Why Can't We Be Friends? – A White Hat's Thoughts on Google Places
I guess it’s a good thing for the industry that the letters S-E-O are seeing an influx in news articles, especially in heavy hitters like the New York Times. In the last few months, I can remember reading several articles about the dark side of our otherwise under-the-radar industry. There was the article about the terribly negative reviews benefiting a sunglasses salesman / customer service pariah. Then there are the articles about link schemes that put the big businesses at the top of every search result, until they got caught.
I guess it’s a better thing that Google also reads these articles, because that seems to be the only time white hat SEO’s see results they’ve been clamoring for. The most recent article was again posted by The Times, and brought to light Google’s shortcomings in their local search section, a section Google has been actually been placing more value on in recent months. In an effort to keep listings as up to date as possible, Google allows searchers to request that a business’ status be updated to “reported to be closed”. After a couple of clicks on this link, the listing will begin to show that the listing is in fact “reported to be closed”. With more clicks, and a supposed review, that listing can be updated to “permanently closed”. One of Google’s responses here is that it also places a “Not True?” clickable text next to these closed reports, in case the listing is actually open. However, honest local businesses trying to re-open their never closed business have had varying, if any, success.
Not long ago, I read how one of the good guys – Mike Blumenthal – was leading the “fight” against this problematic system. He went right to Google’s places page and reported it to be closed, inviting followers to do the same as part of his experiment. In no time, Google’s listing was reportedly closed. It’s nice to know they don’t play favorites.
For how long Google remained closed is not the main issue. The problem is that a stand-up SEO has to resort to these creative and relatively drastic measures to get noticed and bring attention to a problem that local businesses feel is pretty serious. Google recommends businesses claim and fill out their local profiles to enhance their ranking in local search. This makes it extra disheartening to know that local businesses have little to no support from Google itself when their listing is victim to a competitor or an upset customer.
Businesses will benefit from Google’s effort to localize search, especially as more, and soon all, people turn to their smartphones for nearby results. But this benefit will be equally damning if an open business shows up closed, removing honest competition and preventing potential customers from making their own choices. Google often responds with numbers about how long it would take to respond to every claim or complaint filed, and the man power it would take. This is true. We do ask a lot of Google. But Google has dominated the game, and will continue to do so, so small businesses are at their mercy.
The underlying problem is the relationship Google has established with SEO’s. For every shady black-hat firm or tactic, there are ten more honest white hat SEO’s just trying to do right by their clients and the search engines. SEOs are the best way for Google to learn about bugs and shortcomings, but are kept at arm’s length with no direct answers or support. Instead of SEOs and SEs working together to make the S better. for everyone, it’s still Google’s world. I just prefer we not have to read about it in The Times.