Google Maps Sows And Reaps Incongruities

reap what you sow

A happy fall to all my readers, and I hope while you’re putting by locally-harvested supplies for the long winter ahead, you take a glance at Google’s pantry shelves to see what’s new in stock by way of their updated Local Business Center guidelines. Farmer Blumenthal wins the blue ribbon for his handy comparison chart of the old and new guidelines which does a fine job of pointing out some noteworthy differences in the language. Every so often, Google edits their guidelines and you can feel their efforts to resolve problems that are giving them headaches by using clearer language, but this latest iteration of the rules highlights the incongruities in what Google says and what Google does. With inconsistent advice and actions, Google is creating problems for themselves and confusion for users. Let’s take a look at a specific new point being made in the guidelines:

Do not create listings at locations where the business does not physically exist. PO Boxes do not count as physical locations.

Of all Google’s policies, I like this one the least. It completely overlooks the vast and valuable segment of businesses that are:

a) Go-to-client and therefor not appropriate choices for listing a physical address because there is no place for customers to come to.
b) Home-based (stats say 50% of small American businesses are home-based) and therefor not always appropriate for listing a physical address because of privacy needs.

With a single line of text in the guidelines, Google wipes all of these very real, very local businesses that serve communities off the map. But it’s their company. Their right to do so. Their game, their rules, their say-so. If Google doesn’t want to see mobile notaries, window washers, landscapers, at-home health care workers & etc. as local because there isn’t a public, physical address associated with these kinds of workers, that’s their call.

But the call is shaky…it’s warbling…it’s not coming across loud and clear as Google’s set policy because of countless anomalies like this one:

farmers' market in Google Maps

Yes. Where is the street address for the Petaluma Farmers Market? Well, there isn’t one. Well, actually, if you visit the farm market website, you’ll see that the market is held in two different locations on two different days of the week…a few months out of the year…one in a park and one on a side street. What is this entity…this address-less offender…doing in Google’s index, with an authoritative one box, no less? If the Petaluma Farmer’s Market can be supreme for ‘D Street’, can I be ‘Locksmith Madison Avenue, NY’? No, I can’t. I’m supposed to have an actual building address. Google’s guidelines say so.

I think it’s important to nitpick about this. I really do. The listing that appears in my screenshot doesn’t appear to have been created by the farmers of Petaluma (submitted by business owner). Doubtless, it was created by Google through aggregation, crawling around the web and finding multiple references to this community effort as a very real local institution. And therein lies my gripe with Google.

Farmers markets may not have physical addresses. Farmers markets may not even exist year-round. But they are certainly local and legitimate and important for local people to know about. Google’s guidelines indicate that entities like farm markets don’t belong in Google Maps (despite the fact that they are including them and even have an LBC category for them) and I want to urge Google to rethink their policy on this. In fact, I want them to rethink what local means.

Local does mean beloved annual fruit stands at the corner of 5th and Elm in the summertime. Local does mean tree trimmers and yard waste haulers and pumpkin patches and notary publics and taxi drivers and tour guides. All of these things are part of community life on the local scene and I am asking Google to think some more about neighborhoods, small towns and cities and the real stuff of life that goes on there. The narrowness of Google’s definition of Local and the limitations of the pre-set fields of the Local Business Center forms are creating a depiction of Local that is artificial…it doesn’t match up to the way we live.

And, that’s my point. It’s not just that Google looks silly publishing data that doesn’t meet their own guidelines. It’s that our collective thinking about what Local is needs to grow. Does that thought excite you the way it does me? Why not throw some ideas around here today? What do you think about Google’s must-have-a-physical-address policy? Does this rule create a realistic representation of local businesses? How would you write the rules, if it were up to you?

3 Responses to “Google Maps Sows And Reaps Incongruities”

  1. on 22 Nov 2009 at 2:18 pm Pam Renovato

    I also have a problem with this. That is actually how I came across your site- trying to find a solution. I am a local artist. My product is my art and as I sell my art to a customer base I am technically in business. But because I have no “come to” physical location and P.O. Boxes do not count, I cannot compete with bricks and mortar galleries and studios in the local listing search. This could potentially hurt me in the long run.

    I understand that Google needs to combat spam. But what about the legitimate business that they are snuffing out by this rule? The truth is- Not every business has a physical address!

    Nice post. Thanks.

  2. on 23 Nov 2009 at 2:27 pm admin

    Greetings, Pam!
    Yes, your situation is shared by countless businesses that just don’t conform to Google’s idea of how people should be using their product (Maps). In this particular respect, your present inability to purchase a business location puts you at a disadvantage in the same way it does in the traditional brick-and-mortar world. Your competitors who have the funding to rent store space on main street are able to gain physical visibility that you can’t currently enjoy, and this scenario is being translated into the Local Search world time and again because smaller businesses can’t invest in store space while their competitors’ can.

    On the one hand, this is predictable because it’s the way commerce works…the guy with the biggest budget gets the most attention because he is investing in his own visibility. On the other hand, I’d like to see Local transcend this situation to include all of the scores of businesses like yours that do not operate in a brick-and-mortar environment, regardless of budget.

    It’s a tough situation for sure, and the best bet for a business like yours is going to be to make the very most of organic optimization to work towards the best visibility you can achieve in the organic results. Meanwhile, we’ll all be keeping an eye on Google to see if they ever decide to provide a solution for businesses like yours to participate in Maps.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your experience here.

  3. on 31 Dec 2009 at 10:41 am Year In Review: Local Search & Maps

    […] to the "service area problem" from any of the search engines or data providers for which Miriam Ellis and Chris Silver Smith, among others, have been clamoring for […]

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