Google Maps suffers Brain Fart: “The Cluster” works in mysterious ways

Sometimes Google Maps just has a brain fart. Life will go along and all will be good with your listing. Then, for no apparent reason, it just forgets things. Not insignificant things like the year you opened or the special brand you carry but important things like your listing’s URL or its correct location on the earth.

Late last week though, I saw a strange one. On the surface it looked like a record had been hijacked. The reality was both simpler and more complex than that.

You may recall Podesta Baldocchi Florist in San Francisco. They are the poster child for the great family run urban florist. They have been in business since 1871, have a great reputation in San Francisco and have been owned by the same family for many years. They were one of the many unclaimed florist listings that was hijacked in September of 2008 via the community edit feature as part of an affiliate fulfillment scam. They actively use the internet for marketing and have checked their Maps record every day since the hijacking.

On Thursday of last week I received a desperate email from Marc, the owner of Podesta Baldocchi. It read: Help! Our website on the Google 10 pack has been hijacked again. I am trying to understand why and how to get it corrected. Any assistance would be appreciated.

podestabaldocchibadrecord

Fortunately it had not been hijacked but his record had reverted to both an unclaimed state and taken on all the attributes of the original hijacking from almost a year ago. Maps seemed to have just forgotten that the record had been claimed into the Local Business Center after the community hijacking and somehow dug up and reinserted all the information from that event 10 months ago. It had been hijacked once and suddenly had become ready for a second round. Do hijackers hijack already hijacked records?

It seemed a simple matter to just reclaim it and bring it back into the LBC. Upon investigation a duplicate record showed up as well in the index and I thought it would make sense for Marc to go through the claiming and duplicate removal process for that record as well.

After 20 emails back and forth and several phone calls it became obvious that it was not your typical unclaimed record….   Continue reading Google Maps suffers Brain Fart: “The Cluster” works in mysterious ways

Google Maps Rolling Out New Ads & New PR Campaign but Same Customer Service

As part of a much larger campaign, Google is now serving up ads that promote Google Maps with a maplet that provides a guided video tour of  Maps functionality. The following ad was returned on the local search “Bradford Pa Restaurants”:

map-promo-ad

maplet

When clicked the ad loads a Maplet (visible at this url) that provides a series of three folksy, first person “I love Google Maps” promotional videos that overview finding routes, getting store information and picking a business (not a locksmith btw).

The videos are a low key, easy to watch, “people on the street” sort that provide a personal touch to the Map experience without beating someone over the head. They are professional and portray Maps as “the way” in a way that is appealing.

Google is obviously spending money of late promoting Maps and attempting to create much of the same “cool” factor that has surrounded Google since its inception. Today, in San Francisco, they invited a number of local businesses to an event called “Favorite Places” where SF Mayor Newsom and other “trendsetters” show off their favorite businesses.

The event has an educational focus that features product demos and speakers to educate smb’s about Maps and Adwords.

Simultaneously, Google is placing statue like Google Map Markers in obvious real world locations while simultaneously rolling out a new maplet called “Favorite Places” that introduces a collection of favorite local places around the globe from worldly “trendsetters.

On one level it is positive and necessary for Google to promote and educate about their Maps products. It is clearly part of a full fledged campaign to position Maps as trendy, fun and something lovable.

Photo from ClipperHouse.com
Photo from ClipperHouse.com

The problem Google is confronting though, is that Maps is still a somewhat unwieldy, buggy enterprise that many SMB’s find frustrating and which offers absolutely no real support. Google has attempted to answer some of that criticism with their recent blog post at the Helps Forum.

Most SMB’s and marketing folks recognize that post for what it is, a somewhat hollow attempt at explaining away both the problems and the lack of a true support structure for Maps. Yet Google is now out on the blogs touting that post as answer to the many problems that still are affecting small businesses that use Maps.

My advice to Google: PR is great but a great product with great support is even better. Most SMB’s have a very finely tuned ear and can spot BS at far more than 20 paces and have very long memories. Before you start touting your service, you need to provide some. It is fine to educate and promote your products in an easy listening style but don’t try to tell folks that “we hear you” as a solution to real, concrete bug fixes and human support.

Is Google Overriding Title Tags with Business Name?

Is Google replacing Title Tags on the main Google results page with Business names?

