Earlier this year, Google introduced a new feature for the Android version of Google Maps. This is how Google describes it: “In Google Maps, you can ask and answer questions about the places and business you see. Business owners and others can respond to these Q&As directly.” Very nice feature for the users of Google Maps, right? In my view, it indeed is – but there are some important and potentially problematic aspects of it that both the users of Google Maps and the owners of businesses shown on Google Maps are completely unaware of.
For business owners the problem is quite straightforward: a lot of them (especially smaller businesses) are simply unaware of the existence of this feature – and often even completely unaware of the way their business is represented on Google Maps. As mentioned above, the description given by Google for the new Q&A feature states that Business owners and others can respond to these Q&As. This raises some questions: How do business owners get to see these questions? Is there some kind of notification system? And if so: how does Google know who is the owner of which business?
To anwser the questions in reverse order: Google knows because there is an option in Google Maps to claim your business. The process behind it includes various steps to make sure that random users can’t start claiming random companies – for whatever reason, good or bad. One of those steps is that Google sends a card containing a code to the postal address being claimed. Knowing that, answering the other 2 questions is easy: whenever there is a question about a business which is already claimed, Google simply sends a notification to the person who has claimed the business.
Possibly more problematic for business owners is the addtion of “and others” in Google’s definition of who can answer questions submitted to Maps. Having no inside contacts at Google, I have no way to tell exactly who is meant with this, but I know for sure that Local Guides are part of it. Google Local Guides are people who add missing information (opening hours, website, telephone number, etc.), reviews or pictures to Google Maps and check if the information listed on maps is still up to date, and then suggest changes if needed or check change suggestions submitted by others. The reason I know for sure that Local Guides receive notifications if new questions are submitted (typically concering places for which they have added a picture, review or a missing piece of information) is simple: I am a Local Guide myself, and am consequently receiving alerts about such questions from time to time.
A lot of business are not aware that there is such a thing as Google Local Guides, and especially what this means for the information dispalyed about them can become a problem – even more so if they have not claimed their business on Google Maps. In those cases Google can’t check directly with those businesses if the information provided by Local Guides is correct or not. When I explained this to a local shop owner in my home town, she reacted quite surprised and asked me: “So, basically anyone can simply change the info shown about my shop without any way for me to contol this?”. Well, if you haven’t claimed your business: yes.
By the way: a small, but important note in the documentation Google provides about asking questions about businesses is the following one: “You can only ask or answer questions on Android devices.” This might or might not change in the future, but for now it is crucial that you are aware of this: if your business has been claimed, but you don’t have Google Maps on any Android device, you will probably get an email when someone has suggested a change to the info about your business, but you will still not be aware of questions submitted about your business…
In the beginning of this post I mentioned that also the users of the Q&A feature of Google Maps are unaware of an important aspect of it. And that became clear to me from the type of questions I was alerted about: people have no idea that whatever they post there will be shown publicly. Judging from the questions I’ve seen, I have the impression that most users interpret the Q&A feature not as ‘questions about a business or place, shown to everyone and hopefully answered by some other user who knows the place’ (what Google intended it to be) but rather as ‘questions to the owners of a business that will only be seen by those owners’. Some specific examples to illustrate my point: “Are those grey men’s shirts from the flyer still there?” (OK, pretty harmless); “Are there still seats available for the show next week? I’d like to surprise my friends with tickets” (still relatively harmless, but a real spoiler if one of the friends happens to see it); “Can I apply for an addtional credit on my account? I typically have 1800 EUR deposited on it every month.” (not so harmless, if you ask me).
This final example also raises an additional question to think about for business owners: how many Google Maps users will realize that the only parties in charge of the fact whether this embarrasing question will be shown or not to all Maps users are those users themselves (you can always delete questions you posted yourself) and Google and not the business owner?
So: if you are a business owner and have not yet claimed your company on Google Maps, there are two things you urgently need to do. Follow this blog (you never know what I might unravel next), and claim your business on Google Maps now!