Google Maps: Manic Merging of Business Listings due to Algo Change

Google Maps Merges Business RecordsAt the beginning of last week, I started to notice posts in the Google Help forum and I received emails from a number of correspondents that their records had merged with nearby competitors. At first blush they appeared to have all of the symptoms of hijacked records however after lengthy, ongoing communication with Google it appears that these merged records are being conflated by Google.

Despite having the Local business Center to provide authoritative information to a business listing, Google for a number of reasons and in a number of situations has always merged some business records inappropriately. The merged records will take on parts of one record and parts of the other in a somewhat willy nilly fashion, the url of one business and the telephone number of the other for example.

Typically these are two businesses at the same address or sharing a phone line. Sometimes the data mixup is from an upstream provider and Google will take the upstream provider’s information as more accurate or important than that in the Local Business Center. In the past Google has advised to slightly modify the two addresses so that Google could do better at distinguishing the merged records. In the case of the bad data coming from upstream data providers, it was necessary to track down the bad data and have it changed or face remergers on a regular basis.

Google Guide Joel described the issue before the recent rollout and snafu: “This is how our system works by design. Businesses that are the same address / location are merged. In general, it’s the right thing to do. However, we’ll take your concern as feedback. We want to improve these systems and are actively looking at doing this in the right way. In the meantime, there’s no way to force an immediate fix to the issue.”

For some, Google Maps has become the ultimate Kafka like nightmare of late, as Google is now merging records between nearby competitors just because they are in close proximity to each other. Apparently the merging algorithm has changed and Google is now merging records that have nothing in common other than being in the same map sector and a similar business profile.

One of the owners of a recently merged records was from a Doctor’s office and noted the following: “Google merged the records for Dr John G Moe and Dr Kenneth Landis and this almost led to a tragic patient outcome this weekend. An emergency room doctor from Kansas tried to contact Dr. Moe to see if a certain drug could be given to our patient. Since the patient was unable to give the ER our phone number, the googled Dr John G Moe. Since Google linked our record, the saw the phone number for Dr Landis and left a message on his answering machine and since he wasn’t on call that weekend, we didn’t learn of the problem until much later”.

Here are some graphic examples of this behavior:

Correct Location Information Site 1 Correct Location Information Site 2
The Inn on Lake Superior  

350 Canal Park Drive

Duluth, MN 55802

(218) 726-1111

(888) 668-4352 

(218) 727-3976 – Fax

innonlakesuperior.com

South Pier Inn-On the Canal  

701 S Lake Ave

Duluth, MN 55802

(218) 786-9007

Google results after suffering a merger:

inonlakesuperior
———————

Another example:

Correct Location Information Site 1 Correct Location Information Site 2
Holiday Inn Express   

909 N Spence Ave

Goldsboro, NC 27534

Hampton Inn   

905 N. Spence Avenue, 

Goldsboro, North Carolina  27534 

Google results after suffering a merger:

holidayinn500

As of late Tuesday afternoon, Google started addressing the issue publicly in the forums as Google Employee Nina noted: “The fix needs to be automatic – not manual. These things usually take several weeks to test and bring live. We know it’s causing user pain and I know they are working really hard on it right now as we speak.”

My interpretation: It appears that this new, more malicious merging problem has yet to be fully assessed or defined and that repair could be a lengthy process.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Google Maps: Manic Merging of Business Listings due to Algo Change by

84 thoughts on “Google Maps: Manic Merging of Business Listings due to Algo Change”

  1. First of all, I noticed in the initial cases the number of shared letters in the name seems to be significant. For example: The Inn on Lake Superior vrs. South Pier Inn.
    Inn=Inn and South = Su…o Pier= Peri Su…o + Peri =Superio, which makes Inn Superio = Inn on Lake Superior
    As a test, I fixed one merging problem by changing one branch of Tucson Computer Repair to Broadway Computer Repair.

    Recently I have noticed that geographically close branches of a company using the same telephone number might or might not be merged. I follow four branches of a company which share two phones. Two of the companies merged two didn’t. This all suggests that the merging algorithm takes into consideration a lot of relative factors, each assigned certain mathematical values. When the combined sum goes over the top Zammo! they merge.

  2. I stumbled across this post from another blog I was reading. I find the information in this post very disturbing. I am in an extremely competitive business in a large city (NYC) and the last thing that I need is to have my information merged with some competitors info in Google maps. As a small business owner we have enough to do already and you would think that a company with the technology that Google has that they would be able to get things right. I can understand a mistake here and there but what I’m getting from this post and the comments is that this is a problem that is wide spread. I guess I’m going to have to take out some time from my busy day and do some research now and see how this is affecting my business as I can see how it is highly probable that this is happening in my industry with the amount of competitors that I have.

  3. If anyone is listening at Google Maps, it’s March 2010, almost a YEAR on from the initial posting, and it’s STILL happening.

