I have always been a visual guy. If I can visualize, I can usually make sense of it.
Which is why I really really love Google Maps and use it every day. I was recently in Vegas and didn’t have data for my phone or the ability to find locations in Google Maps on my phone and I kinda felt lost without it. That and Vegas is just damn confusing.
Google has really done an amazing of job of organizing the world’s content so people can find what they are looking for quickly and easily.
But herein lies my main issue with Google Maps: It is now relied on heavily by the general public and regarded as correct 99% of the time – any incorrect information is forwarded to the map subject as it’s seen as their fault.
BUT IT’S NOT THE FAULT OF THE BUSINESS 99% OF THE TIME!
And yes, they corrected the problem after it was blogged and tweeted about extensively. But before going public it was reported by hundreds of people on the Sunshine Coast via Google’s internal ‘report a problem’ mechanism and for years nothing was done.
Get your business listed
Google is proactive about getting your business listed with their mapping service and extols the advantages in terms of search engine results and traffic to your website.
But my last three experiences with Google Places and their ‘report a problem’ mechanism have meant hours of work and painful communication and left me wanting to run for the hills. I am not a GIS professional, nor am I a Cartographer. To quote that Dyson guy…”I just think things should work properly.”
Why we can’t verify
Google Places wants you to list your business and it uses a number of helpers to find your location properly. But it restricts you to your postal code. This is a huge issue in rural, non-delivery areas where Canada Post assigns post office boxes.
This became a problem for many businesses located at a physical address completely different from the assigned postal code.
When I needed to get a Google Places listing for Ridge Meadows Recycling we couldn’t use the postal code as a business locator. So I had to report the problem and then explain how the post office works in rural Canada. All of this took two or three emails once they acknowledged the problem. And then we had to get an employee with a company email address to reply to Google saying that yes this was the actual business location, etc. etc. etc.
Once we did all of this the business was actually listed properly and users could find the correct location of the recycling depot.
But it took a month and 4 hours of emailing, forum posting, issue reporting and checking for accuracy.
While the client was happy and people were now able to type in Ridge Meadows Recycling and find the correct location of the depot, the entire process felt like I was trying to give birth to an elephant.
Our business listings have been merged
My web design business is still a small operation with myself as the only employee, along with a couple of contractors. It is growing, but for the time being I use the offices of The Network Hub in downtown Vancouver, along with a number of other similar businesses located in the same building.
On a Sunday morning in March I got a call from Britta Curkovic at aromawebdesign.com who also uses the services and office space of The Network Hub. She said our business listings were merged. These are two independent businesses, with different phone numbers, website addresses, and services offered, yet for weeks our listings were merged. I had an owner-verified listing and I was told by Google that my listing was going to change and I should check this for errors. All of this while we were frantically emailing Google Help trying to get things back to normal. Eventually the listings were split again and we were finally able to be located as independent from one another.
The total time it took to undo the mess was 14 business days and 6 full hours of un-billable time, emailing back and forth with Google and the other business owner, posting to the Google Places forums, and checking for quality assurance.
The problem was corrected but it had to be explained carefully to Google and we had to exhaust all other options before they would even look at the problem.
You are already trying to verify your business
My third issue, and the one that is currently causing a client a lot of pain, is the business listing for Uprising Breads Bakery. After 30 years, Uprising decided to open a new location. To coincide with this they updated their website with a new look and listed the location of the new café. Back in October 2011 I had sent in for verification on the new location. As the weeks and then months went by I sent and resent requests to Google staff to keep a lookout for this.
Finally, after reading about a page Google had recently set up to report problems, I was told by a human at Google Places Help that since there was already one listing that wasn’t verified the new listing was seen as duplication.
The representative was kind enough to verify the listing on the spot and Uprising Breads was very happy to have their two listings.
From start to finish it took 3 months to get the listing verified and at least 10 hours of work from everyone involved.
But wait, there’s more!
