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Why Open Source Shouldn't Equal Open Season In Google Places

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Back in November of 2008, I wrote an article in response to the following statement from a Google rep:

The wiki nature of Google Maps expands upon Google’s steadfast commitment to open community. That said, we also work very hard internally to identify behavior that doesn’t benefit the community and to take the appropriate actions. We look forward to more and more users getting involved to help us keep Google Maps fresh and accurate.

At the time, I strongly questioned the wisdom of giving real business data wiki treatment, to wit:

As I see it, the main danger of misinformation being distributed by Wikipedia is a poorly informed public. While this is unfortunate, it cannot compare to the hazards of inaccurate data in an application like Google Maps, which include:
1) False representation of businesses without their permission or knowledge
2) Lost income due to incorrect or hijacked listings
3) Public safety in jeopardy due to inaccurate publication of emergency/medical services information
4) False, libelous information given prominent publication in the form of user reviews
In essence, Google’s local business model is based on acting as the guardian and keeper of business livelihood, public reputation and public safety, but having stepped into these oversized shoes, they have quickly jumped back out of them by putting the responsibility for the accuracy of data they are publishing on the shoulders of public volunteers and third party data collectors.

This past week, my sentiments on this subject have come to the fore yet again reading Mike Blumenthal’s recent series of posts on false business closure messages being posted to Place Pages as a nasty competitive tactic, and most specifically, his most recent post quoting a letter from a Google rep on this subject. I quote:

The vast majority of edits people have made to business listings have improved the quality and accuracy of Google Maps for the benefit of all Maps users. However, we’re aware that abuse – such as “place closed” spam reports – can become an issue, and we’re working on improvements to the system to prevent and flag any malicious or incorrect edits.To be clear, the system currently displays the UI message “Reported to be closed. Not true?” when there is a pending edit that marks a place as closed. Only when that pending edit is reviewed and approved goes the UI message change to “This place is permanently closed. Not true?” We know that accurate listings on Google Maps are a vital tool for many business owners; we take these reports very seriously and do our best to ensure their accuracy before updating a listing’s status.

It is good that Google is aware of this problem of false business closure reports, and I appreciate the rep’s statements that the company is working to improve safeguards, but I must take issue with the statement that Google is doing its best to ensure accuracy before updating a listing’s status. Once a malicious competitor has managed to get a message that says ‘Reported To Be Closed’ on a Place page, an update, viewable by the whole public, has already taken place. As has been pointed out at Mike’s blog, even the rumor of a closure could be bad for businesses in an economy where companies are struggling extra hard to keep doors open and thrive. Public rumors of closure can make a business look unstable when, in fact, they may be doing just fine.
Google’s open source wiki approach to local business data continues to rear its head in so many ways, demonstrating what I believe to be an inappropriate and even cavalier attitude.
By enabling anyone to make edits of any kind to a claimed listing, Google has declared open season on all businesses who are therefore in danger of becoming the targets of spammers and competitors who refuse to play fair. This is not a friendly or supportive stance for Google to take towards the very local business owners whose data makes Places possible (and the massive Adwords earnings attendant on it).
The only solution to this is that ANY addition, subtraction, edit, review or other activity to any claimed listing should trigger a report in the local business dashboard and an email to the account of record, accompanied by a field for response, confirmation or denial from the verified business owner. It is the business owner’s word that needs to count most, and a major action like report of closure should never go live without his prior approval.
I concur that public input does have a definite place in Local, and it can make Local more alive, current and rich, but the basic details about a business do not belong in the open source basket. Treat this in this way, and you are inviting every crook out there to take all the pot shots he wants. I’d love to believe everyone would be above such behavior, but, come on, we’re all adults here.
Remember, Google, you set out to vanquish Yellow Pages, and those were not open to public editing. What are you actually going to do to earn the confidence of business owners that you hold their data in high regard? My suggested solution would be a big start. Do my readers have other suggestions? Please, share!
And on a final note, hat tip to my friend and colleague, Jim Rudnick for pointing out to me just how many people are thinking hard about Google and fairness, eh. Check out this site: FairSearch.org. Some very interesting reading there, and, may I add, an extremely good-looking design.