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How Google Maps manipulations destroy small businesses – Wired.co.uk

by on July 8, 2014



Rene Bertagna blames Google for the death of his restaurant, Serbian Crown

Courtesy Rene Bertagna

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Washington DC-area residents with a hankering for lion meat lost
a valuable source of the (yes, legal)
delicacy last year when a restaurant called the Serbian Crown
closed its doors after nearly 40 years in the same location. The
northern Virginia eatery served French and Russian cuisine in a
richly appointed dining room thick with old world charm. It was
best known for its selection of exotic meats — one of the few
places in the US where an adventurous diner could order up a plate
of horse or kangaroo. “We used to have bear, but bear meat was
abolished,” says proprietor Rene Bertagna. “You cannot import any
more bear.”

But these days, Bertagna isn’t serving so much as a whisker. It
began in early 2012, when he experienced a sudden 75 percent drop
off in customers on the weekend, the time he normally did most of
his business. The slump continued for months, for no apparent
reason. Bertagna’s profits plummeted, he was forced to lay off some
of his staff, and he struggled to understand what was happening.
Only later did Bertagna come to suspect that he was the victim of a
gaping vulnerability that made his Google listings open to
manipulation.

He was alerted to that possibility when one of his regulars
phoned the restaurant. “A customer called me and said, ‘Why are you
closed on Saturday, Sunday and Monday? What’s going on?’” Bertagna
says.

It turned out that Google Places, the search giant’s vast
business directory, was misreporting the Serbian Crown’s hours. Anyone Googling Serbian Crown, or
plugging it into Google Maps, was told incorrectly that the
restaurant was closed on the weekends, Bertagna says. For a
destination restaurant with no walk-in traffic, that was a fatal
problem.

“This area where the restaurant is located is kind of off the
beaten path,” says Bertagna’s lawyer, Christopher Rau. “It’s in a
wealthy subdivision of northern Virginia where a lot of government
employees live on these estates and houses with two- or three-acre
lots … It’s not really on the way to anything. If you’re going
there, it’s because you’ve planned to go there. And unless you know
that the place is going to be open, you’re probably not going to
drag yourself out.”

Bertagna immigrated to the U.S. from northern Italy when he was
young. He’s 74 now, and, he says, doesn’t own a computer — he’d
heard of the internet and Google but used neither. Suddenly, a
technological revolution of which he was only dimly aware was
killing his business. His accountant phoned Google and in an
attempt to change the listing, but got nowhere. Bertagna eventually
hired an Internet consultant who took control of the Google Places
listing and fixed the bad information — a relatively simple
process.

But by then, Bertagna says, his business was in a nose dive from
which he couldn’t recover — service suffered after the layoffs,
and customers stopped coming back. He shuttered the Serbian Crown
in April 2013.

Bertagna puts the blame for his restaurant’s collapse on Google,
and he’s suing the company in federal court in Virginia. His
lawyer’s theory is that a competing restaurant sabotaged the Google
Places listing to drive away the Serbian Crown’s customers, and he
argues that Google turns a blind eye to such shenanigans. Google’s
lawyers scoff at the lawsuit. “The Serbian Crown should not be
permitted to vex Google or this Court with such meritless claims,”
they wrote in a filing last month. (Google didn’t respond to
repeated inquiries for this story)

For a number of reasons, the claim is probably doomed in court.
But the premise of the lawsuit — that the Serbian Crown was
sabotaged online — isn’t as farfetched as it might seem.



A screenshot of the false FBI and Secret Service listings Bryan Seely created

Beneath its slick interface and crystal clear GPS-enabled vision
of the world, Google Maps roils with local rivalries,
score-settling, and deception. Maps are dotted with thousands of
spam business listings for nonexistent locksmiths and plumbers.
Legitimate businesses sometimes see their listings hijacked by
competitors or cloned into a duplicate with a different phone
number or website. In January, someone bulk-modified the Google
Maps presence of thousands of hotels around the country, changing the website
URLs to a commercial third-party booking site (which siphons off
the commissions).

Small businesses are the usual targets. In a typical case in
2010, Buffalo-based Barbara Oliver & Co
Jewelry
saw its Google Maps listing changed to “permanently
closed” at the exact same time that it was flooded with fake and
highly unfavourable customer reviews.

