Why Google has Trouble Getting it Right

I roundly criticized Google’s product (a less than fully functional Local Business Center) and their process (erratic and inconsistent customer support for same) in my post: Why the Google Local Business Center Fails. As is Google’s fashion in these matters when a complaint starts spreading across the internet, they very often solve the specific problem. Google has in fact responded and solved the posters problem that I spoke of.

Last night though, a poster to this blog, Steve, ripped into me for having an obvious anti-Google bias and eagerness to disparage that company. He also noted: you appear to have really jumped the gun in order to make a point. You strike me as a Google gadfly or a Google hater. (You can read his full comments here.)

I was somewhat shaken by the vitriol in the response and composed several answers before deciding to say nothing. I awoke at 2 am with his post still ringing in my ears. The response seemed disproportional and I decided to check, in WordPress, the poster IP address: Author : Steve (IP: 216.239.45.4 , 216-239-45-4.google.com) 

Last month, I called out MC in a post Merchant Circle has trouble getting it right where I noted that they had made stealth comments and I accused them of being tacky marketers. Well I guess, fair is fair. Obviously Steve doesn’t follow my blog so I will repeat my comment to MC almost verbatim:

My note to Merchant Circle Steve at Google:

You are welcome to come and discuss the issues in Local on my blog. You probably have a lot to contribute. But when you come, come as you are, don’t be skulking around. I can accept warts, I have a few myself. I just can’t abide you using my blog to surreptitiously promote your services berate me.

I don’t know whether Steve represents Google’s official attitude or not. But I never thought the day would come that I would compare anyone at Google to Merchant Circle. Many people at Google seem to listen to my criticisms and take some to heart in the spirit in which they are intended: To improve the product.

This incident, for me though, has clarified why Google is having trouble getting it right. They responded to the poster in the forum with the problem but only after word of the problem spread. This appears to be Google’s modus operandi: Only move into customer service mode to squelch the spreading of the wrong message. 

The LBC is flawed. The many complaints in the groups attest to that as does my personal experience. But the LBC customer service process at Google does not need to be (flawed that is). Customer service is a proactive process, one that acknowledges that there will be problems but takes care of the problems, often times even ones that are not totally grounded in reality. It should not be reactive. 

Google is following the same strategy for response to problems that they followed in Search. Their computers scour the forums and the blogs for problems using an algorithm, rank them, and only respond to the ones that float to the top page of the problem ranking system. This has the benefit of being very low cost and it has worked well for them. Google is a trusted brand. But it only keeps a lid on the problem it doesn’t solve the underlying cause. In the case of Local it seems to be an inadequate strategy. It leaves too many people dissatisfied and struggling for an answer, their businesses disrupted and their time wasted.

As Miriam Ellis so eloquently pointed outIt simply isn’t ethical to make advertising revenue by representing businesses whom you refuse to communicate with… It’s time for Google to start doing business ‘for reals’. Create a functional way for small business owners to report and gain speedy resolution to errors in their business data. This can’t be automated. Real people must staff this in order to protect the rights and livelihood of business owners. This isn’t a game…it’s real business, involving real money and real people. I see no two ways about this.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
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29 thoughts on “Why Google has Trouble Getting it Right”

  1. Wow. I’m really surprised. Anyone who regularly reads your blog knows ‘Steve’s’ description is far, far from the truth.

    I hope Steve wades into the Maps for Business Group and recognizes that the human business owners over there asking for help and direction are but a small subset of the many SMBs facing data errors or trying to be found amid large doses of spam listings.

    Don’t know if you saw Matt Cutt’s invitation for suggestions regarding tackling G web spam in 2009, but Local/Maps was repeatedly mentioned – and I heartily agree.

    Shooting the messenger is a tried and true tactic to silence those who point out flaws in a system. But in the long term, no one really benefits – not the provider, and especially not the users.

  2. Hi Mike,

    My name is Matt, and I’m the tech lead on Local Business Center. I just wanted to assure you that “steve” does not represent us here at Google. We read and appreciate your blog and your criticism, as well as that of other bloggers and commenters who post on issues related to LBC.

    As you are aware, LBC has been going through growing pains, and while progress is taking longer than we would like, we are working to address the major points of frustration for business owners, because we know there are problems. Your criticism and the issues raised in the help forums help us decide which are most important to work on. So please, keep doing what you’re doing. We are listening.

