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. Ugh….more dire health problems. In this case…an utterly dire health emergency. This isn’t a first in the health world. Meanwhile Google insists that the problem is systemic….and is specifically not worthy of actual customer service response.

    Hey guys…can’t you do two things at once? You know, like chewing gum and breathing.

    Meanwhile, Google provides Customer service when its adwords accounts are involved. It responds to particular needs for its income stream. Yet it doesn’t respond to others when google’s flaws or weaknesses that accomodate theft result in income losses to others, doesn’t engage in customer service when consumer fraud is being accomodated.

    Meanwhile…isn’t Yahoo providing levels of customer service?

  2. While Google is working out these issues, maybe Google should consider placing a prominent disclaimer on the maps page rather than in the forum warning people of potential incorrect listings. ( I highly doubt they would ever do it)

    It would certainly be the right and moral thing to do especially if there is clear cut evidence that people utilize Google Maps during health emergencies etc.

  3. @Earl
    There seems to be some concern that changing the records manually will screw things up worse.

    It is and has always been unclear to me what the purpose of the LBC record is, if they don’t trust as the final word.

    @Art
    Yes of all the products that Google has left in beta for so many years, one wonders why Maps actually graduated.

  4. Regarding changing things manually, I agree it has potential to screw things up even more. There are likely many thousands of cases of these kinds of erroneous mergings (many go unreported, yet to be discovered) and developing an automated method is certainly the way to go. If you manually fix a few here and there the automated method, once correctly developed, may pass over the manual fixes as they no longer fit into the whole database structure the same way as they once did. Or might hinder other database wide changes in the future.

    I think it’s obvious why Google let Maps out into the wild before it was quite ready. The web is going local in a big big way and to gain a market dominance position Maps had to be out now, regardless of it being still connected to the incubator. Classic case of the Ready, Fire, Aim approach.

  5. It seems terribly screwy to me. It also seems deeply irresponsable.

    If the system is unable to account for changing records manually, while its existance both creates faulty records and encourages mapspam….then its usage is premature.

    The premature nature is a function of the negative impact on the following:

    1. Potential health problems. cripes that’s big. The Duke medical center problem, this latest problem, etc. all point to the potentially dire consequences of faulty information.
    2. Consumer fraud. The Missouri Attorney General’s investigation found that its one consumer was charged double that of what he/she was quoted on the phone by an emergency locksmith. That is theft.
    3. The incredible impact on the visibility of businesses….and the dire impact on these businesses when erroneous or hijacked information diverts traffic from the intended sources.

    Geez….the economy is bad enough. Does Google want to contribute to the problem.

    The situation wouldn’t be so severe if organic Google with Maps inserts wasn’t the dominant form of search for products and services.

    Google’s internal problems in fixing the workings of Google Maps are fostering all sorts of problems on an unaware public. If it can’t fix things both systemically and manually at the same time…..its got a huge problem….and its simply laying it on an unsuspecting public.

    AND THEN THE PROBLEMS simply stay there.

    IMHO its very ugly. I wonder when a high profile industry catches wind of problems wherein business revenues are being misdirected or stolen. It will not only be ugly…it will be costly and extremely well publicised.

  6. It is always difficult for me, even as much as I have studied maps to fully understand that a business record isn’t a finite editable entity.

    Given that they are not though, the other difficult thing to understand is why the LBC record is not given the highest precedence when there is a discrepancy in the “cluster”.

    The third thing that is difficult for me to understand is why they don’t communicate out about problems and difficulties and wait for me to harrass them to death and get totally annoyed that they are not responding. Wouldn’t it be easier to be out in front of the complaints and say: “We know we have a problem, here is is and here is when we hope to have it fixed”…nobody expect this stuff to be perfect but it just should not be so hard to communicate clearly. In the end it is the least expensive of the options.

    @Stever
    OK it was released early for competitive reasons. So when is it reasonable to expect it to function properly? 2, 4 years? 8 Years? We are going on 5 now.

    Google apparently perceives their interests as running Maps as inexpensively as possible and making as much from it via adwords as possible. They do not apparently perceive customer service or PR as a necessary part of that mix.

    Mike

  7. Most of the time I try and post a link here it doesn’t take. I’ll simply post this article from SearchEngineland today by Matt McGee citing this article and referencing issues facing Google Maps…

    http://searchengineland.com/time-to-send-google-maps-to-drawing-board-18295

    Funny thing, about 1 week ago Bill Slawski, at SEOBytheSea published about patents impacting local search both in Maps and organic google. The patents are recently released though the publications trail implementation (of some level that we’ll never know) by several years. One of the topics he referenced was “categories”. It seems IMHO that organic does a better job with categories than Google Maps.

    It seems there are many bugs in Google Maps. In its own right….that is okay….all the engines and all parts of them are constantly evolving. The more serious issue is that Google Maps has an incredible impact on local businesses, local consumers, and more dramatically local health issues. It needs to address the negative impact it is having on these parties.

