Wednesday 16 Jul 2008
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.
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.