Almost everyone with an interest in Local Search is trying to get a message through to the large minds at Google, in a variety of ways. The message concerns the real-life effects of inaccurate data in Google's One Box, 10-pack and Maps on the public. While a major percentage of Internet users have grown to trust the Google brand and will take Google's local data at face value, few will understand that Google views its own local applications as a wiki, community project. Let me explain why this is seriously problematic.

Mike Blumenthal tried to point out to Google the hazards of letting business information be edited by the public by hijacking Microsoft's unclaimed business listing. Danny Sullivan got a chuckle out of this and hijacked Yahoo's unclaimed business listing for good measure. This riotous behavior from some of our most respected pros in Search came upon the heels of reports of business owners losing as much as 30% of their income because their Google Local Business Center listings had been hijacked by competitors and criminals.

Matt McGee had a message of his own to send to Google regarding outrageous false reviews sitting in Google Maps for 10 months, utterly damaging one company while glorifying their competitor. If, over the course of 3 days, tons of negative reviews come in for one business while, simultaneously, these same reviewers leave tons of positive reviews for a direct competitor, it's pretty evident that spamming is going on. The intent of this practice is ugly and the trail of abuse is as clear as day, but the reviews continue to sit there, unfairly prejudicing the public against the victimized business.

I had a few choice words of my own for Google when my emergency search for doctors and a hospital in my brand new home town returned me nothing but errors. Not one single result in this critical category of local business information was correct for my searches, and I can only assume that these errors are sending countless sick and injured people to wrong addresses every month in my populous community.

The problem here is that doctors move shop, just like any other business, but their outdated data continues to display in Google's Local applications unless the doctors know how to update it...and chances are, they don't have a clue. It's one thing to get sent to the wrong side of town when you want a pizza; it's quite another when your child has just broken his arm.

As for my town's major hospital being listed with an incorrect phone number, it looks likely that the wrong data may be the result of Google aggregating information from third-party sources. Rather than ending up with the hospital's main number in the A position in the 10-pack, they've got some obscure phone number for a business office somewhere in the hospital complex up there. This results in the business office having to redirect all incoming calls to the main hospital, and they have no idea why this is happening to them. In the midst of my medical emergency, I didn't have time to explain it to them.

To Google's credit, the cordial and doubtless long-suffering Maps' Guide Jen responded personally to my complaints about the inaccurate information for emergency services providers by pointing out that Google does have this link on this page specifically for reporting incorrect emergency services data. I appreciated Jen showing this to me, as well as her offer to have Google try to get the errors I'd reported corrected, but some of my readers at the SEOigloo blog were not impressed.

It turns out that Dana Lookadoo of Pixel Position had an experience almost identical to mine when her husband's appendix ruptured and she set out to find the hospital he was taken to, using Google Maps. She got the run-around and has a message of her own for Google regarding the concept of reporting this kind of error, using the special link on Google's page:

Let me make a checklist for the next time we have an emergency:
1. Check Google Maps & print.
2. Rush to hospital with hopes that map is correct. If not, proceed to #3.
3. Stop and ask directions at gas station or pedestrian while placing pressure on ruptured organ or bleeding appendage.
4. Wait in ER. Pray time was not wasted.
5. Recover and return home to Google Maps. Find the Help Center.
6. Go to Google Help › Maps Help › Contacting Support › Contact Us. Click on "I see incorrect business information for emergency services, hospitals or shelters."
7. Report incorrect emergency listing with hopes to save someone's life.

I think the validity in Dana's tongue-in-cheek message is to be found in the fact that few Internet users are likely to be aware of this special link, and are likely totally unaware of the fact that Google's business model is hinging on public volunteerism to ensure the accuracy of their data.

Did you read that carefully? Let me repeat: Google views local as a wiki application. As a Maps' guide explained to Mike Blumenthal:

The wiki nature of Google Maps expands upon Google's steadfast commitment to open community. That said, we also work very hard internally to identify behavior that doesn't benefit the community and to take the appropriate actions. We look forward to more and more users getting involved to help us keep Google Maps fresh and accurate.

The mother of all wikis - Wikipedia - is organized so that the public can contribute to a body of information while official editors oversee the community project, eliminating self-aggrandizing spam and correcting errors. This is how it's supposed to work, at any rate, but weaknesses in the system have been widely publicized and educated Internet users are likely to come across warnings not to trust the information compiled in Wikipedia as flawlessly accurate.

As I see it, the main danger of misinformation being distributed by Wikipedia is a poorly informed public. While this is unfortunate, it cannot compare to the hazards of inaccurate data in an application like Google Maps, which include:

1) False representation of businesses without their permission or knowledge
2) Lost income due to incorrect or hijacked listings
3) Public safety in jeopardy due to inaccurate publication of emergency/medical services information
4) False, libelous information given prominent publication in the form of user reviews

In essence, Google's local business model is based on acting as the guardian and keeper of business livelihood, public reputation and public safety, but having stepped into these oversized shoes, they have quickly jumped back out of them by putting the responsibility for the accuracy of data they are publishing on the shoulders of public volunteers and third party data collectors.

