As an in-house SEO for Marriott.com for the past six years, I’ve been an avid SEOmoz blog reader, yet this is my first post. I’ve chosen to cover something near and dear to my heart – Google Maps. While there have been countless blog posts and articles written about the accuracy and accountability of Google Maps, I want to add another voice to the conversation – the one from the business community, which relies on Google to deliver accurate information to our customers.
In short, the visible failures of Google search results have had such an unwanted impact on Marriott’s business—one of the top 10 eCommerce sites on the web—that I felt compelled to reach out to the SEO community and to Google directly.
Google Maps has had spectacular, and very public, failures before. They’ve been documented in painstaking detail, from the Google Maps-based border disputes between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and Spain and Morocco, to the disappearance of the town of Sunrise, Florida. This is not an attempt to pile on, but it is a call to action: Google has a responsibility to ensure local data is accurate because local data is the bridge between search and the real world. And when information is wrong in local, it leads to real world consequences.
Organic Web Search vs. Local
My plea: Treat organic search results and local search results differently, because users do.
Organic search results are the world’s information, indexed and ranked by Google’s algorithm. There is an understanding that the information found here runs the entire spectrum of possibilities, from low quality information to high quality, accurate to inaccurate, articles written by the New York Times, and blog posts by illogical ranters. People take this digital data with a grain of salt and apply their own critical thinking to differentiate the good from the bad.
Local data and local search results, however, are data that users rely on to be 100% accurate. It could be that they’ve been taught from a young age that maps are accurate. Think back to when you’d use an Atlas or Encyclopedia (I know…what’s that?), and you’d analyze the specific details of a topographical map, or the exact scale used to measure distances. The thought never crossed your mind that much of this data could simply be wrong. Even in more recent digital history, when people enter in an address in their car’s GPS unit, they don’t assume it will be wrong some of the time.
I assume that Google allows for a certain amount of data inaccuracy as they “bring the power of search to previously unexplored areas”, and scale those products up, but in my mind that just doesn’t work in local.
People expect perfect data in maps. It’s as simple as that.
Marriott’s Google Campaign
So how does this relate to Marriott? Well just like any other brick and mortar business, Marriott relies on Google Maps to accurately display information about our 3,500+ hotels around the world to our customers.
To ensure accurate data is being provided to Google from the source, we centrally manage Google Places at the corporate level via a monthly bulk feed to Google Places, but often this is not enough to guarantee accuracy. I’ve seen every inaccuracy you can think of…some of which are detailed below. I’m sure you all have seen many of the same.
Google Maps Inaccuracies
1. Problem: Incorrect map location
Consequences: Customers physically go to the wrong location, sometimes miles away. In some cases they go to a competing hotel or an unrelated business. And sometimes it’s a high crime area of a city. In the end, Marriott is responsible for irate customers, lost business, and putting customers in dangerous areas.
Example: Residence Inn Pittsburgh Airport Corapolis
2. Problem: Incorrect phone numbers
Consequences: I’ve seen phone numbers reach hotel general manager’s private cell phones and land-lines, competing hotels, tour operators, unrelated businesses, and in the worst examples, random phone numbers of the general public.
Example: I wanted to showcase a live example of a number that reaches someone’s home phone line, but didn’t want them to get any more Marriott-related calls, so here’s the Boston Marriott Copley Place’s phone number that actually reaches Dollar Car Rental.
3. Problem: Google creates “Merged Listings” where Place Pages for two different hotels are combined, leading to unbounded confusion.
Consequences: Customers looking for information for one hotel find it for another, or can’t find anything at all for their specific hotel. This can lead to wrong phone calls, reviews not related to the actual hotel they are researching, linking to the wrong content online, or having customers physically go to the wrong hotel.
Example: Cologne Marriott and Cologne Renaissance hotel information merged
4. Problem: Countries that don’t support Place Pages still have listings
Consequences: There are various countries in which Marriott has a hotel presence, yet Place Pages are not supported. In these instances the hotel data that we provide to Google is rejected, and official Place Pages are not created.
While official Place Pages don’t exist in these unsupported countries, much of the time hotels still have listings that appear in Google Maps – most likely automated.
