Is Google Maps the Portal to Bizarro World?

Do you remember Bizarro World from Superman?

A Wikipedia refresher: In the Bizarro world of “Htrae” (“Earth” spelled backwards), society is ruled by the Bizarro Code which states “Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!”. In one episode, for example, a salesman is doing a brisk trade selling Bizarro bonds: “Guaranteed to lose money for you”. Later, the mayor appoints Bizarro No. 1 to investigate a crime, “Because you are stupider than the entire Bizarro police force put together”. This is intended and taken as a great compliment.

My current working theory is that Google Maps is a secret entrance to the Bizarro world of Superman although the bond scenario noted above is spookingly prescient of our world. My thinking here is buttressed by Google Map’s “System Error” message presented to those that have been banned for who knows how long from the Local Business Center for suspected spamming:

System Error
We’re sorry, but we are unable to serve your request at this time. Please try back in a few minutes.

It is one of the most bizarre, perhaps sadistic messages in all computing history. Asking the suspected spammer to check back in a few minutes is a very weird touch.

As further proof that Google Maps is a portal to Bizarro World, I relay this tale that was received yesterday as a comment on my post: System Error, Googlespeak for Banned?
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Mike, We’ve run into a brick wall with Google. I’ve followed some of your posts and response on the Maps forums and your blog here. I agree with your conclusions on Google’s inane policy of banning. I believe we’ve been banned by this exact “System Error” since February (more than 6 months).

I’ve posted in the Maps help forum and I’ve filed 6 reinclusion requests – pretty much one a month. I’ve never heard anything back from anyone at Google. Our other Google services still work (including our non-profit-status YouTube channel), but we are banned / blocked from the LBC.

We are a regional health system, with 4000+ employees, two hospitals, a third medical campus, and many clinics, departments, facilities, physician practices, services, joint-ventures, medical offices, etc. Our facilities have a wide variety of names, but all are part of our health system.

Most of our facilities are in one of two towns – Town A and Town B. But, we often also have multiple locations for a specific service. For example, our seniors services has a building in Town A near Hospital A, and a second location in Town B in Hospital B. Our Rehabilitation Services has four locations, two stand-alone in Town A, one stand-alone in Town B, and one in Hospital B in Town B.

Because there are multiple services in one building (or campus), many have the same address. But, senior services, birthing services, and volunteers and the charity foundation are all very different entities that are in the same building (or 3-building campus) and the same mailing address. Before we started claiming listings, there were already over 100 listings for all of our services and facilities in Goggle Maps.

However, several were incorrect – wrong phone number, wrong location, old location, no street address (just the town), missing locations, etc. – and there were several duplicates. We don’t use any SEO company or anyone else – it’s just me, a one-man show for our web services. I started claiming all of those listings, which was its own monumental feat. I couldn’t verify most of them by phone, because I couldn’t get to all of those locations and talk to the employee who might answer it first.

We did postcards for most of them, but that took a concerted effort to try to get the mailrooms and all of the locations to forward those to me, as they had no idea what the post cards were. I was trying to clean up and simplify our listings, including removing any duplicates. That worked for a while, and then one day we were banned (I assume) with the “System Error.”

Now, all of those listings are gone and many items have been removed from Maps and I still have a stack of post cards that I’m ready to enter to verify the listings. I’ve read the Business Listing Guidelines several times, and we were not blatantly violating any of those, and none of them intentionally.

But, it’s possible Google thought we were based on their interpretation of our listings, even if their interpretation is wrong (such as multiple locations, as I mentioned above). Any ideas? We’re stuck, and meanwhile there are wrong numbers and addresses out there that patients and the public are calling or visiting, and I can’t do anything to fix it.

Author : Jeff Wiley
E-mail : jgw1 at the following domain – pvhs.org
URL : http://www.pvhs.org

*****

I have no idea whether Jeff has sinned or been sinned against, no idea whether he is caught in Bizarro World or being properly punished for some heinous act.

I do know that he deserves a straight answer from Google as to what he did, what he needs to do to be reinstated and when he might expect that to occur.

I also am of the strongly held belief that Google should be capable of designing error messages that are honest and communicative, messages that are from this world and not from some alternative universe.

Google Penalizing Category Spamming – What are the Standards?

There is another possible reason for the stats to drop to zero over night on the Local Business Center Dashboard: You’ve been penalized for category spamming . The new penalty, first noted by Chris Silver Smith last week, dings your listing and causes it to loose standing precipitously. It does not preclude you from editing your listing in the Local Business Center.

