The Day We Closed Google: An Illustration Of The Problem With Crowd Sourced Edits

An interesting new Google Maps interface was found this past week by Daniel Hollerung, and after he tweeted Mike Blumenthal and I about it, Google Places confirmed it was an interface they are testing for verifying map accuracy. I’ve replicated an example of the interface using the listing for my friends over at Search Influence:

Google Map Correction Tool Interface

While this particular Google Places information accuracy widget is new, Google has long been leveraging similar user-generated content to try to enhance and grow map information. They have been actively crowd-sourcing map accuracy work for a while now, but it’s not without significant issues.

Obviously, one of the more serious issues involved is the fact that people will lie and cheat.

So, it’s no surprise that Google Maps help groups have instances reported where people suspect that their locations have been compromised some by malicious competitors, disgruntled former employees, or randomly psychotic customers. I’ve had clients and colleagues approach me with similar reports, and Mike Blumenthal has reported these types of stories as well.

Not only can some of the general public be expected to purposefully try to cause mischief, well-meaning people can also ignorantly make mistakes in commenting or reporting on data accuracy — just think of all the stories throughout popular culture of stereotyped representations of men who can’t find addresses while driving (and refuse to ask directions) or spatially-challenged women who can’t read maps. I’m not suggesting that these stereotypes are accurate representations of the sexes, but that the stories likely come from the fact that many people, regardless of sex, find navigation and map interpretation highly challenging.

So, there are some inherent problems with attempting to base a large percentage of location accuracy upon crowd sourced information.

What’s particularly concerning about Google’s methodology is that they’ve recently declared that they’ll sometimes use this data to override business owners’ disclosed information, or call into question accuracy in consumers’ minds. Blumenthal hilariously communicated the issue in his brother-in-law’s open letter response to the matter. An actively-engaged business owner may have gone in and verified that their address and map are correct in Google Places, but if a small handful of users claim the address is wrong, it can get incorrectly flagged as being a closed location, or that the address may be wrong — something which would clearly discourage potential customers from going to the business.

Mike organized a really humorous experiment to illustrate this issue when he asked a handful of us to go in and flag Google’s own corporate headquarters as “closed”. For a brief while, the Mountain View location’s Place Page listing carried the flag, “Reported to be closed.”:

Google Headquarters Closed

Auditors (and perhaps an activity pattern detection algorithm) twigged to the fact that a bunch of users had declared the location closed, and someone at Google corrected the defacement. But, the point was made — users can falsely get a listing flagged as closed. (This was done to illustrate the issue from the perspective of small local businesses, and not with any intent or expectation of causing harm. So, hopefully those of us who participated were not blackballed by Google Places!)

If Google headquarters was a local business that relied upon having potential walk-in customers referred by Google Places, they would have almost certainly lost business during the time that the alert appeared on their Places page. You should ask yourself: is that fair? Should a mean little gang be allowed to abruptly paint a “closed” sign over the door of a viable business?

My concern with the testing of these new crowd sourced accuracy widgets is that the same sorts of stuff can and will happen across the millions of businesses listed in the United States. Having a place flagged as closed is potentially damaging to these businesses, and so is having a location of a business tagged as possibly erroneous — or having the address changed outright to an erroneous place.

There are numerous methods for assessing address correctness which can be handled with algorithms and which do not involve trusting humans. For instance:

  • if the street address is outside of the ZIP code polygon;
  • if the ZIP is not associated with the City name;
  • if an odd-numbered address is geolocated to the even side of a street (and vice-versa);
  • if the phone area code is outside of the City or ZIP;
  • if the address number seems impossibly high or low;
  • if the street address is determined to be less likely to be located in the city block where it’s geolocated (if neighboring addresses are pinpointed elsewhere);
  • if the street name is not recognized in the ZIP area;
  • if the other directory data sources are in reasonable agreement on the geolocation pinpoints;

…And, there are more. (For a primer on basic causes for online mapping errors, see my article, “Top Causes of Errors in Online Mapping Systems“.)

Google is undoubtedly using some of the algorithmic methods for detecting and correcting map errors, but are they using all of them, and couldn’t they do more?!? For long-established businesses, there perhaps shouldn’t even be an option for users to suggest that a location is incorrect.

Owner-verified listings should be particularly trusted above user-generated content. In fact, there should be some safeguards in place for owner-verified listings such that “this location may be closed” and “the address location may be incorrect” messages perhaps shouldn’t be displayed at all without first alerting the contact email address for the listing, and even giving it some sort of time delay such as a month before the general public would see such a message.

