There is a story unfolding at Google that indicates a huge shift in their thinking about Places. Google, over the past 9 months has been making significant investments in creating support mechanisms for Google Places. Yes, you read that right. But just to be sure let me repeat myself: Google has been making significant investments in creating functioning support mechanisms for SMB problems with Places.
I never thought that I would be writing the words Good and Support and Google Places in the same sentence with a straight face but if current trends continue they are approaching that benchmark. Given that they literally had next to no support as recently as early summer, this demonstrates a significant resource shift and policy change.
Good support requires good processes, good people and good tools. And based on my observations over the past quarter Google has made significant progress in local on all of those fronts. Don’t get me wrong, there is still long way for them to go but there has been a tectonic shift on every front that indicates a 180 degree change in Google’s approach to the issues for SMBs interacting with Google in the free local space.
Support, or rather the lack there of, the poor product quality and the inability to fix all too prevalent problems has been a common thread amongst critics, including myself, of Google Places for a number of years. I have penned a number of screeds on the topic and not one of them showed Google in a favorable light.
The problem has always been that Google would roll out upgrades to Places while never fixing bugs AND frequently providing no mechanism to fix the resultant bad outcomes. Even if these problems were the direct result of a Google decision there was no remedy. If it affected a very small percentage of businesses then you would have absolutely no hope of a solution at all. In fact often it wasn’t viewed as bug at all. In Google’s eyes, the sacrifice of accuracy for a few businesses to see the overall improvement of the index was a switch worth making. It was just the cost of being in the large data, local listing business.
A classic example was the problem of merged businesses. A merging between two distinct businesses into a single Places page was an artifact of the merge/purge routines built into the Maps algo. Two similar businesses, located nearby would become a single Frankenstein like record that showed part from one business dashboard and part from another.
There was no easy way for Google to separate the two. Certainly there was no easy way for the affected businesses to separate them. It required months of careful upstream cleansing of the local ecosystem for BOTH of the affected businesses. It affected a very small % of businesses but if you were the one affected it could be devastating to watch your traffic dry up as your phone stopped ringing.
At the end of the day, the affected business might make their way into the forums, beg, cry and whine. Perhaps their posting was flagged by a top contributor and if they were extremely lucky an engineer would ultimately look at the situation. But it could be months or more likely never. Unless of course you managed to get the case a fair bit of publicity and the shining light of publicity “encouraged” an engineer to take a look.
Clearly Google didn’t want to provide a fix or perhaps was unable to provide a fix at the individual listing level. It doesn’t matter, there was no fix.
But now I am beginning to see a new Google Places support structure emerging that (hold on to your seat…) actually seems to be working. And in a dramatic departure from past behaviors, it is one that acknowledges that the individual Place listing is worth fixing.
Historically the forums were a place for problems to go die a slow agonizing death… where problems would be written about but never solved. I would estimate that for much of my experience over the past 5 years in the forums less than 1 post in 5 (maybe as low as 1 in 10) would even get a response and a solution was available on less than one in fifty. If you check today you will see a much higher rate of posts being answered and many, if not all, have solutions. On some days the response rate can approach 100%. What has changed?
Staffing in the Forums: For the first time in my memory, there has consistently been at least one Google staffer and often more in the forums. Vanessa, who came on board in late summer, has responded to both top contributors AND directly to posters with reliability and persistence. She has stepped in and solved the types of problems that top contributors were incapable of solving as they involved direct Google intervention in the cluster. She has been alert to bugs and has, in several situations, stepped in quickly to be sure that a potential disaster was averted. Equally important is that it appears that the folks in engineering actually listen to her and that information is making it back into the forums.
Additional Volunteer Faces: One or two volunteers can hardly be expected to cover the hundreds of specific issues in the Places forums. For much of my history in Maps, there were very few regular folks providing support to businesses in Places and even fewer that had access to Google as Top Contributor. But Vanessa (with Joel Headley’s support) seems to have been instrumental in elevating more people to top contributor status (for example Linda B and Nyagoslav as well as others) so that the load is much more spread out. These additional TCs not only are more able to respond to the many queries but are able to alert Google to a need for intervention AND a fix.
Additional Paid Staff: In addition to Vanessa’s obvious public role, there are a new Googlers appearing in the forums from their Troubleshooter group on a regular basis of late. If Vanessa is not available, they are now filling in both privately to assist top contributors and in the public forums. A Google Press person noted to me upon inquiry: I’m … able to confirm that we’ve invested additional resources in the Google Places forum to ensure that specialists can help answer users’ questions as needed.
The result? In the forums most posts are being responded to and in situations where a TC is unable to solve a problem a Google staffer is stepping in and providing answers and more often than not a fix.
Other means of elevating problems:
Report a Problem: With the exception of map based problem reports, Report a Problem, which came out in late 2009, always seemed like a deep, dark well for the burial of Places issues. I, a careful watcher, actually thought that the input was in fact being fed into the algo for large scale solutions and was not going to a human at all. It was either that or the largest joke that Google had ever perpetrated to get folks with Places issues off their backs.