I have a local client, Napoleon Engineering Services, that markets their custom bearing services nationally and into Canada. In the industry they often go by their “nickname” NES and are known as a high quality testing, inspection and manufacturing facility for custom bearings.

I am not sure if Google is experimenting or not but on a recent trade name search for Napoleon Engineering, to retrieve my client’s phone number I noticed that Google had completely replaced the web page title tag with their business name from the Maps index.

Here is what Google showed in the result:
substituted title tags in results

Google’s cache shows the currernt tag: NES – Custom Bearing Testing & Bearing Inspection- home – ball bearing testing

How wide spread is this? Is it just an experiment?

Plastic Surgery Co. Settles with NYS over False Reviews

In an agreement yesterday that portends significant change in local search marketing, New York State Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo secured a $300,000 settlement with Lifestyle Lift, a cosmetic surgery company that “flooded the internet with false positive reviews”. The press release claims that this is believed to be the first case in the nation against “astroturfing” on the Internet.

From the release:

Lifestyle Lift employees published positive reviews and comments about the company to trick Web-browsing consumers into believing that satisfied customers were posting their own stories. These tactics constitute deceptive commercial practices, false advertising, and fraudulent and illegal conduct under New York and federal consumer protection law. The settlement marks a strike against the growing practice of “astroturfing,” in which employees pose as independent consumers to post positive reviews and commentary to Web sites and Internet message boards about their own company.”

“This company’s attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative, and illegal,” said Attorney General Cuomo. “My office has and will continue to be on the forefront in protecting consumers against emerging fraud and deception, including ‘astroturfing,’ on the Internet.”

Internal emails discovered by Attorney General Cuomo’s investigation show that Lifestyle Lift employees were given specific instructions to engage in this illegal activity. One e-mail to employees said: “Friday is going to be a slow day – I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the web as a satisfied client.” Another internal email directed a Lifestyle Lift employee to “Put your wig and skirt on and tell them about the great experience you had.”

In addition to posting on various Internet message board services, Lifestyle Lift also registered and created stand-alone Web sites, such as MyFaceliftStory.com, designed to appear as if they were created by independent and satisfied customers of Lifestyle Lift. The sites offered positive narratives about the Lifestyle Lift experience. Some of these sites purported to offer forums for users to add their own comments about Lifestyle Lift. In reality, however, Lifestyle Lift either provided all the “user comments” themselves, or closely monitored and edited third-party comments to skew the discussion in favor of Lifestyle Lift. Examples of these narratives can be downloaded at www.oag.state.ny.us/bureaus/internet_bureau/pdfs/LifestyleLiftStories.pdf.

According to the Attorney General’s settlement, Lifestyle Lift employees will no longer pose as consumers when publishing on the Internet. The company will not promote Lifestyle Lift’s services on the Internet without clearly and conspicuously disclosing that they are responsible for the content. The company will also pay $300,000 in penalties and costs to New York State.

This settlement should come as welcome news in the wild west of local marketing as it not only strikes at bogus reviews but at deceptive and misleading websites. Obviously the cases are many and State resources are few but it won’t take many cases like this to grab the attention of locksmiths, lawyers and others to force a change to their online marketing strategies.

Will Scott has an excellent piece relating to this settlement and how small businesses should approach the review process ethically.

What is the source of problems in the Google Maps Help Forums?

Daily Postings Yesterday I analyzed the rapid increase in postings to the Maps Help Forums. I was curious as to the specifics of why there had been such a large increase so I broke down last Thursday’s posting to get a sense of what was going on in the forums and what specific problems were being seen. Here is the count:

