Google is, again, wiping the egg off of its company face this week after the New York Times exposed yet another way in which some users are manipulating Google Places to the detriment of unsuspecting small/local business owners.
The latest issue involves unscrupulous individuals/companies marking other businesses as closed in Google Places. It’s a process that the Times’ article calls “surprisingly easy” to do:
In recent months, plenty of perfectly healthy businesses across the country have expired — sometimes for hours, other times for weeks — though only in the online realm cataloged and curated by Google. The reason is that it is surprisingly easy to report a business as closed in Google Places, the search giant’s version of the local Yellow Pages.
On Google Places, a typical listing has the address of a business, a description provided by the owner and links to photos, reviews and Google Maps. It also has a section titled “Report a problem” and one of the problems to report is “this place is permanently closed.” If enough users click it, the business is labeled “reportedly closed” and later, pending a review by Google, “permanently closed.” Google was tight-lipped about its review methods and would not discuss them.
The underlying problem is that Google has taken the attitude that Google Places (or Maps as it was called originally) is a wiki. (That’s Google’s word for it, too. I wrote about this on my own blog almost three years ago: Google’s Hypocrisy: Search Spam and Map Spam.) Mike Blumenthal once changed Microsoft’s campus into an escort service on Google Maps and, when this latest problem with open businesses being listed as closed came to light, he managed to list Google’s HQ as closed.
As the Times’ article points out, Bing and Yahoo also have similar community editing features, but since they both get far less traffic than Google, those don’t seem to suffer the same amount of trouble.
New York Times as Google Watchdog
Just a couple months ago, the Times wrote about Google Places’ long-running problem with locksmith spam. Prior to that, the Times also exposed JCPenney and the online floral industry for violating Google’s webmaster guidelines. The Times also introduced us all to a business owner who claimed that getting bad reviews helped him rank higher in Google’s search results.
After Sunday’s article — which, by the way, ran on the Times’ front page — Google responded on Monday with a public apology:
We know that accurate listings on Google Maps are an important tool for many business owners. We take reports of spam and abuse very seriously and do our best to ensure the accuracy of a listing before updating it. That being said, we apologize to both business owners and users for any frustration this recent issue of spam labeling has caused, and we’re committed to making sure that users and potential customers continue to have the most up-to-date and accurate information possible.
Google’s apology also includes a promise that “improvements will be implemented in the coming days.”
What Took So Long?
Google actually has thousands of watchdogs (or more) that also happen to own small/local businesseses. They post in the Google Places help forum, often reporting problems before anyone else knows they exist. As the Times points out, Help forum complaints about this “reportedly closed” problem date back to at least July 1st — more than two months ago.
The local SEO blog community has also played Google watchdog longer than the Times has been writing about Google Places’ shortcomings. Mike Blumenthal wrote about this latest problem in mid-August. Google responded to him via email, in what was essentially an early version of Monday’s blog post.
But none of the local businesses affected by this vulnerability would’ve seen that response if Blumenthal hadn’t published the email in its entirety. And even then, only the ones lucky enough to know that his blog exists (and smart enough to read it) would’ve had access to Google’s statement.
While Google reps may have replied to some specific forum threads (I don’t know if they did or didn’t), Google kept quiet on its own blog about this until the Times’ article exposed the problem to a wide audience of small business owners.
Google: We Can’t Be Everywhere
About 16 months ago, Google announced that it was ending the “free for all” of community edits. The company promised to review all community edits before letting them appear on Google Maps/Places. In its blog post Monday, Google explains that this policy is still in place (emphasis below is mine):
For example, when there is a pending edit that indicates that a place might be closed, our system currently displays the label, “Reported to be closed. Not true?”. Only when that pending edit is reviewed and approved does the label change to, “This place is permanently closed. Not true?”.
No one (in their right mind) questions the challenge of maintaining an accurate database of local businesses across the US, much less around the world. It’s a Herculean task, what with the number of businesses that open, close or change their address, phone number, etc. on a regular basis.
So relying, at least to some degree, on user edits is logical. As Google says in its blog post, “we can’t be on the ground in every city and town.”
But Google Is On The Ground, Acquiring Customers
Google also has feet on the ground in the form of salespeople that promote Google Offers to local businesses, and presumably other staffers that help the participating businesses create/write the offer itself. (These creative folks may not be local to the community, but they’re still a Places/local staffing resource.) The Offers product is currently available (i.e., staffed) in 11 locations across the US, but will soon expand to 38 US cities. And probably to a lot more after that.
And there’s also the Get Your Business Online program, in which Google sends people out to meet with small/local business owners, offering them a free website, free hosting and free domain for one year. And, of course, the deal includes a $75 AdWords credit to encourage them to advertise. This program is already active in Texas and Vermont and, as the link above indicates, Google seems to be planning to hit all 50 US states. (Google is also running the same program with people on the ground in Canada, Australia and Ireland.)
That’s a lot of people whose job it is to sell stuff — Google’s stuff — to small/local businesses.
And let’s not forget a couple other past efforts to attract new small business into the Google fold: Tools for Online Success, a partnership with the US government, and the now-defunct Local Business Referrals program.
Are Google’s Priorities Mixed Up?
All of these are very visible signs of Google’s on-the-ground outreach to local/small businesses. It’s something Google has to do, and you can’t fault a company for making its own business growth a top priority. Google, like any company, depends on attracting new customers.
But like any company, Google also needs to serve its existing customers. As Greg Sterling wrote a few days ago, the company has more than 1,000 customer service reps that are specifically serving AdWords advertisers.
Does Google have anything similar for the millions of local business owners who are “customers” simply because they have a listing in Google Places — a listing that can be listed as “permanently closed” without the business owner ever knowing about it?
We know that Google used staffing agencies last year to hire 300 temporary workers for Google Maps, but that’s about all. A Google spokesperson declined to share how many staffers it has working on customer support for Google Places. The spokesperson did reiterate that Google is focused on building online resources — like the Google Places help forum — so users can find answers to their questions.
Direct, person-to-person customer service for Google Places isn’t the priority; self-help for small/local business owners is.
Google’s efforts to reach new small/local business customers are impressive and needed for its own growth. But focusing so heavily on customer acquisition while ignoring direct customer service is a clear sign that Google’s priorities are messed up in this area. A bigger commitment to service, not selling, might be what’s needed to get that egg off of Google’s face.
(Stock egg image via Shutterstock and used under license.)