Six months later Google saw that both listings had the same website address and the same phone number; they surmised that it must be the same listing and combined them. So now (as of May 10th, 2012) Uprising Breads Bakery has photos of one location and the address of the other.
Well, you say, you must be old hat at this by now and know how to fix it.
In the Google Places forums (logged into via Uprising Breads Account) I am told by a top contributor:
Seriously? This is why?
What about McDonald’s? What about Domino’s Pizza? What about Starbucks? Places that have dozens of locations in a given city that all have the same name and the same website, similar phone numbers but many different locations.
His best suggestion is to get a new phone number? Automated phone systems are commonplace…they save businesses thousands of dollars in employee time and cost. I know that this is the opinion of a top contributor and not an actual Google employee, but my God this is odd. To get a proper website listing you need a new phone number?
Google also doesn’t have a field in Google Places for phone extensions; if we tried to put the extension in the phone field this would error out making his best advice completely useless and actually doing more harm then good.
I could cite even more examples of how I reported a business that closed yet had its Google Places listing for years after, even when Google Street View had replaced its imagery of the location. But, because it was an owner-verified business, it stayed there for three years after the business closed down.
People over those three years came looking for the business that wasn’t there anymore…they trusted that Google was 99% right. Why is the business listing still available (even though it does mention it is closed) after it has been closed for so many years? What purpose does a three year old listing serve the user?
To Google’s credit
To their credit, Google has tried to improve this and made the user edit more viable through Google Map Maker tools. But, after making hundreds of edits to the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver, one day a number of them were deleted – not denied but completely vanished – and I felt all my time and effort volunteering to make Google Maps better in my neighborhood was lost – I haven’t returned since. Also, a lot of the edits that were made and approved by the community of editors were never made live on Google Maps, but only showed up in the Google Map Maker ecosystem.
So, as an owner of a small business and as a contractor to dozens of medium businesses, most of my interactions with Google Maps / Places has been less than stellar.
Changes I would make to Google Places if I could
Easier verification for rural Canada
Run a seasonal kayaking company and changed your location after 20 years? You should be able to easily verify your business listing so that doesn’t require it to be in the same postal code as your business address.
(I understand the restrictions put in place for verified business listings to be associated with a postal code, but as I explained earlier, areas of Canada that do not have street delivery service must use a post office box that might not be in the same postal code.)
Easier reporting of issues
With Uprising Breads there was no easy way to report the issue we were coming up against. Even the top contributor suggested that our issue was an odd one.
And if your problem is “odd” there isn’t a response sequence that describes it. So long as you get to a form where you can fill in some blanks and hit a Submit button, you will hear back from Google. It’ll be a week or a little longer, but you will get an email from a person on the Places team. If that person’s answer doesn’t seem to fit your problem, you can email back and further explain what is happening. They will eventually understand that you have two listings merging and start the process to un-merge them. Unfortunately, that process takes 4-6 weeks.
As a designer running a web design firm I have encountered these problems numerous times and yet each time is as laborious as the first, even though I know exactly what the problem is and what needs to get done.
I would pay a yearly or monthly fee to have some dedicated support – somewhere or someone I could contact who would be able to help resolve problems for me and my clients quickly and efficiently.
Right now the current system in Google Places costs me time and money it completely confuses clients. The results can change at a moment’s notice, without warning about problems that might arise.
I do know one thing…the problem isn’t going to go away. It will only get bigger and more complex as more businesses, rural and urban, want to be listed with Google Maps. Users will notice errors and business owners are held hostage by whatever information Google decides to allow into its ecosystem.
Update early 2014: – I have for the most part given up on trying to correct the errors in Google Maps. So many arbitrary decision that didn’t make any sense, no appeals process and not the friendliest of communities. I just rather focus my efforts somewhere more productive. Good Luck trying to get your errors correct it could be as easy as a click or a bad as multi day multi hours with no resolution in site.