April 2009

Google’s More/Hide Bug Continues In Maps

Three weeks after first writing about this in this blog post, the more/hide bug continues in the reviews portion of Google Maps. As a refresher, this bug is not allowing me to click to the full text of many of my Google-based reviews via the more/hide link. I click more, I get hide. I click hide, I get more. But neither action brings up the full text of the review. I’m documenting this here, because if Google ever fixes this, I’d like to have my own record of how long it takes.

On a second note, I’ve got another small gripe with Google’s reviews. Sometimes, the formatting of reviews I leave gets totally removed. I’ve written reviews in this format:

Positive Points About This Hotel:
Comfortable beds
Great views from your windows
Lovely gardens for an afternoon stroll
Reasonable pricing
Proximity to major tourist attractions

…only to have Google change it into this:

Positive Points About This Hotel: Comfortable beds Great views from your windows Lovely gardens for an afternoon stroll Reasonable pricing Proximity to major tourist attractions

I must say, it offends the very core of my being as a professional copywriter to see something I’ve written mutate into what appears to be an unending run-on sentence with a total disregard for any thought of punctuation.

Google, where did my formatting go?

And the odd thing is, like so many Google bugs, this only happens sometimes. Why, Google, why?

Google’s Dirty Maps Need A Good Spring Cleaning

Spring Cleaning and Google
Spring has sprung! Time to beat the rugs, shine the window glass for the best view of the explosion of new life outside; time to mop, scrub and dust all of those elusive corners inside that you let slide all the sleepy winter long. Time to get your house spic and span, in keeping with the season of new leaves turning and new sunshine lighting up all the once-dark places that deserve your special attention right now so that you and your house are greeting the world with a bright springtime face.

Google’s house in Mountain View is 6 years old as of 2009 and it has begun to show signs of both aging and, I’m sorry to say, neglect. As Mike Blumenthal’s most recent article on the gunk and debris in Google Maps illuminates, it is to be feared that our Google has become that distasteful thing Mother warned you never to be – a slovenly housekeeper.

Google reports that it has recently put safeguards in place to prevent future spamming of the kind we have witnessed on so outrageous a scale in the locksmith and florist industries, and yet, all past pollution continues to sit in the 10-packs and maps. As Mike says:

Local data is hard enough to get accurate when all the players are honest and focused on that goal. However, leaving this detritus in the index takes the quality to a new low. As I noted in a previous post, when the plumbing breaks you don’t just seal the leak in the pipe you clean up the mess from the broken sewage pipe.

As I see it, Google has been trying to keep house without a vacuum cleaner since the inception of Maps. Now they say they’ve got one, but apparently, they only intend to clean up future messes. They’re going to let yesterday’s dirt lay on the floor, indefinitely. You and I and Mother know, that’s no way to keep house! I mean, really…yuck.

And the trouble with a slovenly housekeeper is that everyone who enters her abode is made to feel uncomfortable and dirty. They hurry home to take showers. Did you see the smudges on that silverware? I wouldn’t eat at her house if you paid me! And what about those strange, seedy people that seem to have taken up residence in half the rooms of her house? I feel like I’m forced to rub elbows with criminals whenever I have to go there. Heavens!

Or, in the case of the local business owner, being included at a Google house party can mean losing as much as 75% percent of your business if your data is incorrect or hijacked by one of those criminals dwelling in the back rooms of Google’s local index. I get that 75% figure directly from a business owner I was speaking to just days ago, and we’ve heard other figures of 60%, 50%, 30%, etc. All because the businesses found themselves in Google’s house, without invitation or warning, trying to swim in a tide polluted with the flotsam and jetsam of accidental error and intentional sabotage.

Google’s plumbing is broken and their house is a jumble of neglected past messes. Google is an incredibly busy chatelaine with dozens of keys and duties to manage. They have to prioritize and schedule their attentions – we really do understand. Perhaps the winter has been a hard one with too many irons in the fire to properly manage all.