A user in the Maps forum posted about a preciptious drop in his listings in the Google Map Help forums last week. Upon investigation it became obvious that his listing included multiple categories and geo phrases in the category fields. Removing the category cramming and geo phrases immediately (as in 30 minutes) brought his listing back into 10 Pack view.

Here are some examples of his choices to fill a single category field, which when removed returned his listing to the 10 Pack although in many fewer searches:

los angeles arabic classes, los angeles german classes, los angeles hebrew classes, los angeles japanese classes, los angeles persian classes, los angeles russian classes, los angeles korean classes, los angeles latin classes, los angeles thai classes

Clearly having multiple phrases on your category fields offers the possibility of your listing being returned on many more searches. For a business that doesn’t bother to read the guidelines or that is looking to gain a temporary advantage, it is easy to abuse Google’s categorization options.

The Google Maps Listing Guidelines as they relate to categories cramming and spamming are as follows:

• When entering categories, use only those that directly describe your business.
• Do not submit related categories that do not define your business. For example, a taxi company might properly categorize itself as “Airport Transportation”, but it would be inaccurate to also use the category “Airport”.
• Also, please use each category field to enter a single category. Do not list multiple categories or keywords in one field.

Interestingly while the poster was penalized, his close competitors had multiple categories per field but without the geo phrases and did not receive the penalty.

So it raises the question of what exactly can go into the custom category fields and what behaviors you would recommend? Does Google’s lack of enforcement imply tacit acceptance or support for category cramming?

Continue reading Google Penalizing Category Spamming – What are the Standards?

Google now integrating Streetview with your business listing

Streetview integrated with Business Listing in Maps
Google has announced in the Lat Long Blog that StreetView is now being associated with your Google Maps business listing in the info bubble.

The info bubble and pin remain in view as the user moves to StreetView, The pin is persistent even as the view “moves down the street” providing some context to the business location.

Previously one of one of your uploaded photos was placed in that position and presumably will continue to be so when a StreetView isn’t available. The feature has yet to roll out to the hinterlands even where StreetView is available.

The update is interesting and holds promise to improve a users understanding of the on the ground reality of the business they are searching for. It provides a glimpse of what a Google augmented reality might one day look like and indicates a growing confidence on Google’s part in the quality of their StreetView data. That being said, the devil here is in the details.

My experience with StreetView address geocoding has always been that it often resolves to a slightly different address than the underlying Google Map. This has the potential to create a certain disutility in Maps if the pin points to the wrong business location.

The photo realism of StreetView will imply to the user a certainty as to location that may not exist. For whatever reason, a pin on a Map is often perceived as a rough marker. A pin on a StreetView photo will be perceived as a totally accurate representation of reality even though the technology used doesn’t make that possible

This could potentially lead to end user confusion and disappointment with the product. More likely, it will lead to small business anger if it points to a nearby competitor.

Google has always chosen which photograph was presented of the business but at least the business was able to choose which photos to upload. Now though, unless Google allows adjustment in the Local Business Center, the business operator not only looses control it may not even point to their business.

Google will never able to quell SMB fears and resultant anger as the pressures they face are often overwhelming. Google though, needs to realize that offering control to them is the next best thing.

Google Local Business Center: Why your impressions might drop to 0%

A question that occasionally crops up in the forums is why would your Local Business Center dashboard all of a sudden show 0 impressions for your business listing in Google Maps?

Nick Thomas, who has worked extensively in the Local Business Center, sent along his observations that identifies the likely cause:

One interesting oddity is when I see a listing with 0 impressions and a few actions. After review of about 300 of these cases now I have determined that the most likely cause of the 0 impressions is a duplicate listing in Google Maps.

Most of the time these duplicate listings are not claimed in GLBC accounts and can be simply placed as ‘removal request duplicate place’. Then after a few weeks the impressions jump into the hundreds if not thousands in the claimed GLBC account. Just thought you would like to know and pass along to others….

statszero

The explanation and example that Nick sent along makes perfect sense. Essentially, for one reason or another (perhaps a slight change in a business title as in the example above), Google’s clustering algo is unable merge a listing received from a trusted provider with the listing in the LBC and gives that other listing preference in the index.

Rather than deleting the extra listing via community edit, I would recommend removing the duplicate record via Google’s suggested method. Nick’s technique will work, but Google’s gprovides more visible information as to the status of the merge.

This problem is more likely to occur the more that your listing varies in critical details from those for your business across the local ecosystem that Google relies on.

