Google’s customer service and method of dealing with webmasters is yet again under fire as they have been taken to court in Ireland over their auto complete function.
The Irish Case
The auto complete function was/is incorrectly suggesting that the Ballymascanlon House Hotel in Co.Louth, Ireland is in receivership. When you type in the word “ballymas” Google suggested the following search query “ballymascanlon hotel receivership”.
Google dominate the Irish search market with over 90% market share.
According to the hotel they have received calls and emails from worried customers and in particular couples who had booked their wedding reception for the hotel.
Google themselves define receivership as follows:
The hotel also claim that the fact that Google have placed in the minds of possible customers researching the hotel, that the hotel is in receivership they are losing out on business.
This claim seems reasonable enough as any time you search for the first 8 letters of the hotel name you are told that the hotel is in receivership, surely making potential customers far less likely to book with the hotel over fears that the hotel would be liquidated before the booking.
I found a very interesting forum thread from brides to be worrying about their hotel being in receivership/liquidation.
They don’t mention names on the forum thread but they do Private Message each other their suspected hotel names. The most interesting part of the forum thread is the fact that they are spreading the message that a hotel in “North County Dublin” (near Ballymascanlon Hotel) might be in financial trouble.
If you read that thread suggesting a hotel in North County Dublin may be having financial difficulties and then you type in the first 8 letters of the hotel you are thinking of booking your wedding with and Google a trusted company suggest that the hotel may be in recievership.
Would you be more or less likely to book your wedding with that hotel?
Clearly these suggestions created by Google’s Auto Complete algorithm are causing Ballymascanlon to lose business and are also eating up staff time with responding to worried customers.
You may remember a number of other cases that were successfully lodged against Google in Italy and France over the same issue.
On 31st of March 2011 a court in Milan ordered that Google censor their Instant search product for derogatory suggestions.
After the case the victorious side had this to say:
“Google argued that it could not be held liable because it is a hosting provider, but we showed that this is content produced by them, although through automated means.”
Argentina also ordered censoring of suggestions that led to anti-Semitic or offensive websites.
Google were convicted in French court on defamation grounds not once but twice, luckily for Google they only had to pay €1 and the plaintiff’s legal costs.
Customer Service Failures
You would think that after all these cases that Google would at least clean up their act and make a better attempt to respond to webmasters when they report such mistakes.
But no, Ballymascanlon Hotel made persistent and multiple attempts to reach Google and ask them to remove the incorrect and offending content.
What Google recommends you do if you have a problem with auto complete:
“If you see a problem with the predictions in autocomplete, it’s probably caused by one of the scenarios described above and we are already working to address it. If you have feedback or questions about autocomplete, you can post them in the Google Web Search Help Forum.” – Source Google
They tried to contact Google online via their webmaster forum as recommended, but received no response from a Google employee.
Here’s the message they posted on the Google Webmaster Forum:
The Google Auto Completer offer the words “ballymascanlon hotel receivership” when you type in “ballymas”
I have read the FAQs and checked for similar issues: YES
My site’s URL (web address) is: www.ballymascanlon.com
Having these words appear as a prompt implies that there is a lot of evidence of the Hotel being in financial trouble or receivership. This is not so but it has had an effect on business confidence and has caused our customers to ask questions about us. Please remove this prompt as there is no evidence in any google search of the Hotel being in receivership.
Ballymascanlon sent a letter to Google Irish offices asking again for them to remove the offending content, they received no response.
They sent another letter to the Google Irish offices, this time via registered post meaning that Google had to sign for the letter and the fact they had received it could be tracked and confirmed.
The response they got back was described as “standard” by a hotel employee.
So again no help from Google who themselves do have a removal policy:
“While we always strive to neutrally and objectively reflect the diversity of content on the web (some good, some objectionable), we also apply a narrow set of removal policies for pornography, violence, hate speech, and terms that are frequently used to find content that infringes copyrights.”
They sent a Cease and Desist notice to Google via ChillingEffects.org. It also mentions a website that has infringed on copyright that they would like removed from the Google Index.
Having received no help from all of Google’s recommended complaints avenues Ballymascanlon House Hotel decided to take Google to court over the alleged defamation of the company’s name.
The company’s owner has said that “we aren’t looking for money” but to reaffirm the companies good name.
Google will argue that suggestions are created based on an algorithm that is influenced solely by user’s searches, here’s a handy article on how Google suggestions work.
Ballymascanlon will present the evidence that I have presented above and of course copies and proof of their attempts to contact Google and resolve the issue outside the courts.