But now it’s spring! Come on, Google! Start beating those rugs until the spammers fall out. Start vacuuming up those musty corners where hijackers and criminals are crouching in the unseemly dust of your 6 year old house. 6 years isn’t so many. There is still time to save your reputation in the local community. It will take major elbow grease, but in the end, your local neighbors could be saying of you, “Google’s house is so clean, you could eat off the floors.”

What are you waiting for, Google? It’s a great bright day to begin.

Utterly Frustrating Experience With Google’s LBC

You’ve got a client whom you’re helping to edit and create local profiles in order to ensure that their local contact information is well and truly represented across the web. It’s not a hard task, and really, the only challenging part comes in when the client’s participation is required as part of the editing process…as is the case with doing edits to a Google Local Business Center Listing.

The job at hand is to make a simple change to the client’s phone number. Your client is an incredibly busy small business owner, and you want to make everything as quick and trouble-free for them as possible. You’ve got the client’s Google login info. You’ve logged in. You’ve changed the phone number from their generic 800 number to their more geo-friendly local number. You hit save and reach the page that asks you if you’d like a phone call or a postcard in order to verify that you are making an authorized change to the record.

You phone the client, rejoice that you reach him, give him his pin number and tell him to sit tight by the phone. For some reason, despite the fact that you’ve just entered the new local area code number, Google says it wants to call the 800 number. You ask the client if he can answer that phone at this moment. He says, “no sweat.” Man, you feel good. This is going to be a breeze. So, you hang up, request the phone call and wait to hear that all has gone well.

A minute later, the LBC screen says it tried to call but was unsuccessful. You call the client back and he says, “I don’t understand what happened. It asked me to press 1 if I wanted to continue. I pressed 1 and then nothing happened after that.”

In a cheerful tone of perseverance, you tell the client, “oops, let’s try it again.”

You authorize phone call #2 and this time, for some reason you can’t figure out, Google is saying they will call the new local number. Only God knows why. You give the client the new pin, wait the 5 minutes for Google to call and, yet again, see the dreaded message that the call, which Google is now saying it placed to the 800 number despite saying 5 minutes ago it was going to call the local number, was unsuccessful. You call the client back. He’s sounding a little flustered at this point and says, “So I got through the part where I pressed 1 this time and it told me to enter my pin number. I did, and then nothing happened.”

“There wasn’t a confirmation that you’d entered the pin?”

“No…it’s like there was nothing there.”

Your cheerful tone of perseverance sounds a bit shaky this time as you say,

“Well, it sounds like something must be wrong with Google’s phone system right now, and unfortunately, they won’t let us keep trying indefinitely, so I think we may need to go the route of them sending you a postcard.”

“But won’t that delay things?”

“Yes, it will a bit. Hopefully not too much. I’m afraid these problems with Google’s Local Business Center are pretty common. It’s a headache, I know. You’ll get a postcard with a phone number and a pin number on it. You’ll call the number and enter the pin.”

And if your client says, “and I bet that will work just great,” who can blame him? His confidence in Google’s Local Business Center has just shriveled up like last month’s birthday balloon. And you’re feeling pretty annoyed that, having gotten everything lined up for a smooth run-through of your task as the Local SEO, every step went off without a hitch until it was Google’s turn to come through.

I know, there are always reports circulating of people having an utterly frustrating experience with the LBC, and going through it with your own clients makes you shake your head at the thought of the small business owners who are trying to get some simple task like this done without any outside guidance at all. My client today wasn’t sure whether his pin number had been accepted on the last call or not, and it was only Google’s ‘unsuccessful’ message in the dashboard that told me we had failed to get our business done.

