Posted March 7, 2011 10:20 am by with 22 comments

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Remember the infamous ad from many moons ago by Charles Schwab that showed a room full of stock brokers being incentivized to sell a bad stock and the manager tells the team to “Put some lipstick on this pig” ? If you don’t check it out here.

Anyway, that expression is harsh for sure but I am beginning to wonder if one of Google’s concentrations these days, Places, is just another instance of a big company promoting a less than workable solution because it needs to. In other words, is Google putting lipstick on their Places pig?

They have put a pretty new landing page up for Places which looks nice. Check it out.

But as Barry Schwartz reports over at Search Engine Roundtable the analytics attached to Google Place Pages stopped reporting on February 18 and have flatlined ever since. On March 4th Googler Brianna said this in the Google Places help forum

We are aware that dashboard statistics for listings have not been updated since February 18. We are actively working to re-populate data for dates since February 18. Thanks for your patience.

Well, isn’t that special. After two plus weeks Google recognizes that something as prized as their Places offering is broken. Honestly, if they had any idea what it means to give a rip about their users then they would have said something on February 19th at least in the Forum but if it weren’t for a dedicated few non-Google employees nothing would be answered there ever as it is.

All of this is pretty disconcerting considering Google’s push to make local what local can be. There are 50 million place pages in Google’s database. The last report (which I cannot verify because that would require human interaction with an actual Googler) is that 5 million pages are now ‘owner-verified’. Google is busy now trying to sell Boost and Tags to those account holders because they see blood in the water (when translated that means potential revenue).

What they are not doing is making sure that the underlying product works well. Seth Godin wrote an interesting post this weekend. According to Godin no amount of evidence or fact-based marketing can change a person’s mind if they have no desire to change. This is what is starting to happen with Google Places. If Google today came out and said, we have made Places work perfectly, you can update your account effortlessly, you can manage the data easily, we will communicate with you with a flesh and blood human and Places analytics will be just right, I wouldn’t believe a word of it. A lot of us expect Places to be highly dysfunctional thus we are losing interest in seeing whether it is actually ever fixed. And worse, if it is fixed we won’t believe it.

To show how important this is to their future though, Google asked Marissa Mayer to take over the local side of the business because there is ‘gold in them that hills!”. They rolled out Hotpot and are trying to pump up Latitude in order to look cool and act as if they get social. What do we, the actual users, get? Nothing. A broken product with no support and a sales force looking to move it forward even in its current state. It looks like Google is simply trying to put lipstick on the pig that is Google Places.

Don’t get me wrong. Google Places is a great idea and one that could have enormous value. The trouble is that value comes from something working well not just that someone tells you that it is important. Google chooses to either ignore the whole working well part and just expects the lemmings to follow them.

Rather than just gripe about this I am offering a few simple suggestions for Google to consider which would do some cosmetic surgery on Places rather than just trying to neaten up a mess. Here we go.

  • Communicate often – If Google would only talk more regularly and openly using real people a lot of this user consternation would go away. Why not develop a Places version of Matt Cutts? Can’t the algorithm clone Matt? Maybe make a female version they can call Katt Cutts or something?
  • Admit problems quickly – This head in the sand, take it or leave approach from Google is killing any hope of developing trust between the company and its customers whether they be the SMBs working to muddle their way through Google’s self serve puzzle or the service providers guiding SMBs through that same mess. Did I mention communicate?
  • Publish a strategy – Most people get frustrated by Places because they are not quite sure what they are meant to do. While there has been interest in them around Google Map results it wasn’t until the SERP changes of October 2010 that their importance was ‘declared’ for real. Suddenly the Place Page was featured in local searches over traditional organic results in many cases. Hard to ignore and now the rules have been switched. And face it, except for a few ‘in the know’ types this change seemed rather abrupt and changed the rules swiftly and significantly. Wouldn’t it be nice to see where all of this is heading so plans could be made to optimize the opportunity for everyone?
  • Get the basics right – For the love of Pete, just going into the help forum for Google Places is enough to depress anyone trying to get anything done in this system. Reviews missing for months on end, analytics stop reporting and are simply not trusted anymore, an act of Congress required to make changes. The list drones on and on and simply points to a system that is being rolled out to the public one wheel short of functioning.
  • Communicate – Did I mention that one already? Well, it’s pretty important so I’ll say it again so I can say later that Google didn’t listen twice.
  • Show some humility – So the rest of us humans aren’t lucky or smart enough to be a Googler. You are the superior race but guess what. There is some recent evidence that long standing rulers can be brought down by the little people. I am not sure how this might happen but it would be cool to have a Google Revolt to make them change? Any suggestions on how this might happen aside from a pitchforks and torches march on the Googleplex please let us know.

There’s more I am sure, but I’m not sure how many of you have made it this far so I’ll stop.

One thing I will say is that I would love to be proven wrong. I would love for people to come out of the woodwork to tell me that Google is doing all they can to make Places the offering it could be. I just don’t see it because many of the leading voices in the local Internet marketing space have expressed similar concerns. Imagine how the SMB feels. Google passes along its edict and we are left to deal with it. Nice.

So are we stuck with Google’s pig? What are your thoughts on this one?

