Over the past several weeks I have explored some of the issues involved with categorization of businesses in Google Maps on my blog, Understanding Google Maps. In Part 1, I detailed the more than year-long history of small business frustration. In Part 2, I provided some background on the early research and the difficulty with categorization. In Part 3, I developed a possible model for how Google categorizes information and a work-around for frustrated business owners so that they could get categorized correctly. Hopefully soon, the need for these sorts of work-arounds will disappear.
Recently I had a phone conversation about Google Maps categorization issues with Carter Maslan, one of Google’s geo product directors. Carter leads the product management efforts for Local Search. Prior to joining Google, Carter was Director of Technical Evangelism at Microsoft and Director of Product Management and Marketing at Inktomi. The talk was informative and hopefully the first of several that will provide greater insight to the Maps product and its workings. Below, an account of our conversation and what I learned from Google about their efforts to fix the problem.
Carter noted that he and Google were painfully aware of the categorization issues that had been noted on my blog and in the Google Maps for Business Group and that he shared the small business user’s dissatisfaction, and he assured me that they have been working on the fixes. He commented that he was personally frustrated that it has been over a year during which they had not been able to address these core problems.
According to Carter, the reason for the delay was that the category issue has not been as high on the to-be-solved list as other problems. He said that Google’s focus is on end user experience and that while this problem has affected business people and it was serious, it has not yet had that large of an affect on the end user experience.
There are apparently a number of things in the short term (2 to 4 weeks) that will be changed and there will be greater changes going forward. I asked if they will be increasing from the current 520 categories in the Local Business Center that businesses have to choose from and the answer was an unequivocal yes.
He noted that Google’s general idea about categorization was to not pick a single taxonomy, provider, or structure, and that their goal was to increase confidence by using many data source signals. Their general approach was to create an overarching categorization system that is a natural reflection of the way people think about these types of searches.
The categorization system is meant to support the variety in user expectation due to topic and geography and will improve over time through usage. He offered up the example of the different intent of the search “Chinese Restaurant” when searched for in NYC and Beijing and the need to develop categorization technology that could take that difference into account.
They have been using different providers of the same data and the categories in use came from one of many providers and web sites. Their end goal is for it to be very open and for there to be a competition between sources to provide the most probable categorization of any given business.
Going forward, Carter noted that “spamming” of the categories was an issue that they were dealing that was compromising quality. The example he noted was of the limo services indicating in the LBC that they were actually an airport so their site should appear for airport searches. He felt that over the long haul the best solution was to allow the users to make corrections to the listings and then have some way to make that visible in the ranking. They are definitely pursuing more user input which he hoped would provide an ultimate reduction of the frustration levels. They are also putting in place techniques to prevent abuse. Their general philosophy is that there are more good people than bad but that the bad are very motivated, and that with the right balance of technology they can have high confidence in the data.
The bottom line for me was that Google is well aware of the problems with categories provided by the Local Business and they have both short term and longer term solutions in the works to solve them. There is no doubt in my mind as to their sincerity or their effort.
Skepticism is an attribute that I give up only grudgingly and even though I am not from Missouri, I am of the “show me” sort. It is clear that a straight up flat, categorization system will not be sufficient to meet searcher needs in the age of internet expectations. I assume that the transition from this relatively flat structure to the more flexible taxonomy that Google is speaking about is one of the friction points currently causing problems.
While I believe Carter when he says that the results will improve over time, after struggling with this issue for 18 months it is not clear how much time there is and one can only hope that the short term fixes go a long way toward resolving these issues.
There are changes coming and coming soon. Hopefully they will be improvements that will make our jobs easier, but that is to be seen. If nothing else it, sounds like the next few months working with Google Maps will be exciting.
Mike Blumenthal is a student of life, political economy and local search. He writes the blog Understanding Google Maps and Yahoo Local Search and is a partner in a small web design company in upstate NY.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.