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Reporting A Closed Business To Google Places – A Humorous Exercise In Futility

Yesterday afternoon, we threw caution to the wind, shut off our computers and closed up the office for the sake of getting into sunlight – a commodity that is both scant and precious in our drizzly northern California winters. Picture me picnicking on golden rocks above the shore, communing with elephant seals, coyotes and dear old Sol and you can imagine what a beneficent mood I was enjoying by day’s end. So much so, in fact, that I decided to embark on a little act of civic good in regards to a coastal town business that closed some months ago.
I had shopped at and reviewed this now-defunct business – a charming little gift shop called Bellwether in the town of Inverness, CA. I was sorry to see it close and happened to notice a sign in the window recently announcing that this lovely piece of real estate would soon be occupied by a new restaurant called ‘Blackbirds’.
“Hmm,” I said. “What will happen if no one tells Google that the gift shop has closed and then the restaurant owner tries to claim his listing at the same address?”
Remember, I was feeling friendly towards all the world and so, I fired up my Google Places account. My first intention was to edit my review of the business, pointing out that the shop had closed, as a kindness towards any tourists to the area who might be directed to the closed business before Google had a chance to attend to the situation. But – tsk, tsk – when I found Bellwether’s unclaimed Place Page, my review was nowhere to be seen:

Yes, where is my review, Google? Well, here it is, of course, in my public profile:

Clearly, we’ve already learned a lesson at this step: never waste time leaving a review via Google Places. Leave it at Yelp if you want Google to find it. A-hem.
Few people can be more familiar than I with the bugs that often cause legitimate Google-based reviews to pop in and out of Place Pages like a family of mischievous prairie dogs, and so I decided I would make the effort to edit the review, anyway, in case Google decided to pop it back into the Place Page tomorrow. Clicking the ‘edit’ link, I received this vague but rather unsettling communication:

Now, what – as an average user – am I supposed to understand from this message? That Google doesn’t support the business location? That they don’t support my review account? Perhaps I will misunderstand and think this message means that Google already knows the business has closed, eh? Brevity is the soul of wit – but I think Google takes it rather far in the matter of error messaging.
The upshot: I can’t edit my review and thus am sending a signal (albeit a mysteriously hidden one) to Google’s bots and human users that Bellwether is alive and well. The chances of the Yelp reviewer feeling beneficent and deleting their review of the closed business are probably not high. Most of us aren’t such goody-goodies that we like doing the work of Yellow Pages employees without pay, just for the darned fun of it! So we’ve got several ongoing signals that this place is open for business.
So, I took the only action left to me – reporting a problem. Hopefully, as the average user, I know this function exists, but I’m not feeling overly confident about this considering that the owner of Bellwether didn’t even know that their Place Page existed nor how to claim it. Luckily for me, the link was there as only yesterday, Mike Blumenthal reported that report a problem was missing. At any rate, here is a visual record of the fact that I’ve reported this problem on January 21, 2011 and have chosen the button that asks Google to email me when the issue is resolved:

I will absolutely return to this post when I receive that email to let you know what happened. It should be an interesting test of the report a problem link, and it will also be interesting to see what happens when the new restaurant opens in the old building. Will the restaurateur know about Places? Will he create and verify his Place Page? Will he be baffled to discover that his Place Page phone number is dialing through to a closed gift shop, or that user reviews are suggesting people come to his establishment to purchase postcards and stuffed animals rather than oysters on the half shell?
Do a search in the Google Places Help Forum for ‘business closed’ and you will see evidence of that which you already know: businesses close every day in the United States. What system and safeguards have Google put in Places to make sure that they know when a business closes so that a) they aren’t misdirecting the public and b) they are reducing the incidence of merging closed businesses with new tenants? Depending upon the good mood of a lady who has had a fine day at the beach is probably not a viable business practice, but then, I’ve never run a corporation with the power and reach of Google.
I’m still in a good mood – a jesting mood – and I can chuckle over the fact that I couldn’t find my review, couldn’t edit it when I did find it and had to have special knowledge even to know of the existence of the report a problem link. But I’m not sure this is a laughing matter for Google, considering the fact that they have set themselves up as experts at the handling of local business data. As a Local SEO, I’m a student of Google’s quirks, but how amusing does the average user find dealing with disappearing reviews, missing functions and general mess? Local Search is supposed to be a business matter, not a Hardy Boys Mystery. It’s up to Google to solve all of this, not me. Right?
Flickr Photo Credit: Matthew High