Does Google Only Listen If The New York Times Calls Them Out?

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.

This article originally appeared in Marketing Pilgrim.