An article this week in Wired offers an excellent illustration of the double-edged sword of local listings management. A restaurant owner in Washington DC, an older man who has little experience with the internet, finds that his weekend traffic has dropped by 75% for no apparent reason, only to discover that his business has been marked closed on weekends by a malicious user of Google Maps. Due to the dramatic decline in business, the owner is forced to close the restaurant’s doors. In capsule form, this story demonstrates the critical importance of listings management (a Google listing is responsible for 75% of weekend business); the continued lack of awareness among many business owners; and in contrast, the growing prominence of the topic in the non-specialist press.
Inevitably, the story is not as simple as I have described it. Negative reviews on Yelp, for instance, likely contributed to the restaurant’s demise. (And I haven’t mentioned the odd detail that the restaurant specialized in rare meats such as lion, horse, and kangaroo.) The lawsuit the owner has filed against Google is unlikely to succeed, largely because of the protections afforded to online publishers of user-generated content. However there are precedents in the other direction not too far afield from this example. Consider the case against Google in Italy that alleged the company was liable for an offensive video published by a Google Video user in 2006. Google’s conviction was eventually overturned but only after a protracted six-year legal fight. In the days when print yellow pages were more prominent, lawsuits around erroneous listing content were fairly common, and not always decided in the publisher’s favor.
And after all, aren’t we talking about a rather fine line between user-generated and curated content? Unlike a video posted by a user on a platform that is entirely agnostic to content provided it meets stated terms and conditions, user inputs to online maps are signals folded into a larger dataset which also includes supposedly canonical data from listing databases and business owners themselves. Online maps by their very nature are not agnostic to the content they publish; their value is not derived from the platform but from the information the platform communicates. So despite Google’s vigorous defense against this restaurateur’s lawsuit, blame can be laid on the company for prioritizing malicious user input without, apparently, any attempt to verify its accuracy. Google chose to publish information that the restaurant was closed in favor of all other sources at its disposal, and at that point the published information was transformed from a mere user input to a definitive statement from a source commonly accepted as an authority.
This is not to say it’s easy to tell the difference between sincere and malicious reports. And the company’s overall goal is a laudable one: realizing that third party data sources will always trail behind the facts on the street, Google wants user inputs that provide in many cases the freshest source of information. User inputs can also be valuable as a quality control measure against the inevitable errors in large datasets. But unlike Wikipedia, which is, broadly speaking, an unbiased platform, where no material advantage is to be gained or lost by manipulating what is published, Google Maps and its competitors have become the most important pathways to brick and mortar businesses outside foot traffic and word of mouth. In other words, as the Wired article demonstrates, an accurate Google Maps listing can be a matter of life or death for a local business. In consequence, there’s a significant incentive for malicious users to attempt to influence content in order to drive business away from competitors, or even to punish businesses they don’t happen to like.
The higher stakes suggest that greater controls are justified, and without question the Google Maps team is focused on reducing or eliminating sources of spam and abuse wherever it can. The company acted quickly, for instance, to fix hotel listings hijacked by a hotel booking service earlier this year. However, a stronger and more concerted effort to enlist the help of business owners would provide the most comprehensive solution to the problem. After all, business owners themselves have more reason that anyone to ensure that their businesses are represented accurately.
As I indicated in my last column, the new Google My Business dashboard is a step in the right direction, but not the dramatic move that would enable Google to rely on business information from the horse’s mouth – and provide a better user experience for consumers. Aside from the improvements this would introduce to Maps itself, a more proactive enlistment effort would undoubtedly impact Google’s revenue by introducing an untapped audience to Adwords and other paid tools.
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.