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Businesses battle ‘closed’ listings

Changes coming, Google says

By David Segal
New York Times / September 6, 2011

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In mid-August, Jason Rule learned some surprising news about the coffee shop that he owns and operates in Hays, Kan.: The place had closed for good.

Not in the real world, where it is thriving. Coffee Rules Lounge was listed for a few days as “permanently closed’’ on Google Maps. During that time, anyone searching for a latte on a smartphone, for instance, would have assumed the store was a goner.

“We’re not far from Interstate 70,’’ said Rule, “and I have no doubt that a lot of people running up and down that highway just skipped us.’’

In recent months, plenty of perfectly healthy businesses across the country have expired - sometimes for hours, other times for weeks - though only in the online realm cataloged and curated by Google. The reason is that it is surprisingly easy to report a business as closed in Google Places, the search giant’s version of the local Yellow Pages.

On Google Places, a typical listing has a section titled “Report a problem,’’ and one of the problems to report is “this place is permanently closed.’’ If enough users click it, the business is labeled “reportedly closed’’ and later, pending a review by Google, “permanently closed.’’

Google would not discuss its review methods.

Rival search engines, like Bing and Yahoo, have their own version of Places - called Bing Local and Yahoo Local - and these services also allow users to report a business as closed. But neither site has anything close to Google’s traffic, which means they are the scene of far less mischief.

Nobody is quite sure how prevalent these sham closings have become.

In Google Forums, where users can pose questions about Google’s features, there are dozens of exasperated postings.

But this most likely represents just a fraction of viable businesses that been cyberpadlocked. Many owners, search consultants say, have no idea that they’ve been shuttered online.

A Google spokesman, Gabriel Stricker, declined to comment on whether the company kept a running tally of fraudulent closings. But he said Google was aware of the issue and was working on changes, which will be adopted in coming days, to prevent what he called “malicious or incorrect labeling.’’

“We know that accurate listings on Google Maps are an important tool for many business owners,’’ he wrote in an e-mail.

The owner of a closed business, and customers who know better, can click on a button marked “not true,’’ which appears next to all “reportedly closed’’ and “permanently closed’’ listings. In some instances, owners say, a business will “open’’ shortly thereafter. But other owners say that the button doesn’t work, or that it takes a week to have any effect. Still others say that immediately after clicking the “not true’’ button, their business is immediately “closed’’ again.

In mid-August, a search consultant and blogger named Mike Blumenthal was so rankled by what he considered Google’s cavalier attitude to closings on Google that he committed an act of online disobedience: He “closed’’ Google’s offices in Mountain View, Calif.

It seemed to get the company’s attention. At least one change to closings on Places has already been made. Since late August, a business that is newly tagged “permanently closed,’’ receives an alert via e-mail from Google, informing the business owner of the change.