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When Online Maps Screw Up and Hurt Small Businesses

Map services are rife with errors. Getting them fixed takes a lot of work and frustration.

By: Chana R. Schoenberger

It’s an everyday ritual: People look up a local business they want to visit, then click a link to get a map and directions.

But what happens when the map is wrong?

For a small business, it can be a major headache. Customers who follow incorrect directions can swamp the store with angry or annoyed calls and emails, or simply give up in frustration. Solving the problem, meanwhile, is a lengthy process that can take weeks or months to complete.

Small companies that handle it on their own must file a request with online map services, provide documentation to prove their actual address and then wait—following up with phone calls to make sure the map services haven’t forgotten about them. And while they’re using time and energy they can’t afford to spare, customers continue to go astray.

There’s also the option of paying somebody else to do it. Sometimes small businesses turn to a company they already work with, such as a public-relations firm, to resolve the problem. In other cases, they turn to one of the small crop of startups that help firms burnish their online reputations. Depending on the setup, that process can be expensive: Hiring a firm specifically to fix a map issue can run a few thousand dollars.

Lost in the woods

Map mistakes are a glitch that happens all too often. Some 50% to 70% of online business listings are wrong in some way, says Michael Dobson, president of TeleMapics, a mapping and local-search consulting firm in Laguna Hills, Calif.

For Family Eye Care Center & Optical Gallery, the problems started in the fall of 2012, after a move to the new Cornerstone Square shopping plaza in Westford, Mass. The office moved just a few minutes’ drive away from its former location. But the new street, built where woods had recently stood, did not yet appear on digital maps, says Kim Shannon, an executive assistant for the business, owned by ophthalmologist Dwayne Baharozian.

Patients’ GPS systems and phone apps steered them wrong, as did insurance companies’ find-a-provider websites, Ms. Shannon says. Sometimes the websites would show the outdated address for the old office; other times the maps would simply not be able to locate the new street.

Ms. Shannon, a local, stayed on the phone with patients calling to say they were lost and walked them through the correct directions turn by turn as they drove, she recalls. The experience was “a huge problem,” she says.

In April 2013, Family Eye Care hired GetFiveStars, an online reputation-development consulting firm in Campbell, Calif., to fix the problem. Get Five Stars made sure the business’s address was updated everywhere it appeared online and prodded the map companies to include the new street in maps by calling, emailing and sending proof of the new address.

The fix cost $3,900, and it took about a year—until the spring of 2014—for all the map companies to make the change, Ms. Shannon says.

The errors pile up

How do things get so screwed up in the first place?

For one thing, there’s no centralized or government-run database of addresses, which means there are lots of different address sources out there with different levels of quality control. Some map services may use a source that has a mistake, while others may use another that’s accurate.

Mistakes can show up by simple human error when an address is typed into a database, says Mr. Dobson of TeleMapics, who has worked on mapping for the Census Bureau and Rand McNally. Updates sometimes lead to errors, or don’t get made at all: Sometimes streets that were renamed or added after the database was put together show up incorrectly. If a business moves, the new address sometimes doesn’t make it into the database.

Even if the map services do tap a database with the correct address, there’s the problem of attaching that address to a real-world building. The mapping software uses something called a building-number range to estimate what addresses correspond to what businesses. But that’s often wrong because numbers on a street aren’t always distributed proportionally. Businesses located in a shopping center or subdivision can also confound the mapping software.

The most sophisticated online maps feature geocoding, which attaches an address to a building using satellite images. Even with this system, though, there can be screw-ups—because, once again, most geocoding software divides a block proportionally by the number range of buildings.

“That’s why, when the GPS says, ‘You’ve arrived at your destination,’ you look up and it is five stores down,” Mr. Dobson says. In rural areas, adjacent geocodes can be miles apart.

Ultimately, many businesses never find out what caused their map problems. Two years ago, the address of Salveson Stetson Group, an executive-search firm in Radnor, Pa., started showing up wrong in map systems, and clients, vendors and interviewees couldn’t find the company’s offices.

Solving the problem took a month of making requests to a long list of websites, search services and map providers, says Nicole Lasorda, an assistant vice president at Buchanan Public Relations in Bryn Mawr, Pa., which represents the firm and helped it handle the problem.

They never learned what the issue was, Ms. Lasorda says. “Tech for us is a blessing and a curse,” she says. “When something goes wrong, a lot of times people don’t even know why.”

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