Did Google's Attempt To Fix Racist Results Screw Over Businesses?

Chris CrumSearch

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It looks like Google Maps vandalism and Google's way of addressing it may have led to a massive rankings shift in local search results, which can obviously have a major impact on businesses.

Have you noticed any drastic changes in local search results? Let us know in the comments.

Last week, news came out that Google Maps had been tampered with to lead users to the White House and other locations when a user searched for certain racist queries. As soon as this was pointed out in a Washington Post article, Google released a statement.

"Some inappropriate results are surfacing in Google Maps that should not be, and we apologize for any offense this may have caused. Our teams are working to fix this issue quickly," it said.

Not long after that, Google said:

“We were deeply upset by this issue, and we are fixing it now. We apologize this has taken some time to resolve, and want to share more about what we are doing to correct the problem. At Google, we work hard to bring people the information they are looking for, including information about the physical world through Google Maps. Our ranking systems are designed to return results that match a person’s query. For Maps, this means using content about businesses and other public places from across the web. But this week, we heard about a failure in our system—loud and clear. Certain offensive search terms were triggering unexpected maps results, typically because people had used the offensive term in online discussions of the place. This surfaced inappropriate results that users likely weren’t looking for.”

“Our team has been working hard to fix this issue. Building upon a key algorithmic change we developed for Google Search, we’ve started to update our ranking system to address the majority of these searches—this will gradually roll out globally and we’ll continue to refine our systems over time. Simply put, you shouldn’t see these kinds of results in Google Maps, and we’re taking steps to make sure you don’t."

As previously reported, That “key algorithmic change” involved tackling Googlebombs – the practice of making sites rank for certain, often derogatory searches by linking to the site behind “obscure or meaningless queries.” The most famous Google bomb involved George W. Bush’s page ranking for “miserable failure”.

Google fixed the Google bomb issue a long time ago didn't it? How could this have happened? Here's how industry veteran Danny Sullivan explained it in a post last week:

To understand more, say Google knows about a local sporting goods store. The owner of that store might explain in the description it provides to Google Maps that it sells baseball, football and hockey equipment. It also sells other sporting equipment, but if these things aren’t also listed in its description or on its associated web site, the store might not be deemed relevant for those things.

With the Pigeon Update, Google sought to correct this. Imagine that some customer of the site wrote a blog post saying that the store was a great place to get skiing equipment. Google, seeing the business named in that post, might effectively add this information to the business listing, making it relevant for skiing equipment. To our understanding, there doesn’t even have to be a link to the business site or listing in Google Maps. Using a business name alone might be enough to create the connection.

It appears Google's fix ended up creating a new problem, at least for many businesses who had gotten used to their local result rankings. As Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable points out, there has been a lot of talk in local search forums about changes that have led to "massive ranking" shifts. He attributes this to the Googlebomb fix, as most discussion of the changes began right after Google's apology.

Here's a sample of what Google Local Specialist Linda Buquet said in a post at Local Search Forum. "Results seem to be more national organic and less localized. PLUS even if you set location to where you client is, the organic results you see are all for the actual location you are searching from and you don't get results that are localized to the search location setting. PLUS packs are smaller and more scattered if you don't use a GEO modifier. Just all kinds of changes!...the majority of consumers search without GEO. So most consumers are going to be seeing theses smaller pack/less localized results."

Local search guy Mike Blumenthal talks more about the "screwy" location results here.

It's entirely possible that Google will get everything back in order, but as we've seen with many updates in the past, that can often take a lot of time, and Google is probably more concerned about the vandalism that led to all of this more than some shuffled rankings for the time being. This has been tremendously pad PR for the company, not only due to the highly offensive, racist nature of the most recent case, but also the fact that it is only the latest example in a string of attacks on Google Maps. That's simply not good for the reputation of such an important product.

Unfortunately, businesses have little they can do to recover their listings until Google makes changes on its end.

To be clear, it's not a sure thing that the Googlebomb fix is actually what caused the "massive" changes in local results. It's a theory that's out there, mainly due to the timing and the location-related nature of both things.

Buquet said in a Google+ comment last night, "I mentioned that at 1st too, but this does not seem related now that I think more about it. They were going to Google bomb it. But Chiropractor and Dentist are not terms they would Google bomb. And the whole layout is different for non-GEO terms, which does not seem to jive with the White House deal."

Ultimately, the actual cause doesn't necessarily matter to businesses who have to deal with the blow Google has dealt with. It seems like things acre screwed up enough that it will need to come down to a fix on Google's end. Will it happen? In another Google+ post last week, the issue of location settings was brought up, and Google's John Mueller said that nothing had changed, and that they "use a bunch of factors for geotargeting," but after others (including Blumenthal) chimed in, Mueller said he'd double check".

What are your thoughts on the issue? Discuss.

Image via Cezary p, Wikimedia Commons

Chris Crum

Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.