The ethical and legal implications attached to making money off of a business model like this are becoming more apparent with each passing month, and apart from this, there is a very serious flaw in the scenario. Whereas Wikipedia could count on a community developing around their application gradually, as awareness of the website's existence increased, and nothing terribly bad would happen as a result of this process taking its own sweet time, Google has put local data at the top of their incredibly powerful SERPs, without waiting for this community of civic-minded volunteers to materialize and set about correcting all the errors in the index.

The number of unclaimed business listings sitting in Google's Local index (including Google's own) is all the proof we need to see that the general public is unaware of the existence of this community Google is hoping will evolve around Maps. This is truly problematic.

Maps' Guide Jen explained to me that Google couldn't possibly be responsible for contacting all the hospitals in the country to make sure the data Google displays about them is correct. I have to ask, if Google can't do this, how can they expect anyone else to? I like Local Search a lot, but like most small business owners, I don't have the free time to set about correcting Google's index any more than I would have the time to go through the print Yellow Pages and correct all of the potential errors in it. That's the YP's job. But when it comes to Google, it seems like it's nobody's job.

And this is the message that I think Mike, Danny, Matt, Dana and I are all trying to bring to Google's attention: if this is your profitable business model, Google, it is also your responsibility and shirking a responsibility that so clearly involves the financial solvency of legitimate businesses as well as public safety is not an ethical thing to do.

Every week, I hear this same message coming from a variety of frustrated SMBs and alarmed Search Marketing specialists, and I have to wonder if the mass of evidence that continues to build up will ever get so large that Google will finally confront the fact that the index they've created is too important, serious and real to be treated like a wiki side project.


November 14, 2008





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.






Comments(8)

Your personal story of your narrow escape from the consequences of local information confusion was certainly harrowing, & it's a relief that you were able to resolve it successfully.

I'd urge you & any of your readers to consider however that asserting that google should assume responsibility for correctly identifying the occupants of a particular physical address is quite like expecting your local governmental authority to replace missing or obscured street numbers on every mailbox or doorway in town.

Google has lowered the bar for those (outside of certain legal proceedings) in the best position imaginable to assert an accurate physical address/occupant connection - those who are actually there, with a good reason to maintain its accuracy.

Pre-internet, pre-google, nobody knows you're a lost dog.

Hello Inchoate But Earnest,

Your point is well taken. It's quite true that the occupant of an address or owner of a phone number is certainly the best possible 'authority' on their own data. I agree with you.

However, the issue here is that Google is making money by having indexed the business information of companies without alerting them to that fact, and then taking no responsibility to ensure that they are not misrepresenting those companies, leading to harm done both to the business and the citizen.

Unlike government, which is pretty much considered a must, Google chose to create this situation of their own volition, in order to make money. In an ideal situation, everyone would know that Google's Local applications exist, and they would come and claim their listings, at the very least, simply to protect their own reputations. But this isn't the situation. The majority of the hijackings of listings that I've studied have revolved around one factor - the business in question had no idea they had to claim their listing to protect them from this disaster. Why don't they know? Google has made no effort to tell them this, one-on-one.

I do strongly agree with part of what you are saying, but comparing a willful act of a corporation to the necessity of government doesn't seem quite accurate to me.

Can you see the difference? I do want to make sense.

I really appreciate your comment!
Miriam

Great summary of the issues with local search, and to think Google wants to manage our health records! They really need to learn to crawl (pun intended) before they skyrocket all over our information...

Hmm, good point David, and amusing pun. Glad you stopped by!
Miriam

I feel compulsed to cut and paste Miriam's comment from this post on Sphinn:

After all, Google chose to develop maps, and it was Google that added many of the listings such as hospitals or doctors, and if they go down this path they need to accept that some people will trust the published results,

Well said!

Google dominates, period. An estimated 75-80% of users go to Google first for information. I believe (hope) most users understand that medical information should not be trusted while in "search" mode. However, when searching for a hospital or urgent care facility, I imagine most users don't have a second thought or even think to doubt the accuracy of geographical results.

Miriam, my hope is that you, among others, are making a difference by bringing attention to this issue. I agree that Google has a responsibility to take this issue seriously. Thank you!

Hi Miriam- this is the clearest explanation I have seen of why there are so many problems with Local Business Listings in Google Maps. Thanks for the great insight.

While I agree completely that Google should take control of this (and Yahoo and Microsoft as well), one of the main problems is that the local search directories where the search engines are getting most of their information like yellowpages.com, superpages.com, citysearch.com, etc. also have an almost complete disregard for the accuracy of their listings.

I think there is a big open spot in the market here for an accurate and easily usable local search engine. If Google won't step up, will anybody else?

Hi Dana,
Thank you for the Sphinn, and for sharing your own experience with this with me. I thought what you had to say was quite important.

Thank you, Mary,
It's a pleasure to see you here and I'm glad you felt this was a good, clear summary of the situation.

Welcome, Marjory,
Your point about the opportunity for a business truly concerned with providing accurate local business data is a good one. I believe what would be needed would be both a business with this ethical concern + major funding for promotion of that business so that it might be able to compete. Google's market share makes competition so difficult, so we'd need to see a double whammy of intent + funding. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Miriam

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