How Long Will Google’s “Calculative PR” Playbook Work in Local Search?

David: Hope you had a relaxing long weekend, Mike. I’m sure it included plenty of cycling and maybe even a cold beer or two?

Mike: I spent a beautiful week in Taos and Santa Fe with my wife and son, so YES it was relaxing but no cycling and no beer… does a river rafting trip and lots of board games count?

David: Absolutely. What a beautiful part of the country. Ordinarily I’d be jealous, but we’ve had such an incredible summer to date in the Northwest that I was happy to stay local.

I thought we might continue our conversation from last time around Google’s juvenile response to a very serious, long-standing problem (local search spam) that has ebbed and flowed over the years but has never received the serious attention you and I think it deserves from what is now a monopoly player.

Mike: I have been thinking a great deal about Google’s approach over the years and their recent response to the WSJ article, and I am convinced that what we saw wasn’t “reactive PR” as much as it was part and parcel of their play book. 

David: Certainly the condescending tone and feigned ignorance of the problem are part of that playbook. But perhaps you could explain more about what you perceive to be the mechanics of their response.

Mike: For Google, public relations and customer service are engineering problems. The company is known for its engineering, and it takes that ethos to public relations. It is an approach that I would call “calculative PR,” where they monitor, measure, and assess (often via algorithm) what the market is saying about them and then provide just enough response to go back to what they were doing previously. 

David: Your theory certainly holds true from my anecdotal observations. Only when a story hits a large mainstream outlet, like the most recent example in the Wall Street Journal, or previous examples like racist maps of the White House or the disappearance of an entire city, does it carry enough algorithmic weight for someone to respond in any significant way.

And the response is almost always just surface-level — whether a one-off, human-implemented fix to solve only the problem or handful of problems mentioned by the press, or a Trump-style distraction with another (unrelated) initiative.

In the most recent case, long-time Google observer Aaron Wall thinks the release of both the Grow with Google campaign as well as the new Business Profile features were intentionally timed to quash the spread of the Wall Street Journal article. The media only has so much appetite to cover Google in the first place, so by timing two other releases in the same week, Google minimized the chance that the negative story would spread. 

Mike: I agree, those simultaneous releases seemed timed too perfectly to be an accident and are likely part of the on-going playbook. 

What they were doing previously and are continuing to do outside of these “temporary distractions” is to build out the next “billion” solution to whatever problem they were looking at. 

PR doesn’t scale, so their approach is calculated as the lowest-cost way to respond without a huge ding on their long-term reputation that allows them to quickly “get back to work.”

David: Personal relationships most definitely do not scale. (That is also one of social media’s systemic long-term flaws, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The engineering mindset that millions of spammy listings in a corpus of hundreds of millions of legitimate listings worldwide, or a (hundred million?) spam reviews in a corpus of billions of legitimate reviews worldwide, are simply “edge cases” that are beneath Google to prioritize reflects a profound lack of empathy for how their technology impacts fellow human beings — both consumers and especially small business owners and their employees.

Mike: Absolutely agree. And a related problem is that they see customer service in the same context: as an engineering/cost-benefit problem to solve, not as a way to improve their product. As such they see the last 5, 10 or 15% errors in their big data solutions as just a cost of doing business that they have no responsibility to solve. 

That being said, if our assessment is correct, their approach is very, very cost efficient and has been very effective up to this point in time from an economic viewpoint. 

David: Both YouTube and Google remain incredibly highly-rated by small business owners in aggregate, so the playbook has clearly been effective up til now. As I suggested last time, though, we may be entering a qualitatively different era in which regulators and legislators may not be so easily convinced or distracted.

Here too, Google has thus far applied a very smart cost-benefit analysis. They’ve become the top spender on lobbyists in Washington — a distinction they’ve attained for the bargain price of only $21MM/year, a minuscule .02% of their $100BN/year annual profits, which to date have barely been garnished by penalties. That is an even better ROI than their own ads are supposed to deliver!

Mike: They are adaptive and their engineering approach to all aspects of human life has proven economically successful and created great wealth for both employees and stockholders. Maybe they remain one of the most liked and most profitable companies of all time because of their PR approach and not despite it. 

By the measure of the great captains of industry, they are succeeding in an enviable fashion, minimizing human labor and maximizing profits. 

But as the Maps snafu in Denver last week showed, they have become the utility of choice in local and even a small error on their part can have disastrous outcomes. So, one anticipates that the many “bigger” errors will ultimately come back and bite them.

David: The errors would stand a much stronger chance of coming back to bite them if it became less easy for Washington policymakers to ignore them.

Mike: So, how as a society do we reconcile human needs with market preferences? Can Google’s engineering approach be reconciled with the on-the-ground needs of humanity in a way that we can all live with?

David: In the end, it may be in Google’s market-based interest to put a good faith effort towards tackling this problem, if they perceive that the danger of regulation and/or breakup is real.

Regardless of the mechanism that brings (even a serious attempt at) a solution, I remain optimistic that a louder, increasingly steady drumbeat of mainstream media attention on the problem of local search spam will ultimately render the “calculative PR” playbook unsustainable and ineffective.

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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.

Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp, a feedback and reputation platform, and LocalU, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at his blog and does a twice-a-week podcast about Local marketing. 

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Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either davidmihm@gmail.com or mike@gatherup.com, or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

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