Five months on, Google Maps is still tagging local businesses with the phone numbers of their competitors. And local businesses are none too happy about it.
When compiling contact information for businesses listed by its Yellow Pages-killing local search engine, Google Maps has a nasty habit of merging the URLs, phone numbers, and street addresses for seemingly similar but completely separate businesses.
"Google has developed an algorithmic way of developing Yellow Pages. There's no people on the street collecting information. There's nobody verifying information. It's all done by their algorithm," Mike Blumenthal, who has closely followed the Google glitch on his independent Maps blog, tells The Reg.
"But it some cases, it's over-clustering data - i.e. pulling together two businesses that are probably very closely related physically or by name."
The end result is that some outfits end up tagged with contact information for a nearby competitor. One colon-cleaning outfit, for instance, may be assigned the phone number of a colon-cleaning outfit just down the street.
"Help GOOGLE employee!!! If you do a search for my name as a dentist, a competitor's website, address, phone number appears along with all my reviews!!! HELP," one user wrote in the Google Maps support forums on September 10.
The glitch first appeared in late April, when Google launched a new local search algorithm that pulls business contact info from a variety of sources, including company webpages, phonebook databases, and review sites. Google likes to trumpet its ability to perform such tasks without human editing, but things don't always pan out as advertised.
On April 29, Google acknowlegded this algorithmic flaw - and vowed to fix it. "A business listing in Google Maps is a bundle of information from lots of sources, including web pages, various phonebook makers, and review sites. The way this information appears is determined by an algorithm that decides which information from each source should be clustered together as a single business," read a blog post from Google software engineer Nina Kang.
"Some of the Localsearch quality folks recently launched a shiny new algorithm for exactly this purpose. I was really psyched, because a bunch of duplicate businesses got consolidated properly after this change. However, I've been seeing some user feedback in the forum about businesses that are still being lumped together improperly, so it looks like the algorithm needs tinkering. The team is now working on a fix that aims to solve this problem for the users who are hurting, without taking a step backward in terms of our overall quality."
But five months on, problems persist. "I am experiencing a similar problem," wrote another user on September 11. "2 businesses share an address. One does Quickbooks bookkeeping and the other does change management consulting. Both businesses show up in the listing for the correct search term, but URL for one business is not correct. It lists the other business's url."
Six days earlier, Phil Payne - who handles website and search engine duties for the Hotel 53 in York, United Kingdom - saw the hotel's web traffic drop from about 600 hits a day to about 30. And he soon traced the problem back to Google Maps. But in this case, the business wasn't merged with a competitor. It was merged with a solicitor.
"We've lost about 40 per cent of our total web business," Payne tells The Reg. "It makes the difference between profit and loss." When he complained about the issue in the support forums, a Google employee popped up to say that the company would fix the problem, but that this would take about two weeks. That was on September 9.
When we contacted Google about the ongoing issue, a company spokeswoman referred us to that April blog post and said: "We are aware of this issue and have been continuing to refine our algorithms to ensure that we are properly clustering data when necessary."
Over the past five months, Mike Blumenthal has cataloged countless examples of the glitch. It often happens with hotels, but it has also affected doctors, dentists, and, yes, colon cleaners.
"This isn't actually a bug by Google's definition. But from a business owner's perspective, it's absolutely horrendous," Blumenthal tells The Reg. "What you're seeing is an artifact of their technology decisions that creates a huge social problem. It's a whole new reality, and people are just now waking up to it. It's pretty shocking when it happens to your business." ®