Crowdsourcing fails… or why we can’t have nice things

Crowdsourcing is often viewed as the easiest way to create necessary content for large-scale services. Need millions of reviews for thousands of restaurants? Diners will do it. Need constant updating of traffic hazards? Drivers will do it. Need billions of reviews for millions of products? Shoppers will do it. Thus have spoken every Yelp, Waze and Amazon since the dawn of the Internet.


You Are Here!

And mostly it works well, except when it doesn’t.

A recent Wired article about the risk businesses face when not updating their Google Maps profile accurately pointed out that many of these smaller businesses live and die by their Maps information. When that information is sabotaged by your friendly, neighborhood competitor, crowdsourcing becomes a liability, not an asset. The restaurant covered in the article closed its doors after 40 years because during four months business had trickled down to nearly zero on the weekends. It was only when a long time customer asked why the restaurant was listed as closed on the weekend on Google Maps that the owner realized what was going on. (Out of fairness, many people commenting on this story, as well as the Wired article, said that the restaurant had received terrible reviews on Yelp so perhaps the closing was not as related to the wrong listing of hours as the owner would like to think.)

So, what to do if you’re thinking about crowdsourcing the data for your service?

  1. Most important: realize how much power your service has and how people use it. For Google Maps this means realizing that many people use their service to reach local businesses. Google can’t be held responsible for the closing of a business but it helps to realize that they have that power. And with great power comes great responsibility.
  2. Isolate the features that provide access to mayhem. In the Maps example, opening hours and the ability to list a place as “permanently closed” seem to be the problematic ones.
  3. Once isolated, figure out how to control access. Google does this with a PIN sent by snail mail. Tedious, but it works. Yelp does this with a secret algorithm meant to weed out fake reviews.
  4. This is the hard one: give people a way to get help. It is true that you are providing a service for free and it costs money to offer support. But again, with great power comes great responsibility especially when people’s livelihoods can be affected. This is easier to do, and probably only necessary, once a business gains traction and popularity.

Finally, although it’s almost never fun, try to think of how users can abuse your service. Then try to prevent it.

Apologies for all the Spiderman references in this post. They kind of snuck in.



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