Confessions of a Google Local Guide

Google incentivizes quantity over quality with user-generated content. Local businesses should take control of their profile images or be at the mercy of the UGC hordes.

Confessions of a Google Local Guide
  • First with Mapmaker/City Experts and then with Local Guides, Google has long encouraged UGC quantity over quality in the form of reviews, photos and edits.
  • Google local search generates a massive number of photo views.
  • Whether or not you believe this “confession," businesses need to take control of their profile images or someone else will.

Last week, Google notified me that I was a top photographer on Google Maps and my photos had achieved an amazing 25,000,000 views (yes that is a 25 followed by 6 zeroes). How had I gotten to this point?

Footnote (0)

Paved with Good Intentions

It started off innocently enough. In the mid 2000's as I became increasingly interested in Google Maps and would often spend time correcting wrong Maps information in my hometown of Olean, NY. It seemed like the right thing to do for my neighbors.

I would fix street names and street addresses, move businesses to their correct location, rename streets and mark businesses closed that had in fact closed. I would write reviews of the few businesses that stood out and if I travelled, hone my review craft at the places I ate at and visited. For me to write a local review required that they be very, very good, or very, very bad.  

This is one of those reviews that I keep on updating so that it stays at the top of the heap.

A Few Minor Detours

I would occasionally stray from the straight and narrow in my efforts to learn more about how Google Local and Google Maps worked. In 2008, I once renamed Microsoft's Place page from Microsoft to "Microsoft Escort Service."

But this was done strictly for a higher purpose: highlighting issues on Google Maps that concerned small businesses and seeing how quickly user edits would become visible to the world. Even as early as 2008, Google's response was disappointingly predictable.(1)

City Experts Merges into Local Guides

By the time the Local Guides program rolled around in 2015 I had racked up quite a few edits. They were mostly, but not entirely, legit. My existing review counts were such that I achieved a pretty high status fairly quickly. I progressed through the ranks and achieved one of the highest Local Guides levels available at the time.

Local Guide Route Gets Harder

When Google introduced the increasingly gamified program update in 2016 I was still in pretty good shape because of my many contributions beyond reviews. However with their 2017 update to the program, adding new levels and a hierarchy of points, I fell into despair. Living in a tiny rural setting there were only so many data issues to correct; and if I got wild and crazy writing reviews my house would have been burned down by the other local merchants.

The barriers to success in the upgraded program, by writing decent reviews or or performing accurate business info edits, seemed way too high for me to advance through the new higher scoring ranks of Local Guides.

To understand the finer points of the new Local Guides program, and not wanting to be left behind my urban peers, I looked at the levels and scoring options and realized that the most effective way to achieve program status was by adding photographs. I started walking our business district and shooting the storefront of every business and then uploading the photos to their listings in Google Maps.

I developed a reasonably effective tactic to move up in the Local Guides ranks and was pretty fast at adding quality photos to listings. But – and this is a big but of a problem -- I soon had photographed almost every storefront in town.

Ok I wasn't setting the world on fire but the Singer Sewing store, unchanged in the last 50 years, has gotten almost 30,000 views. Pretty good for them even if not enough to make a dent in MY total.

Scaling: The Road to Success

I soon realized that if I was ever to go beyond Level 6 I would have to up my game. On a trip to Manhattan, while on a hunt for breakfast bagels, it dawned on me that dense urban settings offered the perfect playground to shoot and upload storefront images. I managed to work the wrinkles out of my process on my way back from the bagel store. I learned, if the storefronts were dense enough, that I could push an image up to Google Maps once every minute or so. I could see Local Guide Level 10 in my sights!

I soon had to return to my rural area and wondered when I might get another chance at uploading enough photos to achieve Local Guide fame and glory.

Living rurally, our shopping options are limited and when my wife proposed an antiques shopping trip to Buffalo my ears perked up. Even if my motivations were not totally pure, I agreed to head out with her to the closest thing we had to a "big city."

