In recent months, Google has empowered a growing number of their Places Help Forum’s active participants with Top Contributor status, resulting in a substantial increase in the number of questions receiving truly helpful answers. This is very welcome improvement in the eyes of both local business owners and Local SEOs. Long-time Top Contributor, Mike Blumenthal of Blumenthals.com and new Top Contributor Nyagoslav Zhekov of NGSmarketing.com have kindly consented to answer questions pooled from the Local SEO community. My sincere thanks to them both for taking the time to explain their work and to dig into some of the most important issues surrounding Local!
1. Why did you decide to devote time to helping out in the Google Places Help Forum?
Mike: When I started, there was very little support in the forums. There were very few Google staffers and they would be assigned to other projects on a regular basis. Having closed a retail storefront in the not too distant past I had a lot of sympathy for the folks that were trying to get Google Local to work for them.
Nyagoslav: I didn’t have any specific reason. I just like being helpful and since I had a degree of knowledge and experience in Google Places-related issues, I decided I could share some thoughts and tips with the small business owners attending the forum. I hope that I have been helpful since this forum is often a last resort for business ownersâ€™ ongoing Google Places troubles.
2. How much time, on average, are you spending in the forum on a weekly basis, now that you’re a Top Contributor?
Mike: The time I spend depends on what’s happening in the rest of my life but I try to spend about half hour a day in the forums. I look for problems where I can help out someone that isn’t otherwise getting an answer.
Nyagoslav: Unfortunately I was able to spend more time on the forum while I was not a Top Contributor. Then, I managed to devote about 1 hour each day to answering questions. Nowadays, with the rapid development in my own business, I am unable to spend as much time, but I still visit the forum on a frequent basis trying to keep up with the problems that are shared there and help the most significant ones.
3. When you became a Top Contributor, what special capabilities (or magic powers) were you given?
Mike: Currently there is the ability to ask questions of the support team and the community managers and to get their involvement in tackling issues that are out of our control. When I first started because the staffing was so much thinner you could ask questions but it might have been weeks before a response and rarely did they step in to help solve problems like they have for the past 5-6 months.
Nyagoslav: The most important “magic power” every Top Contributor is given is to refer some of the threads to Google employees. These are usually cases of merging, duplication and some frequent bugs â€“ problems that are hard to be solved by anyone outside of Google.
4. Can you estimate how many Top Contributors are currently active in the forum?
Mike: Jim Jaggers, Nyagoslav, Linda Buquet, Barry Hunter (mostly on the maps side), Treebles & EHG (Helmut) (mostly on the European side), JaxCoffee and myself. That makes 8 give or take.
Nyagoslav: I believe currently almost all of the Top Contributors are active. You can see the full list here. I should say that Jim Jaggers stands out lately, though. He is also the newest part of the crew.
5. When should a business owner use the new troubleshooter and when should they plead for assistance in the Google Places Help Forum?
Mike: The new Fix It troubleshooters in the Help files should now be the first stop for any current problem. The form usually goes to staff in Mt View and typically initiates a dialog with one of the staffers. If after the promised 4-6 weeks the problem has not been resolved then you should head to the forums.
Nyagoslav: I see a great response rate when using the troubleshooter and it is fast, too, so I believe currently a business owner should first report their problem via it and if they do not get a confirmation email within 1-5 days they should seek help in the forum. Unfortunately, the troubleshooter is still largely unknown to the small business owners and I believe that Google could do much more to inform the public about this option.
6. What happens when a business owner reaches a point in the troubleshooter where he can’t describe his problem? Anything?
Mike: If you can find a reasonable path that roughly describes the problem you will then have a person that will contact you. Once that happens the business owner can flesh out the details, vagaries and exceptions that need to be dealt with.
Nyagoslav: I always suggest that the business owners try to actually reach a point where they could describe in sentences what their problem is. They should look for the nearest suitable reporting path.
7. What happens when business owners report competitors in the forum for possible spamming? Does this spark a manual look at the listing in question?
Mike: It would if the posting gets flagged by a top contributor and then brought to the attention of Vanessa. It would be best to Report the spam via Report a Problem first and then wait the requisite 4-6 weeks for a resolution before bringing it to the forums. The exception to that would be if someone was at risk due to the spam. It is always best to bring large scale, egregious examples into the forums.
Nyagoslav: It generally depends on the scale of the problem being shared. If it potentially harms a big number of users, then a manual look and action is taken. As spamming is widespread on Google Maps, Googlers tend to run from solving specific cases, but rather take them as samples to build the big picture which could help them stop the spam pattern.
8. It’s widely being suggested that business owners should add businesses, close businesses, etc. using Google Map Maker, but some readers are calling the process for doing so about as clear as mud. Can you recommend resources (apart from Google’s instructions which aren’t very helpful) for learning how to navigate within Map Maker?
Mike: I find MapMaker to be very, very opaque and difficult to understand. The community edit feature now available in Places sends the edit directly to MapMaker where a reviewer can see it. So that might be a reasonable alternative first stop for many.
Nyagoslav: My favorite go-to place for reading and learning about Map Maker is the Google Map Your World Community forum. The majority of the users are very active and helpful and Googlers often join the discussions, too. The forum is available in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic, and there are some country-specific forums.
9. What is the chief benefit of using Map Maker? Does it replace the work one does in Places? Why should business owners/Local SEOs add it to their to-do list or bother with it?