  8. Oh, grand, more health emergencies.

    This is a good time to trot out the link Jen Chin gave me to the page which has the option to report incorrect emergency data:

    http://maps.google.com/support/bin/request.py?contact_type=contact_policy

    I still remember my own health emergency and my experience using Maps during that, and frankly, thinking that someone might have been given contraindicated medication as a result of conflated Google records really makes me mad. That could have cost someone their life.

    The lesson for emergency medical providers here is an obvious one: do NOT use Google to try to find professionals in the middle of a health emergency. At least on a local level, medical providers ought to have a working internal database of all other medical providers in their county or state. But, considering how the insurance companies have bankrupted the country’s medical system, it’s of little surprise that they would be having to turn to free services like Google local to try to find colleagues. Where I live, the shortage of medical care is truly scary, so I think your article actually highlights 2 emergencies, Mike:

    1) A broken medical system
    2) A company (Google) willing to play with people’s health and lives by publishing totally incorrect contact information for emergency services

    I see major alarms, sirens and flashing red lights in both of those scenarios and we are the losers in both.

    Important stuff, Mike. Keep it coming!
    Miriam

  9. I don’t know. There is something incredibly robotic about Google’s actions. How can they create an emergency notice, specifically for health issues and then bury it so virtually nobody can find it?

    Where is the common sense? Oh yeah. Yahoo has it. They have customer service. 😀

  10. This is not just impacting small businesses. I manage this area for a company with 7000+ locations, and I’ve seen this issue of clustering records increase over the past couple weeks. We have a lot of listings with mixed information from our competitors. Definitely not good. I think Google needs to reduce the number of data sources they use, or do a better job of prioritizing the data sources i.e. the Local Business Center.

  11. This isn’t the first time, nor the last time that a mistake in the updating of the alg will cause a “glitch in the matrix” of sorts.

    As far as google’s customer service goes……………… good luck?

  12. One other thing came to mind. If a business is experiencing a substantial decrease in revenue, a targeted ad on maps would provide a temporary bandage for the situation.

    I seem to remember a quote “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters” – Epictetus

    1. @Dustin
      No it won’t be the last time, however Google should be more forthcoming and forthright to the businesses involved. Google should provide a better avenue for reporting this type of problem and timely feedback when its fixed. As they have moved so aggressively into our lives as the provider of local information, they should assume the responsibility of membership in the community. That doesn’t mean that they won’t screw up, just that they accept responsibility if they do.

      The loss of revenue comes from two things that a targeted ad in Maps is unlikely to help
      1)The loss of 10 Pac exposure. This is national in nature and on a phrase like Hotel would be very difficult compete on.
      2)Since the website and phone number is going to a competitor, it is likely that the opportunity will move to them.

      I would suggest that your quote: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters” – Epictetus would apply equally well to Google in this situation.

  13. @Gab
    Being a tad culturally tone deaf I had to look up your reference to “another one bites the dust”. That search took me to the Wikipedia article on the Queen song. In the article I thought it interesting that they noted:

    During the administration of chest compressions during CPR, it can be difficult to achieve and maintain the recommended rate of 100 compressions per minute[6]. The bass line of this song is at such a rate; thus it is frequently recommended to think or hum this song during CPR, to maintain the correct rate[7].

    1. Anna

      That won’t be too painful until they merge your record with the fellow that is having is left leg amputated.

      Mike

  14. It does bother me that Google Maps is seemingly running on a completely different tune than organic. I can understand the whole “increase your overall citations in local sites/directories” thing works to a certain degree, but it still messes with me.

    I’m studying the algorithm of local search and hope to find some decent conclusions over time.

    Great article!

  15. Yup, Inn on Lake Superior is good friends with aimClear, and I spotted this. Of course I immediately called another good friend Mike. Keep up the great work MB, this is killer stuff.

    I have access to the data which shows how devastating mix ups like these are financially to the real business owners who get hurt. The dollar amount losses associated with this debacle would you make you sick to your stomach in light of normal monthly revenue…really.

  16. They need to do something, i am losing business as we speak to my competitor, who has the link to their website set up, who can i call?

  17. There is another issue now. People are not receiving the Google postcards. At first I thought it was me, or that someone was intercepting them. But after going through the forums, I can see it is Googler wide.

    I have not gotten one in over a month despite at least 5 requests.

    Why do they disable phone and sms and then not send post cards?

  18. @panzermike,

    1. what is the reason you are not verifying your listing by phone?

    2. Does the listing you wish to verify is totally new, or does it has any history in Gmaps?

    Maybe I can help you with this one..

  19. @PureSheer

    The sms and phone verification features are disabled and no one at Maps has responded to my request to re-establish them.

    The listing IS NOT totally new and I simply edited the listing, at which time Maps took it down and stated a post card would be sent. After 5 or more requests, still no post card.

    Over 30 days has passed and no one is helpful at the Maps Help Forum. To top it off, I have seen other threads indicating that many people do not get their cards mailed to them either.

