Google lawsuit highlights why every business needs to manage its online presence

Filed Under: Featured, Google

Google Places logoLong before the internet was born, the secret to running a successful business was, according to my business tutor, primarily about location, location, location.

She was right of course – if you opened a shop in the middle of nowhere then you had little chance of grabbing any passing trade and your entrepreneurial career would have been extremely short-lived.

With the advent of the internet however, location has become far less of a concern for many types of business as many swap brick and mortar premises for virtual stores.

The growth of e-commerce has been a boon for large corporations looking to expand into new markets and reduce costs, as well as sole traders who are now able to run their own businesses from home and with minimal outlay.

But trading online, or merely having an online presence, is not a bed of roses and it does present its own set of challenges.

Companies trading online need to be on their guard constantly as cybercriminals look to break into their websites, send phishing emails to their unsavvy staff, or leave their malware all over the web in the hope that an unprotected computer surfs by and collects it.

Not only that, but businesses trading online need to factor in review sites and the near-instant Facebook posting and Twitter-ing of the experiences and opinions of customers who are eager to highlight the new maxim of reputation, reputation, reputation.

But even those aforementioned brick and mortar stores which don't look to cultivate a presence online need to be aware of how the internet can affect their business.

Just ask Rene Bertagna whose Virginia restaurant, Serbian Crown, closed down last year after almost 40 years.

The closure, he believes, was forced by an error in the restaurant's Google Places listing which he tells Wired was anything but innocent.

Bertagna's problems began in early 2012 when the Serbian Crown experienced a 75% fall in customers one weekend. Trade never recovered and, after laying off staff, he was then forced to close the business in April 2013.

Despite such a drop-off in trade he never had any idea that the restaurant's Google Places listing may have been key, saying that, "A customer called me and said: 'Why are you closed on Saturday, Sunday and Monday? What's going on?'"

The Google Places listing had erroneously shown the Serbian Crown to be closed over the weekend and on Monday - the restaurant's busiest days and, presumably, the largest source of its profit.

Serbian Crown on Google MapsBertagna, who claims he doesn't own a computer and has never used the internet or Google, eventually hired an internet consultant for the relatively simple task of fixing the Google Places listing, but it was too late to save the business.

He is now suing Google with his lawyer, Christopher Rau, positing that the listing was sabotaged by a competitor and that the web giant merely turned a blind eye.

Rau highlighted the importance of the Google Places listing by saying:

This area where the restaurant is located is kind of off the beaten path... It's not really on the way to anything.

If you're going there, it's because you've planned to go there. And unless you know that the place is going to be open, you're probably not going to drag yourself out.

I'm no lawyer but I suspect Bertagna may not achieve the verdict he hopes for with this lawsuit, primarily because Google Maps is crowdsourced and US law gives broad protection to internet service providers when faced with claims relating to user-generated content.

Unsurprisingly, Google lawyers commented, saying:

The Serbian Crown should not be permitted to vex Google or this court with such meritless claims.

What this case does teach us is that crowdsourced services offer no warranties or guarantees as to the accuracy of the information they provide about any business.

Whilst the outcome for Bertagna and the Serbian Crown is unfortunate, businesses need to remain vigilant in managing their online reputations as well as in monitoring their presence too.

Where crowdsourced services are concerned it's often incredibly easy for third parties to change information for malicious reasons (or for profit) and to plead ignorance or call foul long after the fact is definitely not a viable business plan.

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11 Responses to Google lawsuit highlights why every business needs to manage its online presence

  1. Sounds like trip advisor :P

  2. Chuck · 460 days ago

    Doesn't sound reasonable that Google has no responsibility in this. They may not have full culpability, but something needs to be done to moderate these websites.

    • Will · 459 days ago

      There is some moderation that occurs. To be "verified" as the owner of the page so that you can make edits, they have a PIN process involving access to either the business address or phone.

      It sounds to me like he existed in a relatively fragile ecosystem anyway with a restaurant that's "off the beaten path" and has no online presence at all. I hesitate to blame Google for providing such a beneficial service and relying on a variety of sources to populate all the information. That last part is especially difficult to do if the owner has never used the internet and does not own a computer...

  3. MikeP_UK · 460 days ago

    This story amply illustrates why such 'crowd sourced' information can well be inaccurate and may even be maliciously so.
    Looking around at the various crowd-sourced information you will come across many example of totally inaccurate offerings. For example, Wikipedia had an article about a TV Rental company that was actually start in the UK in 1931 but the story claimed it had been started in Australia in 1963. I worked for that company for 25 years and know that Derring Toms started it in Brighton, Sussex, UK in 1931 renting out radio sets (hence the name) and it went on to be one of the world's largest TV rental businesses. There were numerous examples of such inaccuracies - and still are! (In the UK we still use the spelling Sulphur and not Sulfer as they claim!)
    So people should not only be wary but highly sceptical of any 'crowd sourced' information such as this, Wikipedia, Trip Adviser, et al. And schools should not be using such information as if it were the truth.

    • To your last point schools, especially universities, seem to have a profound distrust of Wikipedia. In the several colleges I've attended if you use it as direct source material you'd get the low marks you deserved.

      • Although most colleges and universities do not "like" Wikipedia sited as a source, however, some will allow it as a source, but only if it's verified via multiple other sources.

    • Joe Dirt · 459 days ago

      Crowdsourcing sounds like a great idea on paper but fails in practice.

  4. ayjay · 459 days ago

    Bury the lede much?

  5. Bart · 459 days ago

    My sympathies are with the restaurant owner.

  6. Som call me Tim · 459 days ago

    So, basically he is trying to say that 75% of his customers looked at Google Places to check the times he was open before coming over. I'm a bit dubious of that claim. Seriously, if you've ate at a particular restaurant for let's say 40 years, how likely are you to go online to find their hours?

    I have no doubt that he probably lost some business to this trickery, but to claim it was the downfall of his restaurant is ridiculous. Many restaurants have failed in recent years (some suspect it might have something to do with the economy of all things).

    Also, I'm not even sure about his claims this was done by a competitor. He was a purveyor of exotic meats (e.g. lion, horse). Do think there might be another reason someone might have been trying to sabotage his business? Not that it justifies sabotage; just saying.

  7. J.D · 459 days ago

    I was about 150 miles from home one Sunday and remembered that I was near a small mom and pop type restaurant that I enjoyed finding about 5 years before. The last time I had stopped it seemed busy. This time there were customers at only 3 tables. I pulled my new phone out to do a check in. My phone said the place I was eating at was closed on Sunday.

    When I checked out I showed that it had them as closed. They said we don't do anything with the internet stuff.

    Good thing I checked the door instead of my phone.

    "If it is on the internet it must be true"

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About the author

Lee Munson is the founder of Security FAQs, a social media manager with BH Consulting and a blogger with a huge passion for information security.