A recent article on Mike Blumenthal’s blog made us aware that even as Google has converted Google Places to Google+ Local on the front end… the back end still has problems. Places records are lost, businesses lose their visibility, and calls and leads are eliminated. This has been occurring since Google first introduced Google Maps.
I had the opportunity to speak with an SMB operator - David Oremland, who is also experienced at local SEO, has commentated on SEO issues, and has been involved in the Google Places Forum. As a Top Contributor, it’s the first time I’ve had an opportunity to walk through the process with an operator, both with regards to the problems, the process of trying to get a fix and the timing of recovery. The conversation also covers the costs of lost Google visibility.
The Duplicate Record Problem in Google Places
In early April this year one of our Google Places records suffered from one of the myriads of problems associated with Google Places. In this event the record mysteriously:
The process is scary for a business. It’s potentially costly, and there are no warnings or reasons provided for these occurrences. We learned there was nothing we could do. It was expensive, problematic and frustrating.
These and other problems have been occurring for years. It frustrates SMBs, it provides misinformation to customers and the “fix” process by Google is mysterious, not subject to explanation, and frankly is neither guaranteed, nor does it occur all the time. The following is a review of the issues, the efforts and frustrations in trying to effect a solution. It also documents a recovery and puts actual time frames to the elements and actual facets of each issue.
On April 6, I noticed all the reviews on our Google Places record/link to the website on the first page of google.com were missing. Big problem… Tragic… We had worked to obtain between 10-12 reviews on Google at the time. With that number the link to the business showed eye-catching stars on Google.com. On top of that the reviews were virtually all positive. We knew from speaking with customers: positive reviews helped us promote the business and convinced potential customers to choose our services. The business is a bartending school; The Professional Bartending School. It’s located in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC, and is one of about 100-300 bartending schools, most located in the United States and Canada.
Our business is over 40 years old, has a URL that was established in the mid 1990’s, is well known in the area, and has a strong reputation relative to the industry.
The business has always focused on job placement assistance. Grads landing jobs is the payback for training. This school probably reports more graduates landing bartending jobs than anywhere in the country. Many of the reviews referenced not only the training, but the job placement services. Not only were the reviews more conspicuous with the stars, but the positive reviews helped convince potential student/customers to choose our services.
The problems were much bigger than reviews though. Within a day or two we learned of the other problems
- A basic duplicate record had been created showing in most queries.
- Secondary weird duplicate records were shown with misinformation.
- The long term record was moved to the “We currently do not support this location” message from Google. That means it no longer showed for appropriate search terms.
- The long-term record was relatively strong and contributed to higher rankings. The new record had ZERO strength. It pushed our visibility lower for various search terms. We were going to get less traffic.
- The new record was disconnected from the Google Places dashboard. We could not add pictures, nor change content. We had no dashboard statistics. We had no control of the Places record as it appeared to the public.
This was discouraging at the least. Not only had we no idea how this occurred, we were facing lower rankings, less traffic, and zero reviews. Worst of all, we were entering a busy season for the industry. Industry-wide college students start looking up bartending schools in the spring. They are considering taking classes when their school year ends in May. With lower visibility, we knew we were going to lose some of that traffic.
The series of problems was going to cost us money. At that moment all we knew was that these changes were going to be negative, we had no idea if we caused them, we had no idea if a fix would occur, nor how long it might take.
How Do These Problems Occur
At various times the information that shows in Google.com that includes a business address, phone number, your business name and other relevant contact information became highly important in May 2007. It was then that Google search began filling the first page of Google.com results with information from other indexes, such as news, blogs, books, products, finance, and particularly, Google Maps. At various times called Google Maps, Google Local, Google Places, and now Google+ Local, the information Google shows is basic contact information: business name, address, phone number and other information.
From its earliest days there have been problems with presenting this data. The back end algorithm that powers this information includes data from across the web including information business owners directly provide to Google. Much of it, though, comes from third-party websites. For many years, conflicting data, similar data, and other issues have continued to bedevil Google and the businesses, that depend on this data being presented accurately. Additionally, Google takes edits from its Map Maker section to edit and alter information.
