I used to do quite a bit of re­view­ing on TripAd­vi­sor; en­joyed the feel­ing of con­tribut­ing and used the ser­vice when pick­ing ho­tels and restos. But then I re­al­ized that this lit­tle warm glow was re­al­ly all about mak­ing mon­ey for Sil­i­con Val­ley VCs, and I have a ma­jor at­ti­tude prob­lem about that. Which rais­es the is­sue; Is it eth­i­cal­ly OK to par­tic­i­pate in re­view sites at al­l? [Spoil­er: Yeah, some­times, but def­i­nite­ly not on Google Map­s.]

Now, as for TripAd­vi­sor, turns out the orig­i­nal VCs got their ex­it in 2004 when IAC snapped up the site, then it was spun off as part of Ex­pe­di­a, then split with Ex­pe­dia with an add-on IPO in 2011. So I guess, these days, it’s just a com­pa­ny. And yeah, when I play its game, I am in fact mak­ing mon­ey for its share­hold­er­s. But I guess this is one of the more harm­less cor­ners of cap­i­tal­is­m.

Ex­cept for, maybe not. The whole re­views busi­ness has been a fruit­ful source of sto­ries about cor­rup­tion and chi­canery and below-the-surface you-are-the-product worst prac­tices. I know that at Ama­zon, where the re­views aren’t the busi­ness but are a re­al­ly big deal, we de­ploy re­al­ly smart peo­ple who work re­al­ly hard and ap­ply re­al­ly ad­vanced tech­nol­o­gy to keep them use­ful­ly clean. With the best will in the world (which these peo­ple have, I know some), it’s non­triv­ial; the bad ac­tors are peo­ple whose liveli­hoods de­pend on gam­ing the sys­tem. News flash: Be­ing smart and work­ing hard are not at­tributes re­strict­ed to the good guys.

But let’s as­sume a re­view­ing busi­ness man­ages to run clean and doesn’t have too many hid­den agen­das. I guess I’m hav­ing a hard time con­vinc­ing my­self you should nev­er play. Maybe I’ll start do­ing a few TripAd­vi­sor re­views again. Back in 2014, I tossed in a glow­ing re­view for a charm­ing lit­tle ho­tel near Barcelona Sants train sta­tion, and for some rea­son re­al­ly a lot of peo­ple found it use­ful, and (con­fes­sion) that made me hap­py. And af­ter al­l, I use the ser­vice.

But not Google Map­s! · Last year in Map Re­view Fear, I wor­ried out loud about the awe­some pow­er of Google Maps paired with Google Re­views. Since then, I read The Case Against Google, and I’ve pret­ty well con­vinced my­self that the map­s/re­views com­bo is pure evil.

Be­cause, among oth­er things, the Map­s/Re­views in­ter­face is re­al­ly freak­ing good. When­ev­er I sit down any­where, my no­ti­fi­ca­tions start of­fer­ing me pic­tures of where I am, in­vi­ta­tions to con­tribute more, and then, with care­ful low-key tact­ful­ness, won­der if it could ask me a cou­ple of ques­tions about this joint I’m sit­ting in: Good place to take kid­s? Got park­ing?

And I’m 100% sure that the Googlers build­ing this thing are com­fort­able in their skins be­cause all they’re do­ing is… mak­ing the maps more use­ful! Right? Why shouldn’t the re­view be right there on the map, which is where you al­ready are when you’re try­ing to de­cide where to go, aren’t you? And pic­tures, and facts about chil­dren and park­ing?

But as The Case Against piece il­lus­trates, the “make it more useful” sto­ry aligns so smooth­ly with the “how Google gets a uni­ver­sal monopoly on everything” sto­ry that you just can’t pos­si­bly ig­nore the con­gru­ence. So for damn sure I’m not go­ing to join that dance any more, and re­gret the times I have.

Here’s a rad­i­cal idea: Google Maps has be­come a util­i­ty. Prac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, it’s a ser­vice that near­ly ev­ery­one us­es that you need to ac­com­plish some of the ba­sics of mod­ern life. We let util­i­ties be pri­vate­ly owned, and we let them be mo­nop­o­lies, and we let their own­ers make quite a lot of mon­ey, but we fence them in, and I think that’s OK.

Call me crazy, but I’d pass leg­is­la­tion to keep Google from do­ing what they’re do­ing. They should be able to sell space on the map­s, and they should be able to pro­vide qual­i­ty fil­ter­s, and col­lect feed­back on re­views and down­grade or up­grade them ac­cord­ing­ly. But no damn way should they own the map and the crowd­sourced value-adds on the map.

The map is not the ter­ri­to­ry, they say, but if we don’t watch out Big G is gonna own both.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Jan Moren (Feb 26 2018, at 22:20)

I understand your sentiment. But I honestly don't see Google monopolizing online maps as any more threatening than Amazon monopolizing online shopping. You don't see a problem with that?


From: John Cowan (Feb 27 2018, at 06:32)

The other problem with review sites besides payola in all its forms is misrepresentation by the customers. My podiatrist, Bruce Lashley (if you are ever in Manhattan and need a podiatrist, I recommend him) is convinced that his bad reviews come not from disgruntled customers but from competitors, and I cannot tell him he is wrong.


From: StanD. (Feb 27 2018, at 11:43)

There is an amazing (and long) blog post by Justin O’Beirne from last December ( https://www.justinobeirne.com/google-maps-moat ) that compares Google Maps and the various competitors. It adds some food for thought to this piece. The short version is that Google is *way* ahead of everyone else, in map resolution mainly because of their access to all the review/search data. There is some speculation (I won't spoil it) about where they are going that seems plausible to me.

The extensive use of animated gifs for comparisons is just [chef kissing fingers].


From: Rob (Feb 27 2018, at 20:26)

"We let util­i­ties be pri­vate­ly owned, and we let them be mo­nop­o­lies, and we let their own­ers make quite a lot of mon­ey, but we fence them in, and I think that’s OK."

We also, if we are from the Canadian flatlands anyway, from time to time nationalize rapacious monopoly utilities. At least if they are natural monopolies anyway. Not 100% sure yet that Google (or Amazon) is a natural monopoly, or a utility either for that matter, but its always worth bearing in mind.


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