Monday, November 29, 2010

How a retailer used negative Web chatter to game Google's system

Most expect that negative stains on our cyber-reputation can never be erased. For some, that's not necessarily a bad thing, as is evidenced by a long, interesting article in the New York Times.

The article, A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web, describes how a company discovered that negative feedback was as good as positive feedback, and used that to game the "Google system." The more "online chatter" about the site, even "furious online chatter," pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales for the company.

Because of that, we're actually not going to mention either the name of the company or the owner in this article. Why should we help him further?

You can read the full New York Times article for the gory details, including which store to avoid. The details are gory indeed. The amount of bullying is such that it makes one blanch: threats against customers, including threats of physical violence, evidence that the business owner went so far as to impersonate the consumer and cancel a chargeback the customer central to the story had issued against his site, and more.

Still, all this is horrific, but does point to using a site like ResellerRatings.com if you've never heard of a site. There you can see complaints about a particular site, if any.

More interesting is the fact that Google seems unable to sift through the negative links to a site when figuring out how to rank it in search results. While a Google spokesman interviewed by the NYT quite naturally wouldn't reveal how its ranking algorithm works, he did say:
A crucial factor in Google search results, the spokesman explained, is the number of links from respected and substantial Web sites. The more links that a site has from big and well-regarded sites, the better its chances of turning up high in a search
Obviously, a site like Reseller Ratings or Get Satisfaction, another such site, would be well respected, and thus help, not hinder, even if comments are negative.

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Search Engine Land goes into a detailed analysis of what's happening,
and possible fixes, such as including review ranking in general search results (they are already included in Google Shopping searches).

At the same time, will Google fix this issue? Others raked over the coals in the article include Citibank, which seemed to have little interest in helping the customer recover her money. It was also far too easy for the store to re-open accounts with Citibank so as to accept credit cards.

There's plenty of blame to go around, including Google, the bank, and certainly the owner of the site. He once sent a photograph of his middle finger to Get Satisfaction, the ratings site we mentioned above.

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