We went to Hertel Avenue where there are a number of unusual antique stores. My wife could spend literally hours poking around the tiniest of antique shops. Me, not so much. Not wanting me to get bored, she didn't seem to mind if I told her I was stepping outside.

She didn't suspect my ulterior motives. I would stroll up and down the street capturing as many storefronts as I could in the available time. If I spotted a chain store across the street, I would just snap away with little regard for image composition or other finer points of photography – even the not-to-fine points like holding the camera level. Volume was all that mattered.

And Google rewarded me. The points were accumulating as fast as the counter on the National Debt Clock on 44th Street in New York.  

Prizes and Accolades Start Rolling In

Soon Google was sending me offers that were too good to be true. Who didn’t want to win L'Oréal professional products and a salon gift card in a review writing contest? Me for one.

Boy was I proud when Google informed me that my photo of Giuseppe’s Restaurant (2), a totally out of the way diner was making a difference.

The accolades kept on coming. My photos reached new records on Google Maps.

Early in 2016, my photos had been seen 500,000 times. Soon it was a million, and by August of 2016 I hit 1.5 million views. I would proudly send them off to my then-CEO Aaron Weiche (at GatherUp) only to be deflated when his urban environs continually allowed him to outpace me. This just added fuel to the fire and I kept on shooting. And although never able to catch him, my view counts just kept accumulating.

To infinity and beyond! Those of you who know me, know I like to include bad Excel charts to further illustrate the story.

Path to a Reckoning and Remorse (?)

And that brings me to today. As I reflect on having had my photos viewed 25,000,000 times, I decided to go back and see exactly which photos had helped pushed me to such amazing heights. I learned that my photos had actually been viewed 25,265,124 times, but who's counting?

It was then that reality sunk in. Those funky, odd angled shots that I wasn’t too ashamed to upload if I got the credit were seeing 800,000, a million and in some cases almost 3 million views. How was that possible?

I kind of get Orvis but Daisy’s Doghouse? I remember smirking when I saw the sign in their windows that they were a day spa for dogs. They were obviously ahead of a curve on a trend that I had yet to – Spot. These photos, for better or worse, were being assigned as profile photos for these locations because the business themselves had neglected to add their own.

The shot that ultimately got me to reconsider what I'd been doing was the one below of Walgreens. They have suffered this as their profile picture for how many years? I get dizzy looking at it. And yet it has 801,550 views as of this morning.

Image courtesy of Allyssa Trenkamp/Momentfeed

Highway to a 50M Future Beckons

Then I had an idea: I could call Walgreens and offer to take down the bad photo, and put up a good one. It would make me into a brand ambassador of sorts – for a fee of course. (3)

But before I do that, I only need 3,308 more points to get to Local Guides Level 8. I'm heading out on a shoot. Wish me luck, en route to 50,000,000 views!

(0) Who knows what the real number is. Google, for all of their data acumen and tens of thousands of engineers, has never been able to count very wll as exemplified by their local Insights. So who knows. But for the sake of this narrative please assume that it is true.

(1) Google's response to my 2008 "tests" might seem familiar to those you that follow such things: "We take mapspam very seriously and we are working on it, in consultation with our webspam team. While some of the changes we’ve made so far have been less visible, we’re confident that we’re on the right path to effectively reducing mapspam". It's the same response that they gave to the NYTimes, The WallStreet Journal and the CBC over the years.

(2) Giuseppe's Restaurant, Home of the Zeet. It is halfway between our home and the airport which is and hour and half away. As a family we drove by it hundreds of times and being a lover of small diners I would often muse, on what I thought were deaf ears, that I needed to stop in there some day and learn what a Zeet was. But we never passed it at meal time and it was too far away to make a casual run so my desire went unsatisfied. Until one day in June of 2012 my son mysteriously swept me into the car. I somewhat grumpily went along for what seemed like a tedious drive. It turned out he was taking me to Giuseppe's for a Father's Day lunch... best Father's Day present ever.

(3) This technique of location blackmail has been around in the review space for some time and I reported on it in 2011. It was recently also covered by the CBC.