Google has responded to a New York Times story which revealed the search engine was rewarding websites that have dozens of complaints and negative reviews with high rankings. This is because of the way the search engine rates sites according to how many other sites link to them.
First the back story: the paper followed the story of Clarabelle Rodriguez, who used Google to search for new glasses. The top unpaid result was a site called DecorMyEyes.com.
Rodriguez ordered glasses from the site, which turned out to be fake. When she complained, the site's owner, one Vitaly Borker, was first abusive and then threatening. When the dispute escalated, Borker sent Rodriguez pictures of her apartment building and emails saying: "I AM WATCHING YOU".
Rodriguez did some digging online and found dozens of complaints about the site on consumer forums.
One included a response from DecorMyEyes thanking people for the negative coverage: “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”
Borker explained this was his central sales strategy - the more online abuse he and his website got, the higher his Google ranking.
He went on to explain his profitable tactic to the NYT. He said: "I've exploited this opportunity because it works. Now when they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment. So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?"
He said he'd discovered the counter-intuitive marking strategy by accident when he stopped caring about his customers and starting arguing with them. He noticed that the more negative comments there were online, the higher Google ranked his site. Previously Borker had paid a search engine optimisation company to write positive guff about his website. Then he realised that he got much better results by insulting customers and getting them to complain in forums and on consumer websites.
Sadly the genius strategy might not work any longer. Google used a blogpost to explain that it has changed its algorithms to stop rewarding people for being evil.
Google, in typically secretive style, would only explain what it has not done, not what it has done.
The search and ad giant rejected manually blocking DecorMyEyes. It rejected using 'sentiment analysis' because this could block access to stuff that people just love to complain about like politicians and other elected officials and lots of other interesting, but controversial, subjects.
The Chocolate Factory also rejected showing user reviews alongside results - but said this was still a possible future solution.
Instead, Google said it had "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 company said it could not explain any more clearly than this without giving away information which would allow the likes of Borker to game Google's search results. Although you might think they've been well-gamed already.
We leave the last word to Borker, who declined to have his photo taken for the New York Times but asked the reporter to include the website name in any article and: “Just throw in ‘designer eyeglasses’, ‘designer eyewear’ and a couple different brand names and I’m all set.”