Google’s Fake Listings Problem Gets More Attention—and May Spur Regulation
Mike: Well, summer is almost here. I was able to ride my bike to work and didn’t have to wear ear muffs for a change. That said, the showers are unabated. If I wanted to live in a rain forest, I would have moved there.
David: Technically, summer is here, so I’m happy to hear the weather gods of western New York are starting to realize that.
David: Of course—I even complimented your incisive soundbites!
Mike: It was an interesting, if slightly disjointed article. What I liked was they actually went out and tested a search result for plumbers and found plenty of spam. What I didn’t like was that he was all over the place as to his point.
David: In the writer’s defense, no reasonable person could have read that article and thought, “Wow, Google has really recognized this as a problem and has a plan to solve it.” The closing line from the spammer in Pennsylvania left a strong aftertaste.
Mike: What I found incredulous was Google’s spokeswoman noting that “the company wasn’t previously aware of some high-risk business categories, including water-damage repair and home listings.”
If the statement is true, then it is proof that Google recognizes the problem but is unaware. At worst, it might be a lie. In the most likely scenario, it reflects a supreme neglect of the issue.
David: LOL. Classic Google PR right there. At the very least, her statement is too broad to take seriously. It’s obvious that someone in the company is “previously aware” of these high-risk categories, as it was a primary driver of the obviously successful Google Guarantee / Home Service Ads pilot.
Mike: Absolutely. But this has long been Google’s M.O.: do just enough to prove you are doing something while in the spotlight and wait it out until you can get back to whatever you were doing. This quote from the article — “Google added new defenses for those businesses after questions about false listings from the Journal, the spokeswoman said,” — seems to reinforce that point.
David: It’s a very teenage/juvenile attitude. Do the absolute bare minimum — and only when you’re caught.
I’ll go out on a limb to say that it’s probably not an attitude that will serve them well in the context of the antitrust investigations already underway, as you and I have hinted at before.
It’s the context of those investigations that may make this particular case — or rather this case in addition to a steady trickle of others? — a little different.
Mike: Yes, this brings us back to the question that we addressed several months ago of whether (bad) publicity PLUS the threat of antitrust discussions is enough to get Google to take prolonged, sustained action to clean up their Local listings. As we wrote in April:
Mike: I used to think that (a ton of bad) publicity would ultimately lead Google to fix this problem. I no longer think that and firmly come to the conclusion that regulation is a dire necessity.
David: Obviously there have been cases where errors have led to real changes at Google, but it’s bizarre that the publicity you and others have generated around fake, exploitative listings aren’t treated with the same urgency.
It seems to me that Google could take this issue off the table by seriously investing in cleaning up the fake listing and fake review issue. I just don’t think that they think that way.
At a minimum, as the company that has the monopoly in the local space, Google faces the expectation and responsibility to provide a service that truly serves the public and businesses. And they seem to forget that.
David: Right. As you and I discussed last time, there aren’t many obvious examples of consumer harm from Google’s monopoly position in local.
But this is certainly one that Yelp or others could leverage as inflicting real consumer harm, and the more reputable outlets like the Wall Street Journal highlight these examples, the stronger the perceived case becomes.
The question is the remedy the DOJ will choose. It could be a break-up, a justification for subsuming its own listings (as Yelp would surely like to see), an oversight panel ensuring Google actually is putting forward a good-faith effort on an ongoing basis, or some other solution. That is where things might get interesting.
Mike: To consumer harm, I would add small business harm.
David: …yes, which another reputable publication, the New York Times, covered barely two weeks ago, earning an equally juvenile response from Google.
Mike: Right, in that article, a small restaurateur highlighted the commissions he had to give to food delivery services because Google had placed a call-to-action ad on his business profile without his permission. To which Google responded that “it allowed companies to place ads next to the listings of other businesses to give users more options.” I would add — “even if it hurt that small business.”
Talk about tone deaf and not accepting responsibility.
David: As I mentioned in my Twitter conversation with Greg Sterling at the time, I’m not sure anything short of a (legally enforced?) cultural shift will get Google to accept responsibility. Even as consumer goodwill toward their brand erodes, I’m not convinced it’ll be enough to change behavior.
Obviously you and me talking about these issues in a niche industry publication is not going to move the needle. But I’m hopeful that the Times, Journal, and other mainstream publications continue to run with these stories as the regulatory drumbeat gets louder.
Mike: I am not wise enough to know the best antitrust solution to guarantee that the public and businesses are provided a safe and fair environment. I am still of the belief that if Google doesn’t rise to this moral and ethical standard on their own, some regulation would be appropriate and necessary.
After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider. He’s the former founder of GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.