These auto-generated listings frequently have errors with their data, link to competitors or third party websites, or are located miles away from the true hotel location. Even worse, we have no editorial control over these listings, so can’t easily edit or remove them.
Its okay that Place Pages are not supported in every country – but rejecting Marriott data, and then auto-generating incorrect listings, seems counter intuitive and leads to a poor user experience.
Example: JW Marriott Costa Rica
5. Problem: Ghost Listings: We are correctly providing hotel information to Google Places, but the listing does not exist for some reason, or is stuck in “Pending” status limbo, for unspecified reasons.
Consequences: Frustrated customers get more frustrated looking for an invisible hotel.
Example: It’s hard to show an example of something that’s not showing up!
Google Place Pages in Universal Search Results – Oct. 2010
As we know, Google released a major shakeup in their search results in October 2010, which gave Place Pages more prominent visibility directly in main search results. Place Pages no longer existed as a separate entity from the organic listings (using the 3, 7 or 10 pack lists), but were instead merged with the natural results that Google found to be relevant. At that point, not only were mistake-riddled Place Pages MORE visible, but the pairing of organic result with Place Pages opened up a whole new can of worms.
Here’s an example of hybrid listing inaccuracies (organic + places). The algorithm that combines natural listings with “relevant” Place Pages is frequently wrong. People trust it anyway.
Example: [Abilene Hotels] leads to an organic listing for the Fairfield Inn Suites Abilene, which is incorrectly merged with the Courtyard Abilene’s Place Page content.
Appeal to Enterprise SEOs
So this is our experience with local. I’d love to hear from SEOs in other industries who manage local search efforts, and specifically Google Maps, for enterprise level campaigns. Some general questions are:
- Are you seeing similar errors? If so, which industries are you in (travel, retail, health, etc.)?
- What model or structure do you use? Do you rely on your individual business units to create and manage their own Google Place Pages, or centrally manage it at the corporate level?
- How do you resolve these errors at the business level?
- What would you recommend to Google to improve their mapping product and the quality of local results in general?
Appeal to Google
As Google has stated, their #1 priority is “providing the best user experience possible”. The same principles that improve the experience for Google users improve the experience of Marriott customers on Google – they are one and the same. But in the current environment the customers that have come to rely on Google Maps for accurate information are led astray. The way that Google addresses local data, versus how they address organic search quality, MUST be different. I realize it’s easier said than done, but here are some suggestions on how I think the product can be improved:
1. Open up the Google Maps black box and assign businesses Google Maps account managers. Let us speak to product experts within the company. A product that promotes data which must be accurate should have open communication with the data owners. While Place Pages is not a monetized product like PPC (yet!), it contains downstream revenue for Google, via paid placements in Maps, Tags, Android and soon to be coupon content. Working with businesses in this space is just good business in itself.
2. Review the local algorithm because the current one is broken. Crawling and indexing local data from around the web is perfectly fine, but there needs to be a more rigorous verification process to actually display information.
3. Review the local algorithm, part 2…specifically data clustering. I realize the goal is to make the most “robust” local listing as possible, so you cluster data from multiple sources. But if a business has claimed its listings, why continue to add data from other sources? If a business claims each of their Place Pages, stop “clustering” data to their listings which they don’t approve of, and that they can’t edit or remove. Much of it is wrong anyway, so it doesn’t lead to improved user experience.
4. Review the local algorithm, part 3….specifically the algorithm that creates organic +Place page hybrid listings. It doesn’t work most of the time.
5. Don’t allow for community-based, wiki style edits. While I love Wikipedia, the accuracy of its data can be hit or miss. Local doesn’t have that luxury. Allowing for the community to add and edit local information does not lead to improved quality of content, it leads to inaccurate and hijacked listings. If you do allow this, then cultivate and incentivize a community of dedicated editors like Wikipedia has.
6. Less automation, more manual optimization. Yes I realize you’re not in the business of manual anything, but the current automated process leads to mistakes only human intelligence can decipher and fix. In line with comment #1, it’s just good business to treat the local product with more respect, because in the end it opens up new relationships with businesses, and a different revenue stream than simply PPC.