The upside of rudeness

The algorithm Google uses to rank websites in its search results is a closely guarded secret, as the less that is known about how the search engine works the more difficult it is for people to short-cut the system. But, as any business with a website likely knows, there are numerous legitimate techniques that can be used to move a given site higher in the rankings.

Dishonesty and deplorable customer service certainly aren't among those, but, unfortunately, one business owner in New York City has, by his own admission, been using those methods to indirectly improve his website’s ranking. And his example highlights what some say has been a glitch in Google’s ranking system.

The story, which was first reported by the New York Times, goes something like this: After starting an online eyeglass store at the invitation of a friend, the man in question, Vitaly Borker, was eventually sued by several industry manufacturers who accused him of selling counterfeit products. However, rather than being deterred by the lawsuit – along with the numerous other disputes his business reportedly had – Borker was encouraged.

Why? Because he noticed that his online arguments with customers, and their subsequent postings and complaints to consumer watchdog websites, actually helped boost his site’s search ranking. As Borker himself explained in a post to one of those sites that was quoted in the article, “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 … I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.”

Borker, who gave a very candid interview to the Times about how his business operated – before his arrest this week on charges of fraud, making interstate threats and cyberstalking – said the negative feedback pushed his ranking higher than it had been when he paid a company to help the site do better in searches. He demonstrated this to the Times’ reporter by searching for one of the products his business purportedly carried, and showed him how it came up near the top of the first page.

“Why am I there,” Borker was quoted as saying. “I don’t belong there. I actually outrank the designer’s own Web site.”

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Leaving aside the futility of this strategy as a sustaining business model – and all the other moral and ethical objections as well – did this “negative advertising” actually work to boost the ranking of the business in question? A spokesperson for Google who was contacted for the story would not say whether the company’s algorithm included “sentiment analysis,” which would add or subtract points based on positive or negative feedback. But Google did say that one important factor in its search results is the number of links from respected, well-regarded websites – the kinds of sites that people with complaints and grievances post to.

An expert contacted by the newspaper said he does not believe Google uses sentiment analysis and doesn’t think the company should. (If, for example, a lot of people post negative things about the president, it doesn’t mean a person searching for the White House should have trouble finding it.) However, he suggests Google could do a better job of incorporating customer reviews on the main page of its search results. (Google subsequently posted a blog to its official site titled "Being bad to your customers is bad for business" and said it was "horrified" to hear of the story and has developed an "initial algorithmic solution" that is already live.)

Hopefully that solution will solve the problem. In any case, this story serves – in a backhanded way – as another example of just how powerful a tool search engine optimization, done correctly, can be. If a corrupt business can keep a constant stream of customers coming in, an honorable company that consistently ranks highly in searches should have a great mix of those new customers along with a pool of loyal, repeat customers and those brought in by positive word of mouth. That’s a pretty effective recipe to do well in business.

And success is the upside of honesty.

3 comments

  1. Interesting approach to this story...

  2. It's clear you are not suggesting tactics similar to the subject of that story in the NYT and I would certainly not edify the strategy of any online merchant who seeks to exploit the built-in cynicism of the Google algorithm. FYI: He was arrested about a week later and now faces a range of charges.

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