—-

Business Listing Problems Single Day Total Comments
Verification Problems 22 Google has apparently tightened up phone verification procedures to prevent spamming. This seems to have resulted in more failed attempts and forcing folks to use the post card. There also appears to still be some bugs in the process and like all Google Maps LBC “features” provides very little feedback to the business. Here is an active on-going post of the issue.
Listing Not showing 13 This problem could be easily solved by providing a link in the LBC to the listing or emailing when a listing goes live. Mostly this is either a timing issue in Maps or a user head space issue. The problem is that the listing might be visible anywhere from immediately to several weeks. It drives folks nuts particularly as the message is vague (Awaiting next update).
Unable to Delete Duplicate Business Entry 12 This is one of the larger outstanding problems in Maps. The clustering technology seems to create spurious listings in the index and deleting them is counter intuitive. There are a large number of additional posts in this thread as well. Here is another on-going post on the topic.
Erroneous Business Listings 7 These are usally third parties attempting to fix listings in Maps. In the US there is community edit but many times there is no obvious mechanism to get records fixed and Google doesn’t provide any help with this.
Flagged Waiting for Check 4 Google’s feedback when a listings is flagged is abysmal. The user needs to either wait indefinitely for a content check or make random changes to the record. Google should indicate a timeframe for the content check and/or delineate the reason for the flag clearly. Here is a search to show the frequency that this crops up. Time for Google to do something on this one.
LBC/Dashboard Problems 2
Review Issues 2 Google’s review policy is very non business friendly. It is difficult of novice users to determine the source and appropriate action to take for spurious listings.
Spam Reporting 2 Most of this reporting has moved to Google’s direct contact form which often feels like putting a request into a black hole.
Coupons Not Working 1 What can I say. Obviously coupons are the poor step child of Maps.
Erroneous Plus Box 1 This could be easily solved if Google relied on the LBC for the authoritative data and/or provided a feedback mechanism within the LBC to have it corrected
Merging of unrelated businesses 1 This is an ongoing problem due to Google’s clustering technology. There are many more reports in the posting that focuses on merging. Greater transparency into the cluster and the ability to solve the problem from within the LBC would help. Like the Plus Box problems it is hard to understand why Google doesn’t tust verified data from the LBC over other signals.
Map and Mapping Issues
Underlying Mapping or Direction Error 25 Far and away the biggest problem is the inaccuracy of the underlying maps data. This affects general users and businesses as well as some towns have very outdated information and it is difficult to get it corrected.
API/CopyRight 12 The appropriate copyright uses could be better delineated and highlighted in the Help area.
MyMaps Problem/Question 11
Missing feature or service area 9 Mostly questions about why a certain country is covered.
Need Instructions 6
Maps not working on my computer 5
How to work with Google 4
Streetview Issues 3

I could hypothesize a number of both internal and external of factors influencing the increase in postings. Since I have not done a comparison over time they should not be considered at all authoritative. It appears that it is a combination of long term issues (like underlying Map data quality), newly created bugs and spam fighting techniques (verification) as well as ongoing interface issues.

I have not tabulated the number of unanswered questions. But at the rate of 125 new posts a day, thats 45,000 some odd folks during a year getting a taste of Google’s not very active support system.

Postings in Google Maps Forums Skyrocket

Last week (July 4-10th) postings in the Maps Help Forums took a leap, hitting record highs for both single day totals and weekly totals. On Tuesday, July 7th, total postings in the three main forums for reporting problems totaled 173 postings versus the previous single day high of 112 postings. The weekly postings for the forums which had been running around 500 total postings per week jumped to 772 even though they included the very low volume 4th of July holiday.

This chart undercounts total postings to some extent as it doesn’t reflect new postings in on-going threads.

forumpostings

Last week , Google commented in their Google Maps Water Cooler Blog about their support intentions in Maps.  They noted:

We recognize how important it is for business owners to be able to list their business accurately on Google Maps, and how frustrating it can be when this is harder than it should be.

Since we can’t respond to every problem individually, we put a lot of effort into helping users help themselves, and each other. When creating help resources for the Local Business Center — the User Guide, the Help Center, the Help Forum, and the Water Cooler blog — we do our best to give business owners access to the information that will help fix their problems.

Anil Dash has pointed out that perhaps Chrome reflects Google’s Microsoft Moment. He said: “Google has made commendable steps towards communicating with those outside of its sphere of influence in the tech world. But the messages will be incomplete or insufficient as long as Google doesn’t truly internalize and accept that its public perception is about to change radically. The era of Google as a trusted, “non-evil” startup whose actions are automatically assumed to be benevolent is over”.

The rising tide of unsupported problems in the Maps world reflects a similar problem for Google. Only time will tell if Google’s hands off approach to supporting the SMB in Maps will succeed but the rising tide of reports to the forums seem to indicate that it might be a failing project.

