Searching for reviews

I am currently traveling with my family from Northern California to Oregon. We needed to book a hotel near the San Francsico airport the other night. My wife ended up booking us into the Best Western Grosvenor in South San Francisco.

As we checked in, there was an obviously placed notice that that if we reviewed the hotel on TripAdvisor.com we would be entered in a drawing to receive a full credit towards our room expense.

We went to the room, set up our laptop and proceeded to struggle with a very flaky wifi connection, calling the front desk who alerted maintenance. We finally logged on through the connection for the Holiday Inn across the street.

The next morning I got serious about attempting to win my free stay and proceeded to create an account with TripAdvisor.com and to locate their record to provide a review. About 15 minutes into the sign up/review process, the WiFi connection started slowing down and finally went bad before ever being able to actually write the review. After another 10 minutes of struggling with the flakey connection I finally gave up.

I was an extremely motivated user and between the time it took to get into Tripadvisor and navigate a buggy wifi connection, I could not make it to the end line. While checking out, we were forced to fill in the hand feedback form to enter the electronic review drawing.

The impact of the hotels efforts are interesting. The Top 10 Hotels in Google all have more than 45 reviews to their credit on the search: Hotels South San Francisco. Our hotel showed up on page 3 of Google Maps with no reviews. Its Google Maps record is unclaimed and has its name mispelled.

At Tripadvsior.com the hotel has received 126 reviews and is accumulating reviews at a run rate of about 1 per week.

It is fascinating to me that reviews have become an integral part of some hotel’s customer relations management. It is also fascinating that it could be so poorly executed as to cause my rating to go down. The lengthy process to get signed up with TripAdvisor speaks to the need for a product like LeaveFeedback.org. The poorly managed WiFi setup speaks to the importance of good execution across all of an establishment’s offered services.

It is also of note that the review process focused so heavily on TripAdvisor while ignoring their Google Maps record reinforcing the poorly thought out nature of the exercise.

More Google MapSpam

Andrew Shotland has a recent report of SEO mapspam from a Vegas company called SEOChampion posting local listings for SEO services in his backyard. When he searched on Pleasanton SEO he found two spammy looking listings in the onebox. He drove to one address and discovered that the address doesn’t exist in Pleasanton.

I did a little more digging and found that this firs has listings in many metro areas around the country. Often with two listings in each. My most frutiful search showed at least 30 listings scattered across the US. With a little digging I am sure that I could find more but I am on vacation. A cursory glance at the streetview address in Phoenix showed their Phoenix address as located in a parking lot.

phoenix1.jpg

In their Phoenix listings they even bothered to add an “A” to the beginning of one of their listings. Nothing like those old Yellowpages tactics.

Next time you are in Topeka, Cedar Rapids, Fort Smith (?), Des Moines, Springville, Mobile….be sure to not stop by but give them a call as the Google Directions might just lead you astray.

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Yahoo Affiliate Mapspam now gone

During the last week of March, I reported at SearchEngineLand on Yahoo affiliate mapspam first reported by eClick. Perhpas more than 5% of the hotel listings in major markets, had url’s that moved through 2 or 3 affiilate urls prior to being redirected to the business listing in question. On March 25th, Yahoo’s Brian Gil, in an interview with Matt McGee noted:

“We haven’t seen what I would categorize as significant abuse issues. I’m not going to speak specifically to the hotel thing. That one is a unique case. We have been looking into it…. We’ll take the appropriate action, but my gut is telling me that it’s not nearly as suspect as what was written up.

The response struck me at the time as a non denial that was meant to leave the impression that it wasn’t spam while leaving open the possibility that it was just that. We may never really know whether it was in fact mapspam or was something more innocuous. From my point of view it seemed that mapspam had moved from self serving gaming to potential criminal activity in its approach.

Regardless the affiliate links are now gone on all records that I checked.

One then has to wonder:

•If it wasn’t spam why has it been removed?

•If it was spam does a 5% (or more) penetration in one industry not qualify as significant abuse?

•If it was spam who initiated it and managed the spam?

