Monday, July 7, 2014

How Google Map Hackers Can Destroy a Business at Will

Washington DC-area residents with a hankering for lion meat lost a valuable source of the (yes, legal) delicacy last year when a restaurant called the Serbian Crown closed its doors after nearly 40 years in the same location. The northern Virginia eatery served French and Russian cuisine in a richly appointed dining room thick with old world charm. It was best known for its selection of exotic meats—one of the few places in the U.S. where an adventurous diner could order up a plate of horse or kangaroo. “We used to have bear, but bear meat was abolished,” says proprietor Rene Bertagna. “You cannot import any more bear.” 
But these days, Bertagna isn’t serving so much as a whisker. It began in early 2012, when he experienced a sudden 75 percent drop off in customers on the weekend, the time he normally did most of his business. The slump continued for months, for no apparent reason. Bertagna’s profits plummeted, he was forced to lay off some of his staff, and he struggled to understand what was happening. Only later did Bertagna come to suspect that he was the victim of a gaping vulnerability that made his Google listings open to manipulation. 
He was alerted to that possibility when one of his regulars phoned the restaurant. “A customer called me and said, ‘Why are you closed on Saturday, Sunday and Monday? What’s going on?’” Bertagna says. 
It turned out that Google Places, the search giant’s vast business directory, was misreporting the Serbian Crown’s hours. Anyone Googling Serbian Crown, or plugging it into Google Maps, was told incorrectly that the restaurant was closed on the weekends, Bertagna says. For a destination restaurant with no walk-in traffic, that was a fatal problem.
Beneath its slick interface and crystal clear GPS-enabled vision of the world, Google Maps roils with local rivalries, score-settling, and deception. Maps are dotted with thousands of spam business listings for nonexistent locksmiths and plumbers. Legitimate businesses sometimes see their listings hijacked by competitors or cloned into a duplicate with a different phone number or website. In January, someone bulk-modified the Google Maps presence of thousands of hotels around the country, changing the website URLs to a commercial third-party booking site (which siphons off the commissions). 
Small businesses are the usual targets. In a typical case in 2010, Buffalo-based Barbara Oliver & Co Jewelry saw its Google Maps listing changed to “permanently closed” at the exact same time that it was flooded with fake and highly unfavorable customer reviews. 
“We narrowed it down as to who it was. It was another jeweler who had tampered with it,” says Barbara Oliver, the owner. “The bottom line was the jeweler put five-star reviews on his Google reviews, and he slammed me and three other local jewelers, all within a couple of days.”