Google has just announced that they’ve launched “Descriptive Terms” to appear with business listings in map search results. According to them, these descriptive terms are some of the most common terms found in user reviews, blogs, web pages and other online references which describe the business. For instance, if you search for “Barbeque Restaurants”, you might see a business which lists such items as “banana pudding”, “pork chops”, “texas style”, “baked potato” and “chicken poppers”:
So, the cool part of this idea is that the feature will highlight user-generated terms which are frequently used in reference to the business. This is a type of an ontology formed by the vox populi, or common man. More properly, these Descriptive Terms begin forming what’s known as a “folksonomy“, which started coming into vogue with social media, particularly around the concept of tag clouds.
(It’s very slightly ironic that Google Maps has now deployed what are essentially small tag clouds with business listings, since I’ve heard some Google Engineers mildly disparage tag clouds as being potentially un-userfriendly and potentially bad on sites in some cases!)
But, the really UNCOOL part of the new Descriptive Terms is that Google appears to’ve launched these willy-nilly without properly safeguarding against sensitive/bad terms that they can end up highlighting.
With very minor testing, I can see numerous instances where the terms selected by the algorithm are inappropriate and unfairly damaging to the businesses.
How would you like to have your restaurant business characterized with the term “terrible food”, culled out of the review by a disatisfied customer?
Or, if you’re a towing company where you’re often despised by those whom are towed, yet liked by property owners, you might have a lot of negative reviews which could get your business attractive labels like “steal” and “complaint”:
Or, if you were a doctor, how would you feel about being tagged with phrases like “pretends to care” — and if you’re a dry cleaner, how about getting displayed with “stains” and “ruined”:
Even more entertaining, if you were a hotel, would you like your listing sporting such amenities as “bed bugs”?!?
It’s not particularly surprising that Google Maps has launched this without really caring about how this could negatively impact a lot of businesses. Quite a few of the random things that the algorithms are pulling as sample information to display with listings are potentially bad. For instance, not only are reviews snippets displayed below listings, but the same negative review can get sucked into the tooltip that is displayed when the business’s icons are moused-over on the maps (see the example I pulled just a few days ago where penises are featured over a university).
Perhaps I shouldn’t call out how bad Google’s cleanup of this new feature is, because I’ve no doubt that it will result in more business for me. Just for example, I’ve helped out a business recently which had received a negative review from a disgruntled former employee, so the business’s tooltip labeled the company location as a “sweatshop”.
However, I am very concerned that this sort of casual disregard for what is likely to happen is continuing, and it’s going to result in a lot more malicious behavior among competitors as well as small businesses reacting by posting more shill reviews in self-defense.
Since Google apparently deployed this with no mechanism for businesses to be able to modify how their own listing information may appear in search results, companies have no other real choice than to get shill reviews posted on their behalf in order to try to offset negative content.
Google can get up on a high-horse and preach about how companies should not post false reviews, but if your listing in the search results is labeling you as a bad guy, then you must do something fast or lose your business. A major issue with the current arrangement is that it revokes your ability to take negative consumer feedback, improve your customer service, and improve business. If you get labeled as a bad-guy at the outset, you no longer have customers for whom to improve service.
The reviews and ratings arena has already seen more than its fair share of malicious/false reviews posted by unethical competitors, too, and the increased prominence of descriptive terms derived from reviews will result in more offensive behavior as small businesses notice how the system works. As it stands, all they need to do is post a very few false reviews in Google itself, in other reviews sites, or even on blogs they control and they can viciously slice off business from their competitor!
At the moment, it looks to me like all it takes is about two shill reviews of “bed bugs” to totally ruin a hotel. And, it’s even easier to damn a business with faint praise — check out the hotels which are now labeled with “small rooms” and “tiny rooms” in Manhattan, NYC (where virtually all the hotel rooms are small).
It’s disappointing to see such a feature rolled out without some mechanism in place for handling these situations. It’s not all that surprising, considering how Google Maps employees have told us that there is no customer testing performed for these products with business owners.
The sad part about it is that these Descriptive Terms mostly seem completely useless from a consumer point of view. When searching for “theatres” its completely not a surprise that they have “bathrooms”. Really, Google? That’s the term you wanted to highlight? It’s not helpful for “nightclubs” to display the names of bands that previously played there. It’s no surprise that “seafood restaurants” might have “new england clam chowder” or “lobster rolls” nor is it surprising to find “dentists” who offer “root canals”.
The bizarre random terms that are showing up are not helpful, either. “Front desk”, “told me”, “conveniently located”, and more. It’s hard to believe that they performed usability or user-experience testing with these at all before launching them.