Warning: Don’t Use Google Maps Service/Home Business Tools Yet

Filed in Google, Local Search by Matt McGee on March 24, 2010 26 Comments

Post-edit: Google has contacted me to explain that this problem is NOT related to the new Service Areas feature that’s being tested. Please scroll down for a full explanation.

If you’re a small business owner or a marketer with small business clients using Google Maps’ Local Business Center, a warning: Do not use the new tools for service- and home-based businesses yet. These are, in Google’s words, still “in testing” and may cause problems with your local business listing. (Again, this is wrong and an explanation is below.)

They did to mine. Read on for pictures and a description of what happened.

Shortly after I published this post today about the new LBC options, I tested them out by modifying my wife‘s business listing. She’s a real estate agent who works in a wider region than just the city indicated in her business listing.

Within an hour, while checking to see if her listing was showing up for any new queries, I noticed that it had been merged with business info from another real estate agent’s listing:

maps bug

She’s always been in the top spot for “richland wa real estate agent,” but that’s not her web site and phone number. It should be www.carimcgee.com and (509) 430-5342. Her name now links to someone else’s web site. Ugh.

Worse, the data had also spread into Google Maps (as you’d expect).

maps bug 2

That’s the wrong phone number. And, it’s even worse on her place page, where the other agent’s name, phone numbers, and email address show up — along with some data and a photo from his listing.

maps bug 3

This is a complete cluster-you-know-what.

Less than an hour ago, I changed the listing back to its original form — I undid the new option and re-checked “No, all customers come to the business location.” And now it’s a waiting game to see how soon — if at all — Google fixes this problem.

And that’s not all! Via Twitter, I got this message from David Kyle, a search marketer in Charlotte, NC:

tweet

The moral? Much like new products from Apple, where you never, ever buy the first version, I’ve learned to never, ever use a Google product while it’s still in testing. Don’t you make the same mistake I did today.

Updates

One: 18 minutes after publishing this post, and about an hour after changing her business listing back to normal, the listing has started to correct itself. (Or Google is fixing it manually?) See below — the URL is correct, but the phone number is still wrong.

fix-1

Two: Having seen this post, Google has looked into what went wrong here and sent me a statement saying it’s not related to the service areas tool:

After some investigation, we’ve found that it’s not related to the service areas feature we released today.

As you know, Google Maps creates listings by using algorithms to merge data from many sources. And we’re aware that this merging can be over-aggressive at times. It looks like that’s the entire cause of the problem here.

In this case, there’s data in Local Business Center about two different real estate agents (one of them your wife) who share an address and have very similar business names. That data has been merged in our index for some time. Today, both of the Local Business Center users updated their data, and that caused some of the displayed information to change.

We’re working hard to solve the problems of merged listings, in this case and in general.

So to sum up, we have a situation where two real estate agents in the same office both updated their LBC listings on the same day, and that caused Google’s algorithm to cluster some of their data into one listing. Yikes.

Comments (26)

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  1. Andrew Baker says:

    Thanks for the heads up. I already changed my own local listing and have just finished changing 2 of my clients listings.

    I’ve immediately reverted my clients listings back to the original settings however I’m going to leave my own listing for a few days as a test to see what actually happens.

    Like most things on Google local the listings morph through several phases until it settles and this can happen over quite a long period of time many weeks in some cases.

    Lets see how it goes.

    I’ll keep you updated.

    Cheers

    Andrew :-)

  2. I read your article on Search Engine Land and tried it out right away, but noticed that I could only set the service area to 620 miles / 999 kilometres maximum. The circle in the map would revert back to a small circle around my physical location when I entered a larger number.

    I also didn’t see my listing show up in related searches in other towns and cities when I tried, so I’m not sure how this is supposed to work exactly.

    I am an international web copywriter and work for clients from around the world. I guess this option isn’t for me.

    And after reading your new blog post, I’ll change it back too, don’t want to take any chances.

    • Matt McGee says:

      I am an international web copywriter and work for clients from around the world. I guess this option isn’t for me.

      That’s correct, Micky. I also serve clients anywhere, but if I were to use the LBC to market my consulting services, I’d need to define a finite location. You can’t declare “the world” as your service area.

  3. Cathy says:

    I was just about to head over to the LBC and try the service area feature when your post hit my feed reader. Thanks for the heads-up and so sorry you guys get to be a test case.

    Having lived through a cluster-you-know-what merger a little more than a year ago, it took about 3 months to separate the mis-merged listings, but you have the attention of more eyeballs that can actually do something to fix it. :)

    The idea of service areas will be interesting to watch. For florists, we have 2 types of service areas: Same-day gift delivery (generally within a 15 mile radius to our stores) and wedding/event deliveries (where we often travel much, much further from our home bases.)

    Fingers crossed your issue will get resolved quickly and that this new service area feature will add much more quality content for users than spam from businesses trying to appear ‘everywhere’.

  4. Luke Jones says:

    Thank you for letting me know about this problem. It’s great that Google managed to rectify the problem as soon as they could be unfortunate that it happened in the first place.

    At least Google will learn from the mistake and develop their algorithms a little more.

    +Added to Delicious ;-)

  5. James says:

    Nice heads up. Thanks!

    It works perfectly for me.

  6. Adam Moore says:

    Matt,

    Thank you for this update as it is timely for an upcoming client I am about to beging work for!

    I have a question in regards to your Local Business “Thumbprint”. I assume that Google is intelligent enough (since they have your registered home address) to match up other listings for your business in the Yellowpages, Insiderpages, Citysearch etc which would not affect your thumbprint.

