Category Archives: Google Places (Maps & Local)

Comments, research and information about Google Maps (Google Local)

Google Places: What might customer service look like?

Google has recently upgraded their help files and are receiving kudos for their effort. I find the effort, while laudable, very little and very late. I still find the whole Google Places “customer service experience” sorely failing at its primary task: convincing business owners that they are appreciated for something other than their credit card.

Here is an article that I wrote March 30, 2009 and I think it is as true today as it was 2 years and 4 months ago: Google Maps Places: What might customer service look like?
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Over a year ago I compared Google Maps to Yahoo Local in the nature of their communication upon listing a business in the respective services. I praised Yahoo for proactive, if automated, communications and followup. Yahoo, in contrast to Google, made the signup process seem like not walking off of a cliff in the dark. More importantly than the specifics of the process, Yahoo made me feel good about the process with minimal effort on their part. Communication like this improves the buy in process prior to a problem. Customer service on the other hand is an improved communication after the problem inevitably occurs.

I just recently switched my home accounting on Quicken from a very old OS 9 Macintosh Quicken to a newer version on OS X. My customer service interaction with Intuit was exemplary without ever speaking with a customer service rep and it drove home for me why Google’s current model for customer service fails and how they could improve it.

What might Google Maps customer service look like if Google were to get serious about it? How would I feel if they were to do it right?

Google has a very thorough reputation management methodology. They actively scour the web, blogs, forums and every other kind of possible on line resource for problems with their products. This process is automated and the issues found are apparently categorized and ranked. In the case of Google Maps, if a  specific problem is being widely discussed across the web and involves a specific bad record or set of records (think mapspam), it seems the Google staff are authorized to hand jigger the results so that better results are shown and that specific record repaired or removed. If the problem is serious enough, it might also be passed to the Maps group for review and possible future change of way the results are presented. It works great at capping the damage of high profile problems and it provides a long term feed loop to improve the product. Great as far as it goes.

Reputation management however is not customer service. Only high profile problems are solved and only after they become big problems. By only focusing on these high profile problems, many legitimate questions go unanswered leaving many folks with a feeling that Google just doesn’t care. At its best, good customer service is a process that takes that potentially huge problem and turns it into a positive to cement a long term relationship. It is a way of acknowledging the customer’s humanity.

Google’s single customer service option in addition to their help files, if you are a business or user, for getting an answer to your problem is to post to the Google Maps forums. These are unmoderated forums and once again it feels like a step off of that very steep cliff. Google Guides might read all of the posts but actually respond to very few, relying instead on volunteers to answer the question if it gets answered at all. Some of the volunteers are authorized to bring high profile problems to Google’s direct attention. (Nothing like shifting costs…)

Thus Google Map’s customer service is a very hit and miss proposition. By the time a small business owner makes it to the forums they are already frustrated and when they find such spotty service, they often go “postal” (is there a maps equivalent of postal?). Google Maps is becoming known for sub optimal customer service and the forums are a veritable breeding ground of discontent

It doesn’t need to be this way. I think that the model of customer support provided by Intuit for Quicken points the way. But before I get to that lets look at how big the support problem is. Being immersed in the “bad results” I often get a distorted view of the reality. I see mostly egregious examples and I, and most people, tend to extrapolate that more widely than is justified. I read the group postings every day and the influx seems overwhelming. The reality? Let’s take a look.

To get a sense of the total number of problems reported I looked at the number of original postings in the three groups where problems and questions with Maps are dealt with since the new forums were rolled out in Mid January. On average there were 53 postings per day. Over time, they add up to many unhappy customers if they go unanswered. I suppose that there could be more postings if Google highlighted access but it would still be a manageable daily number.

Number of Posts Reporting Problems, Daily Average Jan Feb Mar
For Business Owners 10 9 9
Problems and Errors 26 25 27
How Do I? 19 17 17
Daily Total 55 51 53

So given the small scale of the problem why is Google unable to allocate the resources to provide customer service? Who knows? (see Greg’s post for a possible cause)?

Could it be fixed? Yes and here is where the Intuit Quicken solution comes in.
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What Single Words Best Describes Google Places

The results are in. I thought that the answers of the single best word to describe Google Places could best be displayed as a Tag Cloud.