Mike: It appears to me that MapMaker is growing in importance as a source of data to Google Places. The information there seems to be getting pushed more frequently and quickly into the index and it seems to have a great deal of authority. I would think of it like you think of Localeze or Infogrid, as a primary feed to Google but one that has the king’s ear.
Nyagoslav: Map Maker is a powerful tool for solving Google Places-related problems. The way it could be used is different from the way Google Places should be used; therefore, the two are not interchangeable. Map Maker could be helpful for business owners and local SEOs also as a secondary tool when fixing inconsistent online business data.
10. What would you estimate are 3 most common issues being reported by business owners, overall, in the Google Places Help Forum?
Mike: Reviews, Reviews and Review issues.
Nyagoslav: The most commonly shared problems in the forum are the ones I like to call â€œtrendingâ€. Frequently, bugs in the Google Places cluster system affect a large number of businesses. These bugs usually stay for at least a few days until they get fixed. In such times the forum gets flooded by complaints.
Apart from that, there are a few long-standing problems, and probably the three most common ones are:
11. Can you recall the most utterly confounding issue any business owner has had in Places during your time as a TC?
Mike: I am sorry to say it is a bit of a blur…
Nyagoslav: Usually the most frustrating cases are the ones related to merging and they are also the most difficult to be fixed, even by Googlers. There were a few cases of mergers between more than 3 listings. These are mergers between the same business officeâ€™s duplicates, the same businessâ€™ other offices, and listings of third-party businesses.
12. At this point in the Places game, are most violations stemming from ignorance of guidelines or intent to spam on the part of the business owner?
Mike: It’s hard to say as we don’t get a very high level view of the problems in Places. You should ask that question of Google. 🙂
Nyagoslav: I believe most small business owners are not well-informed before they start operating with Google Places and using it as an online marketing tool. One of the most important things they usually miss is the Quality Guidelines. That is why a big part of the violations are caused by ignorance rather than by desire to cheat. Of course, as I mentioned above, spam is also widespread, especially among particular industries such as the notorious locksmiths, personal injury attorneys, car dealers, movers, bail bonds.
13. What do you consider to be the most problematic bug plaguing Google Places right now?
Mike: I have to pick one? I think it would be whichever one of the many happens to bite a given client at the moment. There are plenty to pick from. See this article on my blog.
Nyagoslav: I believe the most famous bug is the “We currently do not support the location” one. I’d not refer to most of the other problems with Google Places as bugs. They are rather caused by the amount of data Google possesses and the imperfection and complicity of the way they interpret it.
14. Your prediction: will Google become more sophisticated or committed to killing review spam over the next year?
Mike: Google seems to be in review growth mode at the moment and is looking to gather as many reviews as they can, however they can. They implemented a review spam algo in 2010 that we can assume they will continue to refine. Right now though their emphasis is on quantity not quality. I assume that spam abatement will continue at a steady state of improvement. Whether it keeps up with the volume and tactics of the spammers to sustain or improve overall review quality is the question. I sure hope so but I am not all that sanguine.
Nyagoslav: Yes. I believe Google will stress much more on reviews and would potentially try to turn Places into a reviews platform, similar to Yelp’s model, rather than a yellow pages place. To do that, the first step would be to clear off the spam and come up with a better filtering system.
15. Your prediction: will we see any important changes in the Google Places Help Forum over the next year?
Mike: Google is rolling out a new forum platform for all of their products. Google Places will be getting that new software at some point during the first half of the year. There are likely to be other changes as well.
Nyagoslav: I think the changes are already happening. We can see almost all threads being attended to by Google employees which alone is great news, although I believe some other improvements might be done, too. However, this is definitely a good basis. I think that the main thing Google should do is to stop relying so much on third-party volunteers, such as the Top Contributors, and invest at least a little bit more in a quality support system.
16. What is the most rewarding aspect, for you, about being a TC?
Mike: Being, on occasion, able to get real folk’s problems fixed.
Nyagoslav: It is a great pleasure for me to be a Top Contributor, as this gives me the privilege to communicate directly with some of the people behind the product Google Places while helping users in a very effective place â€“ where they usually seek their last hope in resolving Google Places issues. Furthermore, I am happy to be treated as an equal to a specialist such as Mike Blumenthal.
17. Finally, my pet question! Google has amassed a huge amount of searchable data in the Places Help Forum. This should be of immense help to any business owner or Local SEO who is trying to troubleshoot an issue that has already been experienced by others. However, I’ve noticed that more than half the time I attempt to use the search box within the forum, I get a message that my search doesn’t match any answers in the forum. I’ve tested this with very obvious keywords like ‘reviews’ which must have thousands of entries. Have you heard that Google is aware of this flaw with their search tool, and if you haven’t, would you consider bringing this to their attention? I use the search box at least once a day, and it’s sad when I can’t get to any information through it.
Mike: The basic search functionality really does suck. As TC’s we have access to a “Power Search” mode which does do a better job. Your best bet is probably to do a site: www.google.com/support/forum/p/Places keyword search in Google.
In other forums that have switched over to the new Google Forum software, past posts are not brought along. I assume that something similar will occur with this transition as well that could make searching even harder.
Nyagoslav: I noticed this problem a few weeks ago, too. However, I have the option to “power search” which brings me a good amount of results. Now that you mentioned I checked, and it seems this is an option available only to the top contributors. Particular changes are going on in the forum, and I believe we will see the outcome (hopefully positive) soon enough.
Thanks again, gentlemen, for a very enlightening chat. I wish you well in the forum!