    – I have several businesses registered at different street addresses
    – These separate businesses have separate websites
    – Diverse contact emails pertain to each business
    – I had separate Google Maps accounts made for each business/site/etc
    – My name seems to be the only common denominator on these sites/listings

    But STILL all my diverse business information is a pot luck of whatever Google thinks it should tell them. To boot, it says that this information has been verified by the business owner. My different businesses all attract distinctly different markets, but now a specific search will provide potential clients with totally inaccurate information, and they’ll move on until they get what they’re looking for.

    It’s like searching for plumbers, clicking the link that reads ‘locksmiths’ and getting sent to a bakery website.

    GOOGLE PLEASE SORT THIS OUT. There must be human control that is allowed if humans are the ones who make the profiles in the first place.

  4. @Chris

    The algo to merge and purge uses language as well as other signals to determine what should be merged. For example the longer the Business name the more likely it is for this to happen.

    I don’t have a complete picture of your situation but I would posit that to some extent you are stretching the limits of what Google can do and wants to do. ….by defining these distinct market segments as different businesses it appears (at least on the surface) that you are attempting to define markets as businesses to gain an advantage in Maps…

    You may see a huge distinction in your activities but obviously Google does not and to be frank when I looked at your sites, I did not. Its like saying that the local plumber (who does most of his work on site like you do), that installs hot water tanks AND geothermal piping deserves to have two business listings in Maps…

    Even if you are not attempting to “game” the system, the reality of Google’s technology is such that you would be better off with one clean listing that describes everything you do rather than 3 (or however many) all mixed up.

  5. @Chris

    Have you tried creating new accounts instead of the merged/ suspended ones?

  6. Question for you Mike since you seem to know a lot.

    I work with a few businesses that want to optimize their google business listing. Problem is they want it done now and it takes a while for the pin to be sent via snail mail since their listing is unclaimed.

    What if I created a new optimized listing and then once the pin came in go into the old listing and make it identical minus pictures and video?

    Right way to do it or wrong?

  7. @Darrin

    Not all listings require a post card. In fact most, if google has good corroborating data, will allow phone verification. You could do it your way, it just seems like more work in many cases. I don’t imagine it would hurt anything

  8. Mike, thanks for all the useful insights. Here is one observation I’d like to share and get your perspective on:

    Merging businesses doesn’t seem to be just a random, proximity based algo. Could it be that Google (as Yahoo and others) has a directory of businesses registered with the city, post office etc. and based on whether the business is listed there or not the merging takes place to eliminate ‘fake’ businesses?

    thanks

  9. @Uwe
    I would assume that Google uses every available signal to 1)reduce dupes and 2)purge fakes. What we don’t know is what those signals are nor how accurate the algo is. Signals like business filings, whois records, phone company records, utility company records are all available and likely to be used by Google.

    But if they “squeeze” too much they will be removing a whole gamut of home based businesses and less formal entities that operate with a cell number, no dba and a home address. I don’t really know where and when they draw the line….

  10. Got another question for you Mike. What happens when someone uses a mail box at somewhere like a UPS store? Does Google kill the listing or merge it?

  11. PO Boxes and commercial equivalents are prohibited by the business listing guidelines.

    In the case of PO Boxes Google generally buries the listing. If they “know” about a UPS store they will do the same thing. If they don’t know about it they will allow the listing into the cluster BUT there is a strong likelihood that visible listings there will be merged particularly if there are two businesses in a similar field.

  12. @Darrin,

    UPS address can work as stand alone locations. So far Google is not specifically filtering them out. Watch how you use phone numbers though, that alone could force a merge if the business uses a UPS address to obtain an extra location in nearby city, or something like that, but are using the same phone number in both locations. Addresses may be unique, but identical phone numbers can be enough to trigger a merge.

    Some feel the spam hammer my be coming down on the use of UPS addresses, and it would be a super easy filter to apply, but there are many home based businesses and other location independent businesses (contractor with van and cell phone) that are using UPS locations, or virtual offices, as their ONLY reasonable means of obtaining a physical address. So I’m not so sure Google will take such a wide swipe at UPS box users as a whole. But who knows, they just might.

  13. @Stever

    Google has been very explicit with me that UPS address is verboten…if they are not actively filtering yet as you point out, they soon will be.

  14. It makes it a bit difficult because I know a guy who does AC repair and plumbing and is going state wide. How do you promote your services in other cities without having a wasted space of an office?

    I guess virtual office is the next route. Anyone know if that works?

  15. Yes the phone number thing is a problem. I have one location in Marina del Rey that keeps merging with another one of my locations in Santa Monica. They fixed one issue and another one arose. I am so busy I have not had time to report this one yet to G.

    I have to assume it is because I used the same number for both stores. Anyone have another theory?

  16. Virtual offices are much more “legit” than UPS boxes. They are a true location with an actual human at the reception desk. Many businesses use virtual offices for various reasons, and have done so long before there was a Google Maps. Lawyers and other professional use them a lot to meet with clients in other cities. Besides getting an address to use, with a receptionist to direct people, mail forwarding, etc…, you also get to rent the conference rooms if and when needed.

