Google Acting Like Merchant Circle With Nearby Places Move

using business names competitively

Check your Google Place Page today if you haven’t in awhile – the one with your business name on it, your photos, your reviews, directions, videos, contact information, custom made maps and etc. on it. The one you’ve claimed. Scroll down a bit, and you’re likely to encounter something that looks like this:

nearby places you might like

Yes, chances are, your competitors are now being given considerable space on the document you may have begun to think of as your Google Place Page. If, like most of us, Google’s September introduction of Place Pages led you to believe that this page belonged to you, you’re in good company. It was language like this that probably caused you to feel this way:

If you’re a business owner, you can add or update your business details through the Local Business Center. This allows you to make sure your (emphasis mine) Place Page reflects the most accurate, authoritative and recent information about your business.

It sort of sounded like you were in control of your claimed Place Page, and at that time, there wasn’t any mention of the fact that you’d soon be hosting your competitors on your company’s page. Understandably, Google’s latest rollout of the Nearby Places You Might Like feature is ruffling some feathers, but it’s doing more than that. The philosophy behind this move is taking on the odd quality of a deja vu…

Do you remember, back in October of 2009, when Mike Blumenthal published this screenshot he took from Merchant Circle?

nearby places you might like

*Note to Mike: in a blog post about swiping…excuse me, appropriating stuff, I hope you don’t mind my appropriating your screen shot. As readers may recall, Merchant Circle launched a campaign of using unclaimed company names in advertisements that listed not the companies’ phone numbers, but the phone numbers of things like affiliate model hotel booking sites. There was much speculation about how much of a kickback Merchant Circle was getting for this activity, and there was general loud agreement that this was a lousy, unsavory thing to do. Few were surprised that a company with Merchant Circle’s reputation would do something like this, but most folks agreed that using Company A’s business name to funnel traffic to Company B, without the knowledge or consent of Company A, is slimy behavior.

And there’s that deja vu.

Google has taken on a Merchant Circle aura by giving a big, fat paragraph of links to competitors on both the claimed and unclaimed Place Pages of businesses. All the while you are working to outdistance your competition and distinguish yourself on the local scene with both your offline and online efforts, Google is forgetting to ask your permission to advertise the other guys on what you thought was your Place Page. Matt McGee has succinctly asked the question, Who Owns Your Place Page? and, more directly, Mike Blumenthal has asked Google’s Carter Maslan the following question:

MB: If it isn’t a Landing Page over which they have reasonable control, what would incent an SMB to claim and control their listing?

CM: The primary reasons to claim your listing are a) ensure the accuracy of the core listing data, b) get insights into how and when people are finding you even before they arrive at your site/doorstep, and c) engage with the people searching for you by posting updates, photos, videos, etc.

Yet again, it’s the scenario I have so much trouble with of a corporation creating something with your business name and then expecting you to come a-running over to their ball field to play their game, by their rules, because they’ve swiped your name and you’d better make sure they aren’t misrepresenting you. I’ve complained about this mentality loud and long over the years, but even I am getting used to the highhanded manner in which Internet hot shots conduct their business affairs. Merchant Circle is just so highly ranked for business names and Google is just so huge…their policies end up setting the tone of the Internet and trying to fight their interpretations of trademarks, copyright and privacy seems borderline hopeless right now. Working on the web as I do every day, I feel a sort of numb acceptance of this. But what I’m not going to get used to any time soon is the semblance of hypocrisy.

goose gander

What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. I mean, taking into account Google’s apparent feeling about using, without permission, one business name to promote the names of other businesses, they shouldn’t have a problem with something like this, right:

google vs. bing

Wrong! When Google feels threatened by something like a Chinese company using the name Goojje, we read news like this:

Google accused Goojje of infringing on its trademark rights, saying the logo of the Chinese website could make users believe it was authorised by or linked to the US company, the Shenzhen Economic Daily reported.

You see, Google is afraid that someone might be led to believe that this switcharoo stuff with their name might appear to have been authorized by them. It might misdirect the public and lose Google money. They don’t want the competition using their name to achieve prominent visibility.

In fact, Google takes their competition so seriously that Search Marketing expert Danny Sullivan suggests that Google’s choice to run a first-ever commercial during the Superbowl only served to signal how afraid Google is of their competitor, Bing.

Thus, many of us will scent hypocrisy in the policies of a corporation that fears and tries to extinguish the fire of competition while at the same time forcing millions of small and large businesses to share space with competitors on what was originally presented as a win-win product for business owners and Internet users alike. Business owners are winning a bit less when Google is using their name to display the data of direct local competitors and has the clout to steamroll over any small business squeakings about trademark infringement and fair business practices. And, that’s just not nice.

Will the nearby places you might like benefit Internet users? To be fair, I can see how they might. If you’re looking for Chinese food in San Francisco, it might be nice to see a list of options. But it won’t be nice for the owner of San Tung restaurant who may have worked like crazy to get into the A position for ‘chinese restaurants sf’ in Google Maps, only to find that his Place Page now lists 10 of his top competitors.