I would really like to know what that monkey business was with Google saying it was calling one number and then saying it had called a different one. I’d like to know why, after entering the new local number, Google said it was going to call the 800 number in the first place. We’re entering a NEW number. Can you call us at the new number? Yes, no, maybe, uh…

As a Local SEO, I see one of my main duties as being the organization of various tasks that need to get done in order to strengthen a client’s local visibility. For a small business owner, it’s pretty helpful to be able to depend on someone like me who can tell them, “now we need to do this, and now this, and now this.” I have a little list of places I like to create profiles. Some local indexes make it so easy. But I’ve begun to notice that every time I have to make changes in Google’s LBC, I have this breathless feeling of not knowing whether what I’m about to do is going to actually work and make my client happy or fizzle like a wet firecracker and leave me looking impotent. I really can do good things for my local clients…really I can…if Google lets me.

I ended up feeling frustrated throughout the rest of my work day today because of this mysterious glitch in the LBC. Why couldn’t it just have gone well? Oh, well. Anyone else having this issue lately? Tell me about it.

Bloggers and Pro Journalists – Created Equal?

Matt McGee’s latest Hyperlocal Blogger post, Local Bloggers are Getting No Respect, caught my eye this morning with its reference to a NY Times piece on the current local news climate.

As a disclaimer, be it known that I so support the potential power and creative opportunities of hyperlocal blogging that I wrote a big 5 post series encouraging the practice last year. I find hyperlocal blogging to be one of the most exciting recent developments in the evolution of the web, and I empathize with Matt’s dissatisfaction with the apparent dismissal of this media form as ‘woefully incomplete’.

A Jewish news organization, JTA, recently drew serious criticism from the tech-savvy public by sending out newsletters which contained this quote:

Without a strong JTA, the storytelling will be left to bloggers, twitterers and non-professionals. Is this the best way for our future Jewish stories to be told and recorded?

I agree with the expressed opinion that statements like these appear to display both a mistrust of technology and a disdain for that class of writers being termed non-professional. Remarks like the above can come across as both old-fashioned and even aristocratic in sensibility. Nevertheless, I think there is a core of truth in the quotes Matt’s article is referencing, and I will play devil’s advocate for a moment here to outline why I feel this way.

The Worth of Scholarship
I, personally, don’t have a problem with making a distinction between a professionally-trained writer and a self-made one. It isn’t that the quality of writing is guaranteed to be superior when emanating from the trained professional, or even that professional journalists are better suited to writing by dint of talent, insight or skill.

Yet, a person who is so committed to the craft of writing that they have gone to school for it, or received training or an apprenticeship in some meaningful way in their approach to their trade has, I think unquestionably, shown a dedication to the field that appears more concrete than the unproven ground of the writer whose major preparation efforts have only included the acquisition of a WordPress account.

The Internet boasts blogs with exceptional writing and writing that borders on illiteracy. As blogging has evolved, the best bloggers have honed their skills to the medium, perfecting their understanding of the style, voice, length of content and formatting that succeeds in winning a loyal readership.

In point of fact, successful bloggers often act as writer, editor, publisher and ad man all-in-one, wearing many of the hats you will find in the traditional newsroom. But for most of these writers, the experience has been that of flying by the seat of the pants, learning the craft as the craft emerged, contrasted to the newly-minted journalist whose first professional steps fall in the well worn tracks of a tradition that dates at least as far back as the Han Dynasty of China, considered by some to be the cradle of news reporting.

Bloggers sharing tips with one another about paragraph length and maximizing conversions is a generous and meritorious fact of the industry, but it does not compare well with the romantic and time-honored image of the old news man apprenticing the newcomer to the skills of the trade, and no universities that I’ve heard of allow students to major in blogging. It’s tradition vs. evolution and as local newspapers across the United States continue to fold, I wouldn’t want to be guilty of failing to recognize the areas in which traditional news, to date, offers benefits that may not be assured in the hyperlocal blogging world. Let’s consider:

With the exception of news publications that trade on having a specific political or religious bias, news reporting is meant to be impartial. Professional journalists are trained to present the facts, subtracting personal opinion from the scenario in order to leave it to the reader to make up his mind on a given subject. A hyperlocal blogger, publishing under his own steam, has no professional obligation to report in a bias-free manner. He is perfectly at liberty to criticize public figures, institutions and his local neighbors based upon his personal experiences, if he so wishes.

