Why are online map locations so sucky so often?

How many times have you noticed location data on Google Maps and other online mapping services that are out-of-date or just plain wrong? I encounter it quite often.

It hits close to home, too. While most of my company’s clients don’t usually have reason to visit our company’s office (because they’re from out of state or otherwise situated pretty far away from our location in Chestertown, MD), for the longest while Google Maps’s pin for our company pointed viewers to … a stretch of weeds in an empty lot.

It turns out, the situation isn’t uncommon. Recently, the Wawa gas-and-food chain hired an outside firm to verify its location data on Google, Facebook and Foursquare.  What Wawa found was that some 2,000 address entries had been created by users, including duplicate entries and ones with incorrect information.

Unlike a company like mine which doesn’t rely on foot traffic for business, for a company like Wawa, that’s the lifeblood of its operations. As such, Wawa is a high-volume advertiser with numerous campaigns and promotions going at once — including ones on crowdsourced driving and traffic apps like Google’s Waze.

With so much misleading location data swirling around, the last thing a company needs to see is a scathing review appearing on social media because someone was left staring at a patch of weeds in an empty lot instead being able to redeem a new digital coupon for a gourmet cookie or whatever.

Problems with incorrect mapping don’t happen just because of user-generated bad data, either. As in my own company’s case, the address information can be completely accurate – and yet somehow the map pin associated with it is misplaced.

Companies such as MomentFeed and Ignite Technologies have been established whose purpose is to identify and clean up bad map data such as this. It can’t be a one-and-done effort, either; most companies find that it’s yet another task that needs continuing attention – much like e-mail database list hygiene activities.

Perhaps the worst online map data clanger I’ve read about was a retail store whose pin location placed it 800 miles east of the New Jersey coastline in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  What’s the most spectacular mapping fail you’ve come across personally?

More raps for Google on the “fake reviews” front.

Google’s trying to not have its local search initiative devolve into charges and counter-charges of “fake news” à la the most recent U.S. presidential election campaign – but is it trying hard enough?

It’s becoming harder for the reviews that show up on Google’s local search function to be considered anything other than “suspect.”

The latest salvo comes from search expert and author Mike Blumenthal, whose recent blog posts on the subject question Google’s willingness to level with its customers.

Mr. Blumenthal could be considered one of the premiere experts on local search, and he’s been studying the phenomenon of fake information online for nearly a decade.

The gist of Blumenthal’s argument is that Google isn’t taking sufficient action to clean up fake reviews (and related service industry and affiliate spam) that appear on Google Maps search results, which is one of the most important utilities for local businesses and their customers.

Not only that, but Blumenthal also contends that Google is publishing reports which represent “weak research” that “misleads the public” about the extent of the fake reviews problem.

Mike Blumenthal

Google contends that the problem isn’t a large one. Blumenthal feels differently – in fact, he claims the problem as growing worse, not getting better.

In a blog article published this week, Blumenthal outlines how he’s built out spreadsheets of reviewers and the businesses on which they have commented.

From this exercise, he sees a pattern of fake reviews being written for overlapping businesses, and that somehow these telltale signs have been missed by Google’s algorithms.

A case in point: three “reviewers” — “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” — have all “reviewed” three very different businesses in completely different areas of the United States:  Bedoy Brothers Lawn & Maintenance (Nevada), Texas Car Mechanics (Texas), and The Joint Chiropractic (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina).

They’re all 5-star reviews, of course.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” won’t be found in the local telephone directories where these businesses are located. That’s because they’re figments of some spammer-for-hire’s imagination.

The question is, why doesn’t Google develop procedures to figure out the same obvious answers Blumenthal can see plain as day?

And the follow-up question: How soon will Google get serious about banning reviewers who post fake reviews on local search results?  (And not just targeting the “usual suspect” types of businesses, but also professional sites such as physicians and attorneys.)

“If their advanced verification [technology] is what it takes to solve the problem, then stop testing it and start using it,” Blumenthal concludes.

To my mind, it would be in Google’s own interest to get to the bottom of these nefarious practices. If the general public comes to view reviews as “fake, faux and phony,” that’s just one step before ceasing to use local search results at all – which would hurt Google in the pocketbook.

Might it get Google’s attention then?

Google: The Company Everyone Loves to Hate?

Google, the company people love to hate?What is it about Google that gets people so riled up? After all, it’s a company that has revolutionized the ease in which we find and process information, not to mention the way we consume video content.

If that seems like an overstatement, just think back 15 years or so to how you once researched questions or searched for information … like trudging to the public library or placing “wish-and-wait-for” phone calls to other offices or government agencies.

