What happens when Google declares a thriving company is dead?

Because of a quirk in Google's crowdsourcing strategy, some businesses have been marked "closed" when they're actually flourishing.

Google Maps
Misreporting has lead Google to say that certain stores are permanently closed when they're actually thriving. Pictured, Google's listing of a McDonald's in Boston that actually did close for good.

It’s been a long day, and you’re looking forward to dinner at that café you heard about from your friend a few days back. You look up the address on Google Maps, and … wait, what? It’s permanently closed? That’s weird; your friend said she was just there a few days ago.

This scenario has been playing out more and more frequently over the past few months, as healthy businesses – ones that are, in reality, open and eager for customers – find themselves listed as “closed” due to a quirk in Google’s crowdsourcing techniques. David Segal at the New York Times notes that many businesses have found themselves digitally shuttered for only a few hours, but sometimes the problem can last for weeks. And all the while, potential customers may be passing up the place, assuming it’s a goner.

The quirk lies in the way Google Places, the hub that feeds location data to Google Maps, accepts user input. A Places listing usually contains, in addition to the business’s address, description, and reviews, a drop-down arrow enabling users to “report a problem” with the business. One of the problems that can be reported is that “this place is permanently closed.” Once enough users report that a business is closed, the business’s digital storefront can be labeled either “reportedly closed” or “permanently closed.”

Google’s M.O. isn’t malicious – they’re harnessing the power of crowds to keep listings up to date, rather than trying to manually curate profiles or relying on business owners to update their listings when they close shop or move. But it only takes a few malicious users – such as unscrupulous competitors – to mark a business as “closed” online. The problem apparently started becoming widespread back in June.

Google does provide a way for a wrongly-shuttered business to be “reopened” online, but it’s not always effective. Next to any business that’s been marked “closed,” there’s a link reading “Not true?” Clicking it will, in some cases, remove the “closed” designation, but many business owners have reported the problem persisting for days or weeks, in spite of their efforts to remove the label. Like most algorithms at Google, the alchemy whereby a business is digitally closed or reopened remains a guarded trade secret – or at least shrouded in mystery.

For its part, Google has already begun taking steps to fix the system. The Times reports that a Google spokesman promised changes – he didn’t specify what kind – would be coming in the next few days to prevent “malicious or incorrect labeling” of businesses. And starting a few weeks ago, the company has begun sending an email alert to business owners if their place is marked as “permanently closed,” so at least they’ll know to take action if that’s not the case.

Readers: have you ever been tricked into thinking your favorite place was gone forever? Have any ideas for how Google can put a stop to malicious markings? Let us know in the comments.

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