The Untold Story of 2011: Google’s Significant Investments in a Google Places Support Structure

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.

The History

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.

The forums:

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/3nvelt6  This is record time, I have been trying to get my badly corrupted places fixed since Oct 2010!  For you SEO pros heres my timeline for the new “fix a problem” link:

Oct 22:  filled out the form for my listing has incorrect data and submitted it.
Oct 24   Received an email from google advising they had fixed the data according to my submission and to wait 2-4 weeks for results. Meanwhile the incorrect listing remained live and my dash went to “We do not support the location”
Nov 2   My dash Listing fixed and live, only thing missing is my hours, but I can certainly live with that!

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.

Conclusion:

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.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
The Untold Story of 2011: Google's Significant Investments in a Google Places Support Structure by

76 thoughts on “The Untold Story of 2011: Google’s Significant Investments in a Google Places Support Structure”

  1. @Gav
    Don’t break out the champaign (or other celebratory drink of your choice) just yet, better is not yet good and directional movement is not yet arrived at a destination. I am optimistic, not because the service or backend product is that good, but because the folks in charge seem committed to better.

  2. @Cindy
    Speed, due to the delays between index pushes, is not yet an attribute that can be ascribed to Places. As EarlPearl points out, better than nothing support has still not achieved even good let alone great. Given that Google started at such a low point, it is the trend I am marveling at.

    For whatever reason (perhaps a large update coming?) index pushes have been coming at a 5-6 week interval. Issues like updating hours still needs an index push to correct. The last one, as far as I can determine was around the first of december. That means that your hours issue won’t be corrected till the first week or so of January. That certainly does not constitute great support by any stretch.

    Glasses in the world of Google Local search can be seen as half empty (all the business you are losing) or half full (the increased exposure)… Unfortunately Google’s issues that so frequently plague Places tend to remind of the former and all too often blot out the reality of the latter.

  3. Cindy: I looked at your record and your website. I checked hours. Why don’t you go into your G Places record and add a note about your hours now until Google corrects it. Add 24/7 hours or your holiday hours in the comment box inside your places record. It will show just under the hours and be pretty visible.

    Its not a solution to the google glitch…but it is a temporary fix.

  4. No Cindy, what Earl is suggesting is not on your Place page and it’s the easiest fastest bandaid you can put on the problem for now.

    You have a post on your Place page that says:

    “Free Coney with Crossroads ticket from same day!”

    Change that to “Now Open 24 Hours – Free Coney with Crossroads ticket from same day!” or whatever…

  5. @Cindy

    Linda’s & Earl’s suggestion to use the update feature is a good one but one that will only be partially successful because it won’t show in the front page search results. Your problem is not uncommon and it is one of the many technical issues that are still in Places that take FAR, FAR too long to fix.

    I would suggest though that you not waste a huge amount of time on the legal front as Google (and every internet property) are categorically immune from issues arising from the use of their platform even if they are aware of them. 47-230 of the bizarrely named Communications Decency Act provides blanket protection to them at a federal level.

  6. Mike:

    Assuming Cindy has contacted Google for about 1 month, as she indicated, this would be an example of a fallacy in the Google Customer Service Response.

    The issue has to do with hours of operations. That should NOT be a big issue. Its a simple field, independent of any algo. Its discrete information.

    From a business perspective, the hours show on the first page of google.com for searches for the restaurant name. Google’s current information is grossly wrong, and could well be a problem. Showing limited hours versus its 24/7 status is deeply misleading.

    Its one of those problems that should revert to a hand fix, and it should be done quickly. It can’t be a big deal. its not a big deal in any other system.

    I guess this situation is a terrific and deeply characteristic example of how many more miles Google needs to go to achieve some simple level of customer service……regardless of the major steps that have been taken this year.

    Ahhh…we see Progress….but certainly not Perfection.

  7. @Earl

    Hours is one of those things that is currently screwed up… given the huge lag in index pushes and the fact that this information requires an index push… Cindy (and anyone else that wanted to add Christmas hours) was caught in the mess.

    I am not defending it. Google apparently decided that they had bigger priorities.

  8. What percentage of users with issues ever make it to the forum?

    1. How many unclaimed google scraped English language Places listings are there in the world? Marked ‘Business Owner?’

    2. How many ‘Owner Verified’ English language Places listings are there in the World?
    A. Created from a new Places entry
    B. Claimed from a scraped ‘Business Owner?’ Places listing?

    Of these:

    1. How many Places accounts have been in Suspended status by elapsed months? Ignore those will all entries Suspended by the user.

    2. How many Places accounts have been in ‘Quiet Purgatory’ by elapsed months? Ignore those will all entries Suspended by the user.

    3. How many Places entries have been in Pending Being Reviewed status by elapsed months? Separate out Places accounts accessed since the Status change.

    4. How many Places entries have been in ‘Rejected – Action Required’ status by elapsed months? Separate out Places accounts accessed since the Status change.

    5. How many PIN verified Places entries are in the Maps index but not showing in a Places search result by elapsed months? As this is a dynamic search result some statistics fields may need to be added.

