Goog-411 R.I.P. – I’ll Miss You

Update 10:43 EST: Perhaps I am in ever hopeful denial or perhaps someone at Google forgot to turn out the lights but when I just dialed 1-800-Goog-411, it answered and was still working!

I have followed Goog-411 from its seriptitious inception masquerading as a non-Google service called 520-find, to its bizarre rural advertising campaign, to the announcement last month of its ultimate demise. I have been writing about it and using it since October, 2006, well before it was announced as a Google product in April, 2007. It clearly demonstrated for me, the reach that Google Local would have.

Today, it has officially shut down.

Goog-411 billboard

It did one thing and did it well…. retrieve business phone numbers and complete calls for you with a simple voice interface. It worked on every cell phone ever made.

It was (and still is) Google’s best mobile product and one that most closely reflected the spartan, utilitarian ideals of the original Google search engine. It was simple. It worked. It was device independent and it was free. It was the absolute safest way to complete a call while driving down the highway…. no fiddling with the phone, no visual interaction. You talked, it listened and then it dialed.

It came out at a time when 411 services were all the rage and every company was trying to develop a successful business model. Unfortunately none ever succeeded at creating both a successful income stream AND a useful product that achieved mass adoption. Goog-411 was no exception. Despite its razor sharp focus and utility, Google never found a great way to monetize it (nor promote it- sheesh billboards in Olean? Maybe they just wanted to hear phonemes from Northern Appalachia ūüôā ).

After a while, it was repositioned as a way for Google to learn and acquire phonemes to improve their speech recognition.

Apparently it has done that admirably. Google suggests replacing it with their iPhone or Android voice search which do a great job (if I am standing still). It seems though that every time I try to use it the way that I used Goog-411, I nearly get in an accident.

As much as I like Google’s (and others for that matter) current mobile voice search products none can do what Goog-411 does. I will miss it.

Google Places Upgrades Owner Review Response Feature

Owners responding to reviews is a volatile arena where most anything can happen. Despite discretion being the better part of valor, silence rarely is the option chosen.

When the Google Places owner response feature was not functioning this week, this owner responded to a negative review with a review of his own:

It appears that Google, in an effort to encourage cooler heads to prevail has recently (not sure when) upgraded the owner response feature to provide guidance in responding (not that I think most owners will read it). Continue reading Google Places Upgrades Owner Review Response Feature

Google Places: Google Confirms New Review Removal Practices

Google Employee Stephan S has just posted this in the Places Forum post to report “missing” reviews confirming that Google has started to remove reviews (bold is mine):

As mentioned in this forum previously, we’re currently experiencing an issue that is preventing us from showing some reviews on Place pages. We’re working to correct this issue as soon as possible, and apologize for the inconvenience and frustration this has caused some of you.

However, please remember that there are various reasons why reviews may not appear. We’re continuing to do our best to ensure that the reviews in our system are legitimate and high-quality. To protect both business owners and customers, we have systems in place that may remove individual reviews, and with the revised review policies we released a few months ago (see below) we have taken a stronger stance against spam and other forms of abuse. So while some of you are seeing less reviews because of the aforementioned error, many of you are experiencing removed reviews because they have been removed by our systems. We acknowledge that sometimes our algorithms may flag and remove legitimate reviews in our effort to combat abuse, but believe that overall, these measures are helping to ensure that the reviews appearing on Place pages are authentic, relevant and useful.

Review Posting Guidelines & Policy (Help Articles)

Google has finally released a public statement about their stance on reviews. It is not clear to me, as David Mihm pointed out, that they have either the PR machinery or customer support structure in place to deal with the coming fury….

Here are some other recent articles that have dealt with the review issues on Google Places… Continue reading Google Places: Google Confirms New Review Removal Practices

Google Places: Selective Reviews Now Being Removed

Update: Google Confirms New Review Removal Practices

Google appears to be actively removing some reviews from Places listings.

Some of the recent problems of reviews being lost are clearly algo based and reports of lost reviews continue to pile up in the forums. But my poking around in Places indicates that there is more intentionality than bug in the behavior (although never underestimate the bugs in Places :)).

Yesterday I noted that Google is favoring reviews that were written by reviewers that have a public presence. Clearly, they are now not displaying the names of “private” reviewers. Have the changes gone deeper than that?

I ¬†wanted to go back and see if any suspicious reviews had been removed. This is harder than it seems as very few people keep track of individual bogus reviews… where and when they saw them, who posted them… those details are usually lost.

However, I did remember that both Miriam Ellis and I had done articles about reviews that seemed suspect; me in Do Positive Only Review Services have a place? and Miriam in her great piece Are These Reviews Authentic? You Be The Judge. Serendipitously both pieces had identifiable screen shots of obviously faked questionable reviews as a basis for a limited test.

Surprise! (or maybe not) In both cases, all of the questionable reviews in the screen shots are no longer showing in Google Places.

Miriam’s blog showed reviews from Goodson Honda West’s Places Page that were dated between July 23 and August 2:

Questionable reviews in Google Places

While Goodson still shows 32 third party reviews and 20 reviews from Google, there is not one review from the timeframe from July 23 to August 2  still visible on the Places Reviews by Google User page.

The screen shot from my article showed reviews for a Cahuenga Pet Hospital from March 16th through March 24th:

Questionable reviews on Google Places that have been removed

Like in Miriam’s case, those reviews have been excised from a Places page that still includes 14 additional reviews.

Clearly, the disruptions that we are seeing in the Google Places Review environment are more than bugs, quirks and algo twitches. While two Places accounts are not a significant sample and may not totally reflect the new reality, these two cases are not accidents.

It appears nearly certain that Google is starting to clamp down on the fire hose of review spam.

