Posted September 6, 2011 9:56 am by with 8 comments

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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 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?

  • To be fair this is one or two of the likely hundreds of thousands of businesses on Google. There are bound to be errors, some human caused, and it seems like google is working well to fix it.

    • Yes, but I’d guess that about 80% of those errors are due to flaws in Google’s system. Sure, this is a free service that they offer, but it can be pivotal to the success (and accurate representation) of a business. They need to spend more time fixing the entire system rather than letting the complaints and bugs pile up without offering the slightest degree of customer service when a business encounters a problem.

  • Joe

    the Yellow Pages knew a business was closed because they called to sell them advertising. Google Places doesnt do that and Google likely won’t even employ the man power needed to do so. No automated system will ever be fool proof.

    • Google+ will be the same way, anything can be gamed with enough attention, especially when your reach is as large as Google. In all fairness, there is no way they can manage the empire they have created.

  • David

    One could also say the the Times shouldn’t have published this and just filed a bug report. The New York times have published anti-Google editorials before and this sort of obsession with Google is that of bias.

    • Are they saying that this can be a collaborated effort to sabotage online businesses? Seems that Google would have a better system than that to confirm such a serious event.

  • “To be fair” that is that whole point here.

    It is very easy to pass this off as “one or two of the likely hundreds of thousands of businesses on Google”, but working with very small businesses has made it obvious to our company that there is a real problem with here.

    Between this problem and the art of the bogus negative review, small businesses are genuinely being hurt out there and Google is not the only “Local” provider that needs to pay attention to these things.

    The real problem here is that people know they can do it without consequence because they are anonymous.

    The real solution would be to log IP addresses and ideally, to compare them with activity in places accounts for other businesses. If a bogus report was found to be associated with a competitor’s account then that account could be suspended. I suspect if there was some potential consequence at the end of it, people might think twice.

    Right now, its easier and cheaper to damage your competition online than it is to put any real effort into improving your own site.

  • optimized

    By the fact that many rely on using google to search the web n now local for free, should that really obligate them to ‘fix’ these bugs. don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a victim to having my biz closed. fortunately I’m not a fixed location, so my fix was a new listing setup.

    typically in biz u either shape up or the competition takes ur lunch. in the case of google n local n local search, that rule doesn’t seem to apply in the usual way…

    1. googles not the gov.
    2. bizs r not payg for the space/profile
    3. does google really have to comply to user complaints??

    the only way real chg will occur is if googles local search dominance n usage were to be seriously n immediately threatened. until then, u will only get lip service nytimes or not… and unfortunately, the gaming must continue to battle the mistakes/bugs that occur on google.