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Understanding Google My Business & Local Search

Is Google Stupid or Do They Choose Not to Solve the Local Spam Problem?

In the conversation on my article about the divorce settlement between G+ and Google Local, Maurice Smit made this comment:

People sometimes ask me why Google can’t do certain things. There is a misconception that the people at Google are so savvy that they can do almost anything. As local marketers we know better, don’t we?

Wouldn’t it be easy for the biggest and smartest searchengine people to catch crap on the map? NO it is not apparently….

My answer:

As you know, I have explored that question for a long time.

The short answer is that they are savvy and could solve the problem but choose not to do so.

The long answer…

There are 88,110 employees at Google. Roughly half of which are engineers1 from the top institutions in the world. So on one level they are savvy.

But, and this is a big but, they have a corporate culture that is inculcated with certain values that prevent them from wanting to solve certain problems or perhaps unwilling to do so.

As you saw in their spam research paper, they view the problem of local spam from one of scale and relevance. This very limited POV effectively blinds them to the hyper local reality on the ground. The algo is god and that puts the damper on putting real, trained humans on the task2.

Another issue within Google is their cost accounting. Maps and organic search are surely responsible for the massive income of Adwords and yet internally Maps and Local are seen as a “free” product3. Thus any infrastructure and engineering time used for the purpose of spam abatement is viewed as an above the line, gross profit impacting, variable expense rather than a long term investment in the future of the company3.

The corporate culture also has two values that impact these outcomes… projects and products are an outcome of small teams with full, independent control AND Google has a strong desire for these team members to move to different divisions and gain more experience on a very regular basis. Within that is the ethos of build quick, release early and reiterate until it’s proved to be useful or a failure and then cut the cord.

The former means that the Maps team comes up with something like Q & A and forget to tell the GMB team about it4.

The latter means that if there were someone that was interested in say, review spam they would be encouraged to move onto another team in another division in a very short time frame. Months not years. So not only is the person with the interest gone, but their institutional knowledge is to some extent lost as well5.

The ethos of release early, iterate often and test means that 1)bugs are part of the landscape, 2)it might be updated soon in some sense but 3) that it might just as likely be cut from herd before the market even knows the product exists6.

To a large extent #craponthemap is the perfect example of the type of problem that Google COULD solve but chooses NOT to solve for both individual AND corporate reasons.

What is obvious to us, the impact of spam listings and spam reviews on legit local businesses, is perceived as a gnat on the butt of an elephant by the Google Gods. Only rarely does the sting of the gnat generate enough pain that someone looks up and says oh, maybe there is a problem… take down that specific spammer so the gnat goes away7.

All of this exists within a context of Google success at generating a profit and becoming a monopoly. From a corporate point of view, if not ours, they are doing something right to be that profitable. Their status of being a super aggregator monopolist means that they can create these problems but as long as the problems have no material economic impact, they can ignore them.

I, being ever hopeful, have encouraged, embraced and highlighted other gnats in the hope that a swarm can both identify more problems with the product AND garner more of Google’s ADD rattled attention.

Its been a long slog8. And it has become clear during that journey that Google has made an active decision, as much as they are capable of doing so, to not solve this problem any more than they already have, IN THE CURRENT CONTEXT.

But Google, as the monopoly hegemon, is a context creator. The final outcome may end up being something like Local Services Ads, where the monopolist creates a new market from which they profit by putting trust back into the broken system they created. Ironic eh?

1 – This strong engineering focus creates a certain class bias in and of itself outside of the corporate culture. While some engineers may have come from working and small business backgrounds, by the time they have run the gauntlet of a place like MIT they have become entitled representatives of their technocratic status. When I visit Google I am struck by the very obvious class differences within the organization.

2 – Their trust in the algo means that problems need to be able to be solved at scale. Many times, spam is widespread but so hyper local that it defies an algo based solution. From the point of view of Google these are “edge cases”. They certainly make enough money to put people on these edge  cases but that would deny their own strongly held belief about the algo. And cost money, god forbid.

3- While this appears to be true, it is the sort of “white” (or not) lie that companies tell themselves to excuse their lack of willingness to solve the problem. And the internal accounting whether intentional or not puts the incentives in the wrong places to solve this problem. In many ways, Google has created a public utility in the form of Google Maps but shifted the costs of the local spam onto the consumer.

4 – While small, independent teams can make great products, the lack of minimal viable features needed in the important context of local is astounding. How could a product like Google Q & A be released with no functional way to communicate to the business about a new question?

5- This has long been an issue with Google but I must say that they are doing better on the remembering front than they used to… it still leads to costly (to the local business) re-dos as products come and go and come again but it is better than in the 2008-2012 time frame.

6 – This often leads to Google spending time on interesting products only to nuke them due to lack of business uptake. It also means less engineering resources for solving problems with the existing product set (review spam anyone?). This creates a distrust on the part of the business to adopt new features which feeds back into the Google process leading to the feature being nuked. A very weird dialectic.

7 – I have been told, and it is perhaps apocryphal and perhaps not, that Google has a team that just looks for problems that are appearing in the press and are authorized to solve that immediate problem to avoid further bad press…. the “proverbial hand job”. The issue might or more likely, might not see a long term systemic solution.

8- When I say a long slog I mean a long slog. I started writing and critiquing listing  spam in 2008. In some cases Google fixed the problem. In others, like locksmiths, they just threw up their hands and it still exists today…10 years on. With a solution only just now on the horizon, Local Services Ads.