Local Links of Interest

Land Grab: Google Expands Real Estate Listings. Matt McGee, SearchEngineLand.

While this feature is new for Australia, it is only a minor change in real estate presentation in the US. To some extent, it is a lower profile for real estate than it has been over the past few years and it is still relatively hidden in Maps. For much of 2007 and well into 2008, Google offered up the real estate Googlebase Onebox on the main search results page. In May of 2008 Google added the real estate refinement to Maps so this recent change in Australia really only adds a link on the main Maps page to the real estate search that is 2 clicks away from the main search results page. If you search on real estate + your city there is no indication that a real estate search still exists.

Apple may add micro projectors to iPhones, iPod touches – Sam Oliver/AppleInsider

With the storage capacities of iPhones and iPod touches on the rise, consumers are likely to begin carrying more and more of their digital video content on the devices, and could soon have the capability to project those videos for friends and family just about anywhere.

More and more functionality will be crammed into our pocket and lend itself to the always connected trend.

Video Chatting at 35,000 Feet Works Pretty Darn Well – Steve Rubel, Steve Rubel Lifestream

Well if we can now Video Chat at 35,000 I guess we are connected all the time.

MapQuest 4 Mobile on iPhone Updated to 1.0.2 – Mapquest Blog

The Mapquest 4 Mobile app for the iPhone is the next best thing to turn by turn directions and has recently been upgraded with better integration into iPhone address book and additional monetization avenues.

  1. New Address Book integration! Easily plot any address from your iPhone’s address book onto a MapQuest 4 Mobile map and get directions to that address.
  2. 13 new branded place widgets that include: Chili’s(R), Citibank(R), Comfort Inn(R), Embassy Suites(R), FedEx(R), Home Depot(R), HSBC(R), Interstate Batteries(R), Kohl’s(R), Papa John’s(R), Quality Inn(R), Sears(R), and Wendy’s(R).

Google Maps limits view of Categories via Community Edits

The ability to see and change existing categories via Community edit has recently been removed by Google. David Rodecker of RelevantAds pointed out this subtle but interesting change in the Google Maps Community Edit feature that was introduced in March of 2008.

A community editor can still add a category but the ability to know how the business was (sometimes erroneously) categorized and to affect that is now gone. This change apparently occurred last week and was first noticed by LocalSplash.
before-after

It is interesting to speculate why Google removed this feature of community editing. David Rodecker and LocalSplash both noted that it allowed them to decide which categories were the most appropriate for their clients. One presumes that the either the information that Google was receiving via the feature was for the most part useless or more likely being used to disadvantage competitors. It did provide default categorization information on unclaimed businesses and was the only communication vehicle to alert Google of obviously miscategorized businesses.

I am not sure that having the ability to edit the category information is useful but knowing the category information of claimed and unclaimed businesses would provide a transparency that would be welcomed.

Google Maps: Tightening down on Locksmiths

Last week in the Maps Forums and again today as a posting in a comment in Google Maps vs Locksmith Spammers: Spammers winning? Locksmiths have noted that Google is apparently building system wide impediments to spamming.

Boruch Fishman, an SEO in the Locksmith industry noted:

Recently Google has been slamming locksmith spam so hard it appears to me that the situation is going to the other extreme. I work with locksmiths in my role as a search engine submitter. Today I talked to a locksmith in Arlington Virginia. He told me he has worked out of his house for a year. His company is called Security Locksmith. From what he told me, he is serving people in his local area. He uses a local phone number. He admits that he registered his company on Google, using a trade name – 24 hour emergency locksmith. His listing was then flagged. He changed his name back to his company name, and began taking out keywords. He subsequently found that his listing was flagged, until he entirely removed the word locksmith from any text field in the Google application. Since locksmith is actually part of his legally registered name, he shouldn’t be flagged.

I had another locksmith and call me about the same problem. I was told he also had a brick and mortar business in Nashville. However, this man had a toll free number. I tried to register his business and it was flagged. I then took out any term with locksmith, and the listing was finally changed to waiting for submission. I then decided to test the system. I just added back the word “emergency mobile locksmith,” and the listing was again flagged. Later I found out from the man that he really lived in another State, and had people that would be working for him in Nashville. While Google would be happy to ferret out this out of state poacher, how could they really differentiate this man from a brick and mortar locksmith?