    Why did they deactivate phone and sms?

  20. @panzermike,

    they didn’t disabled those options.

    If I understand your case, I can solve you this issue in an instance.

    Let’s go off line. Write me your email & I’ll send you the actions you need to take.

  21. The lisitng for the Inn on Lake Superior was good yesterday (5/7/09), today it is back to being merged. The South Pier Inn tech guy called the hotel yesterday complaining that we are screwing with his listing. He must be watching it now every day. Apparently when we moved the Inn’s marker ( a solution that was submitted but doesn’t quite work), the South Pier info changed to the Inn’s website. He didn’t like that. Go figure. He went into his own record and moved the marker position for his hotel back to their position and thus the Inn’s info is wrong again. This would also explain why when we changed the marker for one of our hotels in Goldsboro it cause the other hotel to be incorrect. Moving the marker only works if the other party isn’t paying attention or if it isn’t your own business next door.

  22. @AnneS
    This could go on and on forever….I guess they are really merged and both records move together.

    so much for that idea.

    back to waiting impatiently and seeing what Google does.

    Mike

  23. Google map has merged my clients business listing with his next door neighbor’s business. Now, google map will take visitors to his competitor’s website yet under his business name!

    This is crazy, and that they have no easy way to report the problem and fix it is very irresponsible on google’s end. How hard it it to have a system to report and correct mergers?

    -Frustrated webmaster

  24. Google has done and does a lot of good things well. But their search product has been sliding downhill for a long time – annoying “spam” search results, a map that is often wrong, outdated info. Complaining about a service that is basically free seems kind of wrong. But their brand is freakishly popular and marketers pay them gobs of money for Adwords. You would think they would want to protect their business reputation better.

  25. I had a merged listing problem, but it has now mushroomed into a delisting (details at http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/maps/thread?tid=2a5577cf030b8563&hl=en). Since I manage both merged domains, an SEO recommended changing the merged one (less important domain) to the primary one. That was fine, but when I took the next step she recommended, deleting the duplicate, my listing vanished from local listings. When I re-enabled it, all my listings disappeared from the SERPs as well.

    Since I doubt the Gov’t will bail me out, if Google doesn’t fix this fast, we’ll be in bankruptcy.

    1. Could you share your business details (business name, location) so we could take a look? did you see Google’s posting on dealing with duplicates and how to avoid deletion?

  26. hi,
    my reviews (100+ of them) as Dr Adam Salem dentist at Amoskeag Urgent Dental Care have been split off and 77 of them attached to another dentist Amoskeag Family Dentistry ??? Help , I ‘ve spent years polishing my online reviews
    by pleasing patients and customers ? Every review mentions me by name . This is the third time I have to contact Google about this ? How is my business edited the web site and address and phone number ?? I have claimed it several times in : “Claim your business “HELP !!!

    1. Apparently, Google is confused about how to distinguish between the two businesses. They share a similar name and a similar enough location that Google sees fit to merge the data. You need to provide Google more signal strength to insure that its algo can discern between the two locations.

  27. Hi every body,
    I am new here.
    I have the same problem by one of my ads. This is about a Limousine service with different addresses. last time (oct.11.2009 ) as i was searching my ads limoADs were not to see and find!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!at liest one of them was 1-3 located.
    In LBC accounts (mine and the owner’s) was all thing ok. I mean status of ads “Active” statistics and diagramme were normal. But the last ad’s activity were on oct.07.2009!! all to gether were stoped without any notification or something else. I saw one of these ads is waiting for verification code(via mail) for more than 8 weeks!!!!
    when i was trieng to change them some ads was updated without need of verification but some other are still waiting. any way i just can find 2 of them when i enter the whole ads title and zip code. I don’t know what to DO….. I found out that other limousine service has his office in the wrong address that a enterdby the ad. maybe they had recived my varification letter and sent die informations an “local+pin@gmail.com”. and google think that the bussines is not real? can some one help me? I feel too bad because it was my fault and i did not make mony i just wanted to help the owner

  28. i tried to correct my business listing and add another business i own with a different phone number, the listings merged and the info crossed over so my website a appeared in business b’s listing and vise versa…i am now waiting for the verification mailer and i hope it comes quick because i am hemorrhaging business…

  29. @Jim

    I would (at least temorarily) change the primary details of the second listing to the same primary details as the main listing and remove all enhanced content. If they are going to merge then let there be at least one accurate record rather than two incaccurate ones.

    To add a second listing at the same location takes some serious planning to implement.

  30. My local map listing with google doesn’t show any links or reviews from other local business listings (and I have plenty). I think this is causing me to be ranked lower.

    In doing a map search of my business, I always find one extra listing that is unverified but has all the links I hope for. So I go in claim it, edit itand verify it with the PIN, then it ends up merging with my current active listing but all the links disappear. Then once again a second unverified listing shows up with all the linking. I have been through this process 3 times.

    You’re the only one who can help Mike.

    Joe

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

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