No. 631
August 3rd, 2010

Google Places Now “Spot-Checking” Business Owner Information

As reported by Mike Blumenthal earlier this morning, Google Places is now making phone calls to selected (random…?) Local businesses to verify their contact information.  Sort of a virtual reverse check-in, if you will.  Presumably the folks on the other end of the line are some of the 300 new staffers Google added to address data quality back in May.

This initiative seems to be a genuine effort by Google to decrease the spam in their Places index–the engineers’ hearts are absolutely in the right place here. I am all for as much human interaction with business owners as Google thinks is possible.

But it’s frustrating to see such a good idea executed in this manner.  As I’ve said before, I think the lack of a Places team member who can speak to what it’s like actually running a business is a weakness for Google.  At the very least, Eric Schmidt et al should follow Yelp’s lead and start a Small Business Advisory Council of some kind to get input from real business owners on these kinds of initiatives.

Speaking from one anecdotal experience, I think the very market for whom the latest UI change is going to be so beneficial is going to be even more confused by these Places calls:

I first became aware of the possibility that Google had quietly started down this path approximately eight weeks ago when a former client e-mailed me to ask if I had tried to verify any of her information with “Google Local” recently.  I said that I hadn’t, and when I asked why she was asking, she responded that “someone who said they were from Google just called to ask about our information.”  I replied that it was probably one of these SMB phishing schemes where the salesman pretends to be Google in an effort to get a business owner to sign up with him (and give away her Places account info at a later stage).  She said that she received these kinds of calls all the time, that her impression was the same as mine, but that she was calling me to make sure.

Then, about four weeks later, a separate employee of the same client, who works at a different location, called me and reported the exact same thing.  I told that employee that the next time someone called who “fit that description,” take down his information and say that I would personally call him back.  When Google attempted to verify again, he did as I instructed, but was told by the man on the other end of the line that he was not allowed to give his own contact details…even though he was calling for my client’s.  It all sounded extremely fishy to me–and to both of these clients/employees–until Mike’s announcement today.

Even if business owners aren’t confused or put off by an unannounced verification phone call, this form of anonymous outreach just gives copycat phishers and spammers one more mechanism to prey on SMB’s.  For Google to expect the business owner to take a leap of faith and refuse to verify themselves in some way is not only arrogant but vaguely Orwellian.  With all the focus on identity theft and information privacy that the latest Facebook leak is helping to fuel, it all goes back to Matt McGee’s emphasis on Trust.  If I’m not the one initiating the phone call, how do I know who’s on the other end of the line?  Yes, Google has a better-known brand name than infoUSA–the most noteworthy phone-verifier in the space–but as a result it also has more impersonators.

It’s a different story when you actually have real people to look in the eye and walk you through a process…unfortunately, Google evidently found that its Local Business Referral program was not cost-effective, Importantly, though, they did not yet have a flat-rate, DIY Places advertising product (either Tags or Local Listing Ads) to monetize at the time the program was shut down. Given that their Adwords Online Marketing Challenge is still going, it seems that it might be time to revisit that decision.

At any rate, business owners and SEOs who read this blog should know that they might actually be getting a call from Google now, though if anything I’d tighten, rather than loosen, my snake-oil filter from here on out.

Update — 8/3/10 @ 2:00pm PST:

In a comment on Mike’s blog, Miriam Ellis posted a terrific improvement on this verification which seems to me would alleviate much of the potential for mistrust and confusion on the part of the business owner:

As this is happening with verified listings, Google has the email addresses of the business owners they want to call. They could start the process by sending an email, perhaps 24 hours in advance, saying that a Google representative will be calling the business within the given time frame. Then, when the call came in, the business owner would be expecting it, and at least the two forms of communication would cross-reference and validate one another.

Granted, my suggestion might allow some spammers to somehow scramble to answer the call, in the case of spam businesses, but perhaps not. I’m not sure if Google’s reps are depending upon the element of surprise to see if the caught-off-guard recipient answers the telephone, “Bob’s Doughnut Shop,” or not. Actually, I really am wondering how the reps ARE determining legitimacy.

At any rate, it feels to me that something should be done to make this process feel more valid and less phishy.

Again, thanks for reporting.