    They are however a bit more expensive than UPS boxes. They are also less likely to be available, or even exist, in some smaller cities and towns.

  17. Hi Mike: Thanks for all of the great input. I, too, am in the same boat. In a building with different suites at the same address. Everything is merged and although all of my info, review, etc. appear, my competition’s website is active link on the listing. It is killing my local business.

    So, my idea (and what I’m hoping for feedback on). I am located at a cross street…corner of 48th and 135th. My address is 4800 – 135th ave. I am going to create a new listing but list my address as 13500 – 48th ave. It is a fictional address (so no other business at this address), and comes up as the right location on Google Maps. I will also use my second line or cell number in the add and have secured a new domain name. I am trying to change as much info as possible from my merged listing. Will also be using a new domain name.

    Is this a realistic option? It’s like starting all over again, but Google doesn’t seem interested in fixing the merge so I don’t see what other option I have.

    Thanks Mike!!

  18. @christopher

    I think it is a bad idea. Your business location is what gets ranked and it needs the support of the whole local ecosystem to achieve its real potential. Changing your address for this one purpose is counterproductive.

    What are the business titles of you and the company with which you are merging that are being used in Google? Is it possible that both of you, in search of higher ranking, added similar keywords to your business name? If so that could very well be the cause of the merging.

  19. Mike: Thanks for the prompt reply!

    My situation is a little different than most. The business address, name and phone number are the same with me and my competition. I own the business, lease, phones, numbers, etc. I have sub-contractors who are also independents, so we all share the same physical location, etc. It just turns out, as someone mentioned earlier, Google merged everyone’s information, reviews, etc., but also picked a website to be dominant (which is one of my sub-contractors and not mine). So, I need a solution to ramp up the business I’ve lost due to the merging.

    One thing to keep in mind, I’m a medical provider who does business face-to-face with a customer base within 50 miles. Online sales don’t apply, so local traffic is my bread and butter.

    Based on Googles lack of response over the past year, I can’t rely on them to undo bad merges, so I need to come up with another solution.

    I plan on re-launching my website with a new domain name, new look, etc., and will be launching a big local campaign based on the new site. But I need to make sure with all the work I plan on doing, the new site, info etc. doesn’t end up merged with the other mess. What do I need to change to make sure this doesn’t happen? I plan on launching the new site based on my name rather than my business name, and plan on using a different phone number (one of the other phone lines in the office) and different email address. Is that enough? If I use the same address as my sub-contractors, all else being different, do I still stand the risk of being merged?

    I don’t have the mental energy to have to do this a 3rd time, so I need to get it right this time around.

    Thanks again!

  20. OK. How do I go about getting the information? I really want to make sure this is done right.

    Thanks!

  21. @Christoper

    just couple of suggestions-
    1. You can register a DBA that will present your service & name (that way it’ll be much more unique & Local SEO oriented).
    2. Try to use your current address + a suite # (or something like that) with your listing.
    3. Each & every detail that will differ you from others is holly (ph. #, key words, categories, custom Attributes, year of establishment, operate hours, etc.., etc..).
    All the above will definitely help!
    Be strong (& VERY creative!)

  22. Mike – are you aware of another major issue that seems to have cropped up to coincide with these recent algo changes. With the intention of deleting a listing out of an LBC account, choosing the “Remove this listing from my Local Business Center account”, the listing was deleted from Maps altogether! More than three weeks have transpired with no resolve. Ouch! In a second case, with the intention to move a listing from one business owner acct to another LBC acct, the same was done and in this case, the listing still appears in Maps but the “Owner Verified” lock out remains. So the owner can’t even reclaim his business under another LBC account. These two separate issues are new in my experience and have resulted in major proplems for the business owners. Not sure you are aware as yet but would certainly value your thoughts.

  23. @Christopher,

    Like puresheer mentioned, add a suite # to the addresses so they become unique. AND, this is extremely important, each listing (yours and your sub-contractors) MUST be using unique phone numbers.

    You said “The business address, name and phone number are the same with me and my competition.” That is the problem. Address and phone numbers are the primary location signals Google has to work with. Business names and categories are not as important. Think of a chain of fast food restaurants where name, descriptions, categories would be the same but they have 3 location across the same city. Their listings don’t merge if they each use unique addresses and phone numbers.

  24. My business Ferguson moving and storage Ltd. is located at 1584 columbia st north vancouver V7J 1A4

    a competitor Ellis Moving and Storage is at 1580 Columbia St North Vancouver V7J1A4

    My business ranked at the top and the competitor didn’t rank at all. Now it’s their name, my website their phone number, mixed photos from both of us…it’s nuts.

    It’s been 1 week and my fear is does google give my great ranking to them? It’s really confusing for clients who just want to call us. THey get another company!

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