On January 14th, Google made local search marketing news when thousands of hotel business listings were hijacked by RoomsToBook. The listings were hijacked so that RTB could direct search traffic to their reservation site, away from the hotels’ reservation pages, allowing RTB to collect reservation fees from the hotels.
There are great discussions going on as to how RTB was able to hijack so many business listings on Google. An overview of a few theories can be found here, but one we thought was important to address is Mike Blumenthal’s suggestion that the hijackers preyed on listings that were managed by the bulk import process.*
We don’t believe brands that use the bulk tool are at a greater risk of having their listings hijacked. SIM manages over 1,500 hotel listings on Google+, most of them through the bulk tool, and of all our listings, only 1 had its URL switched.
But given that assurance, it is important to be aware that there are many things going on with Google in terms of managing listings in bulk.
Recent Changes in Google Business Listing Management
Last year, Google began a phased transition from the old Places for Business interface to the new Google+ dashboard with the goal of providing a more streamlined data update process, as well as improving data security.
To this latter point, Google made a key change – listings can no longer be claimed by multiple parties into multiple accounts. Whereas previously, claiming a listing did not mean you ‘owned’ that listing and any claimed listing could be double-claimed, in the new environment, listings are managed by one verified claimant and cannot be reclaimed.
At this point, bulk users still don’t have access to the new dashboard, which has only been rolled out to newly claimed Google+ listings and a subset of manually claimed businesses. Listings managed in bulk still contend with the various bugs in the Places dashboard and don’t have the added data integrity that comes with being a truly verified claimant.
Current State of the Bulk Tool
Since listings managed in bulk still reside in the old dashboard, they are eligible be double-claimed into the old as well as the new dashboard. In these cases, Google will merge the multiple sources of info, usually with one source taking precedence. From the examples we’ve seen in some of our accounts, if a bulk listing is reclaimed into the new interface, it will become a verified Plus page and data from the new interface largely dominates.
Even if no one reclaims your bulk-managed listing, Google may still merge it if another claimed listing exists for the same location. Listings in the old Places dashboard are given less data authority because Google recently began viewing bulk uploads more as a data feed than a verification method. As Blumenthal noted, the bulk data might be given some preference, but not much more than any of Google’s other sources.
Recently, our team contacted Google after noticing an unusual number of listings sitting in a pending status in one of our bulk accounts. Google confirmed that some of the listings were impacted by a bug affecting the Places dashboard where actual live listings are falsely labeled as being in a ‘204 pending’ state. Since undergoing the new dashboard rollout, Google has not given Places bugs priority, meaning this bug is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. We also found that a notable portion of these 204 pending listings were in fact merged listings that had been double-claimed into either the old or new dashboard. While we can’t confirm that this bug is more likely to impact merged listings, we speculate there may be a connection.
Aside from the 204 pending listings, the majority of the listings we saw were actually pending and had been sitting in that state for much longer than Google’s reported timeframe of 2-4 weeks. We are waiting to hear back from Google, but this may just be another example of the long data delays bulk listings in Places may see.
Given the increased data integrity and faster, cleaner data push process in the new dashboard, we have our fingers crossed bulk users may be able to get in on the action soon.
What Does the Future Hold?
While our team is in regular contact with Google over the changes and bugs that appear from bulk management, our most recurring question is when we can expect their bulk tool to be upgraded. Recently, Google indicated they’re working on the new tool and it may be ready to release in the first half of 2014.
As always, Google is keeping details quiet, so we don’t have any specifics to report. So we’ve gone ahead and taken the liberty to roadmap the product for Google. Here are the top 5 items we believe, or desperately hope, will be part of the tool.
1) A New Interface
This one is a no brainer. When Google released the upgrades to manually claimed listing management, a new interface was the major change most users saw. The interface was faster and more intuitive, but it also enabled users to connect various Google+ products to their listing.
2) Tighter Security on Listing Management
As described earlier, one big change to managing manually claimed listings actually came from how many accounts a listing could be claimed into.
With the new bulk tool, Google may find it hard to abide by the “one account for management” rule, since both the brand and location may need to contribute to a listing’s information. That said, we anticipate new rules around how a listing is managed when it is claimed both manually and via bulk.
3) Local/Social Management
Historically Google bulk has only managed local listing information. Listings loaded via bulk couldn’t have the Google+ social component; to make a listing social, the listing had to be manually claimed in another account. Since pushing interactions on Google+ seems to be a high priority for Google, it seems only natural that Google would give brands the ability to merge social into their bulk managed listings.
We’re not suggesting that social messages/interactions would be managed in bulk. Instead, the social option would be available on a listing by listing basis for locations that were loaded and approved via the bulk tool.
4) Multiple User Management
The most elegant solution for points 2 and 3 above would be if Google allowed multiple users to manage a single listing. One approach might involve the brand owning a primary account for all listings, while each location could have a separate login to manage their listing.
This approach allows multiple users to manage one listing. Corporate could update basic information while locations can manage social interactions, respond to reviews, post coupons, or take on other location-specific tasks.
An additional benefit of housing all locations in one account is that Google could create a parent-child relationship between the brand’s Google+ page and the local brick-and-mortar pages. This relationship gives brands greater incentive to use Google+, since their customers could benefit from both the local and brand experience. Plus, it provides Google with more future opportunities to develop tools aimed at brand to location management.
5) Integration with Google Analytics
This is our wishlist item, which we’re pretty confident Google will leave off the initial launch.
One major pain point in managing multiple Google business listings, whether bulk or manually claimed, is the inability to get aggregate reporting. By integrating with Google Analytics, or offering an “Analytics Lite,” Google would be able to offer brands the one thing they are always craving – additional insight into performance.
While Google currently provides analytics at a location level, gathering this data on a regular basis isn’t a manageable option when there are many locations to be reviewed.
Using Google’s bulk tool shouldn’t be considered a security risk for large brands. Google has a review and approval process to ensure that competitors aren’t trying to hijack listings, and while no process is completely foolproof, we’ve found Google to be diligent in their process.
That doesn’t mean that bulk is currently a perfect solution, it simplifies the management of multiple listings, but it does lack functionality when compared to the latest Google+ interface. Hopefully though, Google’s indication that they won’t be spending time on certain bugs due to a soon-to-be-released upgraded bulk tool suggests that bulk users may soon get the similar functionality.
Our sincerest hope is that in creating this new tool Google has taken the time to consider the nuanced needs of bulk listing management.
* [Update: The original post incorrectly stated that Mike Blumenthal's suspected that the hijackers used the bulk import process to take over listings, when in fact his point is that hijackers may have focused on listings that were bulk imported since they were not in a claimed status.]