July 2008

Google Street View And The California Constitution

Just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should do it. That’s the lesson Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein meant to teach readers, and it’s a concept human beings seem doomed to grapple with in light of should-never-have-done-this inventions like the atom bomb, genetically modified foods or aerosol. Google, with their love of interesting technology, held a meeting at some point in the past couple of years in which they made the classic human choice – we can do it, so let’s! And that’s how the world ended up with Street View which has almost immediately drawn criticism for all sides for being a brash invasion of citizen privacy.

Some time last year, Google sent their camera-mounted cars through Sonoma County, California – a region made up of 3 small cities and a smattering of little, quiet towns. Google then compiled all of the images they captured into their relatively new Maps application, Street View.

To see Street View yourself, go to Google Maps and type in an address. If the Google camera cars have been on the streets in your part of the world, you will see the option to select ‘Street View’ within the map. All streets which have been recorded are then outlined in blue on the map, and by clicking on the location of your choice, you’ll be shown an interactive image like this:


View Larger Map

You’ll note that I’ve chosen a California shopping center for the above example, and I made that choice selectively because I believe that Google’s intentional documentation of private property isn’t just invasive snooping, it’s actually in violation of the California Constitution, Article I, Section I which states:

All people are by nature free and independent and have
inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and
liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing
and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.

*Emphasis is mine

I’m not alone in my icky feelings about what Google has done. When Sonoma County’s local newspaper got wind of Google putting their region on the map in a way that isn’t just showing aerial views of the lay of the land but is, in fact, showing 360 degree views of private homes, house interiors through windows and private individuals, they printed quite a good article on the topic. They spoke with Google spokesperson, Elaine Filadelfo, who declared,

“It is our policy to only gather photos on public roads. We’ll certainly take down images taken on private property.”

Google’s camera car drivers clearly aren’t aware of Google’s policy, as the article details:

Google went past a gate with a “no trespassing” sign and captured images on private property. Several residences can be seen on the property, including an up-close shot of someone’s living room window.

I’m afraid Google’s offer to take down photos of private property isn’t cutting it for me for 2 reasons:

1) With the exception of public lands, all property is private. Unless you live in a historic landmark, if you noticed someone snooping around your property with a camera, taking up-close photos of your doors and windows, the layout of your yard’s entrances and exits, and the interior of your home as seen through your windows, you’d call the police and the trespasser would likely be incarcerated. Google’s offer to take down images of private property would basically defeat the purpose of their own application – they’d have to remove every privately-owned home from Street View and what would be left?

2) Even if an offended party were to get Google to take down an image, they have no control over what may have been done with the image during the time it was live in Maps. The image could have been copied and published on dozens of other websites by the time it’s taken down.

It’s also not going to ‘do it for me’ to say that it wouldn’t be illegal if you were walking down the street with a friend and took a photo of them that happened to have someone’s private property in the background. Google’s intent here isn’t vague or accidental. They clearly mean to make a photographic document of every home in America, and powerful cameras are enabling them to do so in lifelike detail, without any permission from cities, towns or property owners. As the newspaper example shows, Google is not even respecting No Trespassing signs in their quest to index the world.

My searches using Street View and Maps in general also show me that, in addition to casing private homes, Google has photographed government buildings, military structures and prisons. I can’t help wondering what the government thinks of that.

What Does It Mean To Be A Private Citizen Who Owns Private Property?

I’ve cited the California Constitution above because it was the first thing that came to my mind when I learned that Street View captures not only detailed views of private property, but also of human beings, including children. In my state, this article and section of the constitution have been used repeatedly in countless cases to defend citizens’ inalienable rights to be private and safe in their homes.

The major objections I’ve encountered so far to Street View include that it will enable burglars and other nefarious individuals to plan crimes against property and people in a way that was never imagined before. It only takes a little bit of thinking to see that a person with evil intentions could benefit hugely from a tool that not only shows them where all your home’s entrances and fuse boxes are, but may also show them who lives in your house. Elderly people, children, handicapped citizens? Why would Google put data like this into criminal hands?