•Was it done manually or automated in someway?

•If it was spam, did it break the law?

• If it wasn’t spam what are the more benign explanations that Brian was speaking of?

Can anyone think of a use for this multi layer affilate linkng strategy that would be considered benign?

Does Local need to be held to a higher standard? Greg Sterling Responds

Greg Sterling of Screenwerks gets the last word (well other than mine of course) on the topic of whether Local needs to be held to a higher standard.

Greg: Does Local need to be held to a higher standard? Whether or not it should be in a sense it already is – by virtue of the difference between Local and general Web search. With general Web results users have multiple choices in the majority of cases. If the data or answers they seek are missing or inadequate on any one site all they need to do is “click back” and move on to the next publisher.

In Local there are fewer choices typically. In some cases,accordingly, the consumer is without recourse if the data are missing or flawed. If someone is looking for a specific business location and doesn’t find it on the engine, it reflects very negatively on that site (e.g., “I was looking for restaurants and all they had were fast-food places”). Thus I believe that people do hold Local to a higher standard already – because it’s about the “real world” and their daily lives. In many cases the users are the arbiters of truth;they know what’s correct and what should be there, as opposed to general Web searches where they may not.

The central challenge then, as others have mentioned, is getting good data and making sure it’s “fresh” and accurate. This requires a mix of strategies and an approach that’s distinct from the Web crawling done by the major search engines. Getting good Local data and the objective of presenting an optimal Local user experience require much more structure and working with trusted partners. But increasingly it also means getting the distributed mass of users involved.

Google and Yahoo! have essentially opened up their databases in an effort to get the community involved. Users at large can correct inaccurate records – provided this doesn’t open the door for major spamming – and broaden the database considerably as well. Google is finding this with My Maps, where it’s getting lots of additional information, organized in interesting ways, beyond the standard business listings database.

While I don’t subscribe to unrestrained free market capitalism I think there’s a “Darwinian struggle” going on and the better products and approaches in Local will ultimately succeed. The push back to that argument is Google’s position and power in the market and the gravitational force it exercises over search behavior.

Because Google has become so important to many local businesses and because of the well-documented benefits and consequences of “showing up” or “not showing up” in Local results, there’s almost a “moral obligation” on the part of Google to do everything possible to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the database. This burden resides with the others as well. But Google is in a position of higher responsibility because of its power and influence.

Google Plus Box – for real

This week I wrote an April 1st post about an upgrade to the Local Business Center that apparently a lot of people wanted to be real. I wanted it to finally work as well but unfortunately it doesn’t.

Here are my previous posts about the Plus Box issues:
•How to change your Business Address in the Internet Age
•5 Simple Steps to fix the plus box (yea right)
•Google Plus Box – Where does the (wrong) data come from?
•Google and the PlusBox Blues

Here is Bill Slawski’s excellent piece on this issue:
Incomplete and Wrong Data in Google Local Search

Erroneous Plus Box
I’ve been following the Google Maps for Business group and there have been many reported Plus Box problems that would be corrected if Google could only get the LBC to correctly feed the data over to the Plus Box in the main search results page.

In December 2006 upon introduction of the Plus Box, Matt Cutts noted that the LBC would supply the correct info to the Plus Box.

Was he misinformed? Seems unlikely. So the real question at hand is why has the most reliable source for local data, the verified LBC listing, not yet been integrated into the Plus Box in the main search results in a reliable way?

Are there bigger architectural issues? Is it just something that will get fixed eventually?

This problem has existed for 16 months. The motivated business owners and those that notice the errors, contact the Google Maps for Busines Group and may get some help. Maps guide Jen heads off for a week, or two or more and the erroneous Plus Box may disappear. There are business owners that report up to 9 months to get the wrong data removed. It is not replaced with the correct LBC data, it just disappears.

There have been a number of anecdotal reports of it affecting business and of end users going to the wrong end of town or competitors benefitting. It certainly highlights both the difficulties with Maps AND the difficulty of dealing with Google.