Like Google uses editorial judgement in showing search results, I used some to determine the relative weight of the words.

created at TagCrowd.com

Google Places Survey Challenge – Describe Places With One Word

Google has recently added a “Take our Survey” link to the Places page. I thought that it was a simple 2 question, rate your satisfaction survey with an optional third question (it actually goes on forever). But it was the third question that intrigued me: Describe Google Maps in one word.

I love Google Maps. I hate Google Maps. I find it exhilarating when it works and am continually frustrated by its quirks and oddities. I find it a challenge to understand and simple. It can help a business become successful and drive that same business to the the depths of despair. I am in awe and desperation.

ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

Ambivalent? For sure but that hardly captures my feelings in one word. I have trouble coming up with one word that describes the jambalaya of thoughts and feelings about Places.

My challenge to you: Describe Google Maps. Come up with one word that captures your sense of (sur)reality when it comes to Maps and Places!

Senator Franken Shilling for Google?

Update 7:30 pm: The Google video of Al Franken has “Embedding disabled by request”. Sorry but for reasons that are not totally clear, you will need to head over to YouTube to view this video. Are there any conspiracy theorists in the house?

Update 8:17 pm: Apparently, according to @AlanBleiweiss they have also disabled comments.

Update 9/29: Well at least someone had the smarts to reenable embedding. You don’t need to make a story out of the story itself.

Ok. Here’s the question.

How inappropriate is it to have one of the Senators that is overseeing Google’s Antitrust hearing in the senate, shill for the Google Getyourbussiness online program?

Yes, it is a good cause but it certainly raises the specter of a conflict. Bad idea all the way around. It further trivializes an already trivial activity.

Google Places: What does the “new” Business Permanently Closed process look like?

In response to the NY Times article on problems with the process for showing a business as closed that led to spammer induced closings, Google announced that they had pushed a “fix”.

Through experimentation, Google’s comments and feedback from Google’s PR folks I have pieced together the likely “flow” for the current closing and the reopening process. These steps apply in the US but may or may not apply elsewhere in the world.

I am looking at this process from the outside so I may have missed something. If you have tested it yourself or have additional information please let me know:

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Google Places APB: ANY PLACES EDIT CAUSES SMOOSHING BUG

Update 5:00 PM EDT: Google employee Vanessagene notes in the forum: “Update: We have a handle on the issue now. Edits made from this point forward should not experience the phone number problem. As for the people that have already been affected, we’re still working on a fix for those accounts. We’ll keep you guys posted.”

Update 4:00: Joy Hawkins has reported in the forums that if you remove the phone number from the phone number field and add it back in and save the record, the display of the phone number will return to normal. I had to do this two times (where is that rubber chicken when I need it) for it to work. But it did work!

APB (for those of you that don’t watch TV detective shows that means all points bulletin):

Any Places edit seems to cause the smooshed phone number bug in Google Places. I repeat, the Places Dashboard is armed and dangerous. Do not approach, do not interact, immediately report any sitings of the smooshing bug directly to the forum.

In an effort to ascertain the full nature of the problem, I once again threw my brother’s Place Page listing under the bus. I changed a few words in the description field and the newly identified smooshing bug appeared immediately on the listing’s Places page and in the 7-Pack results, Maps, Places and Mobile search results.

I would not touch your Places listing until this issue is resolved!

Weird Google Places Bugs: The Smooshed Phone Number Bug

Update 5:00 PM EDT: Google employee Vanessagene notes in the forum: “Update: We have a handle on the issue now. Edits made from this point forward should not experience the phone number problem. As for the people that have already been affected, we’re still working on a fix for those accounts. We’ll keep you guys posted.”

Update 4:00: Joy Hawkins has reported in the forums that if you remove the phone number from the phone number field and add it back in and save the record, the display of the phone number will return to normal. I had to do this two times (where is that rubber chicken when I need it) for it to work. But it did work!

Update: I forgot to mention the important point that it seems to be triggered by updates to your Places dashboard!

Bugs keep cropping up in the Places Dashboard and Places. Yesterday I received the “No such State/Province in this country” message as did several other users. Today I am getting the “System Error – We’re sorry, but we are unable to serve your request at this time. Please try back in a few minutes” bug when trying to save a listing. I think Google Places Flu Season is upon us.

There are also at least four seven a large number of reports of a strain of bug not previously seen. Its official name: The Smooshed Phone Number Bug (otherwise known as SPNB1). It manifests itself by smooshing (a very technical geek term) your phone number together twice in the phone number field. The information is displayed in both Places and worse, on the main search results. Props to Linda Buquet for first pointing this bug out.

