Is Google Losing its Way With Maps?

We all know how useful Google maps are. For me, when I am going somewhere I haven’t been before, I tend to look it up on Google maps. I even use the Streetview feature to see what it looks like so I can recognize it when I arrive. Google has worked hard to add more features and push the maps tool across a variety of platforms. However the strength of maps is the data that it contains and recently we have been coming across a lot of incorrect data.

For instance whilst working with a client in the financial industry it was pointed out to me that Maps had a location of theirs listed that has never actually existed. It was in fact a location of a competitor. However the phone number listed there was the number of our clients call center. This mismatch of data seemed confusing. How would Google ascertain that there was a financial institution at the location but have the details of it mixed up with one of its competitors?

Well, in order to explain why this might happen, you have to understand where Google gets a lot of its maps information from. Google has a number of partnerships with Local directories and listing companies. Their most prominent one is with Yellow pages. On a daily basis Google takes a feed from Yellow pages to update its map data. The Yellow Pages ascertains the existence of a business or residence based on a phone number and this is where the problem lies. Sometimes the phone number list addresses that are completely different to the actual location of the business. However Google takes the feed and verifies the location based off of this data. This can lead to a variety of mismatches in information and when you add in the fact the Google takes in multiple data sources on top of the Yellow pages feed you can see where problems can arise

I think this puts Google in an interesting position. Typically they have positioned themselves as the facilitators of data & information, a source for you to access and find information. It was never their information, so you the user had to assess its validity. However with the maps project this has been turned on its head and they are now the curators of data. It’s now Google’s responsibility to ensure that the information we see in their maps is accurate. This is causing Google some problems. As the ‘original’ source of information the onus is on them to get it right and relying on their third party partnerships to always provide them the correct information is not entirely working.

Typically they have relied on a ‘crowdsourcing’ model to validate the data that they have in their listings. If the user sees something wrong he can claim a listing and correct it. However not all listings are claimable. In the case of the incorrect financial institution a postcard couldn’t be sent and the phone numbers were not able to be called to verify ownership. This is probably not the only time that erroneous and misleading data occurs in Google Maps. There are probably thousands of examples of listings that do not exist or have inconsistencies.

Is this a problem Google should care about? Well, yes! Let’s take a practical example that we have come across recently. If you look up the address for the MEC (Mountain Equipment Coop) in Toronto, Google will tell you it’s situated on King Street East. It’s not! The real location of the store is King Street West. MEC has gone to great lengths to rectify this mistake through Google’s self administration tools and reporting but the mistake still persists and people are going to the wrong location. This ultimately reflects badly on Google Maps not MEC.

What’s more, poor quality information undermines the value of the Maps product. Recently Google started selling tags on their map listing. For $25 per month you can enhance your listing with a tag. See our blog post on Google Places Tags.  If people stop trusting the information in Maps they’ll stop using it and Google will be less likely to sell their tags. If you’re standing outside King Street East looking for MEC you might not be so keen to check Google Maps next time you’re lost and that’s a problem for Google.

Google’s position on this has always been that information changes and that there are ways that users can update the information so that it can constantly evolve and be adjusted. However this is not always possible. Google needs to ensure that its self regulating process works so that when we, the user, highlight a mistake it can get fixed quickly. I think the problem has been that the maps tools is not a huge earner for Google so the manpower to enhance the reporting aspect of it has never been there. Nevertheless, now that they are looking at it as a potential revenue stream they need to ensure quality is ever more present and solutions to the problems of updating erroneous listing quickly and efficiently need to be found. Simply directing users to send in an error report to the black hole of Google customer service is probably not good enough.

Whatever the solution Google comes up with it’s going to need to be scalable, maps is a huge project. I think it will be interesting to see what Google does to ensure quality in what is now a data accuracy project. Can the biggest company with the largest brains show us how to get it right? Try going to MEC on the weekend and see!

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