The net result has been that the information shown in Google results has been consistently unstable. The problems we experienced have been experienced by thousands if not tens of thousands or more of businesses, hospitals, museums, government offices, and institutions around the globe. Often the problems are inexplicable. They just occur.
Contacting Google about the Problems
Both contacting Google about problems and getting help to fix these problems has been a consistent issue since Google Maps went live. In October 2011 after years of entirely inconsistent responses Google built a “Report a problem” customer service solution for small businesses. Earlier that year they added more levels of responsiveness and direct responses from Google personnel. One can find the systemic methods to report problems here. A second form of direct contact can be found in the troubleshooter area here.
On an ongoing basis there has been a public forum for reporting problems and, “hopefully”, getting assistance at the Google Places forum with two subgroups for discussions on issues, one of which is here. I had years of experience contacting and interacting in the Google Places help forums. I had done it on behalf of our own businesses. I had also acted on behalf of other businesses trying to help solve the myriads of problems that have occurred in Google places over the years.
The systemic reports in the Report a Problem section are the preferred method for customer service and “fixes”. Troubleshooter responses are similar, but generate a more personalized response from Google customer service personnel than do the “report a problem” responses. They could be the preferred way to get precise responses.
I preferred the Google Places forum. In fact, I both sent in report a problem messages and used the Google Places forum. On April 8, (a Sunday) I added a comment in this thread in the Google Places Forum. On April 9, I started a thread here . The 2nd post was technically declared a duplicate thread, it was referenced to the first thread. It did have pertinent information from research and an interesting screen shot of different duplicate records:
I subsequently added comments on April 9, 11, 12, 13 and 16. Too many comments in my opinion based on my review. Worthless efforts, I believe. They didn’t help to affect a response or get better service. I also sent several reports into the Report a problem email opportunity. Those reports didn’t evoke a lot of confidence on our end as to a fix. The response emails were in a template format. The responses kept referencing the Google places ID to the record that had been dropped.
Screen shots show some of the impacts from the duplicate record crisis. This screen shot, derived from Map Maker, shows the variety of records that had been created along with comments:
The top record represented one of the strange duplicates created by the merger. The second record appeared to be caused via adding data into the Twitter account for the business. It’s the only place we could find that showed our address without a street number. Amazingly we had made that change in Twitter days before the merger. The third record appeared to be the original record that was now in “We currently do not support this location” status. And the 4th Map Maker record: OMG. That should have been tanked years earlier.
The following screen shot shows the result of one of the most problematic duplicate records that appeared. Unfortunately, this record was showing for a variety of fairly commonly used search terms. The record strangely tied the bartending school to an elementary school.
The record is a “feature record” with strange characteristics. It was tied to an elementary school. That alone points to some of the problematic characteristics of the Google Places algorithm. Secondly, the record shows the time of day under the business name and address. Ultimately, these strange records tend to disappear over time. They seem to be “place sitter” records created by the algorithm. The problem was though that it was appearing for a reasonable volume of search phrases and was clearly inappropriate.
What I Was Looking for and How Was Google Responding
In my mind there was a dichotomy between my efforts, my goals vis a vis Google, and my expectations, versus how Google handled the response(s). I wanted a specific customer service FIX. I was looking for precise answers and guidance. In my various commentary in the Google Places thread, I outlined specific issues, reviewed possible causes of the merger, showcased various duplicate records that had been created, reviewed the history within Map Maker, etc. All to no avail. I thought I identified possible causes for the duplicate record, acknowledged an action taken by us that could have been partially responsible, and also identified a possible edit in Map Maker that occurred simultaneously with creating possibly bad info for the Google Places ecosystem. None of that mattered to Google. Frankly Google didn’t answer any of my most serious questions or explained anything. They never do. If you want to try and figure out how the Google Places algorithm works or what causes changes they simply aren’t going to publicly publish any details that relate to the algorithms. They haven’t done so for years, and they weren’t going to start with me.
On the other hand, I’ve seen Google “hand fix” records in a matter of a day or so. They’ve done it for years. They are still doing this on occasion. Frankly, in years past I had GMail accounts with Google Places problems and issues and had received “hand fixes” then. I believe Google personnel currently call it a “point fix”.