Upstate NY YP Co. Delays Publication by 4 months & Passes the Bill Along

I have never been a big fan of the traditional Yellow Page companies and their tactics. They often would use FUD (fear, uncertainty & doubt) rather than ROI to convince small retailers in our rural area to take out more ads year over year. I suppose they were just doing what they needed to do make their sales numbers but they have over time received their just rewards. That doesn’t make this new tactic for revenue generation any more appealing.

According to a recent article in the Democrat & Chronicle, Frontier will delay the release of their new print directory until March of 2010 forcing business owners to pay for the extra four months of advertising. “The delay may also provide time for the economy to rebound in time for ad renewals” said their spokesperson.

The Frontier spokesperson characterized it as an effort to make the book more up to date for the season of heaviest usage and an opportunity to lock in last year’s “lower rates”. I would characterize it as an effort at extortion.

A small business owner, who had a half page add running that didn’t bring in enough customers to warrant his $860/month bill noted: “Unfortunately, the small business guy gets stuck with the burden in this case,” Spencer said. “I’m not trying to tear down the yellow pages, but I found that I want to try different avenues of advertising.”

Google Maps Customer Service Hall of Shame – What goes on in your neighborhood?

When things go wrong with Google Maps, like all large scale systems, they go terribly wrong. Google Maps though, unlike most large companies, offers no mechanism for these problems to be fixed in any direct fashion.

While I understand Google’s desire to fix the big problems for large numbers of people first, there also needs to be a way for small people with personal problems that have been wronged to get their problem fixed. Currently the only way is to post into the Google forum, where a volunteer might bring an issue to Google’s attention and it may or may not get fixed. Is that the best that Google can do?

Here is my first example of Google Maps Customer Service Hall of Shame. This poster initially posted in the forums on August 9th. It was highlighted to Google at the time through their private Top Contributor system. This is the type of problem that is not really easily addressable by a volunteer nor should it be handled by a volunteer. It points out that forums are not the best place to get this sort of problem resolved. Here is the first posting from August 9th:

lrury2002

Level 1
8/9/09
My son looked our address up on google maps and found it said:  ADULT ENTERTAINMENT with our name, address, and phone number……THIS INFORMATION IS FALSE and I don’t know how to have it removed….We received a phone call at 3:50 am asking for “adult entertainment”  When I told them they had the wrong number they said: you really messed me up!   That scares me and I don’t know what to do to have it removed!!!!!!1
Can someone please help me!

Here is the second posting from August 18th. Both postings were highlighted for the Google Guides so that they could possibly take care of the issue:

lrury2002

Level 1
8/18/09
My son googled our address and when you zoom in a martini glass appeared.  When you click on it a listing is posted with my name, home address, and home phone number listed as ADULT ENTERTAINMENT.  This is inaccurate, unauthorized, inflammatory information and I need to have it removed.  There is also a web site associated with it as all4male.com.  This is a pornographic site which is not associated with me and I am disgusted by it…I cannot reach anyone from google and it has made me physically ill trying to find an answer!  Can anyone help????????????????

I think that this is the business listing being referred to:

Picture 4

I guess just can’t know whats going on in suburbia these days, can you?

Google LBC: New Link to Coupon Feature Raising Visibility of Coupons?

Despite a deep recession where coupon use is on the rise and an opportunity to make on-line coupons work for a large audience, Google’s Coupon feature has long been the forgotten feature of the Local Business Center.

LBC coupons have been buggy, less than predictable and well, so very hidden from searchers to be of little use to the small business owner and other LBC users. As a result I don’t keep an eye on them much so this new feature allowing coupon creators to more easily link to and promote coupons may have been there for a while.

LBC-coupons

Link-to-coupon

The effort to upgrade the visibility of coupons is of interest to me on several fronts. It seems to indicate that coupons will stay in the LBC mix and that they might just, someday, receive more attention from Google.

However, rather than just providing a link to the coupon, a coupon widget which actually displays the coupon on the originator website would be more valuable option to website owners. That and giving them higher visibility in searches might move coupons from the dark reaches of the Local Business Center out into the real world of local marketing.

On a related note, today is the 2nd anniversary of the introduction of Google Coupons.

Google LBC: Some Bulk Upload Whitelist Questions Answered

I received this feedback from Joel Headley, Consumer Operations at Google, via Google Reader in answer to some of my questions about the newly announced Bulk Upload Whitelisting for the local business center:

MB: Will the entry (submitted via the whitelisted upload) still be editable via community edit?
Joel: No.
MB: Will the stats of the data rich dash board be available to whitelisted uploads?
Joel: Not yet – it will have the same features as all other feeds.
MB: What is the smallest whitelist size that will be approved?
Joel: 10. For the other questions – I’ll have to wait until I’m back from vacation.