Maybe we get frustrated with Google because even though the company’s informal slogan is “Don’t be Evil” … every time we turn around, it seems the company is saying or doing something to (deliberately?) engender consumer dissatisfaction.

Consider the comments of Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, who speaks often about the role of Google and how it relates to the personal privacy of consumers. There he goes, wandering from media outlet to media outlet, dropping bon mots — others might call them “verbal bombshells” — like these:

 “[Google is] building an augmented version of humanity, building computers to help human do the things they don’t do well, better.”

 “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can, more or less, know what you’re thinking about.”

 “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

What’s more, Mr. Schmidt seems to be digging in his heels on Google Maps. I’ve blogged before about this controversial initiative, as it began to become evident that Google was collecting more than just photos of people’s homes.

Just this past week, Google finally admitted that its Street View vehicles had been scooping up a lot more than just “meaningless fragments” of information from unsecured WiFi networks as it sweeps through neighborhoods. The digital harvest has included full e-mail addresses and passwords.

Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president of engineering and research, seemed apologetic. “We are mortified by what happened,” he said.

But Eric Schmidt may have revealed the true feelings of the company when he suggested on CNN’s Parker-Spitzer program that the people who don’t like Google’s Street View vehicles taking pictures of their homes “can just move.”

Of course, complaining about Google is a great armchair activity that may be little more than petting grousing. I know of few (if any) people who would be willing to forego the benefits that Google’s vaunted information and content engine delivers.

Going forward, it does appear that Google may be a bit more receptive to the concerns people have expressed. This past Friday, the company announced that it has appointed a new “director of privacy” across its engineering and product management. Reportedly, Alma Whitten, the person appointed to this position, will be focusing on building privacy controls into products and internal practices.

We’ll see how that goes.

Smartphones surge … and phone apps follow right behind.

Smartphones surge in the marketplace ... phone apps right behind them.Media survey firm Nielsen is reporting that as of the end of 2009, about one in five wireless subscribers in the U.S. owned a smartphone. That’s up significantly from the ~14% who owned them at the end of 2008, and adoption is only expected to accelerate in the coming months.

So what’s going on with phone apps, now that a larger chunk of the population is able to download and use them? Nielsen is seeing about 15% of mobile subscribers downloading at least one app in a 30-day period.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those who own iPhones are more apt to download apps compared to people who own Android phones, Palms or BlackBerrys. Far more apps have been developed for the iPhone, although Android is feverishly trying to catch up.

Which apps are most popular? It goes without saying that games – free and paid – are quite popular. But the four most popular apps are Facebook, Google Maps, the Weather Channel and Pandora.

And where are the news apps in all this? Not even on the radar screen, it turns out.

… Seems people are getting more than enough news blasted out to them 24/7/365 without needing to sign up for a special app to deliver more of it — thank you very much.

Google’s Wi-Fi Data Collection Snafu

One of the news items that’s been bounding about the web and on the airwaves in recent days concerns an admission by Google that it “screwed up” by gathering private wireless data while taking pictures for its Street View mapping initiative.

The mishap came to light first in Australia, where Google was caught capturing 600 gigabytes worth of wi-fi data from personal and business wireless networks without owners’ permission. Google has since been accused of unauthorized interception of user personal data including e-mails, audio and video, which potentially could be linked to specific addresses.

Google insists that the personal data were “inadvertently” collected during the street sweeps by its large fleet of vehicles cruising cities in more than 30 countries.

[For those who are unfamiliar with Google’s Street View mapping tool, you can view an example here by vicariously sauntering down quaint, quiet Robinwood Avenue in Detroit’s North End – home of the late, lamented Marabel Chanin, the most famous inner city resident you’ve never heard of.]

Some observers may be content to take Google management at its word that personal data were “mistakenly” gathered during its street sweeps – despite the fact that this blunder was evidently repeated in Germany, Italy, France, Denmark, Austria, Ireland, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and the Czech Republic … as well as here in the U.S. in states like Connecticut and Missouri.

Consumer Watchdog calls Google’s action “a flagrant intrusion into consumers’ privacy.” And the Connecticut and Missouri attorneys general are now weighing in as well with their own investigations.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this story is not whether Sergey Brin, Larry Page and the other honchos at Google might or might not have nefarious plans for the use of personal wi-fi data. It’s the realization that such information can be collected at all.

And the next time, it might not be by such a benign organization.

What’s the latest news in this juicy story? Google reports that it has deleted only the personal data it collected in Ireland, Denmark and Austria. For the time being, it’s holding onto the rest.