In the Google forum, the following exchange transpired and was notable in that a Google employeed identified Puresheer’s answer as definitive:

aaaprolocksmith

I opened up an account, brick and mortar local location, local service area, locksmith service in Nashville. The account wsa flagged and so I started stripping out keywords and categories until it was changed to “awaiting next update,” which means the content was approved. Then I added back the one category “24/7 mobile locksmith,” and the account was again flagged. I took out “24/7,” I took out “mobile,” I took out “locksmith,” I stripped that account to the bare bones and had to finally change the name before it again went back to being “awaiting next update.”

What is so bad about “24/7 mobile locksmith service”

All answers

Puresheer

Level 2
6/25/09
Mike CH (Google Employee) says this answers the question:

@aaaprolocksmith

This term “Mobile  Locksmith” was one of the firsts that Google blocked/ flagged while one using it. The reason- spammers! 1. you can thanks Usafe (see first reference below) that spammed Gmaps very strongly with this term in their categories & additional titles to their listings. 2. you can also thank the mega spammers from Florida (or wherever they are from) about the wide use they made with this term in ALL USA & Canada (see second reference below- Organic results, see all the first pages – most of them belong to the same spammy company). BTW- the term Emergency Locksmith is starting to be flagged as well; that happened in the last week.

My suggestion- don’t use  the flagged terms; the Locksmith industry is under the spot light & you don’t want Google to investigate your listing more than they are doing now (for Locksmiths).

If this is the only ‘bump’ you encountered with Google in the Locksmith field- you are in a good position!

References:
[1]
maps.google.com
[2]
www.google.com

Earlier this month, Glenn Younger, a locksmith in the San Diego market who tracks unlicensed locksmiths in California, noted that although the number of fraudulent unlicensed listings in Maps had declined

… in my town (San Diego) have reduced from over 3,000 to now under 1,000. The map spammers are still in the entire 10 pak and well represented, but now they are only 75% of the listings. Google users are still more likely to see or find a scammer but Google is doing something to make a difference.

Obviously Google is working on the Locksmith spam problem and because of publicity is perhaps making more of an effort in this regard than the other search engines. They seem to be using a combination of flagging listings in the LBC and alogrythmically submerging from the listings. In typical Google fashion, it is without much input or clear error messages on their part but their response in the forum was refreshing.

The difficult work of making Maps a more honest place has begun. In my last interview with Carter Maslan he told me:

Its like getting a vaccine. It makes you resilient long term. All the spam you are seeing are short term things. We are tackling them and they will be exponetially cured by exposure to the spam. We are working on spam abatement as a top priorty. This will allow us to provide an even better experience.

That all being said, if you need a locksmith I still wouldn’t use Google Maps just yet to find one. Establish a relationship with a local craftsman well ahead of time so that in a time of emergency you know who to call and don’t need to rely on the as yet still compromised Map index.

Tips to help Google users find and connect with your business

Flow Chart of a Google Cluster technology in Local
Maps Google has been somewhat more forward facing of late. They rolled out the data rich Dashboard accompanied by a strong PR push in the technical, business and mainstream media. They have been dribbling out tidbits as to how Maps function (see the diagram to right) and are being somewhat more forthright on the forums as to what works and what doesn’t.

One realizes after watching Google that their communication is no accident and is very controlled. Information doesn’t flow freely about Maps and given the lack of a Maps Guide with the public presence of a Matt Cutts, it comes from many different angles; the forums, blog announcements, the help docs, rare interviews etc. etc

The recently highlighted Tips to help Google users find and connect with your business is consistent with this communication pattern. It is a understated and a tantalizingly insubstantial document that deserves a careful read. Two tidbits that were of interest to me (bold are mine):

 Choose the most appropriate, specific categories for your business.
  • Don’t be afraid to choose specific categories instead of broad ones. The important thing is that the categories are accurate and describe your business well. Google’s search algorithm makes sure that users looking for “Book Stores” will see businesses in more specific categories like “Used Book Stores,” “Comic Book Stores,” and “Rare Book Stores” too.
 Establish a strong, accurate presence on the web.
  • Encourage customers to review your business or to blog about it. Google uses these to improve search results too.

Developing Knowledge about Local Search