    Matt R, LBC Tech Lead

  3. Hi Matt

    Thanks for taking the time to so note. I understand the need to prioritize technical correction….but I don’t understand prioritization in customer relations. Just because one poster doesn’t complain too much or the post doesn’t hit the headlines, it still may be about an issue that only Google can handle…and they deserve your attention as much as the one that hit the big time.

    I for one, wish you the best.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Mike

  4. As a long-time participant in the blogosphere, I’ll add my two cents. Trying to leave “grassroots comments” without people knowing you’re coming from a company is not smart–companies that do it usually get caught and look worse in the long run. Plus that time is better spent making products that people feel passionately about in the first place, which is why Google avoids it.

    I think I can give a little bit of an explanation (not an excuse). One of the reasons that Google does well in general is because we really believe that we’re working on important products that change the world. When you’re that passionate and you’re working hard, it’s easy to take constructive criticism as bias or “Google-hating.” I think that’s probably what is happening in this case; you saw someone responding out of passion, when if they had stopped to think about it, they might not have commented, or they would have made it clear where they were commenting from.

    Personally, I’m torn about whether someone commenting from a company needs to declare “I work for company X” every single time. I get plenty of people talking to me on Twitter or FriendFeed where I know they work for Microsoft, and it would get really awkward if they had to mention that every time. But in this case, it would have been better to say “I work at Google” or possibly to sleep on it before making that comment. At any rate, I appreciate all the feedback and suggestions you’ve given Mike, and I know the Local/Maps team does listen to that feedback and appreciate it.

    I would nitpick about one part of this post though. :) The websearch group only has a finite number of resources; we only have X people to support Y million webmasters that want to communicate. But even then, we don’t just try to “keep a lid” on problems by only answering the complaints that bubble up to the top of search results. We try to look all over the web, plus conferences, plus web chats, plus my and other blogs, to get and respond to feedback. The call for feedback that I did a couple days ago is a good example, because anyone can respond to that to make a case. Can we still do better? No doubt, and I’m happy to hear suggestions on ways to communicate or get feedback in a better way than we do today.

    Thanks for listening. :)

  5. Hi Matt

    I understand passion and I understand knee jerk but when someone refers to “that company” it implies that he is not from that company. So it appeared to be an intential act of deception. That falls in a different category for me. So while I don’t think that someone needs to necessarily identify their affiliation they should not try to hide it either.

    I am glad to hear that your problem solving algo scans deeply. I also understand that there are limited resources. The net result is that bad customer service is bad customer service. If you need to “raise your rates” to hire some staffing for the forums or to provide a chat button in the LBC then you should do so.

    Thanks for stopping by. Thanks for commenting. It may not seem like it but I do like Maps. Here’s to “Steve” having a better day. :)

    Mike

  6. Mike,
    It is obvious to any regular reader of your blog that you are not a ‘Google-hater’. In my experience, no one specializing in Local Search hates Google; on the contrary, everyone is earnestly pulling for Google to ‘get it right’ and you are in the lead of the effort to bring attention to what needs to be fixed to create a fair and ethical local business environment on the web.

    I’m very glad that both Matt R. and Matt C. stopped by to let you know that Google Steve’s comments do NOT represent corporate culture at Google nor Google’s attitude toward your blog. I take it from Matt C’s comment that Steve was flying under his own flag, though doing so from his work computer. I’m prepared to accept that this can happen. After all, I do leave comments places that have nothing to do with my company and that don’t necessarily represent the official policy of Solas Web Design. But, I don’t find criticisms of my business and then defend my business while not revealing that I work for my business. That does seem like intentional deception – I agree with you.

    I imagine Steve isn’t having a great day today. Maybe he’s a new guy and so loves the company he works for, he did this out of loyalty to them, not understanding how it might reflect on Google. I trust he’ll get the hang of things after this.

    At the end of the day, it sounds like both Google and all of us vote for Mike Blumenthal to continue the peerless job he is doing of tracking the progress of Local Search. We couldn’t do without you, Mike.

    Miriam

  7. Hi:

    I am glad that a number of Googlers showed up to support Mike B’s efforts.

    But guys, GLBC isn’t easy to use, not for the average florist/small business. Further, as Mike as written about you can’t even count on your listing “sticking” even if you claim it.

    1800Flowers.com has thousands of florists in its BloomNet membership. Ask them what it takes to service clients, well it takes people and I always find Google reluctant to add personnel when things get labor intensive. Local business really need some hand holding.

    Maybe Google should charge a small fee to verify a listing. It would be money well spent for most businesses.

