If you own a local business and get a phone call from a rep identifying himself as contacting you from Google (even if the call is coming from India), don't make the mistake of assuming it's yet another annoying phone scam. Mike Blumenthal has just reported confirmation from Google that these phone calls are legitimate and are part of Google's 2010 effort to clean up local business data quality. This unexpected new move from Google has three interesting aspects to it worth pointing out.
I fully support any efforts Google makes to clean up spammy issues in Google Maps and Place Pages. This latest phone call program apparently stems from a new policy of verifying community edits made to business listings. So, if someone tries to make an edit to your business listing, you may get a call from Google asking whether the edit that's been suggested is an accurate one. Frankly, considering the great silence that has historically surrounded Google Maps, I was amazed to hear of Google reps calling business owners. This is really something new.
This program may help prevent negative competitive editing and hijacking, to some extent, so that's the positive aspect of this activity.
The Google phone reps are not allowed to give out any type of contact information or call back number to the local business owners whom they are phoning. There goes a sense of trust in the legitimacy of the phone call! If I hadn't read the news about this and a client phoned me saying they'd been contacted by a 'Google employee' who wanted their business data, I would tell the client this was likely a scam. Business owners are inundated with phishing and telemarketing calls. How many of them are going to trust that Google is really phoning them? It's really unfortunate that Google didn't come up with a more trustworthy way of implementing this program.
Saddest of all, one has to fear that real scammers will benefit from this scenario. Once business owners understand that Google might actually phone them, how easy would it be for the bad guys to pretend they are from Google (after all, they don't have to provide any type of ID, thanks to Google not requiring this of their own employees) and get access to unsuspecting business owners' data, Place Pages and more? The results of this could get ugly, indeed.
It's pretty easy for business owners to learn that certain entities will never contact them for particular types of information. For example, online banking entities warn their clients that the bank will never send them an email requesting their account details. Paypal provides similar warnings. Business owners learn not to respond to suspicious emails, once they have been advised not to.
Now, here we have Google, whose reputation for silence has engendered the belief that no one would ever actually hear from them, suddenly phoning the public. It's great that they are making these calls, but I would exhort Eric Schmidt to consider putting some type of safeguard in place so that business owners can identify that these calls are truly coming from Google.
I would suggest that an email be sent out to the business owner, notifying them that a call will be coming in from a Google business rep within the next day, week, or something similar. This would enable the business owner to cross reference the email and the phone call, arriving at some semblance of validity. Of course, scammers could duplicate this process, but at least it would give the business owner something along the lines of a heads-up that a real Google rep needs to speak with them.
I don't know if Google is depending upon the element of surprise in these calls to see if a phone number is answered by a legitimate business, but we're really looking at a problem if the business owner is trying to hide details from Google while Google is trying to hide details from the business owner. It starts to look like a strange boxing match, doesn't it?
It will be very interesting to start hearing more anecdotes from SMBs who receive these calls as time goes by. If you run a local business, I'm glad you are reading this article; per usual, Google hasn't done much to educate their public regarding this new policy. At least, having read this, you will know that a call from Google may be the real thing. May I suggest that you use this unprecedented opportunity to ask some of your most burning questions about Maps and Places? The chance may not come again.
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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