The WING Blog

The Web and Internetworking Group at BU/CS



Google’s “locksmith” problem

By Mark Crovella

Here is an interesting NYT article about “Search Engine Optimization” (SEO) applied to Google. It seems that certain service categories like local locksmiths are getting flooded by bogus websites that are fronts for phone banks.    So an unsuspecting customer who searches for “locksmith boston” will get a large number of hits that essentially all go to the same service in the end.

There are a number of research questions here, for example:

  1. For how many categories of services is this a problem?
  2. For any given category, how can one sort the “real” from the “fake” sites?

The nice thing about these questions is that you can do the research just by typing google queries and looking at the results.   The main observation I would start from is that any attempt to overwhelm search results must rely heavily on automation, and therefore incorporate simple patterns that can be detected.

For example, “boston locksmith” yields top hits with domain names,,,, and quite a few more following that pattern.   Similarly, doing a search for “dc locksmith” yields domains like “”, etc.

Another example is the HTML content of web pages.  For example take a look at and and   The similarities here should be easily detected.

Finally, Google can help you directly.   Google image search has come a long way in allowing “query by example”.   Searching for the graphic on the left hand side of finds the same image used on locksmith sites in about a dozen cities. (It also finds the original image which was appropriated for this graphic — coming from a professor in Manchester England!)

Could be a neat project to “reverse-engineer” these SEO strategies!

Leave a comment