    Regards,
    Jordan Glogau
    Enterprise Search
    1800flowers.com

  8. Dude. Anyone who says Blumenthals is a Google hater must be smoking crack IMHO. He is extremely fair in his reporting and at times, I feel he is the Bill O’Reilly of the internet Local Search.

    He loves Maps and dont take no crap.

  9. Mike,

    I feel like anything after PanzerMike’s likening you to Bill O’Reilly is anticlimax and therefore almost held back.

    But I gotta chime in.

    I think you make the very best point in this when you talk about the size of the data set. It makes a really good point that hopefully @mattcutts will hear.

    Web Search is huge, huge, huge. The rate at which a complaint reaches critical mass in that context is going to be amplified by the scale of the data set.

    Local Search is local, it’s minute. In the grand scheme of things, Local is irrelevant. At the local level it’s not enough search to even move the needle.

    But there’s a human element which can’t be taken out of it. The Small Business (formerly Advertiser) has a lot to lose given the migration from print to online.

    When a flawed product gains so much prominence, it will steal traffic from a much more fully tested product: Web Search. It’s a conundrum.

    I get where Google is coming from in their attempts at prioritization, but there has to be a customer service mechanism which is cognizant of the impact. This is much more granular and requires a more granular approach. Or, it needs not to have so much prominence.

    Here’s a couple ideas:

    - Paid Customer Service
    – Customer Service bound to AdWords
    – Prioritize staffing to new products

    The epiphany that has to happen at the Googleplex is that Web Search (and Local) is not a Platform, it’s a Product.

    It is the vehicle through which all other revenue comes. Those who make it valuable (the Webmasters who provide content) must have a means of communicating with the producer of a product for which they are paying with their efforts.

    I pay extra for faster access to QuickBooks and other product support, I would happily do the same for LBC support.

    I apologize for my zealotry but we directly represent, every day, the local small business people who lack a loud enough voice and it enrages me that in many cases there is no above board way to beat the spammers and those with special access.

    Will

  10. @Will

    I am grateful for any post that diverts the conversation away from any comparisons to Bill O’Reilly (While panzermike meant well it is not someone that I would want to be compared to)…but your is particularly welcome as it is spot on.

    I have had the same ideas but have hesitated to make suggestions as I figured that Google has more bright people per square foot than any place I can think of. So I presumed that they could/should come up with these ideas as well…but perhaps I am wrong. Matt C did seem a little obtuse above…

    Mike

  11. Mike B,

    I can’t think of any better place than here to ask the question: “What would you do if you were Google?”

    In fact, I think you should start a new thread wholly around that idea.

    Will

  12. Hi Mike & Will,
    Here is the trouble, though, with paid customer service being added to Google local as a solution to the problem. I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

    Google has ALREADY populated their local index with business information, without the permission and, in many cases, without the knowledge of the business owners.

    Now, let’s envision Google announcing that you can pay to have your listing created/verified/secured.

    All business owners who then discover that their existent business is incorrect would be obliged to pay Google to fix it.

    This begins to resemble shades of Merchant Circles, “we’ve got negative data about your business prominently published on our site and you must pay us to fix it.”

    Google did not intend it this way, but it is what would end up happening if they started charging to correct incorrect business data.

    Had Google NOT pre-emptively gathered data, the paid-model would work, but because the index is already populated with information that so frequently misrepresents the business, approaching those business owners asking for money takes on the mafia tone that none of us approve.

    The only way I can think of remedying this undesirable situation would be for Google to delete their index and start from scratch, listing only those businesses who:

    A) Voluntarily sign up

    or

    B) Pay to be included

    If the first route, then only knowing businesses would be represented by Google, and if the second route, then only paying businesses would be represented like Google (similar to Adwords).

    But simply throwing paid help into what currently exists seems really worrisome to me.

    Had you fellows thought of this?
    Miriam

  13. Matt,

    I’m not trying to be a jerk, but I think obtuse is appropriate in this instance.

    As well as I know Mike and many of his other frequent commenters I can unequivocally state that they are people committed to finding solutions.

    My problem with your previous reply and the one given here is you’re not adding to the solution discussion. You’re pointing to a roadblock.

    Clearly you’re a smart guy, so put on your problem solving hat and help address the small business owner / service provider roadblocks and frustration.

    Problems are yesterday, solutions are today satisfaction is tomorrow :)

    Will

  14. @Will, Miriam

    Specific suggestions incur the problem of being easy to shoot down. It is why I hesitate to make specific suggestions as in the end we have no idea what Google’s internal limitations and biases are, we can only surmise them.