The current set of problems didn’t receive a hand fix/point fix. It’s quite probable that level of complexity and what had occurred would have prevented a “hand fix” or “point fix” in any case.
The record had suffered from a duplicate. The long-term old record went into “Google does not support this location” status. A new record with a new ID was created with identical name, address, phone number, URL, and descriptive information from the old record. The problem was that the new record had all the correct information showing, but had none of the connections to the previous record: no reviews, no pictures, no connectivity to the cluster of information from around the web that powers a record to higher rankings and greater visibility.
Among the possibilities of problems, the duplicate record with accurate NAP information was preferable to not having an instant replacement record at all. At least there was a Places record showing on the first page of Google.com. Its ranking and visibility, though, were worse than before the problem. Fortunately, though for us the rankings were being “carried” or buttressed by the on-page and off-page aspects of strict SEO.
The Recovery Process
Within Google’s new “customer service” process they will often communicate to the universe of SMB operators and SEOs that a correction will occur in 4-6 weeks. Do you believe that and have faith? Frankly, after about 1 week of commentating within the Google Places forum, and reviewing options, we had no alternatives but to wait. Actually, we did have an alternative, but its consequences might have been worse. We could have terminated the record in the dashboard and created a new record, gone through verification again and restarted the process of creating strength inside the Google Maps ecosystem. That isn’t a great alternative. It would have taken weeks or months to try and recreate the power of the previous record. We had to sit back…have faith…and hope that the Google customer service methods worked.
They did! Much of the recovery process occurred faster than 4 to 6 weeks. A last vestige of recovery seemed to occur about 2 months after the duplicate record disaster. In our view some of the most important elements occurred at the end of two weeks. Our major concerns had to do with the loss of ranking and diminished visibility and the loss of reviews.
At the end of two weeks our rankings from maps.google.com started to strengthen. Merged or pack information that show in the first page of google.com have components of ranking signals from both google.com and maps.google.com. In short hand that means standard SEO efforts and efforts related to Google Maps/Google Places. They are different. Visibility of our site was pretty good. It was a result of years of work on both sides. On the other hand when I searched specifically within maps.google.com the site had lost all its strength. Where once it had outranked all competitors for a lot of phrases regardless of location after the duplicate the record trailed everything. It had lost all its signals associated with maps.google.com. It even trailed a business record for a school that had closed three years previously, the building had been razed, the URL was no longer associated with an actual website and the phone number didn’t connect to the business. THAT IS WEAK.
At the end of two weeks when evaluating rankings exclusively within maps.google.com the site was regaining its ranking strength. What that signalled was that the volume of web data that indicates ranking value to maps.google.com had been moved from the old record and the old ID to the new Google record/Google ID. The recovery process was working. Within the third week it appeared that all relative ranking within maps.google.com was similar to that before the dupe.
Between 3 and 4 weeks following the Duplicate and merger, the most significant ranking visibility returned. The site has traditionally strong rankings for key phrases in the region relative to its competitors. We have proprietary methods for evaluating ranking strength. At some point between 3 and 4 weeks the rankings returned to where they had been prior to the merger…and the resultant traffic seemed to reflect a full recovery with regard to rankings and visibility within google.com search.
The second biggest issue was the loss of reviews. Loss of reviews has been a common and consistent problem within Google Places. If anything, there could be a greater number of incidents of this occurring than in the past, if judging by the volume of complaints inside the Google Places forum. It’s incredibly frustrating for SMBs. Clearly customers of every kind of service and business read reviews. They are the closest thing to word of mouth advice. If positive and strong, they help convince customers to purchase your services. Our school was like every other business in this regard. The most telling information was that over the years, students told us that positive reviews helped them to consider taking our classes. We’ve actually accumulated 10’s of thousands of student comments/reviews over the decades. When a student graduates we’ve asked them to write an evaluation of the program. We used those for two purposes. If we saw recurring complaints during a period of time, we would tackle and address the issues. Secondly, we copied the most complementary of these reviews, bundled them and showed them to prospective new students. While we had practiced this for decades, and received thousands of great reviews, we were reluctant to ask for reviews on the web. When the duplicate record occurred we had 10 to 12 reviews on Google.
When a duplicate record occurs and reviews are lost the common response from Google is generally:
- We aren’t sure if they will return;
- Wait some more.