The bad phone number also manifests itself in the mobile search results and generates the obvious “Please check the number and dial again” response when dialed.
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Google Upgrades Local Branded Onebox Display

Google has just upgraded the Branded Onebox display to allow the user to more easily view either a (very large) thumbnail preview of site or a map. The result defaults to the Map but there is an obvious arrow to guide the user to the preview mode. The preview is significantly larger than the standard preview taking up all of the room of the Map ad then some.

One will now need to go back to the Senators hearing testimony from Google and inform them that Google is now showing the Map less often. Perhaps this is the voluntary remedy that they had in mind. Take that Yelp!

This change though doesn’t just affect results that shows Maps. It enlarges the preview for any and all results.

Click to view as animated gif:


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Bing Rolls Out Integrated Marketing Approach to Their Local Business Portal

Bing, in an effort to gain small business mindshare has rolled out a number of upgrades to their Business Portal. In addition to their mixed model approach to deals, they have added very interesting collateral generation capabilities, a loyalty program and a school fund raising program to help promote the effort.

The deals product offers a simple interface that allows a merchant to easily create their own deal from withn the portal in one of their 12 supported cities(currently Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Honoluly, LA, NYC, San Diego, SF, Seattle & Medford, OR).  Within 72 hours a local community manager will get in touch with the merchant to refine the deal to the market. The deals program currently offers that standard 50/50 merchant split (a mold waiting to be broken for sure). The flow allows for scalability AND individual counseling on deal creation in an effort to achieve both efficiencies and quality. It is an interesting mixed approach in an already crowded landscape.

In an effort to try to increase the % of folks that return to an establishment after the deal (reportedly a lowly 19%), they have implemented  digital loyalty card program. Bing sees this feature as a significant differentiator and is included free as part of the deal creation. The consumer opts into the loyalty program at the time of the deal purchase. At the establishment the end user can scan a QR Code or visit their own deals page to initiate the loyalty card. The merchant enters a previously established PIN (or multiple PINS if it is desired to track by salesperson) on the customer’s smartphone at the time of purchase as verification. Obviously this feature raises visions of future marketing possibilities that Bing is considering.

Apparently Medford OR was included because there Bing tested using the school PTA to promote the deals program as a school fundraiser. The school can either recruit new businesses into the program or just promote existing deals and will receive a percentage cut of both types of transactions. The specifics of the actual percentages are still being worked on but the idea of using local school fund raising efforts to promote deals is an interesting twist in the marketing of deals that leverages the very real and active social networks of the school fund raising environment to both create more deals and have a motivation to spread them.

Historically local business dashboards have been used to capture data from the merchant in the form of basic listing information, events, promotions etc. But Bing has taken that one step further in attempting to attract the small business to not just come to the portal but to come back frequently. Bing has added a very slick collateral creation process that leverages each of the specific data types to create related collateral materials with minimal effort.

For example Bing has added the ability to create a business card from your listing data and uploaded logo, a post card that can be used to promote your event, ceiling danglers for promotions and tents and posters for the loyalty program. The software automatically suggests complimentary colors based on your logo colors or allows you more manual control. It creates both a file that you can print or take to a service bureau or facilitates your interaction with the local Office Depot for printing of all materials except the business card. More printing partners are apparently in the works. As Bing noted they are “Creating a value proposition around allowing the merchant to not just verify accuracy, they can now use the data to do the things a business already doing but doing it easier”.

The interface was very slick and the ability to create related collateral materials is incredibly useful. I think we are seeing the future of what the business portal needs to become to attract and retain small businesses – a one stop shop for a complete range of offline AND online marketing and advertising options.

To view a slide show of screen shots of the new features click the image:

Google Places – Flakiness and New Display

Reports have been coming in about flakiness in the verification process. Optilocal reported earlier in the week issues with service area and he also noted several users having reported temporary issues with phone verification which Google reports is fixed(Image from Michael Borgeit of 51Blocks.com), frequent system errors (We’re sorry but we are unable to server your request). I have also noticed issues with verified listings not showing up in Places in a timely manner.

Steve King from Simpartners.com spotted this change to the Places page. Although one presumes with all of these other quirks that more significant changes are likely on the way.