Some of the top yellow pages sites which dealt with these types of data issues for many decades came up with business rules to help mitigate discrepancies in data sources. For instance, for a certain number of months after a business has been contacted and has updated/verified its own info, any other data source is set to a lower priority. And, this is the way it should be in Google Maps as well. The business owner has much more invested in insuring that location information is correct than the general public does. They have skin in the game! This is why data which comes directly from the owner is correlated with a higher degree of correctness than that of the general public (at least when that data is fresh or recently verified).

Google’s user-centered product development is great in many ways, but the ongoing refusal to properly incorporate and represent the business owner in the overall local business ecosystem is problematic. They are a type of user themselves, and they are a highly important demographic which should be given proper precedence in some areas of the communication and presentation of business information. This is why we undertook the experiment with the Google headquarters listing — to illustrate the disparity.

One suspects that Google employees overrode the crowd-sourced edits we submitted stating the location was closed — not only should the flag not have appeared, but the same sort of listing alerts and controls should be extended to small businesses who’ve verified their listings.

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10 thoughts on “The Day We Closed Google: An Illustration Of The Problem With Crowd Sourced Edits

  1. I agree completely, Chris. This constant shifting in how Google Places works is a real burden on small business owners who cannot be expected to keep up with it. When will Google even begin to understand this?

  2. It’s their refusal to truly incorporate the business owner as part of the ecosystem that bothers me in this. I think user submitted edit suggestions have their place, but they shouldn’t be allowed to publicly deface a listing that’s been touched by the business owner for the past 8 to 12 months without hitting a much higher critical threshold.

    For instance, if it’s flagged by a few people as closed, how about automatically checking to see if the phone number is still activated before flagging the listing? It might be similarly possible to automate a check of the business address — for large cities they might be able to purchase the business address database from the local power company on a monthly basis and see if service was cancelled for a particular business.

    They should avoid allowing a mob action to potentially damage a business — their criteria needs to be much tighter than it has been.

  3. I agree with both you and Mary. One of the chief incentives for making the effort to claim a Place Page was that this was meant to give the business owner authority over their data. That incentive has just been whisked away. Mike B. has been trying to find ways to love this new change, but I am not convinced that it’s a positive one.

    Thanks for the good read, Chris.

  4. Chris some great points. I like crowdsourcing, but I don’t like how easily it can change a claimed GP listing.

    This that you said, “Owner-verified listings should be particularly trusted above user-generated content.” is the real problem.

    Claimed listings should not be so easily changed. Sure show community edits, but not change things without permission from the SMB. If there are enough community edits that are conflicting then it can be a negative ranking factor. Just add community edits below where they used to show citations.

  5. I really don’t think this is that big of a deal. The internet has continually moved towards user generated content. The same way that people could post fake negative reviews, we just trust that enough people are contributing for the right reasons. As great as Google’s algorithms are, I’d like to be able to update information for businesses that I visit.

  6. luke, there’s an expectation among consumers that reviews are subjective and may not be official info about a business.

    Whereas, if a consumer sees Google label a business as “closed” or in the wrong location, they have an expectation that this information may be accurate. I’m arguing that it should not be the right of a couple of random users to post a “closed” sign or “incorrect location” sign on a business’s listing — particularly if the listing was hand-touched by that business’s representative — without more due diligence to insure that the UGC is accurate.

    You may not think it’s that big of a deal, but it is a very big deal to a business that receives customers referred by their listing on Google. For them, it translates directly to financial losses.

  7. Interesting read. It’s very scary reading some of these reports about malicious reporting though. GP is still quite low profile here in the UK and I fear that, as with most things, what happens over there will cross to this side of the pond shortly after.

  8. What I want to know from this post is how many were the “handful” that reported the Google HQ closed & over what period of time did the “handful” report this? Also we don’t know the amount of normal traffic that the places page received during this period to compare the ratio of visits vs. the number of people reporting the location as closed.

    I would hate to see claimed places pages get locked down to protect them because business owners can’t be relied upon to self report if they close the doors. The fact that “reported to be closed” and a link to report it “not true” appears, along with the phone # for the business seems a fair protection for the SMB. Add an E-mail notification to the owner and you really couldn’t ask for more.

  9. I was purposefully vague about who and how many of us were involved. I believe Mike Blumenthal may have mentioned it only required 4 separate accounts, but I could be mistaken. There were more than 4 of us involved in this experiment. I don’t believe it has anything to do with how many people visit the Place page for the listing involved.

    I think there should be an opportunity for businesses to respond to reports that they’re closed before their listing gets flagged. A month doesn’t seem too long. User edits could then still affect a listing, but it would reduce the chance of the business getting its bottom line negatively affected by mischievous or hostile false reports.

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