I’ll answer my own question by suggesting that, like so many inventors, Google is so caught up in the amazing possibilities of burgeoning technology that their view is dangerously insular. Remember: just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should do it? Google is caught up in the ‘can’ and only lawsuits will teach them to start thinking about the repercussions of ‘should’.

If one child is kidnapped, if one house is robbed, if one battered woman’s whereabouts are discovered by her abuser because of Google’s Street View, has our society gone so tech-crazy that we’ll still call this tool a benefit to man? I leave the answer to that up to you, but hope it won’t be the tried-and-true ‘guns don’t kill people’ argument. I need to believe that we’ve evolved beyond rhetoric like that. We know very well that our society isn’t made up entirely of good people. We know that there are criminals amongst us and that the responsibility for protecting the most vulnerable members of our society is really ours.

Google’s technology is forcing Californians to confront what it really means to be a private citizen and to own private property. I expect to see this fought out in court, repeatedly.

Things That Might Be Great To Know

If you’re planning to move house, it might be great to know how much money everyone in a given neighborhood makes so you can determine whether or not you’ll be able to afford to live there.

If you’re an employer, it might save you money to know whether or not a prospective employee has had a serious illness like cancer or MS.

If you’re a politician, it could help your campaign if you could hear what your constituents are really saying about you when they talk on the phone.

Does Google, or any other entity, have the right to give you this information about other people, even if it could be construed as a benefit to you? I say, no. And I’m saying no as a Local Search practitioner, who thinks Google Maps is cool, who empathizes with the oohs and aahs that must radiate from the Googleplex every time some new technology is invented there. I absolutely recognize that Street View could be very helpful in finding your way around a town, but I’m not willing to give up my cherished personal privacy for the sake of a gadget.

In my book, Street View has crossed a line, and I would support laws that uphold my state’s constitution in the matters of privacy and consent. In closing, I’d like to point out that when my friends and colleagues have visited the Googleplex, they have only been allowed to take photographs in designated areas. Many regions of the Plex are strictly off limits – in other words, private. So, Google should be able to understand the objections flooding in since the launch of Street View. “That’s my business,” is a statement all Americans should understand and protect, and if Google won’t recognize this, I would suggest that they are undermining their own future privacy in an increasingly invasive world.

Google Maps and YP – Comparing Oranges To…Tangerines

YP is the orange, Google the tangerine

My friends and neighbors in Local Search spend a lot of time calling attention to bugs and spam in Local Search. Having watched florists, locksmiths, plumbers and canoe resellers pull out their hair by the roots trying to get a fair shake in Google Maps, we’ve got pretty good cause for concern.

Today, in responding to a comment left by reader Martijn Beijk, it occured to me that my own professional gripe with Google Maps is twofold.

1) Google is attempting to do business with local businesses remotely, just as they traditionally have with all website owners. Relationships with Google are born not out of personal communication, but rather, out of traffic dependency on the part of the website owner in most cases. The lofty blank wall is especially evident in the Local Business Center environment where hapless business people are left without guidance or a reliable means of communicating with an entity that has made a business model out of displaying companies’ information.

So far, automation has not been a sufficient replacement for a genuine customer service department and, I’ve come to realize that my first gripe with Google Maps is rooted in comparing them to the Yellow Pages.

My father worked for traditional YP for several years and his entire worklife centered on contacting and advising business owners. He drove miles and miles every day to meet personally with clients and the rest of his 9-5 time was spend on the phone with new prospects. YP expends most of its efforts engaging and serving local business owners.

By contrast, Google does almost nothing to be of service, to be available to these people and I’ve realized that this has caused me to be rather critical of their business model. Google doesn’t feel like a good neighbor. They are mysterious, remote and, to regular folks, feel basically inaccessible.

