When Google ain't working, ain't nobody happy.
Listen up and you'll hear the cries and groans of citizens everywhere as they interact with Google's Local entity and come away bruised and confused. What happens when you release a demi-god product into civilization, with the power to change common people's daily lives in terms of their earnings, their activities and the use of their time, and then you fail to back up that super power with adequate support? The past few weeks on the Local scene give a bird's-eye-view answer to that question.
No Bed Of Roses
Some of the nation's top florists are currently in the process of trying to recover from their thorny experience with Google's Local Business Center. A spurious Canadian flower provider managed to hijack a whole handful of LBC listings and reroute customers through an affiliate website. This was deliberately and carefully accomplished by a devious process of getting Google to trust edits being made to local business listings by first submitting a new local phone number, then changing the address, then adding new categories and so on, right up to the point where the income of the legitimate local florists was being sucked away north into Canada.
The audacity of this activity has resulted in discussions about the legal culpability of both the offenders and the provider of the platform for this outrageous scheme - Google.
To their credit, Google has begun to remedy the error and many of the florists are now seeing their correct information appearing once again in Maps, but when last I looked, the Canadian hoodlums were still showing up amongst the honest business people. No doubt, that's really galling the florists, who have received no offer of recompense for their lost earnings, and Local expert, Mike Blumenthal sums up the situation this way:
From my perspective this is like a scenario where Google has the keys to your shop, they agree to watch over it for the afternoon. On their coffee break they stepped out and forgot to lock the door. During that time, a thief broke in, stole some flowers and left his calling card taped to the door.
Google, returned for the afternoon after coffee and upon closing, forgot to alert you to the theft and they left the thief's calling card where he left it, covering your sign on the door.
Google gets no pass on this one.
Mike is right, and this is why - the reason all of these florists were robbed of their earnings was because not one of them had claimed their LBC listing. They didn't know they needed to. And why didn't they know? Because the creator of the LBC has made almost zero effort to tell them that their data has been indexed into this giant and immensely powerful directory of all local businesses. Because despite the recent introduction of some very brief guidelines for Local, Google is not making the slightest attempt at one-on-one engagement with the local business owners whose data they've co-opted into their giant business model.
Imagine what would happen if Yellow Pages started listing local business information, without getting permission from the business owners, and they published incorrect contact information for the companies involved, thus driving business away. Imagine the potential legal ramifications of YP doing something like this.
When I explained the situation with the florists to my mother, her take on it was immediate and astute. She said, "it's as if someone went to the post office and changed your address, and called the phone company and changed your phone number, and just got away with it."
Faced with the situation, anyone can see that this is exactly what it's like, but I am repeatedly struck with the sense that our legal system is hampered by the delusion that if it happens on the Internet, it somehow isn't real.
The lost earnings of the legitimate florists are quite real, as is the loss of their time frantically trying to understand how they'd been sabotaged, and legislation must be put in place to protect people from this kind of criminal activity.
The bottom line is that Google has your business information, and if they are careless with it, you are in danger of losing money. In my opinion, if the LBC is meant to be a sustainable business venture for Google, they should be treating local business data like gold, not dross.
It seems like Canada has been a hot spot for local woe this month. Following their recent switch from Navteq to TeleAtlas as a data provider, Google has changed the face of the earth in their Maps application. Talk about power. Streets, neighborhoods and whole towns are all askew. Here's what one bewildered man had to say in Google Maps Help Group:
I don't know what happened over the last little while, but the maps for Alberta in Canada are brutal now. Entire TOWNS are in completely wrong locations, off by DOZENS of kilometers. In some cases these towns are the only source of gas and services in some of the more remote western and northern parts of the province, and this could be a dangerous mistake..
Brutal, indeed. Winter temperatures in Alberta get down to -31 degrees F. Imagine running out of gas in that.
This concerned commenter didn't know about the TeleAtlas switch, doubtless because he has other things to do than follow news about Google, and as Google appears to be depending upon a single thread in their help group to let the world know that they can correct the errors that are literally spangling the countryside as a result of the switch, I have a feeling that most private citizens will remain in the dark about why Maps is sending them on wild goose chases.
Again, we face the concept of responsibility for public good and safety in this situation. It's one thing if your house disappears off of Street View. Heck, you might even be glad if it does. It's another thing if you're looking for gas, medical care, food or the fire department in a strange town and Google gaily sends you off onto the snowbound prairies of Alberta in the middle of the night.
Trust Must Be Earned And Deserved
The longer I work in Local, the more real life scenarios I encounter of real people experiencing real effects, both positive and negative, as a result of the existence of the LBC and Maps. As was recently pointed out to me by a friend, Google has grown so powerful so quickly, skyrocketing from nowhere to Fortune 500 status in a decade. Theirs has not been the story of most startups, diligently working to earn public trust over the course of decades or generations. I'm suggesting that Google has not gone through the 'personal' growth of learning about the value of trust the old-fashioned, hard way.
A few days ago, I had the pleasure of filling out a "Maps User Happiness Survey." I spent about an hour of my time giving Google my thorough and honest take on the current status of their local efforts. I made sure to tell them how much I appreciate the fabulous potential usefulness of their applications, but I also spoke my piece about the lack of any real connection between Google and real people. I summed it up thusly:
It all comes down to trust, like everything else on the web, and in my opinion, Google has built the stellar application, but has yet to build the trust needed to back up what they've created.
Indexing the world's data is like a wonderful child's dream. And Google is now far along the way of making that think-big dream come true. But I think we've reached the point where Google needs to come out of the lab and meet that world they are indexing. Their to-do list is literally blinking red with serious problems being created for businesses and home folks and these problems have evolved from the trivial to the truly criminal, as in the case of the florists. I surely don't envy Google this task, but with so many symptoms of trouble emerging every day in the Local world, Google's turn to take responsibility should be now. It's their own migraine they've got to start treating.
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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