Reviews are a large problem. Loss of reviews is a sticky issue with the Google algo and cluster. After 2 weeks we decided that we couldn’t count on reviews magically reappearing on our new Google record/ID. We had to go get reviews again. We asked customers for reviews again and within 2 weeks or so had added about 10, regaining those precious eye-catching stars.
And then magic occurred. After 4 weeks the old reviews mysteriously were moved from the old record (now tanked or in dreaded “We do not support this location” status) to the new record. Suddenly we found ourselves with over 20 reviews in Google. In conjunction with that we saw the conversion from Google Places to Google+ Local and the visual appearance of reviews no longer connected with bright stars…but now a Zagat Rating. Regardless, we had the number of reviews that create a relative eye-catching visibility within the pack of competitors.
Recovery of ranking and reviews were our chief concerns. There were other issues that had been affected by the duplicate record. They too all seem to have recovered. Among the issues were:
- The new record was disconnected from the Google places dashboard.
- All pictures loaded through the dashboard were lost as were videos.
- The dashboard statistics were lost.
All of that recovered. Dashboard connectivity recovered within the first two weeks. At first it was sluggish. Later it improved with quicker responses. Pictures that had been previously loaded began to reappear after about 3 weeks. The final reconnection took about 2 months. After two months of absolutely nonsensical dashboard results we started seeing more impressions than actions and a return of requests for driving directions to our business. I’m generally not a big believer in the value of dashboard statistics for a great variety of reasons, but they do offer certain valuable insights.
Attached is a somewhat comical screen shot of a dashboard that has been disconnected from old data. The straight line simply represents a few months of the years of data we lost.
Summation and Comments
Undoubtedly lost records, duplicates, mergers, misinformation, lost reviews and other problems associated with Google Places are the bane of existence for SMB operators and their SEO’s. The Google Places database is notoriously unstable and subject to crazy changes. It is also incredibly visible and the starting point for most consumers using search to find local businesses and services. It’s critical. When it goes bad for certain businesses highly reliant on Google search for business revenues it can crush a business.
As of late 2011 and moving forward the single good news, if you want to call it that, is that there is a systemic process to fix those issues. When the “customer service” fix process works recovery can and will occur. Most if not all of the recovery seems to occur within the 4-6 week process Google has signaled to small businesses. Some of the recovery occurs faster than the 4- to 6-week period. On the other hand, not all businesses get fixed. For a variety of reasons SMBs have recurring issues that simply aren’t addressed by the Google Places support teams. I reviewed a few weeks of commentary within the Google Places forum and pulled a list of comments that reflected businesses whose issues have not been addressed or resolved for weeks if not far longer. You can find the threads here:
- pending status for months
- six-week wait
- continued problems
- wrong info for several weeks
- two years of problems
The good news is that the Google response system put in place last year does resolve certain issues. If you are relatively fortunate like our bartending school the critical issues get resolved within the first few weeks. If it doesn’t work though, it’s going to be a long cold winter!!!
When the recent dupe occurred I reviewed everything (with help), and I was fairly confident we identified some possible or probable causes of the dupe (as new bad data worked its way through the cluster). We did not get instant responsiveness. Over time though, we have seen the corrective results. The corrections were critical and invaluable. In our example we regained partial maps visibility and ranking strength in 2 weeks. Full visibility and ranking strength in 3 weeks. Reviews started to return and completely returned within 4 weeks.
Those were the critical issues. Without visibility the site gets less traffic. Our site was backed up by basic SEO strength and was lucky in that we suffered a dupe with an immediate replacement record. In other words a record was still visible in google search. We also were using extensive PPC. Without PPC and organic strength we simply would have lost all the leads from Google search during that 2-3 week period.
In our perspective reviews are critical but secondary to visibility. (Nobody reads reviews if they can’t find your site). But reviews are like a lover or a labor of love. They mean a lot to every SMB. Potential customers migrate, read, and make decisions based on reviews. No other directory seems to lose reviews besides Google. Having those reviews helps win some sales. We made an effort to gain new reviews after several weeks and we were lucky to have the old reviews connect with the new record after 4 weeks. In terms of straight business all the other problems were secondary.