    That being said, we who deal the results of Google’s decisions and pay the price of those decisions, can correctly identify the problems. It really is up to them to fix them (or not).

    In Google’s case, I think it breaks down into 4 area for the current discussion (there are certainly more that are germane but not necessarily to this conversation):

    Source Data Quality Issues
    Local Business Center Flaws
    Local Business Center Process issues
    Customer Support and Relation issues

    Chandu Thota did a thoughtful piece in response to the data quality issues which we have not really dealt with here.

    I am of the opinion that Google should be able to solve these issues. As you point out, Google should be able to put on the solution hat. As Chandu noted in his comments: Good software coupled with a great process is achievable with proper execution...

    It is high time Google follows that dictum in the LBC.

    @Matt
    The word was a tad harsh, it is often difficult to achieve nuance in a brief, written way.

    Mike

    Mike

  15. Mike,

    Source Data Quality Issues
    Local Business Center Flaws
    Local Business Center Process issues
    Customer Support and Relation issues

    To my way of thinking, steps #2, #3, and #4 would ALL overwhelm #1 if implemented well. If there were a well-publicized, easy-to-understand LBC from the pt. of view of SMB’s, and that LBC did a phenomenal job of cutting down spam, and if there were a well-publicized support team for people who experienced problems with the LBC, the quality of Google’s data set instantly skyrockets.

    We’ve already seen the positive effect of claiming a business on rankings–suggesting to me that there is something algorithmically that consolidates even incorrect citation data from other providers into a more powerful, singular listing for a particular business.

  16. On one level that is absolutely true. On another, the task of creation and verification of basic business listing data could be done through a single, centralized, well funded source, Google LBC could concentrate on enhancing the records for inclusion within their index. I could envision an independent system where a smb had to create but one, expanded entry that could be verified at several levels and that data would be shared with all of the online directories for use.

    Mike

  17. Mike: Per your comments I read through this thread, the comments, the earlier thread that generated this thread, and Greg’s thread and comments at Screenwerk. Fascinating commentary. Its still a relatively small world of interested commentators. As Ahmed stated, being astroturfed puts you in the big leagues. Congrats. In the process you managed to “out” someone who abused their “google insider” status. In so doing other Google employees responded with earnestness. Very appreciated.

    A couple of thoughts hit me. At Screenwerk, Chris Silver Smith focused on the problems associated with data collection. That is a topic about which he knows a lot. Its an enormous difficult problem. I know that first hand. For years I worked as retail real estate leasing agent for a major firm in a major market. The thing that got me started was in depth strip mapping of every major retail corridor in my territory with every store, retailer,property owner etc. over many corridors. It was a monumental task. It was also incredibly invaluable. Yet that was a micro micro micro effort compared to what Google and the other engines have tried to do.

    Take it a step further and Yipit has made an effort to create detailed information on one category in Manhatten. A bigger effort than mine. It appears they have better info than the engines. I’m sure they put more time, money and effort into it….and expect…and hopefully generate revenues from the effort.

    Then there is the service issue, addressed by so many, yourself included.

    Whether paid (as Will has suggested) or not….I simply don’t undertand why it is lacking. Google is the de facto source of information. Its market share increases all the time. The mistakes create ever bigger problems for a greater number of businesses. I personally strove to assist a business whose customers regularly suffered from misinformation that Google failed to address for months after months after months. The business suffered the potential customers suffered. Google received regular requests from this business. Nothing was done. How pitiful. Multiply that by thousands.

    At Greg’s post, Tim suggested that Maps is a tiny aspect of Google that might not merit the time and investment. Of interest, Steve Espinoza’s research commentary at his newsy blog on local suggests that searchers hit organic results before 10-pac results by a significant amount.

    Outside of Google we still don’t know. How much activity does Maps get and how much does the 10-pac showing in organic results get. Despite the volume and problems maybe it still isn’t that great.

    Anyways this has been a fascinating set of comments.

    :D…….Assuming Google doesn’t implement a reasonable customer service methodology anytime soon…..you will have a lot of rich topics for a long time to come…….:D…….

    In any case, that scathing attack on you should have toughened your skin….which is quite helpful during this brutal cold weather period. Happy x-country skiing. Stay warm.

    ;)

  18. @Dave

    Dang, its nice to have you back.

    It is my thinking that customer support as you and I know it, is not in Google’s DNA. It would require a seismic shift in their thinking for them to place the algo based strategy last in the customer relations steps rather than first when it comes to Maps. Not clear its going to happen.

    I would just as soon have other rich topics to talk about though. :)

    Mike

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