A message to Joel…you are on vacation for God’s sake!

Get Bulk Uploads Verified in Google Maps Local Business Center

Here is the content of the Bulk Upload Whitelist Request form:
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Get Verified in Google Maps Local Business Center

* Required field

Generally, the best way to verify that you own a business is by receiving a phone call or postcard with a PIN. However, we understand this gets tricky if you have say, over 100 business locations, and most likely well before you get that far. If you have a minimum of 10 locations, you can submit a bulk upload. However, a bulk upload isn’t verified and so we can’t guarantee that it’ll show up on Google Maps.

That’s why we’re opening up a new verification process for business owners with feeds that satisfy the following requirements:

  • Accurate and up-to-date data
  • Full compliance with our Local Business Center Quality Guidelines
  • Submitted by the owner of all businesses in the feed
  • Feed has only been submitted by a single user

You must make sure to update your bulk upload whenever anything changes. We’ll review your account periodically for freshness of data, and listings will become unverified it if we find it doesn’t meet the requirements.

In order to have your feed considered for verification, you must fill out the form below and agree to our Feed Verification Policy. Please note that we will not respond to all requests.

Terms for submitting a store location file to the Local Business Center (LBC)

By submitting your store location data, you agree to follow the Terms of Service for Google Maps, as well as the additional terms set forth below. You understand that your LBC listings may be removed from Google products and services, and your Local Business Center account may be terminated if you do not comply with these terms.

Accurate, Specific Data

You agree to provide accurate data for any business listing that you submit. The information you supply for each listing must be undisputed, authoritative, and current to the particular business location. For example, be sure to include the direct, local phone number specific to the business location, instead of a number that serves many locations. Likewise, please include the homepage of your business’s primary website for the particular business location that you submit.

Primary Source

By submitting a business listing to the Local Business Center, you are confirming that you are the business owner.

No Spam

You will not engage in deceptive or manipulative behavior intended to alter search result ranking.

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The whitelisting is a positive development for larger businesses with multiple locations and or brands making a previously untenable process potentially more friendly. Clearly the listings will be verified and not susceptible to community edits. It is still unclear how small of an upload will be approved and what timeframes a business will be looking at.

That being said, it appears that the process requires human intervention on Google’s part. Hopefully Google has allocated the human resources necessary to staff the many requests that will come in.

This new process does very little to facilitate agency interactions with the LBC or Google. While it appears that the option will be available to agencies to upload on behalf of their clients, it is not clear how cumbersome that additional layer of approval will be as the agency “must first be ‘approved’ by a representative of the company itself”.

The whitelisting appears to offer Google the benefit of fresher, better maintained listings for corporate and franchise entities but in the end its success will be predicated on Google’s execution of the process.

Google Maps Bulk Upload Whitelist Coming Soon to the LBC Near You

Update: Here is the link to the whitelist request form: http://maps.google.com/support/bin/request.py?contact_type=feeds_verify

David Mihm reports from the LSS Q&A Session that Google is rolling out the Bulk Upload Whitelist reported here in early June and confirmed by Google several weeks ago.

From David Mihm’s Local Search blog:

Now onto the good stuff. Ari Bezman, the product manager for the Local Business Center just confirmed that the Whitelist functionality that Carter Maslan announced via Mike Blumenthal last week should now be live in the Local Business Center. It involves a contact form directly off of the current bulk upload area of the LBC.

Google will manually review these contact submissions (it sounds like especially for really large uploads–1000+?) and decide whether to reject or accept the upload as a whitelist.

Franchise owners and corporate marketing departments will need to work out beforehand who is going to be responsible for submitting that particular location, because Google only wants to see a whitelisted location from one feed.

Chris Travers of UniversalBusinessListing asked a very important follow-up: how will Google treat whitelist requests from agencies? To his credit, Ari responded with a very straightforward answer: agency whitelist requests will be strongly considered but must first be “approved” by a representative of the company itself.

Uploads via this new feature will be considered “almost as trusted” as if a location/business owner verifies by PIN.

The link does not yet appear to be live in my LBC but it apparently will be shortly but here is the link to the request form.

My questions:
Will the entry still be editable via community edit?
Will the stats of the data rich dash board be available to whitelisted uploads?
What is the approval timeframe?
Will there be a communication feedback loop from Google staffed by people?
What is the smallest whitelist size that will be approved?

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