Google 7-Pack Heatmaps & User Behavior Study

While Google has shifted the typical Places layout from the 7-Pack to the blended organo-local results, these 7-Pack heatmaps and research from ionadas local still hold a lot of value. This snippet is of particular interest:

And our most surprising finding certainly still applies. The conventional wisdom has been that the map itself should be one of the greatest draws on the page. Our research found that the map actually receives very little attention. Most people hardly notice its presence at all.

Google 7-Pack Heatmaps

Google Places – Are Reviews Now Being Filtered?

Last week I wrote an article, Google Places ‚Äď Reviewer Names No Longer Showing. Feature or Bug?, where I highlighted the fact that reviewer names were not showing on reviews on a business’s Places listing.

I and a number of readers noticed that some names were showing and some were not. I received two reviews yesterday, one with user name and one without, which forced me to dig into the issue more fully:

After some digging (Andy only had one review on Google), I tested what seemed the obvious choice. If the user was publicly showing their name in the profile, the review would show and if they weren’t it wouldn’t.

This review was made on a Google account with no previous reviews that included a public profile & the option to display their name. The review was immediately visible with the reviewers name:

The second review was made on a Google account with no previous reviews in the same time frame, without a public profile and the option deselected to display their name.

Initially it was showing on the Places page without the name but has subsequently disappeared from view. Whether the review will ultimately display on Google Places is not clear. Perhaps it will show up sooner or later or perhaps, Google, like Yelp has started to not show some less trustworthy reviews… That is still to be determined.

The scenario reminded me of a comment made in March by Daniel Tunkelang, a tech lead at Google, in his article about review solicitation:

Still, my hope is that consumers will start placing less stock in the aggregated opinions of anonymous strangers and shift their trust to people who are more transparent about their identities and motives. The more that reviewers stand behind their opinion and put their own integrity on the line, the less it will matter whether those opinions are solicited or spontaneously expressed. We’ll see how the opinion marketplace sorts this out.

Regardless, it seems clear that this move is not a bug in Google Places but rather an intentional change. Minimally, it seems an effort on Google’s part to create a distinction between public and private reviewers. Perhaps though it is more….it remains to be seen whether they are filtering reviews and/or removing them algorithmically¬†for violations.

It appears, that the review game is afoot.

Google Places: Another Reason to Move to Canada; Duplicate Listing Removal

I can think of several reasons one might want to move to Canada: they have single payer health care that every citizen receives and they usually are not using unmanned drones to shoot people in Pakistan and Yemen. I have found a third reason: the duplicate removal procedure in Google Places.

In the U.S., the current duplicate removal procedure is to use the “Report a Problem” link at the bottom of the Places page of the duplicate. It would be wonderful if it worked but the process now is to “Report a Problem”, pray aggressively, wait 8 weeks and then try again. It is an endless cycle of frustration that as often as not does not result in the removal of the dupe.

It appears though, that in Canada, where the “Report a Problem” link doesn’t exist, Google suggests that “since Report a Problem is not live in Canada, the user should go ahead and claim the listing to remove it”. Once again they can use of the “claim the dupe, strip any enhanced content, wait for the merge, delete the listing from Places” procedure.

This is a process that actually works. It is a process that many in the US have reverted to using because the “Report a Problem” link doesn’t work.

Maybe we should once again start a campaign to make Canada the 51st state. We could end up with a single payer health care AND a dupe removal process that works…

Google Places – Reviewer Names No Longer Showing. Feature or Bug?

Last week the name of review posters disappeared in Canada. It appears that they have now stopped showing for reviews in the US now as well.

Here is a review on Places today:


Here is the same review from October 20th of this year:

Google review with reviewer name

For a serious student of reviews I find this loss of information regrettable. Who knows why Google made this decision to add another level of anonymity to reviews. If anything, a great review site should be shining the light of transparency on reviewers. This change not only makes thorough investigation of review abuses impossible, it makes reviewers less accountable for their actions.

Being able to see the corpus of reviews by a given reviewer allows readers to understand the context of the review and more about the reviewer as well.

The lack of accountability on the internet has lead to significant review abuses. From where I sit, Google should be moving in the opposite direction. Given Google’s bogus review removal policy up to this point, requiring real names for reviews and making the poster more responsible is the best way to bring the system into some sort of balance.

It is possible that this change is but one bug among many in the pantheon of Google Places bugs. Jim Rudnick reports that the names appear to be coming and going in the review space in Canada. Here’s one time that I for one, am wishing for a bug!

Google Places Search: Hiding Address No Longer Buries Listing

Update: While the Hide Address feature does not impact Blended results it STILL impacts Maps and 7-Pack results from showing so use with caution.

The new Google Places Search has its winners and losers. For one group though, it is turning out to be an incredible plus – those home based and service businesses that don’t want to show their address.

In March of this year when the feature was first released, the hide address/show service area feature hid more than your address. It hid your listing by burying it so deeply that it would take a back hoe to find it. It would only show for direct name searches and never return for a category search, even if well optimized.

Now if you choose to hide your address in your Google Places Dashboard you can still show front and center in the blended organo-local results. For example if you search for Baton Rouge Signs and look for for the company Greater Baton Rouge Signs, long missing from the Local results because of a hidden address, you will find them once again on the first page of the main page results:

Google Places Hide Address Baton Rouge Sign Company

Obviously, this result is subject to all of the caveats of the new blended Places Searches. The most obvious and critical requirement being the existence of a strong locally optimized website to compliment your Places listing. To some extent it demonstrates the relative weighting power of organic vs local strength in the new ranking algo as this listing was consistently on the third and fourth pages of Map results under the 7-Pack algo and now shows at A & B.

Developing Knowledge about Local Search