situation right now, but we'll look for ways to cases like this better in the future. Thanks, Jen (aka Maps Guide Jen)

    Comment by Jen Chin - May 26, 2008 @ 9:01pm

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