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Fraudulent “Closed” Reports

by Colin Rule
September 2011

Novo Justice Blog by Colin Rule

Colin Rule

“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 the address of a business, a description provided by the owner and links to photos, reviews and Google Maps. It also 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 was tight-lipped about its review methods and would not discuss them.

Google’s rivals, like Bing and Yahoo, have versions of Places — called Bing Local andYahoo Local — and these let users report a business as closed. But neither has anything close to Google’s traffic, which means they are the scene of far less mischief.

When Google created Places it had an eminently sensible type of crowd-sourcing in mind. The site contains millions of listings, and when owners close without updating their profile, the job falls to customers to keep information current. But like any open system, this one can be abused. Search engine consultants say that “closing” a business on Google has become an increasingly common tactic among unscrupulous competitors.

“I’d say that it was in June that we started to see a big uptick in complaints about this in online forums,” said Linda Buquet of Catalyst eMarketing in San Marcos, Calif. “It might be that a number of consultants are now offering services like ‘nuke your competitor’ in Google Places. But it could just be a competitor, acting alone.”

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 like this one, written in July: “Help! My business is listed ‘PERMANENTLY CLOSED’ on Google Maps even though it has always been open! Help!”

But this most likely represents a fraction of viable businesses that have been cyberpadlocked. Many owners, search consultants say, have no idea that they’ve been shuttered online, and many others fix the problem without asking anyone how to solve it.

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 already working on changes, which will be adopted in coming days, to prevent what he called “malicious or incorrect labeling.”{…}

“For weeks, our bookings for September have been far lower than normal and we were wondering why,” said Charlene Cowan, who owns and operates Macadamia Meadows Farm, a bed-and-breakfast in Naalehu, Hawaii, which has been tagged as “permanently closed” for weeks. “I can’t imagine a customer is behind this — if someone doesn’t like their visit here, they’d complain on TripAdvisor. I can’t prove it, but this seems like something a competitor did.”

The owner of a closed business, and customers who know better, can click on a button marked “not true,” which appears by all “reportedly closed” and “permanently closed” listings. In some instances, owners say, a business will “open” shortly thereafter. But other owners, like Ms. Cowan, 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 the last four days, I’ve hit that ‘not true’ button every six to eight hours,” said Daniel Navejas of RBI Divorce Lawyers of El Paso. “It’s getting old.” …”

There needs to be a centralized place for these reports to go. The big companies are not doing a good enough job policing these reports.

Biography


Colin Rule has worked at the intersection of technology and conflict resolution for the last two decades. He is CEO of Modria.com, an online dispute resolution service provider in Silicon Valley, and a non-resident Fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. From 2003 to 2011, he served as eBay and PayPal's first director of Online Dispute Resolution, designing and implementing systems that now resolve more than 60 million disputes each year. Mr. Rule is the author of Online Dispute Resolution for Business, published by Jossey-Bass in September 2002. He has presented and trained around the world for organizations including the U.S. Department of State, UNCITRAL, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution, as well as teaching at UMass-Amherst, Stanford, Southern Methodist University, and Hastings College of the Law. He has written and been interviewed extensively about the Internet since 1999, with columns and articles appearing in ACResolution, Consensus, Dispute Resolution Magazine, and Peace Review. He holds a master's degree from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution and technology, a B.A. in peace studies from Haverford College, and he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995-1997.



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Website: www.modria.com

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