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Gaming the Googlization of Everything

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, September 6 2011

Google has become so important to American business and society that the ease with which a business can be falsely reported closed on Google's location-based service, Google Places, now warrants a detailed, font-page story in the New York Times.

Google leans on users to flag businesses that have moved or closed up shop — but that opens the door to malicious behavior. Someone up to no good can trick Google into indicating that a company humming merrily along is actually shuttered; when users browsing Google for a new local deli or a hardware store bring up such a company's profile, they'll find it appended with a note that the place has been reported closed.

Here's the Times' Segal:

If there is a historical antecedent to “closing” a company on Google, it is a dirty trick that was fairly common in 19th-century politics, wherein supporters of a candidate would spread rumors that his opponent was dead. This didn’t always work — Thomas Jefferson prevailed in the election of 1800, despite reports of his demise — but the Internet corollary can have terrible consequences.

“For weeks, our bookings for September have been far lower than normal and we were wondering why,” said Charlene Cowan, who owns and operates Macadamia Meadows Farm, a bed-and-breakfast in Naalehu, Hawaii, which has been tagged as “permanently closed” for weeks. “I can’t imagine a customer is behind this — if someone doesn’t like their visit here, they’d complain on TripAdvisor. I can’t prove it, but this seems like something a competitor did.”

Segal reports that complaints from open businesses listed on Google Places as closed have become more and more frequent over recent months. So enervating is this practice, Segal reports, that one business owner engaged in a bit of online civil disobedience: He reported Google's Mountain View headquarters as closed, and posted a screenshot to his blog.

"In the spirit of discovery, I have once again embarked on a project to determine exactly how many 'closing reports' are required to actually show a business as closed on their Places Page," the blogger, search consultant Mike Blumenthal, wrote. "The answer: Only 2 even if you are Google."

The gimmick provoked a response from Google that Blumenthal posted to his blog. Since late August, Segal observes, owners of businesses that are tagged permanently closed get an e-mail alert notifying them of the change.