Jan 312016
Google places is an important service for small business

An ongoing frustrations of this blog is Google’s failure to execute in local business search despite the massive advantage it has in that field.

One notable aspect of Google’s failure is the locksmith problem where thousands of fake businesses have slipped into the company’s database. The result is thousands of consumers being ripped off and honest local businesses being overlooked in search results.

Spam in Google’s local business search is not a new problem, Search Engine Land reported it as being an ongoing issue in 2009 and the New York Times ran a feature on it two years later highlighting how genuine local businesses and consumers suffer.

Now, five years on, the New York Times has revisited the problem of Google business listings and finds the problem hasn’t changed a great deal with locksmiths and other local search engine results being hijacked by scammers filing false listings.

It’s hard not to conclude that the local listing service isn’t really a high priority to Google’s attention deficient managers and it isn’t surprising given maintaining databases is nowhere near as sexy as being involved in moonshots or as lucrative as the company’s core adwords business.

Google’s bureaucrats think so little of the service that they give the task of maintaining its integrity to an army of unpaid volunteers. The New York Times tells the tale of one of these ‘Mappers’, an unemployed truck driver named Dan Austin, who proved so good at the role he was ‘promoted’ – still unpaid of course – and then ‘sacked’ when he demonstrated how easy it was to plant a false listing.

That weakness in Google’s system shows how crowdsourced services can be subject to abuse and how volunteers themselves are abused by companies taking advantage of ‘free’ labour.

Another weakness illustrated in the Locksmith story is the collateral damage of the ‘fail-fast’ mentality where features are released without the developers really understanding the consequences. The cost of failure may be felt by innocent parties more than the company that’s ‘failed’, as Search Engine Land flagged in its 2009 article.

Google has continued to release features into local that are open to abuse. Google has used its release early and iterate tactic to gain market share at the expense of more circumspect competitors and on the fragile incomes of small businesses.

The continued failure of Google’s local business service remains frustrating for small businesses, having destroyed the Yellow Pages and local newspaper advertising models most neighbourhood services have few places to advertise. While Google and the other internet giants remain focused on other matters, local business search remains a great opportunity for a smart entrepreneur.

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