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Summary:

Yesterday the New York Times ran an article that addresses what is becoming a rather serious issue in the local online marketing space.

The…

Listening
photo: Le Club Symphonie / cultura / Corbis

Yesterday the New York Times ran an article that addresses what is becoming a rather serious issue in the local online marketing space.

The issue is around just how easy it is for someone to get a Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Places listing tagged as “Permanently Closed”. Now, in a world where there was respect and decency this shouldn’t be that big a deal but we are talking about the Internet here. If there is a way for someone to make a buck or prevent someone from making a buck by exploiting a hole in an open system like Google Places you can bet there will be those who will do it and even smile when they do.

The article reads:

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 Times goes on to basically call out Google’s system and what many perceive as their simple lack of caring about the issue. It is pointed out that even the remedy that Google offers for the situation is inconsistent in its success.

The owner of a closed business, and customers who know better, can click on a button marked “not true,” which appears by all “reportedly closed” and “permanently closed” listings. In some instances, owners say, a business will “open” shortly thereafter. But other owners, like Ms. Cowan, say that the button doesn’t work, or that it takes a week to have any effect. Still others say that immediately after clicking the “not true” button, their business is immediately “closed” again.

Some local search experts were quoted in the article that recounted one of the funnier things a search marketer has done to make a point. Mike Blumenthal reported Google’s headquarters as being closed. His actions, described below, at least got some attention from Mountain View.

In mid-August, a search consultant and blogger named Mike Blumenthal was so rankled by what he considered Google’s cavalier attitude to closings on Google that he committed an act of online disobedience: He “closed” Google’s offices in Mountain View, Calif. For a brief period, Google itself was “reportedly closed,” according to Places. “I did it to point out how annoying this is when it happens,” he said.

On Aug. 15, Mr. Blumenthal posted a screen shot of Google’s Places page “reportedly closed,” noting that it took just two people – him and a friend – to pull off this stunt. It seemed to get the company’s attention. At least one change to closings on Places has already been made. Since late August, a business that is newly tagged “permanently closed,” receives an alert via e-mail from Google, informing the business owner of the change.

So will this result in Google finally acting as if it has some responsibility in making sure that yet another one their systems isn’t being gamed regularly? We all know what happens to search results and Google’s “battle” with spam. Now the same gamesmanship is happening in Google Places.

Google better get it’s act together on this one especially if the Places listings will in some way be incorporated into Google+ as part of their business offering. There has been no confirmation that this will even be the case but it would make sense especially since Google’s recent whitewashing of these Place page listings indicates they may be preparing to populate these pages in a way that fits the whole social fabric they are trying to knit together through Google+.

So what does Google have to say about all of this? Well, the New York Times certainly must have their ear because a post today on their Lat Long blog says the following:

About two weeks ago, news in the blogosphere made us aware that abuse – such as “place closed” spam labels – was occurring. And since then, we’ve been working on improvements to the system to prevent any malicious or incorrect labeling. These improvements will be implemented in the coming days.

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.

Wow, Google, those are some very pretty and comforting words. Nice try. Until there is some action taken that is real (how about providing some real support to these businesses if they are so important?) this is an empty gesture. We’ll wait and see what exactly is done in the “the coming days” then see if this is something you are really concerned about or just paying lip service to.

Sorry to sound so cynical, Google, but why does it take an article in the New York Times to make you take action on something that you have known about for far longer than just these past few weeks?

Frank Reed is the managing editor of Marketing Pilgrim. He also provides consulting, speaking and education services relating to local Internet marketing through Local Basix. Frank contributes weekly to Mike Moran’s Biznology blog and he writes even less frequently at his original home base, Frank Thinking About Internet Marketing.

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This article originally appeared in Marketing Pilgrim.

  1. I read your article then I realized that it would be just as useful with a much shorter text. I offer the following content, for your use free of charge, to be reproduced under the terms of the creative commons-attribution (commercial use allowed) license: 

    “Oh no, a search engine that provides content for free, which is partially crowd sourced contains inaccurate information! Stop the presses! In other news Wikipedia contains some outright fabrication!”

    Bing, Yahoo, MapQuest, etc. all contain inaccuracies as well. Even the revered “holy bible” yellow pages contains errors. There is no substantive proof showing that Google Maps has a higher or lower error rate than any of the services that I named. I’ve encountered instances where the phone book has had the wrong number for a business in the white pages, it was frustrating because I had to go physically get a menu from the pizza place 4 blocks from my house, but I didn’t go to the New York Times about it. 
    The question of whether a business fixes something is always a question of how high that error rate is and what it would cost to fix it.Google detecting malicious labels and improving the business verification system will cost them developer hours, meaning real money. Obviously a New York Times article upped the impact significantly and made that timeline shorter and that isn’t ideal that it took that, but quite frankly at least they acted some businesses refuse to act even when that happens. 

    I definitely feel bad for the businesses who were mistakenly listed as closed, however, I can’t help but point out that we’re making a mountain out of a mole hill here. Slow news day huh?

    1. Shouldn’t a business that has a zillion users, even a “free” one, offer at least one phone number for customer service? Even if it was a toll number, so that it wouldn’t damage their pristine income statement.

      This isn’t about mistakes, it’s about getting them addressed without an act of Congress (or The New York Times)…This is the same drill with “anything Google,” including AdSense, which is anything but “free” for its customers. 

      1. oops – make that “AdWords”…

  2. The real issues today people have about privacy is the amount of information social networking sites are collecting about its users, the way this information is being collected, and how this information is being used. With all this information social networking sites today have about its users, add a real name, add an email, and add facial recognition, not only do people loose their privacy, they also expose themselves to cyber crimes, and predatory advertising & manipulation, etc., 

    Regardless of what sites today promise regarding security, any site can be hacked(An example would governments, banks, and law enforcement agencies who have so called state of the art security systems). Social networking sites such as Google+ & Facebook are open door gold mines for cyber criminals. The obvious solution to address these problems involving privacy, anonymity, and cyber crime is simple, no real names, no emails. You don’t need a real name and an email address to social network effectively yet with some anonymity, you need this information to sell to advertisers & companies, you also need this information to sell someday to private interest, governments, companies, etc.,
    Although only 60% complete and still in Beta, ONLYMEWORLD early on seems to realize that respecting its users Privacy Rights, Anonymity, and protection from Cyber Crime, is paramount to both longevity & success in the industry. Their platform is similiar to Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and Linkedin, yet differ because of their approach to Privacy Rights, Anonymity, and protection from Cyber Crime by not asking for real names, emails addresses, and not engaging in facial recognition, etc.  People again are able to social network with some anonymity & privacy, yet effectively!

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