It doesn’t seem very productive for Google to have to make hand exceptions every time that their Plus Box algo goes awry. And it makes no sense to make the procedure for correcting it so difficult.

Major Affiliate Mapspam on Google for New York Hotels?

Updated These url’s have been removed and replaced with maps.google.com as the url. I would infer from this that it was in fact spam.

Greg Sterling of Screenwerks has reported a possible affiliate mapspam incident on Google for the search New York Hotels.

mapspam.jpg

These listings look very similar to those noted by Matt McGee in his article on the restaurant industry in Google Using Surrogate Web Sites? where he noted an upsurge in assigning review site url’s to unclaimed listings in Maps.

Historically Google has assigned its best guess website algorythmically often with upredictable results. These new reports might actually indicate a change in policy or algo rather than affiliate mapspam.

It is possible that rather than Google making a best guess of the url for an unclaimed listing, they are now, either for their benefit or the benefit of trusted sites, sending the traffic to those sites instead. It might just be the assessment that the earlier method was more prone to error than sending the visitor to a know quanity like Yelp or UpperEast.com.

Google Maps now offering contour lines – Hybrid view gone?

Updated 9:00 04/03/08 Gregor J. Rothfuss of Google.com notes that the Hybrid view is now moved under Satellite view. Click on it to see “Show labels” (the old Hybrid view).

Frank Taylor, Google Earth Blog reported that New Contour Lines in Google Maps.

Google has announced a new feature to the terrain relief maps they added last November to Google Maps. Now when you zoom in closer, the terrain shows contour lines to give you an even better feel for the lay of the land. These types of maps are the type most hikers use to plan their trips. Unfortunately, the degree of resolution at this point is not quite good enough for hiking, and the trails aren’t shown by default in Google Maps. But, the enhancement is a really nice feature that enhances the understanding of the terrain and it looks excellent.

Martin has noticed below that the hybrid view has gone missing with this upgrade.

Here is a Google Map showing contour lines in the area where my house is located:


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Local Links of Interest

UniversalBusinessListing.Org Partners with NexxLinx to Jump-Start Local Search 

UBL is the industry initiative to help businesses create and expand their online presence. Instead of spending countless frustrating hours of trial and error, businesses create a central listing with UBL, and for a small fee their information is securely distributed to all major US online Yellow Pages, search engines, industry directories and 411 directory assistance. 

Adding A Business to MSN/Live Local Search – Matt McGee, SmallBusinessSEM

MSN’s Local Search property, Live Search Maps, used to rely on Localeze for all its business listings. If you wanted to add or edit a listing in MSN Local, that’s where you went to take care of it.

That’s since been replaced by MSN’s own Local Business Listings Center, which operates quite similarly to Google’s version of the same tool.

Western Union to Offer Mobile-to-Mobile Transfers – Laura Sydell, NPR

Western Union is teaming up with two other companies to offer customers money transfers over their cell phones. It’s aimed at immigrants, who often don’t go to banks or use the Internet to conduct business.

Rumor: eBay to Sell Skype to Google? – Sebastien, Praized.com

What it means: I think this potential acquisition/partnership makes complete sense. IMHO, call tracking and pay-per-call represents a large portion of future local search revenues and Google clearly sees that local search is where they will get tremendous growth in the next 5-10 years. By buying the Skype infrastructure (and user base) and combining it with the GrandCentral technology and expertise, they instantly get core assets to execute that strategy globally.

Call Tracking Data Reveals YP Print ROI – Greg Sterling, Screenwerks

The Yellow Pages Association has put out data from a call tracking study this morning that shows a high return on investment for display advertisers:

  • Yellow Pages sales revenue is more than 27:1 for national display advertisers and nearly 13:1 for local display advertisers.
  • 60 percent of advertisers experienced an increase in call volumes in the second year of the study.
  • Of the advertisers that experienced a growth in call volume the second year, the average increase of leads was 49 percent.
  • The median Yellow Pages local display advertisement delivers 444 calls per year at a cost per call of $29.The median national display advertisement delivers 979 calls per year at a cost per call of $15.

Developing Knowledge about Local Search