    6. How many PIN verified Places entries are not in the Maps index by elapsed months? This may need a maps index updated marker date/time stamp added to the Places entry.

    7. How many empty Places accounts are there by elapsed months. This may need a last user access date/time stamp added.

    At least internally some analyst should be running these reports monthly and taking action to reduce the numbers to some reasonable number to account for user lethargy and a continual drip of the usual bugs in all systems.

    If google are serious about user support they should be published to demonstrate intent by the google management.

    Metrics are a powerful methodology.

  9. Andrew:

    Your comments and suggestions about metrics are terrific. Any business that wants to improve should be looking at things like that.

    Who knows if Google even cares enough to apply metrics of the ilk that you described? If they are measuring these items and others, they’ll never reveal it to us, of that I’m certain.

    But great ideas. Wouldn’t it be terrific if they went “transparent” and responded to your comments with metrics on each of those points??? :D

  10. Interesting. A client of mine has had a recurring issue with places in that Google insist they are about 1/2 mile from their real location. We correct it, wait ages for review then it shows right for a while before reverting back to the wrong state.

    Last time we corrected it the change was live in a few days, rather than a few weeks. Seen another recent change get fixed more quickly than expected as well. Fingers crossed this is more than coincidence.

    With Google’s focus on mobile at the moment it makes sense to improve support for local/places, but I try not to let sense govern my expectations of what Google does!

  11. I do like when you say that Google seems want to solve the many problems that they themselves have created. Yes, the problems may occur because of them.

  12. @Mat
    Have you explored whether the underlying Map geography and street numbering are correct?

    @Jessica

    Absolutely. Many of these issues are a function of the routines in the algo that might fix thousands but screw up the one, others are weak system design. The big change is their willingness to now look at and fix, albeit slowly, the one.

    @Andrew
    Just because we don’t trust them, and just because we want more transparency doesn’t mean we will get it. I would be happy with a product that runs better, that doesn’t lose reviews, that keeps out spam, and that offers up fixes to Google create anomalies in a few days…

  13. @Mike – I agree with you – I would love to have Google actually tell me what they are doing to fix things, but more important I want things fixed. We are still wrong and there seems to be no timeline for fixing it. Everyday, I send a letter to the legal department and everyday I get ignored.

  14. @cindy
    As I recall they did communicate to you and told you that it would be fixed in 4-6 weeeks.

    Your issue is a known bug in Google Places. It requires an index push to fix. Your listing will not get fixed one second before the index push so continuing to spend your time on writing letters is a somewhat futile activity.

    The index push is likely to be within the next week or two. It would be my opinion that you should spend your time actively marketing to customers rather than attempting to influence Google in the way that you are.

    As I pointed out above, Google has no legal obligation to fix the problem. They are still likely to do so, however, in a timeframe that they chose not that you chose.

    I understand your frustration. It is entirely appropriate. That being said you can stress about the weather as well… but like Google there is little you can do about it.

  15. Have you explored whether the underlying Map geography and street numbering are correct?

    @Mike : The places page we’ve been having problems with is what I would definitely call a “contentious address”. One of those odd corporate spaces that has a number of addresses used for it, depending on which access road you use.

    As of this morning it’s back to the “wrong” format. Seems that my optimism was premature at best!

  16. @Mat
    then two things:

    1)Figure out exactly how Google Maps seems to think it should be… use that if appropriate

    if not

    2)Go into Mapmaker and make it right. Wait for the changes to propagate and then use that address.

  17. I couldn’t have said this better myself. It has been a frustrating past few months as our businesses had been stuck in merged hell…Interesting how when Google damages your business there is no recourse but as soon…they have billions..set up some customer service already…if not, make it a paid product. I’d all be fine with that even playing field

  18. I agree with post 69. They should make it a paid service which would hopefully support a financial effort to improve this program. And there is no way of knowing when certain issues are addressed. I have to discover it on my own. The concept is intriguing. The execution is lacking.

  19. @ Mike – well, we got the news today that the new index push happened but “The underlying issue is that the system is not taking 12am-12am as valid operating hours” and “After speaking with our technical team members, your hours may or may not be listed as 12am to 12am after the next index push. There is the option not to display hours, which may be better suited for a 24 hours business, such as yourself.”

    And then to top is off, the date of the next index push, where they will “try” again to fix it, in some kind of secret and can not be disclosed.

    My personal opinion is that they are really not making any effort to fix the problem. Add to it that Google places their free “information” in big colorful display next to the ad we pay for (which they put in small text only format). We have cancelled our Ad Words campaign.

    Wonder how Google would feel about a large scale campaign saying they were closed and a promise from us that we will change in “eventually” on our time table which is a secret? Can you tell I am frustrated?

  20. @Cindy

    The hours feature has always been buggy and less then reflective of real world issues. It does allow for split hours so perhaps you can work around the issue with that feature OR perhaps put your hours at 12 am to 11:55 pm.

  21. On the 24 hour business issue: Just wow. What’s happening with Google Places? It feels like bugs that are there have been there for a long, long time.

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