I found this David Segal NYT article difficult to summarize, and surely it was difficult to title, but I found it one of the most interesting pieces I have read in weeks. Allow me to start in the middle:
To fight lead gens, Google deploys a little-known army of volunteers, called Mappers, many of whom are engaged in a contest that takes wit and stamina. These are people around the world who propose and approve edits to Google Maps, with an assist from Google employees, all in the interest of refining the product and fighting spam — a term that in this context means anything fake and misleading.
It may seem bizarre that people would work gratis for one of the world’s richest companies. But many Mappers turn the job into a calling. For Dan Austin, who lives in Olympia, Wash., it was more like an addiction.
A former truck driver for DHL, he became a Mapper after he was laid off from his job and started fixing mistakes he had noticed on Maps while on the road. By the fall of 2011, Mr. Austin had discovered locksmith spam and was soon spending 10 hours a day, seven days a week, deleting it from Maps.
The premise is this:
The goal of lead gens is to wrest as much money as possible from every customer, according to lawsuits. The typical approach is for a phone representative to offer an estimate [for locksmith work] in the range of $35 to $90. On site, the subcontractor demands three or four times that sum, often claiming that the work was more complicated than expected. Most consumers simply blanch and pay up, in part because they are eager to get into their homes or cars.
Here is another bit from the middle:
Mr. Alverado said those fake buildings were necessary because getting to the first page in Google results now took ingenuity and cunning.
“You have no idea,” he said, sounding a little weary when asked about competition. Israelis were his toughest rivals, he said, and they had instilled a kind of awe in him. “I can tell you point-blank, they are freaking smart,” he said. “I really admire them.”
Every single paragraph is interesting in a different and substantive way, an almost impossible achievement for a piece.
For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.