Google Places, the local business listing service behind Google Maps, has its share of fans amongst small business owners. After all, if you've done your homework as far as search engine optimization (SEO), Google Places has the demonstrable power to connect potential customers with the goods and services they're looking for.
But what happens if you wake up one day to find that Google Places automatically changed your listing, giving customers a competitor's phone number? And worse - what if you were told that it would take up to six months for Google to fix the problem?
That's what happened to Morris Law Firm, P.A., a St. Petersburg, Florida-based law firm with only one practicing attorney. Melinda Morris, the attorney in question, and Seth Shapiro, Morris' husband and the firm's operations manager, rely heavily on Google Places to drive new business.
But out of nowhere, the Place page for the firm changed to have the phone number and picture for Jason Mayberry, another attorney who recently moved into the same office building. The phone went silent. Naturally, Shapiro says he suspected foul play immediately, but upon discussion with the other law firm, it was revealed that both businesses were affected.
There was no phone number to call, and using the "Report a Problem" link Google Places provides garnered no immediate response. Some things put themselves right over the course of a few days, but the critical phone number remained incorrect.
After much research on the official help forums, Shapiro turned up the culprit: Google Places automatically merges what it figures to be duplicate listings. Multiple attorneys in one building were deemed to be the same business and combined.
The Google Places forums are full of people reporting the same issue, and many find themselves getting frustrated with the lack of support from Google. And some users reported that it took up to six months for Google to respond to their problems.
"Because Google Places is a free service, there is no customer support. No one to call. No human being to interact with as your small business is punished because of Google's inaccurate algorithms. Just a silent phone to remind you that Google can very quickly and with no remorse kill your small business," Shapiro wrote to me.
And it only takes a quick Google search to see that this kind of merging is only one of the problems that businesses face when dealing with Google Places: the New York Times recently ran a much-cited report on the service mistakenly listing businesses as "permanently closed," though Google claims to have addressed that specific issue.
When made aware of the Morris Law Firm's difficulties with Google Places, a Google spokesperson promised to look into it, and issued the following statement:
"The business listings in Google Maps, part of our local search offering, come from a combination of sources. We work with third-party & publicly available Yellow Page directories, and we also look for business information from our web search results. Users are able to edit and contribute business information to help keep Google Maps up-to-date, and business owners can use Google Places to verify and maintain their own listing. Google Maps is a very popular source for local data, but we recognize that with millions of listings, there will be an occasional error. We encourage users to update listings themselves if they know the correct information - more on that process here - or flag something as incorrect using our 'Report a Problem' button, found at the bottom right corner of the map. A business owner can use Google Places, found at www.google.com/places, to oversee the information in his/her listing."
At the time of writing, the Morris Law Firm's entry is still at least partially conflated with Jason Mayberry's, and at least two user reviews are expressing confusion about which attorney it belongs to. And Shapiro indicates that the business is seriously ailing as a result, as the issue enters its second week.
This issue is especially troublesome because a business doesn't really choose to be on Google Places - the search giant's mission to organize all of the world's information means that you're on there whether you want it or not.
But if you're not wary, your business profile can lead potential customers to a competitor, and you may never know it. The only way to be sure is constant vigilance over your Google Places page. And even then, a problem may take months to address, thanks to Google's limited support structure for Places.