Where Disruptors Fear to Tread


A recent article in the New York Times paints a stunning and detailed picture of the lengths some lead generation businesses (in this case offering locksmith services) will go in pursuit of top search results listings and even more importantly, the perception of a local presence.

The article details business practices that are pretty rough. The idea is that when people are locked out of their homes or cars, they want the fastest possible service, but at some reasonable price. These lead generation services, which are centrally located, and sometimes overseas, promise both to callers. They then sell the lead to unsavory local locksmiths who show up and demand a much higher price – in cash – from the distraught victim. So how does a lead generation shop based in a foreign country look like its offices are right around the corner?

The secret sauce of these lead generation firms are two Google programs: Google Business and Map Maker. Both depend on user-generated content, hence the opportunity to manipulate Google. If you’re willing to be sleazy, it’s easy to create a fake business in Google Business. And it’s not much harder to create a fake entry for your business in Map Maker either. Indeed, as the New York Times article details with actual screen captures, one lead generation company turned an empty lot into a shopping center with its phony storefront in the prime corner location!

What makes the corruption of Map Maker possible is that Google relies on volunteers to monitor additions and changes. Yes, one of the most valuable corporations in the world doesn’t see fit to spend the money to do the job itself. A quote from the article sums up the mentality nicely: “Fighting spam is boring. The employees who cared didn’t have the political clout in the company.”

That’s an important point and one every data publisher should take to heart. Many of the companies that are trying to disrupt the business of existing data providers are, first and foremost, programming shops. They are interested in the app. The content, not so much. That’s why so many of these disruptive startups gravitate to public domain datasets. To them, it’s plug-and-play content that they don’t have to worry about or maintain. The idea of creating content from scratch is anathema to these companies. If they can’t get it for free, they’ll license it. If they can’t license it, they’ll try to crowdsource it. And even the crowdsourcing effort reflects this software bias: the goal is to build a front-end to make it easy to enter relatively clean data. Beyond that, the programmers lose interest.

If there is something that gives a data provider an edge these days, it is the willingness to roll up the sleeves and source data, aggregate it, clean it and normalize it. This is simply a place where today’s disrupters really don’t want to go.