After four decades of being a local jewel in Washington DC, a restaurant called Serbian Crown was forced to shut its doors for good. Best known for it’s adventurous and exotic food such as kangaroo and horse, owner Rene Bertagna depicts how his once well to do business went from riches to closure overnight.
It started in 2012 when Bertagna saw a 75% drop in customers over a weekend which was the time where he had most of his business. This spiral continued for months to the point he had to fire staff and he couldn’t understand why this was happening. It finally dawned on him that he may be a victim of the vulnerability of his business listed on Google’s listings. This was confirmed when a regular customer contacted him to ask why the restaurant was suddenly closed on the weekends.
What had happened was Google’s Places, the search giant’s business directory was misrepresenting the Serbian Crown’s opening hours. If anyone googled the restaurant or found it via Google Maps, they would be directed to the wrong information that the restaurant was closed for the weekends. This was as we can see now, a fatal problem for the restaurant which relied on being a destination restaurant.
The location of the restaurant itself is isolated and the business cannot support itself on walk in traffic. So if any customers are going there, it’s cause they’ve planned to and made the trip out to eat the delicacies that the restaurant offers. Not technologically savvy, the 74 year old owner asked the help of his accountant who contacted Google to modify the listing but got nowhere. Bertagna finally hired an Internet consultant who managed to fix the problem but by that time, it was too late. The damage was done and the doors were closed in April 2013.
Bertagna is blaming Google for the shut down of his beloved restaurant and has filed a suit against the tech giant in a Virginian court. The lawyer representing Bertagna has said that a competitor of the restaurant most probably changed the listing information but it was Google’s fault for not fixing the problem when it was brought to the company’s attention. Google’s lawyers are most probably rolling their eyes at the claims that the company turned a blind eye.
Even though the suit will most probably fall out, there may be merits to Bertagna’s claims. Google Maps is a website that is overrun by spams and non existing businesses. The information on the site is constantly hijacked by those fuelled by rivalry or plain boredom. The victims of this are usually the small businesses that unfortunately are forced into closure.
Why does this happen? Well, Google Maps is at the simplest, a project that gets its information from the general public and is highly accessible to skilled individuals. Many people who are tech savvy can easily manipulate data on the website by using tools such as Google’s Mapmaker or Google’s Place for Businesses.
Google gets its business listings from usually reliable commercial mailing list databases, including infoUSA and Axciom. Once it’s in Google’s index, a business owner can claim a listing through Google and begin curating it for free. Owners can do everything from adding photos, hours of operation, a website address. Once the owner establishes that relationship with Google, the company will upsell the owner on paid advertising. If, however, the owner chooses not to keep an eye on this listing, they’re open to deep trouble. Ordinary users using the website can submit community edits to owner’s listing with modified details such as operating hours.
The instances of these happenings have decreased greatly with Google stepping in. Anyone can enter a new business into Google Maps and to place a pin wherever they choose. But this is invisible till verification is sent to the owner via old school post. Google sends out a postcard with a PIN code, and the business owner activates the listing by typing in the PIN.
However, this system is not without flaws. Nevertheless, the Serbian Crown is going to have a hard time proving it’s case since it is also listed on Yelp, a website with the business’s information and where anyone can review it. By filing a suit, the owner is saying that Google Maps was the sole cause of the shut down. In reality, it could have been rising rents and cost, decline of food quality or bad service. Even if Bertagna succeeds in proving Google’s fault, the search engine typhoon is more or less untouchable due to the crowd sourced nature of Google Maps.