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.

Photo Credits: Whitter Wang, C.K. Koay

February 2, 2011

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.



OMG. That is an incredible article.

Well done Miriam.

Thank you, Dave! Much appreciated and I thought your comment on Mike's article was important enough to quote from here. So glad you liked this piece.

Really insightful article for local SEO. Thanks very much!

What an inspiring article for local SEO. At least I now know I am not the only one having those issues with Google Places.

On the YouTube side of the fence, Google provide grants and funding to up and coming video producers.

Why not support local seo and marketing agencies in the same manner?

Thank you, Ryan and Smoky. Glad to know this was worth your time reading. I appreciate your comments.

Talking about ethics lets take a look at the way Google rejects or suspends your business without sending you a single email. And that often happens to businesses that are following the guidelines. No reason, no calls, no emails...

Nice article that says it like it is. I love the last paragraph Miriam :-) Google... please listen to us; we are all saying the same thing ---> provide some modicum of support for Places.

Greetings, Plamen,
I recognize your name from all of the volunteer work you do in the Places Help Forum. You really spend a lot of time there!!! And, you really know your stuff! Yes, the agony of suspension/rejection without clear error messages or any chance for communication definitely falls under the heading of 'treating business owners terribly'. Google can and should do better than this! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment here, and it's nice to 'meet' you!

Hello, Andy!
So glad you liked this one, and I sincerely hope that Google will listen to the public voices asking for them to change their mindset with Local. The idea of Local is awesome - but so far, the implementation has been extremely troubled. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment on this.


That was an awesome post and I couldn't have said it better. You hit the nail on the head with every sentence.

I posted to blumenthal's blog recently about a problem with Google Places and a Google rep (Ethan) *was* replying to the comments, but he gave me misinformation and then stopped commenting.

Greetings, Jami,
Thanks for your kind words. This post has resonated with so many people - clear evidence that there is a tremendous amount of unhappiness surrounding Google's handling of Local. That is a shame you feel you were misinformed by a Google rep. One so seldom gets a response from anyone at Google, it's really too bad that when you did get to speak to someone, their answer did not help you.

Hang in there!

Yep the system is definitely flawed. Local results are always in a state of flux and not reliable. However if your a SMB it can sometimes be the only place to get in. It's kind of amazing to think that Google is now in charge of ACTUAL lives not just some user with an IP address. Best course of action call 911 don't sit down at your computer and trust a search engine for a phone number.

@Jami I think that the only thing Google rep can do is to misinform you. One friend, for example, called Google because his business was on first page but after losing reviews he fell down, and the answer was "Active Google Boost and you will secure your place on the first page". Good job...

Thanks for the kind words Miriam... We are all working in a business in which everything is kind of a mystery and the only way to go forward is to share our experience (without hurting our clients of course) and help each other.

Greetings, Drew,
Yes - dial 991, that's good advice and I hope folks will remember it.

Plamen - That's truly disturbing that a Google employee would attempt to upsell Boost in this way. That's the first time I've seen anyone accuse Google of doing this - though other firms (Yelp, Merchant Circle) have been accused of similar unsavory activities. I was really surprised to read your comment about this.

Miriam, AM! Glad to see you calling it out. I think sometimes more of local SEO'ers could take more a stand by voicing these major challenges with Google local.

You are so right. Not everything can be fixed by a algorithm and they have more then enough money to create a proper support system for Google local. Your right, this is a ethics thing.... Google does have a duty to take this a lot more seriously. Do it right or get out.

Hi Matthew!
It's a pleasure to see you here and I do feel that the Local SEOs who blog about these issues should be seen as an important resource by Google. We are providing realtime feedback about their product, and I would so like to think that this feedback is being taken seriously at developer meetings within Google.

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment here!

That is a great article Miriam. And no surprise really, with a company that probably has billions of dollars, spending a quarter mil on a project dont really bother them.

But, a company in the Position of Google (And co's like Microsoft) should really really test and re test their work.

You would think they could set up a testing Beta for things. Like they did for Wave - Beta Test, a thousand users get access, randomly and across the globe. With feedback they would know what and how to fix it or to toss the idea before rolling it out to the general public.

Still though, Gmail rocked our world (and still does). So sometimes, their far reaching ideas do actually work.

Hello, Paul!
It's great to see you here. I definitely agree - Google has developed and continues to develop amazing products that do rock our world, but I contend that Local is different, because its content. It deserves major spend on their part to get it right. So glad you liked this article. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

My husband is looking at me kinda crazy because I was clapping and giving you a standing ovation throughout the last three paragraphs. That is the absolute hands down best article I HAVE EVER READ on the web. Beautiful.

Good ol Google Greed. They practically rule the universe with their half-baked ideas, and now they want to get down in to every crack and corner where real people exist who are simply trying to keep local business alive since Wal-Mart came to town. Nothing but a shame.

So sorry, I never saw your comment come through and I want to thank you and your kind comments! Sounds like we are definitely on the same page on this one.

Thanks, to you, too, Arnold.

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Search Engine Guide > Miriam Ellis > Cracks In Google's HotPot And The Ethics Of Beta Local