“We narrowed it down as to who it was. It was another jeweller
who had tampered with it,” says Barbara Oliver, the owner. “The
bottom line was the jeweller put five-star reviews on his Google
reviews, and he slammed me and three other local jewellers, all
within a couple of days.”

Oliver’s Google Maps listing was repaired, because she had
something Bertagna didn’t have: a web consultant on retainer
feeding and caring for her internet presence. That consultant, Mike
Blumenthal, says he’s countered a lot of similar tampering over the
years.

“I had a client whose phone number was modified through a
community edit,” says Blumenthal, who closely tracks Google Maps’
foibles in his blog. “It
was a small retail shop — interior design. I traced it back to a
competitor who left a footprint.”

These attacks happen because Google Maps is, at its heart, a
massive crowdsourcing project, a shared conception of the world
that skilled practitioners can bend and reshape in small ways using
tools like Google’s Mapmaker or Google Places for Business.

Google seeds its business listings from generally reliable
commercial mailing list databases, including infoUSA and Acxiom.
Once it’s in Google’s index, a business owner can claim a listing
through Google and begin curating it for free, adding photos, hours
of operation, a website address. Once your have that relationship
with Google, the company will upsell you on paid advertising,
which, after all, is Google’s financial lifeblood.

But if you ignore your Google Maps listing, you’re inviting
trouble. Ordinary users can submit community edits to your listing
with details like operating hours — as Barbara Oliver
discovered.



A screenshot of a spam locksmith positioned in the ocean three miles off the San Francisco coast

Blumenthal says Google has gotten much better at policing
malicious edits, to the point where they’re rare today. “Most of
these problems of community edit abuses were in the 2010 and 2011
range,” he says. Fake map listings are a less tractable problem.
Google allows anyone to enter a new business into Maps, and to
place it wherever they like. The company keeps the listing
invisible until it’s been verified through old fashioned
snail-mail. Google sends out a postcard with a PIN code, and the
business owner activates the listing by typing in the PIN.

The system has loopholes though, and troves of money-hungry
spammers looking for weaknesses. In February, an SEO
consultant-turned-whistleblower named Bryan Seely demonstrated the
risk dramatically when he set up doppelgänger Google Maps listings
for the offices of the FBI and Secret Service. Seely channeled the
incoming phone calls through to the real agencies while recording them.

The stunt got a lot of attention. The Secret Service told Seely
he was “a hero” for showing them the vulnerability. But despite the
coverage Seely says some of his methods remain operable today. He
proved it to me by creating a cheeky Google Maps listing in my name
at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “The heat died down and almost all of
the holes are still open,” Seely says.

Seely’s guess is that Serbian Crown was indeed a victim of
Google Maps sabotage. “People do it all the time — people have
even offered me money to get listing spammed or banned,” he says.
“There are legitimate businesses being put of out business.”

Demonstrating causation between a bad Google Maps listing and
Serbian Crown’s decline is going to be hard, though. For one thing,
the restaurant’s Yelp listing – also a big factor in
choosing a dinner reservation — is packed with abysmal, almost
frightening, reviews. And there are any number of reasons a
restaurant — even an old, established one — can fail, as Google’s
lawyers pointed out an angry June 17 motion to dismiss the
lawsuit.

“As the complaint tells it, The Serbian Crown restaurant was
forced to close its doors not because of rising rents, difficulty
sourcing ingredients, declining quality, poor service, changing
tastes, poor business decisions, increased competition, or any of
the other myriad reasons that can cause an established restaurant
to struggle,” wrote attorney Creighton Macy, of the law firm Wilson
Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

“Rather than accept that restaurants, even longstanding ones,
sometimes fail, the owner of this particular restaurant looked
around for someone to blame,” the lawyer wrote. “Who did he settle
on? Google.”

Even if Bertagna can prove the facts, as a legal matter Google
is probably untouchable because of Google Maps crowdsourced nature.
A federal law called CDA 230 gives Internet services broad immunity
from claims stemming from user-contributed content.

For his part, Bertagna says he hopes to reopen his restaurant
some day and begin serving lion again. “It’s like a veal. We served
it with a white mushroom, sauce and vegetables.”  Google Maps
is not optimistic about his chances. Today Serbian Crown’s listing reads simply, “Permanently closed.”

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This article originally appeared on Wired.com

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