Have you heard of the lawsuit a restaurant owner filed against Google because of a probable hacking? "How Google Map Hackers Can Destroy a Business at Will" is a recent article on Wired.com by Kevin Poulsen and it made me think about how easy it is to lose business out of ignorance or indifference to our online presence.
The article looks at the restaurant's complaint, which is that someone changed their hours on Google Places to say they were closed on the weekends (the busiest time). Since the restaurant owner has no interest in computers and nobody on his staff was paying attention to their online listings, business kept dropping off and nobody knew why until a customer asked why they were closed on weekends. Eventually the owner hired an internet consultant who easily fixed the error, but by then things had snowballed to the point of a business being shut down.
Now, one could argue that there were other factors involved. I doubt the lawsuit will go anywhere, because there is a level of protection for online publishers of third-party content like Google Maps and Places. But this story does show the potential for a competitor or ill-wisher to change your online information on a local listing site like this.
The article goes on to mention a jeweler who had a similar scenario and avoided problems because she paid for a web consultant to monitor and address any issues he sees. I think if you aren't ready to budget for a web consultant, you should at least have a trusted employee look at all your listings every week and note any changes so you can deal with them.
There will always be loopholes in local internet marketing, and the balance between freedom of the internet and controlling your brand is always going to be a balancing act. But if you are paying attention to your local listings, you can act by correcting misinformation and responding to complaints. That will keep your brand positive in the eyes of those who look for you online.