Posted December 1, 2010 6:00 pm by with 4 comments

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Over the weekend, the New York Times created a bit of a hubbub in the Internet space by running a lengthy story about an online merchant who turned bad reviews into online ‘success’ with Google.

The gist of the story is that an online eyewear store was working hard to create ill will with certain clientele who would then write bad reviews of the service. The merchant, who I won’t give the benefit of a brand mention or a link, saw that Google was ranking him highly despite these bad reviews and he felt that it was just the exposure he was getting that created a higher ranking. This all despite the fact that most reviews for his customer service and his scare tactics (most people just use lawyers but not this clown) show a borderline sociopath at the helm of this business.

So even Google couldn’t ignore this recognition of their apparent lack of discernment that resulted in giving high rankings to a business that obviously was not providing a great service for their ‘customers’.

Google responded today with a post outlining some new ideas they came up with and probably creating more questions than direct answers but it wouldn’t be Google if there wasn’t some mystery, right?

On the Official Google Blog we read

A recent article by the New York Times related a disturbing story. By treating your customers badly, one merchant told the paper, you can generate complaints and negative reviews that translate to more links to your site; which, in turn, make it more prominent in search engines. The main premise of the article was that being bad on the web can be good for business.

We were horrified to read about Ms. Rodriguez’s dreadful experience. Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue. That team developed an initial algorithmic solution, implemented it, and the solution is already live. I am here to tell you that being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google’s search results.

The post goes on to tell us what Google could have done to prevent this kind of backwards business logic from benefiting a merchant. This includes talk of sentiment analysis (but that would remove many politicians from search results due to negative comments, their words not mine).

They could have also blocked the defender but in a rather humorous way they gave a minor hat tip to their aversion of having too many humans spoiling the algorithm with this quote

Block the particular offender. That would be easy and might solve the immediate problem for that specific business, but it wouldn’t solve the larger issue in a general way. Our first reaction in search quality is to look for ways to solve problems algorithmically.

Translation: That would take an s-load of people and some human consideration and action which is not our strong suit. We don’t do the people thing well so let Uncle Algo handle it.

So in the end we are left to speculate that Google is utilizing reviews in some fashion to help make the decision of who is naughty or nice wit their business practices. What other way could there be?

I’ll let Google themselves take us out of here with their cryptic “Here’s how we are doing this kinda sorta” explanation. I couldn’t do real justice to this one so just read it for yourself.

Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.

We can’t say for sure that no one will ever find a loophole in our ranking algorithms in the future. We know that people will keep trying: attempts to game Google’s ranking, like the ones mentioned in the article, go on 24 hours a day, every single day. That’s why we cannot reveal the details of our solution—the underlying signals, data sources, and how we combined them to improve our rankings—beyond what we’ve already said. We can say with reasonable confidence that being bad to customers is bad for business on Google. And we will continue to work hard towards a better search.

Good old transparent Google. And they wonder why people come after them with lawsuits from the four corners of the world.

  • Great post! I work on SEO and online reputation management for clients, and it’s always difficult to keep up with Google. I find it hard to maintain a solid ORM strategy with their constantly changing algorithms. Thanks for your insight on their newest changes and issue!

    Emily @emilycfarrar

  • Great post. I feel like people don’t ask themselves questions like this enough. And it seems like Google is kind of talking in circles with their reply. Hopefully people are diligent enough to cross reference and double check the quality of someone’s services before choosing to go with them. I guess for those bad businessmen, any publicity is good publicity and if they’re not talking about you, you’re not relevant.

  • cg26

    couple of issues with your analysis:

    “Translation: That would take an s-load of people and some human consideration and action which is not our strong suit. We don’t do the people thing well so let Uncle Algo handle it.”

    Translation: there are millions of dodgy merchants in the world. Blocking each of them individually is impossible as well as being a complete waste of time as they can restart under new names, sites etc. Instead, we can improve our system so that it automatically sorts the wheat from the chaff using computer power.

    By your logic, they should be ranking all their searches by hand so this didn’t happen in the first place…..

    “Good old transparent Google. And they wonder why people come after them with lawsuits from the four corners of the world.”

    As they say in the quote you are criticising, they don’t like to let people know what changes they have made to their algorithm, because it makes it easier for people to game the system. If they said ‘we are using review data, mostly from these 10 reputable sites’, everyone would be out there paying for good reviews on those sites.

    My guess is that they are using some of what shows up in Google Shopping.

    • I realize it is impossible to apply the human touch to all f these cases but to apply little or no human contact with the public and little recourse of any fashion to rectify these situations outside of getting published in the NYT is swinging the pendulum to the complete opposite end of the spectrum which is no good. Google has to provide some effort or attempt beyond their current “no service, no problem” approach.

      As for transparency, giving up the algorithm makes no sense for sure but once again they can do something rather than nothing. Even if this would discourage a percentage of the dodgy merchants from even trying to ply their craft then something is better than the current nothing.