Given that my company is in the listing management business, I am intimately familiar with the complications, inconsistencies, and changing policies around owner verification of business listings. Simply stated, owner verification is a process set up by a directory publisher for establishing authorized ownership of a business listing. Publishers like Google, Bing, Yelp, and others provide this feature to help ensure that business listings, once properly verified, will be managed and updated by the business owner or authorized representative in preference to other sources of data.
It’s a great idea in theory and, once you navigate the tangled verification process, it even works well for most business owners in practice. However, there is very little consistency across publishers as to how the process should work or what the result should be, and there is plenty of evidence that the supposed lockdown of business data via owner verification doesn’t always operate as it should.
Just last week we saw news of a hijacking incident in Google+ Local that allowed a scammer to modify thousands of owner verified hotel listings in order to drive traffic to an affiliate reservation site instead of the main business website. Though the exact method used to hijack these listings is not known, the scammers were apparently able to override owner-verified content with little trouble, only attracting attention due to the massive number of listings affected. Evidence suggests there are loopholes in the Google data management system which allow edits submitted by ordinary users to flow through into production with little oversight. And this is far from the first such incident.
Clearly, Google needs to work harder to lock down verified listings. As I and other commentators have pointed out, historically the company has been willing to let such matters slide, primarily because there is no immediate revenue opportunity lost by failing to improve a free service. Yet many of the users of owner verification services are also real or potential customers for paid advertising products, so it doesn’t make much long term sense not to do right by business owners in regard to free services as well as paid. Fundamentally, there seems to be no logical justification for allowing just anyone to edit a listing that has been owner verified.
Perhaps the issue has to do with the nature of verification itself — and here we can move beyond Google and include all sites with some type of verification feature. The question of how to properly verify ownership is one that publishers have answered in various ways.
The most straightforward but least secure method is email verification, similar to the process for creating an ordinary Facebook or Gmail account. This method offers the benefits of familiarity and simplicity, but does nothing to really ensure that the email account holder is actually a representative of the business. (The exception is LinkedIn where an email account on the company domain is required.)
At the other extreme, some sites such as Facebook have established verification processes that require the business owner to upload documentation proving ownership of the business, such as a business license or utility bill. While such documentation offers a comparatively high level of security, it’s an unusually arduous requirement for a public internet account, and most publishers have shied away from such stringent measures.
The middle ground is the most common among top sites like Google, Bing, and Yelp: verification by PIN code, making use of an automated phone call or a postcard sent through the mail. This method seems ingenious at first. Use of the listed business phone number is intended to mean that someone at the business location must be involved in completing the verification process; so too with use of the listed address for mail verification. But it’s apparently not difficult to game that system, for instance by changing both the phone number and the address so that any PIN codes are sent to the hijacker rather than the business.
The upshot is that the dominant verification methods work well when used by well-intentioned business owners but are vulnerable to exploitation. Thus my suggestion that the verification process itself, because it does not provide a high level of certainty, is in part to blame for the fact that verified listings are susceptible to change. Probably, this fact also speaks to an assumption on the part of many publishers that business owners will be careless about managing their listing content, and that ordinary users might sometimes be more strongly motivated to provide correct data – the basic assumption behind crowdsourced local services like Foursquare.
An opportunity exists, however, to develop a stronger method of authorizing ownership of listing information, hopefully one that would strike the right balance between security and simplicity. The key is likely to make the verification process agnostic, meaning that it would not be owned by any particular publisher but would be shared across all who agree to participate in a common standard. After all, ownership of business data rightly belongs in the hands of the business owner, not the publisher, and should be shown consistently across all sites and services in a form authorized by the business.
It’s of course unlikely that publishers will establish such a standard of their own volition. But they might be compelled to participate if the result is better data and better consumer experiences. For the business owner, a single streamlined method would ease the confusion that now acts as a barrier to broader adoption of listing management in general.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.