  • Chris

    Sorry, but this article was biased and uninteresting. I have an android phone and use places all the time. It’s excellent. I don’t care as much about the social aspect of places (latitude), but I love and use the local recommendations that Google provides, and I love that I can leave a rating and recommendation to a place that I’ve visited. Simple, intuitive, useful.

    Your article is a non-story.

    • This article isn’t so much discussing Google Places from a consumer point of view, but from the point of the view of businesses to manage their own places pages.

  • Aren’t opinions wonderful?

    @Chris – You are right about the point of view. I guess I need to more clearly point that out huh?

  • Jen

    This article made me feel a bit better for the fact that I’m not the only one struggling to make my Google Place work properly. I’ve been struggling with it for months and there’s nobody on Google’s end to help. I’ve read the help forum to see how other people have solved similar problems and nobody replies to their questions. Very frustrating.

  • Good article.

    Yes, it is not perfect. No: It is not a magic bullet. But if you don’t mind a bit of a learning curve, and you don’t need the same kind of analytics that a 100,000 visitor a month site needs, and you think it is cool that someone driving around might need to find your business on the phone, still a must have.

    by the way, i never have any trouble finding a Googler when i have a question on Adwords.

    from a San Diego public relations guy

    • @Colin – Isn’t it funny how Google people “become available” when there is cash involved? I think what they operate on is a ‘cash’orithm rather than an algorithm.

      • Here’s how the low the bar is for me: I’m still in Microsoft mode — you can’t get anyone on any phone for any reason. So when I do get someone, and they seem interested in talking to me instead of making me crawl under my desk to retrieve a 20 digit number from under the computer, I am thrilled.

        No need to cry from me Argentina, I drank the Apple kool aid two years ago, and I talk to them once in a while too. Sometimes in the store all by myself! Nice.

        So the bar is low: I’ll settle for Google giving us a bit more transparency on Google Webmaster tools, where their numbers for your web site only differ from analytics numbers by a factor of 10 or so.

        yes i am sure there is a good reason for this. i am also sure the person from google who would say that used to work for Microsoft.

        I’m a non-techie trying to make sense of all this, so I am looking forward to more of your posts.


        from a San Diego public relations guy

  • By the way for any concerned Google Places optimisers, the reporting updated to 20th Feb yesterday and today are showing up to 21st Feb in most cases, I expect that the stats should continue to catch up over the next week or two knowing Google. We have seen similar issues with stats updates in the past when significant changes have happened including the Dec 09 introduction of personalised search for ‘not-logged-in’ users.

  • RP

    Gotta agree with much of what you said. For some reason my Google Places listing showed me as a “physician,” even though I’d NEVER selected it for one of the categories. My business isn’t even related to medical. I tried to get attention via the seemingly unmonitored forums. Finally, I screamed REALLY loud, including a FedEx envelope to “a real live person” and some targeted tweets and eventually got some attention. The problem still did not get fixed right away, although the incorrect category is finally gone.

    Like you, I feel like they really need to create a “customer-facing side” that is reasonably open. I’m sure their financial calculation of what they could do with Places involved a model with very little need for customer support. Evidently, they underestimated the need for that.

    • Jen

      RP how long did it take to get updated? I’m at my whit’s end with mine, I don’t know what to do and it looks really bad on my business. I’ve posted a question in the forum, reported a problem, tweeted to them. I can’t get any help.

      • RP

        They worked on it directly and it STILL didn’t change for weeks. I wondered if their DB had some corrupted records or something. It was disheartening as I thought it kinda made me look like an idiot (them, too). Follow me here @mhlth and I’ll DM you back on what I did.

        • Jen

          Thanks, just did – mine’s JennyLG2

  • If you want to ‘get in the weeds’ with the SEO side of Places make sure you visit Mike Blumenthal’s blog at There are answers there that are hard to find elsewhere.

  • Sometimes I just think we O.D. on information. How much do we really need to be happy? Sure, I love to find local spots on Google as much as the next person, but I don’t need to know which of my friends approve or disapprove. How much more interaction do we need to have that has nothing to do with real face to face human interaction?

    • I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but the issue here is that half the time Google will either not let a business update or correct their Places listing, or in several cases, they will take it upon themselves to merge what they have decided are “duplicate” pages and will overwrite good info with incorrect info. Then, when you report a problem, it can take them weeks or even months to respond and then longer still for you to convince them that you actually know what your own address and phone number are so they will fix it. They are pushing this product HARD right now, but will not support the businesses that are encouraged to use it. Business owners lose customers and Google loses credibility. Nobody wins. I hope they get their acto together soon. Hotpot isn’t even worth talking about until they actually let the business owners properly utilize their listings. Just my 2 cents. 🙂

  • one more time:

  • Unfortunate but oh so true…

  • Frank, I am continually amazed at the crisp and timely writing you do regarding Local search. This article
    was not only informative, but made me laugh in the middle of a crazy, busy, day. Bottom line Google has lots of work to do in Places, but we both know local search as a whole does. The mess is what creates opportunities for companies like mind and articles like yours.

  • Interesting article. It makes me wonder if there will be changes coming to Twitter or if we will see a new internet service like Facebook and Twitter crop up in the near future. Seems someone with with an inventive mind should jump a the chance to tailor a system that truly excels at advertising and promoting business.