updated 02:48 pm EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Wild game restaurant near DC blames erroneous listing for closure
Long-time Washington DC metro area restaurant The Serbian Crown has sued Google. After experiencing a 75 percent drop in weekend customers, owner Rene Bertagna filed the suit following a discovery that the restaurant's Google Places listing had a grievous error -- it incorrectly stated that the restaurant was closed on Saturday through Monday. The suit alleges that the incorrect information given to customers from the search engine lead to a death spiral of the restaurant, with declining revenue forcing layoffs, which in-turn, drove diners away from poor service and declining food quality.
Bertagna was first alerted to a potential problem when a regular customer phoned after finding the Google Places information. The 74-year-old Bertagna, who doesn't own a computer but had heard of Google, attempted to phone the search engine giant to get the information changed, but to no avail. An online reputation manager was hired to fix the problem, but by then, the complaint claims, the damage was done.
The restaurant was positioned on a side road off of Leesburg Pike -- a major thoroughfare through the extended Washington DC metro area that connects residential areas with Tyson's Corner and then into DC itself. There is no appreciable foot traffic in the area, despite it being a major commuter route. Word of mouth and regular press coverage sustained the restaurant in its first 35 years, but the complaint alleges that the lack of correct information about the restaurant prevented customers from coming in because the listing said it was closed, when it actually wasn't.
Restaurants are generally open on the weekend, as most of their revenue comes from Friday through Sunday dining. What isn't addressed in the complaint is why prospective customers didn't use the telephone to call in, like the regular customer did - or why Bertagna didn't ask an Internet-savvy friend or relative to correct the information online.
Counsel for The Serbian Crown believes that a competing restaurant sabotaged the listing (but didn't provide any likely suspects), and maintains that Google doesn't care if its information is accurate. This may be true -- Google is protected by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which paints Internet information services like Google with a wide brush of immunity from legal actions induced by crowd-sourced content.
Section 230 states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." In plain English, as long as Google didn't officially sanction or guarantee the information's accuracy, it is protected from legal action arising from served information. Google has dealt with these kinds of complaints before, and has emerged victorious in all of them.
Google says in its response filing that the restaurant owner failed to consider other reasons for a restaurant's failure in the shuttering of the 40-year-old establishment. Google's attorneys say that "rather than accept that restaurants, even longstanding ones, sometimes fail, the owner of this particular restaurant looked around for someone to blame. Who did he settle on? Google."
A quick perusal of Yelp reviews seems to agree with Google. More reviews than not claimed terrible service and food quality well before Bertagna purports that the business started showing effects from the wrong information on Google. Diners reported the food being "pricey but not worthy" and recommendations that prospective eaters "turn around with your wallet while you still can."
Wired spoke with Bertagna about the suit, and the ex-owner wants to reopen his restaurant at some point. Assuming that The Serbian Crown wasn't victim to internal forces, the modern reality of business is that online reputation curation is important -- a lesson that Bertagna may have gleaned too late.