Not being a legal expert I have no idea who will win in court, but my gut feeling based on the evidence and the fact that other cases similar to this have been won against Google is that Basmascanlon will get the injunction they wish ordering Google to remove the suggestion that the hotel are in receivership and may receive some compensation.
Google Fails Webmasters
The major issue for me with this case is not that Google’s algorithm failed to pick up the fact that the suggestion was incorrect, as stated earlier suggestions are based on user’s searches and sometimes the algorithms can get it wrong as a result.
The major problem is that Google totally failed to respond to the companies multiple attempts to contact them and resolve the problem outside of the courts.
Google totally ignored the webmaster, the websmaster they have spent millions of dollars endearing and building up a relationship with through their webmaster forum, multiple blogs and YouTube channels.
Why in this simple case presented with clear evidence and a reasonable solution did they simply blank the webmaster?
Maybe this is a small problem in an overall view of Google as a webmaster friendly search engine but if that is the case then why haven’t they removed the suggestion even after the multiple attempts to contact them and the fact that the case has been reported in one of Ireland’s largest newspapers.
This case hasn’t been taken because of the failure of Google’s Suggestions algorithm, it’s been taken because Google buried their head in the sand and refused to address the problem, a failure of Google’s Customer Service/Webmasters team and not the engineers.
Update June 10th
After publishing this article I sent the link to Chris Brayden the General Manager of Ballymascanlon House Hotel for the past 11 years and he kindly offered me his time on a phone call to clear up a couple of questions I had that I couldn’t find the answers to online.
It appears my article was nearly 100% accurate so I haven’t changed anything in it, but this update should clear up any questions you may also have had.
According to Chris there were in fact 3 solicitors/lawyers letters sent to Google, all after their attempts to have the issue resolved via online communication. The first was a simple letter informing them of the fact that legal action may be taken and asking for a response, which they didn’t receive within the 7 days as per notified in the contract.
The 2nd letter sent 8 days after the first letter also received no response and copied the first letter.
The 3rd letter sent after the first two weren’t responded to asked Google to appoint solicitors/legal representation and accept summons, which Google did not do. Rather they responded claiming that Google team based in the United States were responsible for the algorithm and therefore the issue must be resolved with the US team, which is of course the team that should have responded to the online communications.
Despite Google Ireland’s call for relations with the US office, past cases have been tried in the country of the infringing search engine e.g. Google Italy and France and Chris stated that if the case goes to the courts “it will be tried in Ireland.”
A really interesting piece of research the company did before going public on their case against Google was to check the number of searches on the keyword “ballymascanlon hotel receivership” there was and before going public Brayden said that the relatively accurate Google Adwords Keyword Tool reported “monthly searches of 56″ for that keyword.
The top 4 keywords that Google ranks in order of relevance when you type in the keyword Ballymascanlon currently are:
Ballymascanlon, Ballymascanlon Hotel, Ballymascanlon Hotel Carlingford and Ballymascanlon House Hotel with 390, 1,600, 170 and 170 exact, monthly searches respectfully according to Google’s own tool.
So even the reasoning behind Google showing the suggestion is under questioning.
Chris, who admittedly isn’t a search engine expert was confused and rightly so as the why Google were showing a less searched term, that they find less relevant than other search terms above those queries that are more popular and more relevant when according to Google that is the basis for their auto complete algorithm.
The only reason I can think of is that they try and show a diversified range of keywords that differ greatly in the results that return, which makes some sense but certainly could pose problems with regards less competitive keywords.
Chris said “Google are very difficult to deal with” and “they (Google) believe they are above the law.”
The legal team representing Ballymascanlon House Hotel and the manager meet again on Monday 13th of June to discuss further developments and correspond with the Google team based in Mountain View, San Francisco.
The most interesting development from my point of view was that Brayden confirmed that the hotel was only seeking an injunction against Google using the suggestion and their legal fees, Ballymascanlon aren’t looking for any compensation and as such have no monetary motives behind the court case.
Whether or not they will win is something that is yet to be decided and I too am undecided if Google are in the wrong to use this suggestion, if there are people searching for it then maybe it should be shown as an option to users.
But the lack of real or useful results for the recommended search term has shown the cracks in the auto complete algorithm, and couple that with the fact that the hotel has received “weekly” calls from concerned customers and the potential loss of business and I can see why the case has been taken.
Once again I will stress that this is not a failing of the algorithm but of the people, the employees who “passed” the issue “from team to team” and nobody took action to aid a customer, a content creator and a respected business.
A problem that could have been avoided.
More updates to follow…..
Credit update: Thanks to Mark Tighe and Mark Paul from the Sunday Times for breaking this story first.