Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Google's Places marking shops as Closed but they're still Open... a one-sided discussion

From today's New York Times: In recent months, many perfectly healthy businesses across the country have expired according to Google Places, and fixing the error has often been difficult. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/06/technology/closed-in-error-on-google-places-merchants-seek-fixes.html?_r=1

Shams like these are fairly easy to do. 

From the Times article: "If enough users click it, the business is labeled “reportedly closed” and later, pending a review by Google, “permanently closed.” Google was tight-lipped about its review methods and would not discuss them."

Besides, with Google it's often the community that monitors itself. Crowd-sourcing. You can correct errors and self-promote as far as Google will allow; and they allow quite a bit. And that's the point of crowd-sourcing. I like Google for this reason, and I clearly have no problem using Google services as I'm writing on their blog tool, right now!
Plenty of online and "bricks-and-mortar" businesses have used a variety of Google services, and other non-Google services online (Facebook, Twitter, Yelp!, etc.) to establish, promote and maintain their brand for strategic advancement against competition. 

In the spirit of Google Places -- having the public notify Places that a shop has closed, when in fact it has, is quite a good process for large-scale implementation like Google Places. No single person or department at Google could ever monitor the world that Google Places covers. It's not scalable and not necessary. Let the local public tell the machine that a place is closed, so that others who use that machine know too. Great! But what if that system is sometimes abused. We learned that Yelp! had a similar problem of users writing fake reviews. Who is responsible for setting "right" such a "wrong"? Who slaps the wrist (or sues) the offending person or people who did the act?

On eLance.com, for example, there are ALWAYS postings of paid jobs for people to write SEO targeted copy for (in my opinion, unethical and unscrupulous) site owners who want to pull as much Google traffic to their site and get unwitting web surfers to click on their paid links. Or my favorite: write our company's blog for us and make sure to write it SEO keyword heavy -- and we'll pay you almost nothing for the effort. (The other unscrupulous, or maybe just lazy, employers are college students who post to hire someone to write their college papers. That's a separate issue but I object to that very strongly.)

Many companies have their own Social Media departments, I've found that much of that work is outsourced or done by freelancers. (Great, more jobs!) These employers hire people to write blog posts or go on to targeted message boards or targeted competitor sites and then talk up and link to their postings, articles, products, etc. Basically, using (or abusing) the Google system for their own benefit.  In fact, it's called "reputation management." I imagine that being said, more often than not, with a wink and a nudge.

These employers I've described on eLance, for example, are not doing anything illegal per se. At least I don't believe it's illegal. (I could be very wrong.)

Many of them are located outside the US. I know almost zero about what's acceptable in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and other places that have made such postings on eLance. I believe this kind of job posting was popular on Amazon's Mechanical Turk, too. In fact, people in the US may say, "Well, if someone knows how to abuse the Google system for their own profit, why not? And the eLance employers are at least paying someone to freelance that work for them, so that's good." (I disagree with this but I'm thinking of a counter argument that one could make.)

For Google, a user who clicks that a shop is closed when it is not and does so out of malice may go against their brand value of "Do no evil". But then, is it "evil"?

Does eLance monitor all the job postings by "employers" to see if the jobs are ethical? Besides, who is going to determine if a job is ethical with something like "reputation management." I honestly don't know. Even though there are a TON of reputable employers on eLance, for example, and they pay fairly for sensible freelance work, but I stopped looking for jobs there after I had enough of filtering through what people wanted to pay for.

Snake oil salesmen aren't new and aren't going away anytime soon. (I'm in NO way saying that eLance or Google or Yelp! or Amazon or companies with Social Media departments are snake oil salesmen, they are platforms, however, that such "salesmen" can use to promote their own agendas.)

JCPenney is the famous example of using Google search results know-how to abuse Google's own search results system. Paying sites to put up a JCP link on their site, so that JC Penney had more referral links than their competitors. Increasing their chances of being the #1 link on someone's Google search result for just about any product that JC Penney sells. Cheating? Yes. 

Can the crowds be trusted to be fair?

I don't think Google thinks it can be fully. That's why they have had a verification process to check if a shop is really closed or not. Plus, they're about to change this verification process "in the coming days" to accommodate dealing with this Places problem. I'm really curious to know what Google is going to actually do about it. (I'm certain I'll never find out since they'd have to share an internal process.)

So back to my point: This behavior online and in "real life" is at best libel, or at least, just plain bullying and rude. This is why maintaining a company's brand and reputation can be a full-time job as much as marketing, promotion, strategy, and the day-to-day running of it.
  • Could, or really SHOULD, this problem have been anticipated by Google? 
  • Or maybe, better question, is this good Customer Service on the part of Google? Is Google effectively addressing the problems of its Customers? In this case the wronged business owners.
  • And by that token, is everyone who uses Google a Customer of Google? (or just the ones with Gmail accounts, or just the ones who pay?)
  • In this example, who is responsible? Google and/or the people who mischievously mark businesses as closed? 
To be fair, I believe that Google DID anticipate such a situation which is why they had the original vetting process so that, presumably, only a responsible human working on behalf of Google could mark a business as "permanently closed". For the size and scope of Google's customer base (I'm assuming every person who uses Google is a "customer" for the sake of this discussion), that they address the problems of their customers by having and presumably monitoring message boards and creating detailed and extensive FAQs. These wronged business owners did use and have a means of correction; they had a voice. Frustrated and tedious as that was, there was some solution. 
    In my view, both Google and the people who did the mischievous markings were responsible. Google for incorrectly or ineffectively marking open businesses as "permanently closed" and the mischievous people for abusing the system. Google has taken its responsibility, and by words has promised to make improvements. Only those who were wronged can say if the improvements are effective. Only a customer can tell a company if the company has been delivered on its promise.

    I'd love to know what others think. (On your own now, don't pay someone to write a reply for you.)

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