But sometime around mid year (or perhaps earlier) that started to change. Dupes, erroneous categories and some of the other oddities (but not merges) of a Place’s listing, when reported via this mechanism, were starting to disappear within a few weeks. And despite the terribly inappropriate automated email responses, it seemed that there was something, or more likely someone, at the end of the those reports. This feature, not available in all countries, was recently also rolled out in UK, Germany, Finland and Sweden as well.
Troubleshooters: The troubleshooters, released this fall, are a self guided system that drives users through a precise description of an issue and in the end, generates a report that is sent off to Google. When first released, I feared that they were one more “piss in the ocean” effort that would collect data for engineers to determine what big data problem to solve next and would not solve the issues of individual businesses.
It appears however that not only has Google put in place backend procedures & software that can cope with issues like merged listings, it has actually staffed it with people that can operate the software. Issues are not only responded to on an individual basis but reported back out in a meaningful way when solved. It appears that there are in fact US folks at the end of the Troubleshooter system and they understand what is involved in customer support. When asked about the program Google PR said that “we’re experimenting with additional ways to offer Google Places users assistance with their accounts“.
Here is a report from a business describing the timeline of an issue that showed up in the forums shortly after the release of the Troubleshooters. Previously this sort of anecdotal testimonial had been unheard of:
Wow! pleased to announce my horrid merging mess appears to be fixed! Also revealing a whole new serp layout too with the maps and thumbnails! see it here http://tinyurl.com/
Implications & Inferences:
First and foremost there seems to be a broad understanding on the part of everyone at Google from the top down that they can’t move forward without some sort of support structure in place.
Recall that Google has shifted high level executives to focus on Google local. This shift may have started under Eric Schmidt with Marissa Mayer’s assignment to Local last October. But soon after Larry Page took the helm in April, Jeff Huber was elevated to the inner sanctum with a specific local portfolio. At a lower executive level, I think it significant that Carter Maslan left Google Places this summer and it seems that Lior Ron, of Hotpot fame, appears to have taken on an increased role in setting the goals for Places. We can’t know for sure but these changes preceded the many shifts in support levels. I have to believe that they were likely instrumental in providing the necessary budget and in paving the way for making support in Local a funded priority.
As I noted at the beginning of the article good support means more than just good people, it requires good tools. I know that many problems that were once the sole province of engineers can now be solved by staffers like the folks in the Troubleshooter trenches. It appears that internally the necessary software tools have been developed that allows those without CS degrees to delve into the bowels of a business cluster and straighten out much (but not all) of the mess that is sometimes created by the algo. On the public side, the April, 2011 rollout and recent interface improvements of Mapmaker have given some of that power to the greater mapping community as well.
Too Soon to Declare Victory:
One can’t, by any means, declare victory by or for Google on the service front. Google is just beginning the process of adequate support of the SMB in Places. There is plenty left to do and plenty of messes to still clean up. Here are some of the outstanding issues:
The way that Google has implemented Places on the technical side means that any changes in the algo continue to affect Places listings in often unpredictable ways with new bugs and quirks cropping up on a regular basis.
There is still an incredibly circuitous route for an SMB to get help when going from the Places Dashboard thru the help files back to the Place page report a problem and onto the Troubleshooter.
It still takes a number of weeks for the “report a problem” process to see any affect and despite some improvements the communications back to the SMB are often less than understandable.
It is necessary for an “index push” to fix the display of many problems on an SMB’s Places page, oft times delaying final resolution of a fix for a month or more.
Reviews are a huge source of problems and frustrations and as yet, perhaps because they exist in a separate index, the problems there continue. It is an SMB flashpoint and one where Google really needs to double down on both the technology and support.
It isn’t always clear which problems should be solved in the Troubleshooters and what is the best path for specific problem resolution. Some problems like bad photos are done on the Place page, others are best done via Report a Problem and still others are most quickly solved via the Troubleshooters or MapMaker. I have trouble keeping is straight and I do this every day. No SMB can be expected to decipher it.
The Future of Support in Places:
As I noted, good support requires good processes, good people and good tools. Google seems to be on track with good people (Vanessa truly gets support and from my few interaction with the Troubleshooting staff they do as well). The tools are at least being made available internally and externally even if they are not yet easy to use. MapMaker is particularly powerful but still opaque example.
The processes are still an issue and there appears to be a huge disconnect between what happens in the Places Dashboard, where these support efforts should be focused, and the disparate support mechanisms (forums, things on the Place page, the troubleshooters in the help file) that are now in place.
Compared to last year at this time, when everyone was wishing for any Google Places support in their stockings, it seems that we can now move on to asking for improvements in these process and tools. Google seems to finally be putting in place mechanisms to solve the many problems that they themselves have created. Hopefully the support that we are seeing is more than just a test and is a foundation for not just solutions but quick ones.
Long haul, to compete on main street, Google needs great service. It ultimately will be one of the things that distinguishes them from the many players in the space. It is also a “feature” that they dare not to bring into their coming battle with Amazon, Facebook and Apple.
Hopefully what I have seen over the past several quarters will not only help SMBs market their businesses more successfully and with less pain but will give Google the necessary tools to effectively compete in the local space in the future.