Is your hotel open?
Is the sign lit? The doors unlocked? The lights on and the coffee brewing in the lobby? Is there an alert employee at the front desk?
Before you’re completely sure, there’s one last place you better check: Google Places.
A recent report in The New York Times says businesses are increasingly finding their location has been “closed” by Google Places users, a move that could be detrimental for hoteliers as more travelers start their searches on Google.
Regularly checking your Google Places page is just one more item that needs added to a hotel manager’s responsibility list. Online reputation management includes monitoring what is said about your hotel on social-media sites, online review sites and now on search engines’ local feature pages.
The crux of the Google Places closure problem stems from Google’s attempts to offer a user-driven platform. Everything Google does centers around the user, and sometimes too much trust can be placed in that user’s hands.
It might seem like a complex algorithm, but it only takes a handful of users to report a business closed for the Places pages to reflect that closure. Search-engine-optimization consultant and blogger Mike Blumenthal has been studying and writing about false closures on Google since 2007. He has reported a number of false closures to Google on behalf of his clients but wasn’t getting the timely response he expected.
“They could very easily check credit-card data or phone calls to see if the business is still active rather than just accepting user-generated reports,” Blumenthal said during an interview last week. “They also could implement an email alert program that says a closure has been reported and ask if it’s true. Or they could automate a phone call that says ‘Press 1 if this is a false report and your business remains open.’
“They could make the business response more effective, and they haven’t done that.”
So, after going to bat for several small businesses and not getting the response he felt he deserved, Blumenthal took matters into his own hands. He and a few friends visited the Google headquarters’ own Places page and “closed” the offices in Mountain View, California.
“I decided to demonstrate how easy it was,” he said.
Google responded with a news release to Blumenthal, which he said “demonstrated so clearly their point of view.” The response spoke to an algorithmic approach to determining whether users are acting in the appropriate manner. It was patterned after Google’s high-level, calculated approach and didn’t take the small-business owner’s perspective into account, Blumenthal said.
In a response to an interview request for this blog, a Google representative pointed me to a post on Google’s site: Combatting Spammy Closed Listing Labels on Google Maps.
In the post, Google assured business owners the company is actively working on a solution.
“Every year, millions of businesses open, close, move, change their hours, get a new website, or make other types of changes. Because we can’t be on the ground in every city and town, we enable our great community of users to let us know when something needs to be updated,” the post reads. “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.”
It goes on: “About two weeks ago, news in the blogosphere made us aware that abuse—such as ‘place closed’ spam labels—was occurring. And since then, we've been working on improvements to the system to prevent any malicious or incorrect labeling. These improvements will be implemented in the coming days.”
Blogs Ad Will Appear Here
Blumenthal was happy to hear Google is addressing the situation but was disheartened it took a New York Times story to get their attention.
“They said they only learned about this two weeks ago, but they’ve only known about this for a while,” he said. ”The problem is, while they’re touting the algorithm they also need human intervention, and they have always avoided that. They need more human people to deal with these issues. Google needs to understand that and bridge that technology gap.”
With business owners reporting the problem and Google seemingly attempting a fix, there still is one remaining question: Why are users reporting a business closed when it really isn’t?
The first culprit that pops to mind—similar to accusations of false reviews on TripAdvisor—is that competing businesses are responsible. If true, this is a shady act that doesn’t reflect well on the hospitality industry and in the end will catch up with the perpetrators.
Blumenthal has a different theory. He thinks black-hat marketing companies who are touting “online reputation management services” are closing small businesses on Google Places and then reaching out to those businesses with offers to help. He cites a client whose business was closed and then received reputation management promotional materials.
“It happened to a client,” he said. “As I went through that situation, I think a competitor had outsourced feedback marketing to someone that did both sides of it—placed fake positive reviews and also bogus competitor reviews and then offered services to clean it up.”
No matter what content appears online about your hotel, one thing is clear: You’ve got to be aware of what’s out there. These issues have been around for a while, but they’re getting more attention as Google and other search engines place a higher emphasis on local search.
After all, Blumenthal says Google isn’t going to monitor the content for you.
“Google doesn’t clearly understand the small-business point of view,” he said. “I spent 30 years operating a small business and trying to put food on the table, and it’s a struggle. Having one more struggle trying to manage your Places pages, who needs it?”
Readers: Has your hotel erroneously been closed on Google Places? Comment below or drop me a note at email@example.com.
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