All Sales & No Service: Google’s Small Business Priorities Are All Messed Up

google-eggGoogle 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.

NY Times & Google

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 actually is on the ground in a growing number of cities. In places like Portland, Austin, Las Vegas and many others, they’re hiring people to promote Google Places.

Google’s foot crew is doing things like organizing arcade parties in Portland, sponsoring fashion events in Austin and taking locals on nacho-tasting tours in New York City.

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.

google-get-business-onlineAnd 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.)

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Features: Analysis | Google: Maps & Local | Google: Marketing

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About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • http://www.planetc1.com/ Michael Dorausch

    Bravo Matt, well stated. I hate to say it, but this is the reason all small business owners either have to be better educated as to what they can do proactively, or they have to hire someone who can watch their back. I don’t think Google, Yelp or any others has any true understanding of what small business owners are going through. It’s also critical businesses don’t forget what worked before the internet, and those best practices should continue to be employed.

  • http://screenwerk.com Greg Sterling

    Matt:

    Google told me that much of their AdWords customer service effort was intended to educate and help SMBs, provided they contacted Google. There’s quite a discrepancy between the picture above and what Google portrayed to me about relatively satisfied SMB advertisers.

  • http://www.visionefx.net rickvidallon

    I hear the complaints of my clients very week about the inaccurate information posted by their competitors seeking to The fix is EASY. Do not allow users to post feedback on products without some verification of their identity that is tied to a physical address (same way that Google, Yahoo and Bing validates local business listings).

    Other areas of rampant abuse include ‘Complaint Websites’.
    I suggest that the same rule or algorithm might apply to any complaint website that does not display fully vetted complaints; that such complaints get pushed back in search results.

    At this writing it is well worth mentioning that Yahoo and Bing do not rank these type of complaint websites as relevant in searches, not nearly as much as Google does. As a developer, I believe this speaks to inherent flaws in Google assigning so much value to back links.

  • http://www.visionefx.net rickvidallon

    (my recent comment above truncated after submitting. — The correction is below)

    I hear the complaints of my clients very week about the inaccurate information posted by their competitors seeking harm, malign their business or reputation. This fix is EASY …

  • Matt McGee

    Greg, the point I’m making is that Google has millions of “customers” that are not advertisers. These people are being harmed, sometimes irreparably, by Google’s laissez-faire attitude with business data (allowing anyone to edit it) and, more importantly, by Google’s complete lack of customer service inside PLACES. Not AdWords — Places. We’re talking about two different things, I’d say.

    Plus, what do you expect that Google would portray to you? That people are unsatisfied? :-)

  • http://www.championmobilesolutions.com Jim Bryant

    “As Google says in its blog post, “we can’t be on the ground in every city and town.”

    Why not ? Ever hear of McDonald’s ? Google’s problem is it wants to sit in “Mountain View” and be the politburo to the online world (with competition only from China). The problem is Google doesn’t view Places as a service to SMB’s – it looks at them as properties (theirs), and in that regard they are an absentee slumlord.

    We small business consultants step in to fill the void and provide the much need service that Google ignores, but we too are at the mercy of Google and are left in the dark on changes until we read about them on Blumenthal’s blog then the community plays reverse engineering to try and figure out what’s going on. It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.

    I’m grateful for the opportunity, but the bottom line is if Google is serious about customer service then they would either dedicate some “boots on ground” or come up with a certification program like Adwords for consultants. Growing companies are concerned with such things – monopolies aren’t, and that is the real problem here.

  • TimmyTime

    Matt, congrats. Once again you showed your independence streak and showed how Google is in reality. I wish more tech bloggers had it, even though they are right to fear vindictive Google’s wrath. Google wants the money and power without the responsibility, because that interferes with their stratospheric margins.

    Google sees everything a dollar signs, that’s why they don’t care about collateral damage, as long as their earnings increase by algo changes. Has there ever been an algo or feature change that hurt Google’s earnings?

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