If newspapers disappeared and you were the sole republican living in a town with only democratic hyperlocal bloggers, your chances of getting accurate reporting on local politics would be endangered, unless the bloggers have followed the lead of traditional news reporting.

Old Jobs/New Jobs
As a woman who makes her living from the Internet, I’ve come to think of work as falling into two classes: old jobs and new jobs. In my view, old jobs are the kind you go to at 8 in the morning and clock out of at 5. You have to fulfill a certain number of hours of office time a month to receive payment. New jobs involve getting work done in whatever time it takes, in whatever location you choose. Content of work and not minutes on the clock is what is valued in these types of scenarios that have been made abundantly possible with Internet connectivity. New jobs work excellently for responsible workers, and a dedicated hyperlocal blogger is just as capable of providing daily news as the New York Times.

But if newspapers disappeared, and your hyperlocal news bloggers were flakes, you might only get news a couple of times a month because the blogger didn’t ‘feel like it’ on a given day. In other words, newspapers are obviously committed to publishing daily news. Unproven bloggers may come and go as they wish. Reliability could become a serious issue in many areas of the country and world if newspapers were to disappear.

Basic Skills
Errors certainly make it into newspapers, but there is an editing process in place to catch the majority of them. Few solo bloggers, by contrast, have editors and a day seldom goes by that I don’t find myself reading a blog post that is speckled with typos, misspellings, grammatical oddities and awkward language. I have watched in a kind of amazement as articles rife with errors have skyrocketed to the top of Social Media sites, and have even read discussions between bloggers who claim that this kind of sloppiness doesn’t bother them if the content in question is good.

All writers make errors. This blog post I am writing right now may have an error or two in it, even though I will read through it twice before hitting publish. The New York Times has likely published hundreds of thousands of typos since its inception. But, sloppiness is not their hallmark, nor is it the hallmark of any publication wishing to be thought of as professional. Professional journalists acquire the basic skills of writing correctly, and when they make mistakes, they have editors to clean up the copy before it’s presented to the public.

If newspapers were to disappear, you could find yourself living in a town where none of the hyperlocal bloggers have polished writing skills or qualified editors and reading the news could actually result in people becoming less educated and literate than more so.

No Doubt, Money Is Key
If bloggers lack a professional, traditional commitment to impartial reportage, consistent production of content and basic training in the correct use of the English language, they can only provide a very unsatisfactory replacement for the print news we know today. However, I can think of a factor that has the power to change all of these ‘ifs’ fairly rapidly, and that factor is money.

Should hyperlocal blogging actually become the public’s preferred information resource, and should that scenario provide a true living wage for the bloggers in question, I predict that hyperlocal bloggers would:

1) learn to write impartially when dealing with news in order to avoid scandal, lawsuits and reciprocal personal attacks

2) commit to publishing on a scheduled basis in order to maintain reader loyalty and, obviously, in order to maximize profits

3) be able to hire skilled editors to ensure that an acceptable quality of content is being maintained

I do believe that, given serious financial backing, there is good reason to predict that hyperlocal blogs will follow the same path that print newspapers once did – evolving from somewhat haphazard and small concerns into truly professional publications. If hyperlocal blogging entities can find the funding, make the commitment and pair this with a sense of responsibility to the public welfare, then there is simply no reason why they cannot succeed.

Lest I’ve Sounded Too Negative…
Hyperlocal blogging is new. Where I live, there is no single hyperlocal blogging entity in place that would truly be capable of replacing the major local newspaper…yet. It’s hard to know whether a picture will emerge of single blogs covering single areas of specialization or whether multi-author blogs may function as newspapers do, with each blogger focused on his own beat. Maybe the big fish will eventually swallow up the little fish, or maybe people will be fine with going to numerous sources for all of the kinds of information they once found between the front and back pages of the daily paper.