2) My second source of Google angst revolves around lag time. If a local business owner manages to realize that Google has taken charge of their information and is prominently displaying it as part of their profitable business model, the business owner then has to figure out how to claim their listing. Then, if they accomplish this, they may suddenly realize that Google has made a mistake and is showing incorrect information about the local business. So, the owner then has to try to find a way to alter or report the problem. Or, they may discover that trying to get into the 3-pack or 10-pack is futile because some competitor has filled the listings with spam. Again, the local business owner has to try to find a way to bring attention to the situation.

Should he finally manage to receive a response to an email or get the ear of a Maps Guide, it may take weeks, months or an indefitine period of time for the issue to be addressed or resolved. We’ve seen this create genuine disaster for small businesses to the point of employees being fired and shops closing their doors. The problem of bugs and spam is real and it’s serious.

And yet, it was in articulating these 2 points to myself that it occurred to me that my beefs with Google may be a bit unfair.

Oranges and Tangerines
Google Maps and traditional YP are 2 different fruits, but not as different as apples and oranges. Both business models rely on using the data of local businesses for profit. Both are trusted information resources. Both send traffic. True, Google’s Local service is free and YP can cost you an arm and a leg. With the seriousness of the problems with Google Local Data, those high prices on full page YP ads may seem more worth it when you consider the huge difference in personal customer service.

And yet, the prominence of the 10-pack in Universal Search and the rapid user adaption to viewing Google as a replacement for Yellow Pages does much to even the odds. Beyond this, I want to rebut my own complaints against Maps as follows:

1) If Google were able to develop a relatively foolproof system of automation and a real means of communication (such as a Live Chat function) perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing not putting feet on the street to meet local business owners face-to-face. It’s not quite as friendly, but when I think about the gasoline crisis this planet is in, maybe having all those reps driving around in cars isn’t such a good idea after all. A lot of that gas mileage is wasted on customers who can’t decide whether or not they want to advertise. So far, no one I’ve met who understands the power of Google Local feels wishywashy about whether they want to be included.

I’m not overly fond of replacing human interaction with robots, and I’m definitely not a fan of downsizing, but Google could actually create new jobs for people by staffing a Live Chat resource in their LBC. If Google’s plan is to put YP out of business (and it certainly seems to be), I could root for them if they began employing people to interact with local business owners over the Internet. It doesn’t have to be in-person. So, I’m seeing potential here rather than a simple cause for complaint.

2) YP is far from perfect when it comes to providing accurate data. I’ve heard tales of woe from business owners whose names, addresses and phone numbers were improperly printed or who were accidentally left altogether out of the phone book. And then there is the fun of having your residential phone number incorrectly listed as the number of a local business. One year, my family got phone calls every day from people looking for a window glass company. That was fun!

And with Yellow Pages, there is no hope of a quick fix. If they make a mistake, the business owner knows it’s going to be one full year before the error is corrected. Even with Google’s lag time, I’ve seen them respond to a problem much more quickly than this. The most you can do when YP makes a mistake is call them up and yell at them. It’s still going to take a year to get help. I’d say yelling at Google may get results a little faster than this, from what I’ve seen.

And, so, while I’m not ready to turn a blind eye to the very real problem of bugs and spam in Google’s local data, I’ve realized I shouldn’t harden my heart. Google is trying to do things with the zest of modern business practices wherein everything happens online. Google is the tangerine.

I think there is a very workable business model here that is capable of offering an immensly useful resource to people. Bugs and all, I use Maps almost daily and cannot help seeing how proper staffing and a genuine committment to improving communication could take Google to the next level of effectiveness in what I consider to be their most exciting recent business endeavor. After all, YP is an enormous corporation, but they’ve gotten it right enough on a local level to seem neighborly. Google could do this, too. By adding accessibility to the mix of their efforts, they could replace YP. They could have it all.

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Photo Credit: Joe Benjamin

Where Local Search Falls Down In Small Town USA

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!

As you may have heard, we’ve been very busy this July moving the old igloo from one place to another. Our new home is even more igloo-ish than the last one, off in lovely, open countryside with a small town within decent driving distance. And, it’s got the zippiest Internet connection we’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. We’re going to do business in style here!

