Why muppets mean you can’t rely on Google to autocomplete your business listing

17 October 2018

Google is wondrous. It really did revolutionise online life. We trust it so much and it always seems to near-magically deliver the goods. However, Google is not perfect. Because, according to Google, Wangara, an industrial suburb just outside Perth, is best known for its muppets.

Olney, way out in the NSW bush, seems to be Australia’s capital of machine guns attached to ATVs.

And Banyo, a fairly mundane Brisbane suburb, seems to be, well, a toilet.

Indeed, at the time of writing, seven of the top 10 Google Image results for Banyo feature toilets.

All this is funny, but it’s also a problem

These are all bonafide screencaps from a Google search. Each picture accompanying its location hasn’t been doctored by a Mash Media graphic designer. We stumbled across these for one reason or another and shared them among ourselves as mystifying relics of Google gone awry.

We soon got to wondering why Google was featuring these bizarre images on its Knowledge Graph. After all, a true depiction of Wangara would be warehouses and workshops, Banyo would be low-density housing and Olney, comprised entirely of mountainous state forest with a population of zero, would be nothing but trees.

The main hint to what’s going on is in the Banyo example, where the Knowledge Graph image appears again at number 4 of the Google Image results. Click on them and you find most of those pictures are actually from hotel reviews on TripAdvisor that are written in Turkish. And the Turkish word for bathroom? You guessed it, banyo.

Thus, the image Google has chosen to best represent the Brisbane suburb of Banyo comes from the TripAdvisor listing for The Hotel Ottoman City in Istanbul. And it’s a toilet. The reason is that Google considers Tripadvisor to be an ‘EAT source’: a reliable place for Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness.

The algorithm trusts this source of toilet pictures so much that it gauges them to be the most relevant illustration for any search term of banyo. Even when Banyo was meant to refer to the place of residence of several thousand non-Turkish people.

What about the Wangara muppets?

Things are much more clear cut with Wangara’s muppets. How? Because at 1/54 Prindiville Drive, Wangara, is Doyle’s Fancy Costumes. The picture Google chose for its Wangara Knowledge Graph appears on the very same page of the Doyle’s website that also hosts a Google 360-degree video – and this links directly back to Google Maps.

Google 360-degree videos were SEO hot sauce a few years back. It seems that according to Google’s relevance ranking factors for Wangara, nothing has yet beaten the picture of Elmo, Big Bird and Cookie Monster. It, by accident or design, has the best SEO for the search term ‘Wangara’ of any image on the entire internet.

Why Olney’s Knowledge Graph was a picture of light artillery being towed by a piece of farm equipment is anyone’s guess though…

What’s this got to do with dogs and mops?

In its rush to provide the most comprehensive information source the world has ever known, Google has relied heavily on automation. Its listings are compiled by algorithms, Google serves 4 billion searches per day and human monitoring on the results is quite limited.

Miraculously, the results are almost always acceptable too. Google’s AI is getting better at this all the time too. For example, it can now ‘see’ the difference between a dog and a cat. But it still isn’t quite good enough to reliably tell a dog from a mop. Which is fair enough really.

Anyway, the point is that Google’s algorithms take into account all its assets when filling the knowledge gaps in its services. Wangara had a Knowledge Graph gap and Google’s algorithms judged muppets as the most relevant image from what it saw as the most trusted source in the suburb.

Incomplete business listings are vulnerable

The same sort of thing works the other way too. If you Google My Business listing is incomplete, Google will try to populate it however it can. That includes user-submitted information – reviews, photos and even contact details. It even goes so far as allowing anyone to edit your phone number and ask Google to update this in its official listing. Once again, a computer will likely make the call on whether it accepts the change.

So, if you own a business but aren’t on top of things, you might miss that someone has changed your phone number online and you could end up with an incorrect listing. Some dodgy operators even do this as a form of negative-SEO – intentionally harming the search rankings of competitors.

Local SEO power

Fear not. There are two bits of good news in all this. First, Google really hates both negative-SEO and getting things wrong (being a know-it-all is its main competitive advantage, after all). So, if there are errors in your listings, Google will be on your side in fixing them up.

The second bit of good news is that the manifestly wrong Knowledge Graph results we showed at the start of the article reveal how much Google doesn’t ‘know’ about many places. It’s probably wouldn’t take much SEO work to become Google’s favourite source for info about your local area.

In brief, Google yourself. Check how your brand and business appear online, if the details are wrong, fix it up. If the info in the Knowledge Graph about your area seems low-quality, a quick dash of SEO directed at relevance in your local area could slot your business right into the top spot.

Want to see how your business is going on local listings? Drop Mash Media’s SEO maestros a line.

PS: Olney’s image has recently changed to miles and miles of trees, as it should be.

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