With a few taps on a touch pad, an anonymous prankster can virtually wipe out a business on Google Places, the search engine's version of the Yellow Pages.
A coffee shop in Kansas and a bed and breakfast in Hawaii were victims of malicious reports that led Google's service to show they were "permanently closed." The owners noticed a drop-off in business, checked their Google listings and struggled to have the information corrected. No one seems to know how many other businesses have been hurt by similarly inaccurate reports.
The events point out how dangerous raw intel from the Internet can be.
Google invited this problem by making a god of interactivity, a key to drawing users so it can charge more for advertising. It solicited input from anyone, which can include the uninformed and unscrupulous, about the status of businesses and for reviews. It is a form of crowd-sourcing which shirks responsibility for accuracy.
In this case, unknown persons clicked into Google Places, found these companies, and hit the button for "reportedly closed" enough times to fool Google. The businesses were up and running in the real world, but not in Google's picture of it.
When a corporate monolith is looking for cheap information and allowing anyone to hide behind a veil of anonymity, just about anything can happen. The trick for users is evaluating the sources. But the casual browser looking for a cup of coffee while on a road trip through Kansas probably isn't going to check two or three different sources.
Following a report in the New York Times, which broke the story, Google said it was cleaning up the problems with Google Places "in the coming days."
We hope those days come soon, because times are hard enough for businesses these days, without the Internet offering saboteurs a stealthy way to kill off the competition.