    I guess the problem for some clients is they don’t want their home address to appear on Google (which is now solved) however their home address WILL need to appear on the Yellowpages and other vertical sites to enhance their link/mentions. I don’t think ALL of those sites allow for you to hide your address do they??

    So someone not wanting their home address to appear anywhere still may need to get a mailboxes etc address or use a friends address.

  7. DOH!- Like some idiot school kid wanting to rip the wrapper of my shiny new toy I jumped on my Google local business listing and made the changes. But thank goodness! The Google gods were smiling upon me and I got a ‘service error page’ upon submit. Whew! Next time I will read your Blog! ~ Rick

  8. Gary Little says:

    I can verify this has been a problem for my own business for some time now. My brokerage, of course, has multiple agents, and my information is being mixed with one of the other agents. What a pain… and no easy way to fix… and no easy way to figure out who to complain to.

  9. Steve says:

    Matt,
    Thanks for the news update. I have a somewhat related (read loosely related, lol) question. If a company offers the exact same service in two cities 60 apart, would you recommend two totally separate websites? My understanding is that having two different addresses on one site will confuse Google LBC listing bots. Thanks for your input!

  10. ME says:

    How can one tell what the LBC services listing effect is at a given distance?

    I have as a client a group of entertainers. They tour a larger area than 620 miles and sell recorded material mostly nationally, and some internationally, but I figured it was good enough if I could at least get a ranking bump for the home region if it didn’t hurt other locations much.

    So much for the concept a business must either provide a service *or* a product. In fact if one were to search any of the trademark databases out there (such as the one at USPTO.GOV) many companies could be found that have both service marks and trademarks registered.

    Having some amount of fame, my clients also have good cause to not want a public address. (LBC terms exclude postal boxes/mail drops)

    I have turned off web history/personalized search and have not been logged into google when making the following observations:

    It took about 48hrs to make a change. In local results the site moved up 13 places (well into 1st page) for a particular search regardless of the city or zip provided via URL encoding (e.g. &gpc=xxxxx).

    Searching google using the explicit no personalized web search URL encoding (i.e. &pws=0) reveals the site to have *lost* 3-5 positions in all city/region searches including in my own city. It should be noted that in the farthest distance of cities tested the drop was only three places, same as local with &pws=0.

    50 Miles to the south an associate reports that results were same as the registered address. 60 miles north, in a City who’s name combined with the search term yields a high first page result (and who’s City Web site, also on the first page, mentions the entertainers more than once) our listing was reported to have ***dropped*** 9 spots to mid page 3!! The searcher was not logged into google, but personalized search may not have been turned off. I should also note that the number of total results reported were 20% smaller.

    With no changes to the Web site I have now seen a drop of more than 20 positions in another country’s google, a country with customers for my client’s products.

    Having the same radius for searches in all locations puts some users at a disadvantage as to their real coverage. Those living along either coast, large lakes, or heaven forbid central or south Florida loose a considerable amount of coverage area.

    My client would get at best about half of the area, but seems to get something like 10% of half of the area.

    At this point it looks as though LBC services is a failed experiment for this client, but it would be better to have more info from other search locations within the radius.

    So, with out having to find a proxy server every 20 miles for a 600+ mile radius from my clients address, how can one tell what the LBC services listing effect is at a given distance?

    The next question is how long it takes to get back the position sacrificed after removal of the client from LBC?

    More interesting still is the treatment of another search phrase, googles inconsistent report the number of times it is found on the site (e.g. “phrase” site:www.xxxx.com both in singular and plural, which do not match), and the relative ranking of another similar site (same PR, 1/2 as many external links, no DMOZ, no Y!Dir., same off site anchor text, lower (<1%) keyword density, less news articles, shorter domain name life, etc…higher in SERPs), but this is off topic.

  11. ME says:

    UPDATE:

    Just checked again today to find that the Local Business Center effect has gone away, locally dropping the site from top half of page 1 to page 3. The results locally now match what was seen with the &pws=0 encoded URL previously. Adding &pws=0 has no effect from any search location at this time.

    Listing the entertainers as a local business service provided now looks to have resulted in a 5 position penalty nation wide. My clients site has fallen below #80 in the other countries Google mention in previous post.

    The other web site mentioned in my previous post has moved up a few places on page 1 nationally and are on page 1 in the other country Google, with < 1% keyword density!

  12. Jason Hyman says:

    Matt,
    thanks for this info, I cant believe it, but I can at the same time.
    It is scary for me to think about how unreliable Google can be with the LBL and even SERPs. I just posted something about this at http://www.localsearchpilot.com/local-search/local-search-reliable-organic-answers-or-not
    @ Adam Moore your home address as your business address does not have to appear on yellowpages, at least not on yp.com

  13. Janet Mobley says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I had this task on my list for tomorrow for three clients…glad I read your blog and saved myself a potential headache.

  14. Steve says:

    This feature is working fine now! :)

  15. Scott says:

    Has anyone had any recent updates to the location options in Google LBC? I am just starting out in a small town in Georgia and need all the help I can get.

    Should I do this or no?

  16. Chris says:

    Google is so messed up, and needs humans to sort it all out.
    God HELP you if you move your business, and had a lot of old citations.
    It is almost impossible to remove all of them. Then, when you get new citations for your new address, this information will conflict with the old information.

  17. Gary Little says:

    This is not a new Google problem, it’s been going on for years. For quite a while my contact information was being mixed up with another agent in our office. One trick might be to use a different suite number in your address so there is not an exact match with another agent. (Of course, you’d think that a different cell phone number would be a clue to Google’s software that data for two agents should not be merged, but apparently not.)

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