Once again, Google is scrambling to fix one of its services in the wake of negative publicity. This time, the bad apple is Google Places, a directory of local businesses that runs largely on user input.
As the New York Times reports, some unscrupulous businesses have been marking their competitors as permanently closed. This is fairly easy to accomplish, because reporting a closed business in Google Places only takes a couple of clicks by a small number of people. (To demonstrate, a blogger and search consultant named Mike Blumenthal managed to mark Google’s own Place page as closed with the help of only one friend.) Business owners can correct false information—provided they notice the inaccuracies—but the process can take days or weeks, and isn’t always permanent.
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With the Gray Lady shining a light on the matter, Google started talking. In a blog post, Senior Product Manager Ethan Russell said the company’s been working on a solution for about two weeks, ever since “news in the blogosphere made us aware” of the abuse.
Therein lies the problem. Google’s services are used by hundreds of millions of people, but for many of those services, the company offers no support beyond a maze of online forums, or in the case of Google Places, a web form to fill out. It often takes an online uproar—a critical mass of blog posts, a cluster on Techmeme or an article in the Times—to get the company’s attention. To wit: the eyeglass salesman who used negative feedback to improve his search ranking, the legitimate businesses who engaged in shady search engine optimization tactics, or the rise of content farms. All those issues were addressed after Google took a beating in the press and the blogosphere.
It’s unrealistic to expect Google to put out every fire before anyone notices. But perhaps it’s time for Google to open up phone support or some other form of quick response for the services that need it most. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest it, and opening up phone lines to Google users could quickly become a logistical nightmare. But when algorithms fail and businesses appear to be closed in the eyes of the world’s biggest search engine, there has to be a better way than forums and web forms. If Google’s true customers—advertisers—can get 1,000 representatives for support, as Search Engine Land reports, surely users should also have some way to resolve pressing issues.