Sep 092011
how google's real name policies hurt them and their users

Imagine giving a presentation at a conference where you fire up a live demonstration of a product you’ve been urging the audience to use and the audience start giggling.

You turn around to find a bright red message at the top of the screen stating your account has been suspended. It wasn’t there the night before and you certainly didn’t receive an email warning you this had happened.

Embarrassing or what?

That happened to me with Google Local earlier this and the many stories like it illustrates a serious management problem within the world’s biggest search engine company.

Local search – where businesses can be found online based on their location – is one of the main web battlefields with Google and Facebook, along with outliers like News Limited and Microsoft, are competing to get business of all sizes to sign up.

Recently though Google seems to be going out of its way to squander the massive opportunity they have in this sector despite the CEO, Larry Page, identifying local services as one of their priorities.

Despite Google’s intention to promote Places – as their, and Facebook’s, local search platforms are called – many businesses are finding the company’s arbitrary and often incorrect application of its own rules and Terms of Service difficult to understand and use.

“I have found that with the ‘moving target’ Google is presenting to businesses” said Bob, a commenter on one of my blogs, “is paralyzing them from doing exactly what Google wants, which is updating and providing fresh content on their listings pages.”

In many ways, this is a small front on the “nymwars” that has broken out since Google introduced their Plus social media service and started enforcing their “rules” on “real names”.

Unfortunately their real names “policy” – and I use inverted commas deliberately – is vague and arbitrary with users finding their accounts suspended despite signing up with “the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you” as required by Google.

Account suspensions are wide and varied; some people, quite legally, have a name without a surname, others have a combination of languages such as Chinese or Arabic, while others have simply fallen foul of the computer and Google’s secretive bureaucratic culture.

This secretive bureaucracy would be funny if it wasn’t so downright hypocritical. Any correspondence with Google about account suspensions either on Places or Plus is signed off by an anonymous functionary from “no-reply” email address. So it appears real identities, and accountability, don’t extend to the company itself.

Last week at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt, announced Plus is not a social media platform, but an “identity service”. Good luck with that, Eric as your staff’s arbitrary and often incorrect interpretation of the company’s own rules doesn’t engender confidence in any identity verified by Google.

That announcement by Google’s chairman should worry investors, as this is a company that is first and foremost an advertising company powered by the best web search technology.

Management distractions such as becoming an “identity service” or buying a handset manufacturer distract focus from the core business and result in the mess we’re seeing around business and private accounts.

For the moment, Google Places remains a service that businesses must list on given the visibility the results have when customers search the web for local services and products.

If you aren’t already on Google Places, do sign up but make sure you get your listing right first time as editing your profile once it’s up risks your account being suspended or cast into “pending” purgatory.

Should you have already an account, leave it alone as any change risks coming the attention of Google’s anonymous bureaucrats.

Hopefully, this madness will pass and Google will clarify their policies, ground them in the real world then enforce their terms fairly and consistently. Until then, you can’t afford to rely on your personal and business Google accounts.

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