We’re strangers in a new town now, and Local Search ought to be our best friend right now. There’s nothing like moving house to produce a Santa Claus-like list of things you need…light bulbs, extension cords, area rugs, a new teapot to replace the one the movers dropped in the middle of the street….Being new in town, you don’t know where all of these goods are to be found and Local Search could potentially save you hours of bewildered driving around, trying to check items off that considerable list while perspiration cascades from your brow and you wonder peevishly why you decided to move in the midst of the state’s biggest heat wave in recent years.

Yet, there is a disconnect going on between local business owners and Google Maps/Local that is making this tool so much less useful than it could be, and I feel the trouble is especially apparent in places like my new small town. The truth is, the new igloo lacks good lighting. The overhead fixtures produce an unsightly, un-homey glare, so the acquisition of area lighting became evident after spending our first night here. Thus began my ridiculously difficult search for lamps.

I call them lamps. Do you? You know, those wired objects with a light bulb at one end and a shade of some sort? I don’t know of anything else to call these, but a Google search for lamps + my small town location returned me a Local 3-Pack containing:

A lamp repair shop
A smog check station
An automotive garage

Short of breaking one of the lamps already in my possession or turning on my car so that the headlights shine in my windows, these results weren’t getting me very far. Clicking through into Maps hinted that house lamps do exist in this part of California, but only if I wanted to go on a long drive through the horrible freeway traffic we moved to the country to avoid. Come on, I said to myself, no one in my town is buying or selling lamps? This can’t be. Lamps are such a basic household need. Let there be light doesn’t come first in the Bible for no reason.

Let down by Local Search, we resorted to driving around in the sweltering heat to an invigorating soundtrack of Mexican polkas provided by our radio which gets about 3 stations. We discovered our town has not only chain department stores like Kmart and Kohl’s (whose lamps are so blah I don’t blame them for not mentioning them in their local listings) but also, very fancy home decor shops (whose lamps are so expensive, we edged backwards out the door, grinning foolishly). The answer to our state of dimness was to be found, of all places, in the local chain hardware stores. OSH and Ace have got more lamps than any of the local department stores and the prices can be swallowed without danger of choking. But you’d never know it from Google Maps. We also found a beautiful lamp for our office at a local import store, but Google is none the wiser.

After a week of searching, I could easily write a guide that would plot out every lamp-bearing destination within a 10 mile radius of my new home, but what can Google do to encourage local business owners to do this work for them? Maps is there. It provides the opportunity to list brands carried, specialties offered, but the franchise owners and small business people are not making good use of this tool. Maybe it’s different in San Francisco, in Boston or Chicago. Maybe there, savvy business owners are eagerly cramming every detail they can into the LBC listings. But here, in Small Town, USA, opportunities are being missed to strengthen the local economy by showing the local people that almost everything they’d need can be found right here.

Mike Blumenthal has talked to me about the eventuality of local business owners uploading their entire inventory to the web, making mobile/local search an incredibly powerful searchable database of local products and services. We’re not there yet. In point of fact, many of the businesses in my town don’t even have websites yet. Citations of their existence can be dug up in monster aggregate directories, but this does little to let you know what they are really offering.

Because of this, I continue to maintain that Google needs to put feet on the street, the way traditional YP always has. Having now filled their organic/universal SERPs with local data, they have got to do the rest of the work which will involve engaging local business owners to claim and utilize Maps, as well as getting categories sorted out so that a search for lamps doesn’t incorrectly assume I am looking for headlights. I’d search for headlights if I wanted those.

I’m documenting my let-down here because I think it encapsulates the imperfect state Maps is in at this point. It frustrates me, because I can see how it could be doing so much more for local economy and for Google users. If anyone needs inspiration or impetus for getting Google Maps into shape, just think of the gas prices these days. There’s an OSH Hardware store not 10 minutes from here by car. I could have gone there, using minimal gas, and zipped right back home with my shiny new lamp. But, I guess I would have missed out on the polkas.