I’d like to finish up by mentioning that Mike Blumenthal did ask Carter Maslan if, in Google’s process of doing user-acceptance testing of new features, they ever consider doing SMB-acceptance studies. Maslan’s answer:

We want both consumers and businesses to find the results useful in engaging with each other. While the implication is that this feature puts the interests of consumer and business at odds, owners often realize quickly that the Web of connections among places and people is both inbound and outbound.

I know how this answer strikes me, but what I want to know is, how does it strike you?

18 Responses to “Google Acting Like Merchant Circle With Nearby Places Move”

  1. on 09 Feb 2010 at 6:17 pm Mike Belasco

    Miriam,
    Great post and I think the image of the bing logo on the Google sign says it all. Sometimes I really believe Google does not think before they act.

  2. on 09 Feb 2010 at 6:18 pm Mike Blumenthal

    Hi Miriam

    Google has and continues to deliver a very mixed message to the SMB….. It’s yours, its not… it has become eminently clear that this “search result” is theirs not yours.

    Google has an interest in driving page views. It is fascinating that they are driving page views away from the websites that these business owners have created and towards something that Google has created.

    So they can call the Places Page a “search result” or they can call it a “landing page”, regardless they clearly believe that it is their sandbox…take it or leave it. The business may in the end benefit or they may not but they will have little control over the page.

    Google will talk about “serving the needs of the user”, that is but happy talk that camouflages their true driving need and that is to serve the needs of their stock holders. In that regard they and MC have a lot in common.

    PS You are always welcome to my images and thanks for the credits.

  3. on 09 Feb 2010 at 6:25 pm admin

    Glad you like that image, Mike Belasco. Sorry, that sounds very formal, but we have to find some way to distinguish between yourself and the other Mike B. (aka Prof. Maps)!

    I confess, I had fun with the artwork on this one, and I’m glad my point came across.

    Somehow being an SMB who is being represented by Google is a little bit like having a famous chef break into your house, gather up all of the groceries in your pantry, concoct a large and sumptuous meal and then run away with the food to share it with everyone but you. You dine on crumbs.

    I should have tried to illustrate that!

    Thanks so much for stopping by, Mike.
    Miriam

  4. on 09 Feb 2010 at 6:29 pm admin

    Hello Mike, (aka Prof. Maps)!

    Thank you so much for the post grant of your image rights, and for the nice RT. I just saw that.

    You have a remarkable way of bringing it down to the bottom line – making stock holders happy. I get caught up in the emotional aspects of scenarios like this. I think of businesses spending years building up their good names, just as Google has done, only to have to deal with a constantly changing set of rules created by a vastly powerful 3rd party. I imagine the SMB’s frustration and shake my head over Google’s semblance of unconcern and what I can only call bad manners.

    But, it all comes down to the money. I know. You are correct.

    Thank you for coming by, Mike!
    Miriam

  5. on 09 Feb 2010 at 7:10 pm Dev Basu

    Great post Miriam. So local listing ads turned out to be somewhat of a failure, and now Google has to make money on their local business listings product in another way… and what better way than racking up the pageviews and slapping some adsense ads on? It’s worked well for all their other properties, so it should technically work for the LBC product too. Just like IYP PPC and banner advertising, competitive businesses wouldn’t hesitate spending dollars to have their logo and details show up on a competitor’s ‘listing’ page.

    At the end of the day, I’m not sure if an SMB has much choice but to stick along for the ride with Google, as competing products from Bing or Yahoo are no where as robust. I for one would love Bing to step things up even further, and one of the best things they could do (selfishly) is to open up to other countries for submission.

  6. on 10 Feb 2010 at 1:07 am Mike Blumenthal

    @Dev

    Not to worry…they will do the Local Listing Ads (or some variation) as well…

  7. on 10 Feb 2010 at 2:31 am Kennstdueinen.de Blog

    Google Maps VP Carter Maslan im Interview zu “Nearby places”…

    Interview mit Google VP zu “Nearby places” auf den Google place pages Gestern berichteten wir hier im Blog zu dem neuen Feature “Nearby places you might like“, in dessen Rahmen nun auf den Google place pages auch eine Linkliste …

  8. on 10 Feb 2010 at 4:11 am Ash Nallawalla

    I commented at Mike’s blog yesterday that “Nearby Places” are not really nearby and not useful. Today I looked at a place I have visited – Banana Leaf restaurant, 182 Ranch Drive, Milpitas, CA. (link at the end of this post)

    The “nearby places” show three in Gilroy, which IIRC is almost an hour’s drive south! This smells of another Google beta just to gauge reactions before fixing the code.

    http://maps.google.com/places/us/california/milpitas/ranch-dr/182/-banana-leaf-restaurant?hl=en

  9. on 10 Feb 2010 at 8:04 am David Mihm

    Great article, Miriam. I have to say, I’ve been a big supporter of almost all of the moves Google made in Local in 2009, but this one just makes no sense to me. Just as Yelp is starting to understand that business owners are every bit as important to their success as users, Google does a big 180. At least Yelp offers a way to get rid of these ‘nearby places’ via advertising. A year ago, who woulda thunk that Yelp would be more sympathetic to the plight of business owners than Google?