Greg Sterling recently told what I found to be a rather poignant anecdote about subscribing to a print newspaper in order to give them a little support in troubled times, only to find that, by the time the paper was delivered, he had already read the major stories it contained on the web. Greg is what you might call technologically adept, but his experience might safely be seen as a foreshadowing of the experience that may come to the common man in the coming years. And certainly, this change of loyalties and habits would become a necessity very quickly if newspapers were to disappear.

I don’t like the feeling I have when I hear someone say it’s the end of an era. I think about people’s jobs and their psychological well-being; I think about the Han Dynasty, about America’s first rough and raw newspapers, so fresh and full of the love of liberty. Rushing gaily ahead, burning bridges behind me, is not an action that appeals to me, especially when those bridges connect to a powerful, fascinating history. But, if hyperlocal blogging, in some form or another, is to become the way future humans gather key information about their local world, here are 3 things I urge the news men and women of tomorrow to seriously consider:

Don’t Sell Out
Money is key, yes, but if your deals with the wealthy mean you have to print slanted nonsense that serves industry rather than public good, you aren’t doing your own society any favors. Too many of America’s news sources are now simply mouthpieces for moneyed interests whose motives are the opposite of philanthropic. If you’re going to revolutionize news delivery, try being truly revolutionary by finding backing from clean sources run by people who love truth and liberty as all Constitution-honoring Americans should.

Edify The People
If, a moment ago, I sang the praises of newspapers making correct use of the English language, I will now take a moment to deplore the modern approach of both print and television news of speaking to the worst student in the class.

Traditional media have consciously chosen to dumb down spoken and written language to an extreme that has left reporters looking just this side of literate and fluent. While there is something to be said for making news accessible to the broadest possible audience, abandoning scholarship and eloquence has not created a more learned public. It is a chicken-and-egg scenario in which speaking stupidly to people has wound up with people speaking stupidly. I’m saddened and alarmed by the poor communication skills and paucity of vocabulary I encounter in the business world and amongst young people.

Distilling news into little more than a text messaging hiccup may make sense when paper and air time are so costly, but hosting costs pennies a day and you have all the space in the world, so to speak. Why not use that space to elevate literacy by making robust usage of our idiom? It can only create a more educated public.

Win With Grace
Google is winning the local information game, turning Yellow Pages into nothing more than a memory in many households. And yet, Google has yet to win the game intelligently, and has instead produced a highly flawed, highly inaccurate web publication of local data to replace the relatively organized and correct old phone book.

The Google Local Business Center, as it currently stands, does not deserve to beat out Yellow Pages, but it is doing just that because of what I see as a combination of massive visibility on the part of Google and a never-ending hunger for whatever is newest on the part of the public.

Our parents and grandparents were raised to worship anything that could be labeled progress and my generation and people younger than myself seem almost impelled to reach for whatever is the latest thing, often carelessly casting behind us whatever is so last year.

If hyperlocal blogging one day becomes The News, I would like to see hyperlocal bloggers be smarter than this. I would like to see them learn from the history of journalism, and from traditional journalists, themselves. I would like to see journalists making smart career changes that put them in the blogging seat, equipped with their experience, skills and traditions. And, I would like to see this transition enacted with grace and recognition for the worth of older media forms rather than a sneering disregard for yesterday and a headlong approach into the future without taking any real time to learn from the past.

I would like to see truly serious bloggers consider these three points as they attempt to create the future of news. If for no other reason than that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it and that bloggers must look to the day when blogs will become obsolete, now is the right time to look at how journalists and traditional publications are handling the changing times. For anyone who believes that an educated public is dependent upon informed and educated media, it’s a good time to give thought to these things.

Google Reviews – Woes and Weirdness

Mike Blumenthal has just authored an informative post regarding Google’s Review Policy. In the comments on Mike’s post, I mentioned that I’ve been considering writing about Google’s reviews, myself, but that the variety of oddities I keep encountering in this portion of Google Maps has made it difficult to focus a post, and in truth, has just felt plain discouraging to me.

