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 Mr. 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 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 and Yahoo 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 did it to point out how annoying this is when it happens."
“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.”
“We know that accurate listings on Google Maps are an important tool for many business owners,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We take reports of spam and abuse very seriously and do our best to ensure the accuracy of a listing before updating it.”
If there is a historical antecedent to “closing” a company on Google, it is a dirty trick that was fairly common in 19th-century politics, wherein supporters of a candidate would spread rumors that his opponent was dead. This didn’t always work — Thomas Jefferson prevailed in the election of 1800, despite reports of his demise — but the Internet corollary can have terrible consequences.
“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.”
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. For a brief period, Google itself was “reportedly closed,” according to Places. “I did it to point out how annoying this is when it happens,” he said.
On Aug. 15, Mr. Blumenthal posted a screen shot of Google’s Places page “reportedly closed,” noting that it took just two people — him and a friend — to pull off this stunt. 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.
Mr. Blumenthal describes this as a good start, but hardly enough. “The company really ought to give a heads-up when a business is tagged ‘reportedly closed,’ ” because those words alone are often enough to put off customers, he said. “Google doesn’t understand how much fear and discomfort businesses have about this. One company gets to decide if you’re open or closed in the online world.”
Although they allow users to report a business as closed, Bing Local and Yahoo Local don’t yet seem to have as many problems.
Case in point: Macadamia Meadows Farm, that bed-and-breakfast in Hawaii, is open for business, according to both Bing Local and Yahoo Local. But after weeks of e-mails and even a call or two to Mountain View, its owner, Ms. Cowan, can’t scrub the “permanently closed” label from Google Places.
“A few days ago, I put on our Places page that we’re running a special,” she said. “I just hope people read that and think ‘Well, they must actually be open.’ ”