  10. on 10 Feb 2010 at 9:16 am Matthew Hunt

    Miriam,

    Great post!

    I am NOT a fan of the new ads popping up on SMB’s Places Pages.

    What David Mihm said about Yelp realizing that the SMB’s are a large part of their success is true and applies to all platforms including Google Maps.

    I wish Google Maps would actually do something to monetize the Maps the way Yahoo Local does. You have free, enhanced and featured. Enhanced & featured gives you a chance to show up on their “3-Pack” if optimized right and then they offer a version of what kinda looks like PPC Ads in the Local section above the map listings at a “flat rate” monthly pricing. Pricing is determined by category of business and city – can range from $20/month to $300/month. Google could do this type of thing too.

    This type of monetization makes sense and still fits into what Google is trying to do. Also, if they monetize they can maybe create a support center with phone numbers, ticket system, etc.

    I find SMB’s would be happy to pay, just so they could get support and answers etc.

    I can’t believe I just referenced Yahoo’s local system to being better than Google’s :). Too bad most of the search volume is all on Google and we are forced to work with what we got!

    Oh, while we are all ranting – wish Canada could get more features like US does, we are always forgotten on all 3 search engines. The good news is local maps is available on Google for CND’s and Yahoo & Bing is not – that’s a whole other story though.

  11. on 10 Feb 2010 at 9:18 am earlpearl

    Miriam:

    Terrific article Miriam. You have captured much if not all of the issues and problems with this latest approach by Google. More than that you have captured their hypocracy and mixed messages to businesses.

    Wonderful job.

    Dave

  12. on 10 Feb 2010 at 2:36 pm admin

    Hi Dev!

    You said:
    “At the end of the day, I’m not sure if an SMB has much choice but to stick along for the ride with Google”

    I totally agree. No one can really afford to ignore or ‘defy’ Google. Doing so would be foolhardy. At the same time, I wish Google’s gigantic market share could be tempered with both more competition from others and more accountability on Google’s part. Google does many things right, but relating to the world of the small business owner isn’t one of them. I’d love to see that change!

    It was a pleasure to find your comment here, Dev.
    Miriam

  13. on 10 Feb 2010 at 2:50 pm admin

    Hello David,

    Like you, I think Google does so many things right! It’s painful when they don’t. Google’s whole local business model hangs on the existence of local businesses, and like you say, it just doesn’t make sense to ignore the needs of these vital folks. But we’ve consistently seen Google put SMBs last, and wish that would change.

    Thanks for coming by, David!
    Miriam

  14. on 10 Feb 2010 at 2:55 pm admin

    Greetings, Matthew!

    You Said:

    “I can’t believe I just referenced Yahoo’s local system to being better than Google’s”

    Haha. That does sound funny, but I have always found Yahoo to be more accessible in this regard than Google. From early on, they have been better communicators and Google would do well to take a page from their book.

    Part of me agrees with the idea of monetizing, the other part of me says: Google took all of this business info without the permission of business owners; no one should have to pay for them to get it right. That’s their responsibility, having taking this on when no one asked/permitted them to.

    I stand with you on Canada getting equal treatment. Canada is sitting there like some huge untapped market. It doesn’t make sense to ignore our friends to the north!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment here, Matthew.

    Miriam

  15. on 10 Feb 2010 at 2:57 pm admin

    Thank you, Dave!
    I’m glad you enjoyed this one, and it seems to have expressed the sentiments many people are feeling about this latest Google move. I’m glad to know that!

    How are you doing under all that snow, Dave? I’ve been thinking about you in a white world.
    Miriam


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  17. on 10 Feb 2010 at 4:05 pm Tom Crandall

    “And now for our next trick…”

    I can see Google taking away the ability to link local business listings (in the 7-pack of local business results) directly to an entity’s website, therefore forcing all traffic to a business’ place page first. Thoughts?

  18. on 11 Feb 2010 at 5:12 pm admin

    Welcome, Tom!

    I hadn’t considered that, but hey, it could happen. One of the issues I’m having with this is that I can already use the local results in organic, as well as the A-J rankings in the top level interface of Maps to see a variety of listings for a given query. Why do these also need to be on the Place Page? What is the added value?

    Now, if none of that activity included direct links to websites, the usefulness of Maps would be degraded, in my opinion, but that certainly doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. It would be a big change, though.

    Thanks for stopping by.
    Miriam

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