Well, I’ve made up my mind to at least describe some of the apparent bugs I’ve met with lately in Google Reviews because they do bug me, and I’d like to know why the efforts I’ve put into leaving 50+ reviews using Google’s system are getting such irregular recognition.

Weirdness 1
Here is one I’m encountering on multiple reviews I’ve left. I’m in Maps, looking at businesses, and I click on the link to read the reviews associated with a business. I’m shown the list of review snippets that link to the full reviews. But, on my own reviews, when I click on the ‘more’ link, I am not shown my full review. I’m only shown a ‘hide’ link. See illustration below:

image of Google Review

Why can’t I access my full review? It’s very frustrating clicking that more link only to be shown a hide link. This is happening on a ton of my reviews and I don’t get it.

Weirdness 2
In many cases, my reviews and the reviews of others are simply missing. For this review of Ten Inverness Way B&B, my review (one of the few less-than-glowing reviews of the business) is simply absent. For another business, The Holly Tree Inn, there used to be something like a dozen reviews and now there are only two of them.

I happen to remember this because the reviews of this particular business were intensely negative including a memorable description of a poor old cat with a hole in its neck (not kidding!). Why are all but 2 of these reviews now gone? And why, though I am repeating myself, is my review of this business being subjected to the more-hide treatment again?

Weirdness 3
I don’t have a visual example of this one right now because it comes and goes. I’ve blogged about this previously. Some of the time, the number of reviews being listed in the text portion of the Maps listing appears to count everything except Google-based reviews. In other words, reviews from TripAdvisor, MenuPages and other 3rd party sources are being counted, but reviews left in Google Maps simply aren’t being counted in the total. I’ve seen this phenomenon again and again, and I don’t get what is going on with this.

A Few Thoughts

Thought 1 – The extreme weirdness I’m encountering in regards to reviews I have left for businesses made me wonder if, for some reason, my account had been banned or something. But, no, it still exists and a percentage of my reviews are showing just fine, with all the text. And, my reviews, to my knowledge do not violate any of Google’s Review Policies, outlined in Mike’s post. I’m honest and as accurate as possible in what I write when I leave a review, and I even try to be as fair as possible, listing both the positives and negatives of a business where appropriate. I don’t believe I’ve done anything to deserve this frustrating treatment from Google’s system.

Thought 2 – I’ll blow my own horn for a minute here in saying that I think the reviews I’ve left could be very helpful for other users researching various businesses. They are not 2 word blurbs; they are thorough and informative reviews, sometimes using the maximum space allowed by Google. I take my time when I write a review and am aware that what I am doing has the potential to be a benefit to both the public and to Google who is the recipient of my content, for free. I championed Google’s review system from the moment I first discovered it, and have spent a great deal more time leaving reviews there than in any other review entity. What is the incentive, may I ask, for me to continue creating well-written, thoughtful, free content for Google if they aren’t even going to show it to the public? These multiple bugs have begun to make me feel unmotivated to log into my Google account and spend 15 minutes of my day reviewing a new local business.

Thought 3 – I may be feeling unmotivated, but this sentiment can hardly compare to the woes of the local business owner whose online reputation is sitting, to an extent, in the palm of Google’s hand. Those business owners who have embraced review culture and are working steadily to encourage their customers to leave reviews cannot be satisfied with reviews that appear and vanish like a desert mirage, all shrouded with an aura of mystery.

The ethical and reputation-oriented concerns inherent in the reality of reviews certainly are not Google’s peculiar property, but few review entities have the power or prominence of Google, making concerns, flaws and bugs a serious matter, deserved of professional attention on the part of Google.

What is a business owner to think when, as in the case of the B&B I mentioned above, the negative reviews of his competitor disappear? Why did the negative reviews disappear? Is something going on behind the scenes? Is it just a technical bug? What is the business owner to think?

What is the reviewer to think when her reviews simply disappear? Is it a bug or is Google displeased with her?

And where can we go for answers?

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