Although Google Maps is now going on 5 years old, it is still in its infancy. It has become a powerful tool for local marketing yet Google’s policy of “launch early and iterate” has created a tool that has been open to an ongoing number of abuses. Recently Google announced that they had closed a major security hole in the Local Business Center that was widely breached by black hat marketers in the Locksmith industry. The recent news that claimed records are still being hijacked has put the immature nature of the Maps product in strong relief.
Google, in pushing the not-yet-finished Maps product to the forefront of search, has created an environment where businesses that would gladly trade their grandmothers for a powerful marketing strategy seemingly romp at will.
PureShear, the locksmith turned Maps black hat & black hat whistle blower, is a product of this weird interaction of the laissez faire & easily accessible marketing power of Google Maps and the hyper-competitive Locksmith industry. He recognized the problem and his tenuous position on the slippery slope of methods that violated Google's guidelines. PureShear attempted to rectify it as best as he understood and subsequently revealed the details of the illicit methods to Google.
He, much more so than Google, put his profession on the line and is paying an appropriate price. He and his listings have been banned from Google Maps. However, it is not clear that Google has dramatically changed its product nor that locksmiths practicing more egregious tactics are being equally punished.
The whistle blower never has it easy in our society. We all recognize their hypocrisy and self interest and they are often shunned by peer and corporation alike. But his wrongdoing and culpability is really much less than that of Google.
Google, in highlighting the Local 10 Pack in universal search results (ten local listings typically appearing next to a small map at the top of search results) proclaimed that the rough-cut Maps and its companion Local Business Center was ready for prime time. Their “release quickly and iterate” thinking put a product in the market place that has not been able to withstand the assaults from black hats.
The strategy, which worked so well in general search, has put real businesses on the firing line. It is not Google who has suffered as a result of this strategy. It has been the small florist, the honest locksmith and the unaware Microsoft.
Despite repeated attempts by the search industry to communicate the need for more controls and oversight, Google has continued to release features into local that are open to abuse. Google has used its release early and iterate tactic to gain market share at the expense of more circumspect competitors and on the fragile incomes of small businesses.
Local search is about accuracy and truth—not relevance, at least as that word is defined in the world of web search. The goal should be to accurately display the who, what, when and where of commerce in the non-virtual world. The practices that Google developed for search relevance worked well when taming the world wide web. Now that the need is to accurately catalog and communicate about the functions and locations of entities in the real world, these policies and practices need to be rexamined and revised to fit the new reality.
Google has offered small business the opportunity to be found via Local. Google is at the forefront of making small and medium businesses aware of the opportunities and benefits of marketing via the internet. This opportunity is a golden one as the internet moves into our lives in the new, meaningful way that is local search. The moment should not be lost. Google should assume the responsibility that comes with their leadership. They should not be guilty of carelessly turning local into the snake oil sales channel of the new millennium.
Google was given this article prior to publication and asked for their comments. Carter Maslan, the Director of Product Management for Google’s Local Search effort had this to say:
“Our goal is to perfect search quality, and business listing accuracy is an absolutely critical element of that goal. This is an ongoing effort and we’re continually working to improve and enhance our listings and what we offer local business owners. Abuses are bad for users, bad for Google and bad for the affected business; we take them seriously and want to tackle the problem in a way that scales to millions of businesses globally. From our experience to-date, we believe that remaining open to the local expertise of business owners and users produces search results that do a far better job of reflecting ‘ground truth.’ And we’re not judging success simply on the net gain in search quality; we’re also working to equip individual businesses with the tools required to ensure that their individual listings are accurate and in their control.”
“In addition to the corrections from business owners, the vast majority of end user edits are done appropriately — you can see some great examples of the improved accuracy resulting from high-quality edits here, here, and here. For example, that newly opened restaurant really wants to be found this weekend – both by the owner and by users – and either the restaurateur or a customer can put it on the map instantly. We want to protect that majority-case benefit while going after minority-case spammers.”
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.