Everywhere and Nowhere


An impressive piece of detective work by blogger Mike Blumenthal details the existence of something called "mapspam." Mapspam is the practice of businesses misrepresenting their physical locations to artificially improve their search engine results rankings.

At first glance, mapspam looks like just one more example of the "one step forward, one step back" evolution of the web, where every new advance is quickly undone by spammers and those trying to game the system. But hold on a minute. Is this really new? And more importantly, is this really wrong?

The example used in the blog article was of a suburban florist listing itself in such a way that it appeared to be in the center of a large city nearby. The technique, creating a false address, was certainly sleazy, but again, does it matter?

Florists have several elaborate national networks that allow them to accept orders for prompt delivery anywhere in the country. The customer doesn't know who fulfilled the order at the distant end, and the customer doesn't care. What matters is that the specified goods were delivered in the specified timeframe to the specified recipient.

Further, the old-timers among us will recall the acronym "RCF" for Remote Call Forwarding, a well- established and entirely legitimate service long offered by the phone companies to allow companies to give the appearance of having a local presence in distant markets. For decades, this has been viewed as smart business, not deceptive business.

What seems most important is not the actual physical location of the retailer, but whether or not they can deliver on the promises they make to their customers. The florist business can do this. Auto body shops and pizza parlors can't, but there's no advantage to them misrepresenting themselves. A Los Angeles pizza parlor taking orders for delivery in New York City won't last very long.

What is simultaneously intriguing, ironic and problematic is that as increasing resources are being put against identifying, locating and classifying local businesses, growing numbers of these businesses are seeing that they can build national markets, and because of this they start to view their physical locations as more of a hindrance than an advantage. This phenomenon is no less true of larger companies that are rapidly becoming so diffuse that they actively avoid designating any physical location as their headquarters. And many web-based companies want only email or toll-free number contact, allowing them to never disclose even a hint of their physical location, if indeed they have one.

The bottom line issue for data publishers is to recognize that we are largely working with databases and tools based on business practices and norms that are rapidly evolving. There's no easy answer to mapspam or any of the related issues involving physical location. But those who will prosper will be those who reflect how business does business, rather than trying to dictate it.

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