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Do No Evil? Using Google to Harm Your Competitors

You probably have already heard about the people who follow directions on Google Maps and end up lost in Death Valley or getting hit by a car as they dutifully walk across a dangerous highway to get to their destination. In these types of cases, the problem typically lies in old information (not accounting for a road closing, new roads or a detour, for example) or perhaps some accidental misinformation that is relied upon by the Google Maps system. Garbage in, garbage out, but no real "bad guy" involved.

As Google Maps and smartphones add features, people are increasingly using these tools to help them figure out things like where on a highway they can stop to get gas or coffee, where the nearby hotels are, or even where they can find a divorce attorney in their area. As more and more people use these tools, the temptation to tamper with the results generated by Google Maps and related sites for one's own benefit has apparently become too great for some businesses, and has led to some damaging online mischief.

The New York Times reported this week that on the widely used Google Places service (which expands on Google Maps by providing the address of a business, a description provided by the owner and links to photos, reviews and Google Maps), Google relies on crowd-sourcing to determine if a business has closed down. Google Places users can provide feedback to the system to report that "this place is permanently closed." If enough users report the business is closed, Google will show the business as "reportedly closed" or even "permanently closed." The NYT reports that in an effort to hurt competitors, unscrupulous businesspeople are increasingly closing competitors' business on Google by clicking a few buttons.

The NYT notes that in some Google-related online forums, there are numerous pleas for help from businesses such as hotels and even lawyers who are losing money after being falsely labeled as closed. Although there is a "not true" button that appears next to a "closed" sign on Google that is supposed to help correct misinformation, some business owners say it doesn't seem to work. "In the last four days, I’ve hit that 'not true' button every six to eight hours," Daniel Navejas of RBI Divorce Lawyers told the NYT. "It's getting old." Indeed, in an act of frustration, one blogger enlisted a friend and between them easily managed to "close" Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. The blogger said he did so to show "how annoying this is when it happens."

Google is reportedly now beginning to implement changes to prevent such mischief, such as sending an email alert to businesses that are about to be labeled as permanently closed. Google stated that changes designed to prevent "malicious or incorrect labeling" will be adopted "in coming days."

Posted by Bruce Carton on September 7, 2011 at 05:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)


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