Do you take pride in your work in Search? I bet you do. If you design websites, I bet you make sure everything is absolutely perfect, all links and forms working, all imagery balanced and aligned, calls to action in place, everything just right before you launch a new website. If you write copy, I bet every piece you publish is publication-ready before it goes live. If you do SEO, you dig deep into your tools looking for gem-like keyword phrases, finding powerful opportunities for your clients before you start optimizing their title tags. You take pride in your work and make sure your deliverables deserve to be delivered before you pass go and collect $200...and I'll bet you my properties on Boardwalk and Park Place that you don't work for Google.
For 14 years and counting, Google has operated in a beta atmosphere, releasing product after product in a half-finished state, letting these projects ride to see if they sink or swim. Many products have failed, but overall, this method has worked for them, allowing their developers great creative elbow room to try things and see how they will be received and utilized. But, I would contend that Google stepped out of a beta-friendly world when they stepped into Local and I woke up this morning to news that confirms my feelings on this.
What Is A Hot Pot?
For more than 1000 years, the Chinese and a host of East Asian cultures have prized the hot pot - sometimes called 'Chinese fondue' - as a centerpiece communal stew into which all guests dip their chopsticks for hot, tasty, nourishing morsels. Diners are typically seated in round-table fashion so that each person is given an equal chance to access the wonderful food.
By contrast, less than a few months ago, Google launched their own take on the communal dish: Google HotPot, the gist of which is that you and all your friends can dip into one another's ratings, Social Media-style, to see what's hot and what's not on the local business scene. Just yesterday, Google announced that they are taking HotPot to the next level. You will now start seeing your HotPot friends' ratings within the actual SERPs. High level placement for this very new Google idea.
But what happens if you throw a Chinese hot pot party on a whim, without appropriate planning? What happens when your invited guests arrive and you have to seat some of them out in the hallway, far from the table, and you've failed to provide enough chopsticks for half of them?
That's right. You get pitiful, crying guests, left out in the cold, far from the hot pot, hungry, angry and sad.
Well, that's exactly what Google has done and Emily Post and Miss Manners would both be fainting if they knew. Because, you see, Google's HotPot was released in Google's typical beta fashion, with much hoopla but a dire lack of planning. Built on top of Google's infamously buggy review system, Google HotPot continues the tradition of buggy access, missing reviews and general mess. Google is continuing to actively promote their Local products without first making sure that they actually work.
Here is a comment left by SEO veteran EarlPearl on Mike Blumenthal's recent HotPot post:
BROKE AGAIN!!! Tried accessing the reviews several ways. Went to my hotpot acct...went to the restaurant....couldn't get the review published. Started all over again. Signed into my acct, went to the google places record, tried to write a review. Wouldn't work again.
Tried a third time. Didn't sign into google. Went to the places record of the restaurant, Tried to write a review. Got sent back to my google sign in. Signed in. Tried to write a review.
Again it didn't work.
Wrote the review in Yelp. :D It was E.A.S.Y Probably won't even try to write a review in Google Places anymore. Its simply to problematic. Won't encourage people to write reviews in Google Places. Its too frustrating.
There are lots of easier places to write reviews. I'll go elsewhere.
I'll Go Elsewhere
I predict that's what many users will say when they attempt to use HotPot for the first time. We've been habituated by entities like Yelp and TripAdvisor to believe that leaving a review is a fairly straightforward, simple task, and while both entities have been involved in controversies of their own, the average user is unlikely to encounter the infestation of bugs in these indexes that they almost certainly will if they try to leave Places or HotPot reviews and ratings via Google for any length of time. I know whereof I speak; I've been fooling around with Google reviews for years and it's a three ring circus in there. If Local wasn't my job, I would have given up on this feature of Google long ago, sparing myself shattered nerves, big headaches, much heartburn and indigestion
Beta And Local Don't Mix
Do a simple search for the word emergency in Google's Places Help Form and you will be taken to the very heart of the seriousness of local business information. When phone numbers and addresses for hospitals, fire departments, police departments, campus security and other urgent services are incorrectly represented in the search engine that boasts approximately 70% of the market share, life and death are at stake and this cannot ethically be downplayed. Google's ongoing failure to take Local seriously while they continue to dominate search behavior makes everyone involved a loser.
If Search is your business, my guess is that you've read enough ranting about Google's Local products to get the sense that you should not, perhaps, trust their data. But what if you are in the middle of an emergency? Would you remember that? And what if you aren't an SEO and are one of the millions who have put their phone book in the attic because you've been carried along by the tidalwave of modern trust in the promise of Search? Do you know not to trust Google's data in the midst of an emergency? Can you still find your phone book?
On a less dire but certainly very serious note, what if you are the small, local business owner who is fighting for survival in a truly troubled economy and you've invested time and money in things like learning about Local SEO, hiring a Local SEO, creating and claiming your profiles across the indexes with Google being top dog, and holding training sessions with all of your staff to teach them to acquire reviews from satisfied customers?
You wake up one morning and your restaurant's phone number has suddenly been replaced by the number of the bookstore on the second floor and those 75 reviews you've slowly built up over the past 4 years have simply vanished. To top it off, you keep getting vague error messages when you try to find your Place Page and there is absolutely no one at Google you can speak to about this because Google doesn't believe in customer service. Let's look at that baby again:
If Google wants to launch an app that enables users to search for Hindi music and the thing doesn't work half the time, I don't think anyone's life will come to a standstill, but Google decided to play with the big boys when they took it upon themselves to start representing emergency services and the small local businesses that make up the majority of the estimated 25 million businesses in the USA and the untold number of small businesses globally. We're not talking about your cool, funny, funky, nerdy app anymore when we're dealing with this kind of data, and I don't think I'm going too far in saying that Google's failure to appreciate this is negligent and dead wrong.
Everyone A Loser
Just above, I suggested that this ongoing scenario is making everyone a loser, and I want to carry this a point further in closing. I think Google is playing a loser's game treating Local with beta care, but I am also concerned about the general public and our willingness to use and support the products of a company that is making light of something that is, by nature, very real and serious. Business ethics are definitely in question here and in the world of Search, your time online = your support and approval.
What is the lesson Google needs to learn to get it that support will be withdrawn if Local isn't treated seriously? I have seen many discussions in which SEOs have predicted that it will take someone dying as a result of Google's misrepresentation of an emergency phone number to get Google to wake up about this. Who wants that to happen? That's a terrible thought.
Wouldn't it be better to get a handle on this before something really awful happens? I think about this subject quite a lot and have had to conclude that the ethical move on Google's part would be to pull all emergency data out of their local indexes immediately. Then, if they want the right to represent our hospitals, police, poison control centers and other urgent care business models, they will need to do this the hard way and the costly way: by paying employees to contact each emergency business one-by-one and create listings manually, double and triple checking their accuracy.
And, to get back into the good graces of the non-emergency local business world, Google needs to follow this first step up with the hire of a permanent customer support staff. I don't care if it's by email, phone or live chat, but this is the ONLY way I can see of making amends for having held SMB data in hostage without recourse for all of these years and counting.
In the 4th quarter of 2010, Google reported earnings of $8.44 billion dollars. That's just for one quarter, mind you. There is definitely budget in there for hiring a customer support team, but in order to do this, Google has got to come to grips with the fact that some things cannot and should not be handled by an algorithm. If they refuse to see the light on this, Google should get out of Local, stick to making cool but less serious products they can be proud of, and leave the representation of real life business data in the hands of corporations and agencies who are ready to interact one-on-one with business owners. That's my considered opinion, and taking all of the above into account, I would like to hear yours.
Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.
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