The New York Times ran a story dealing with a specialist designer eyewear company based in Brooklyn. The online company had a strict SEO policy – behave as rudely and as badly to every customer as was possible. Behavior included – threatening physical harm, issuing sexual threats, stalking and taking photographs of customer homes, posing as the customer to their credit card companies when complaints were filed and asking for the fraud investigations to be dropped.

The sting in the tail was that the company was enjoying top search ranking result on Google!

The Bad Links

The link is claimed to be this: the company behaved badly to the customers, who in turn complained on high PR sites such as Ripoff Report and Get Satisfaction. The backlinks created on these, and dozens of other consumer complaint sites resulted in a boost in the Google algorithm.

That’s the story, but Google says otherwise. On a Google blog post, the search engine denies there could have been a ranking boost because sites such as were using the rel=nofollow attribute, so the backlinks wouldn’t count. This seems not to have been the case in practice, because at the same time Google announced they had amended the search ranking algorithm to take this anomalous, but extremely bad customer service into account.

Algorithm Changes

The Google algorithm change is now in effect, and it is supposed to take into account bad customer service, but how it is accomplishing this is unknown. We know that Google is not using its business sentiment solution – the Large Scale Sentiment Analysis for News and Blogs – the ostensible reason being, that if Google counted negative comments then most politicians’ sites would not rank at all (but why is that not a bad thing?).

Other solutions Google considered included an outright ban on the offending website, but that would not have dealt with any other site taking advantage of the loophole. But, Google said the offender wasn’t getting high ranking because of the negative comments? Clearly, something was going on with the Google ranking algorithm, and this is confirmed by Google reporting that not only the offender, but hundreds of other websites, are now being caught by the changes in the search algorithm instituted.


There are a couple of observations to be made out of this.

Search Algorithm Exploitation

First, Google’s search engine algorithm, and presumably Bing’s as well, are not perfect and they will have loopholes which can be exploited. Google moved rapidly on this case, not least because of the extreme nature of the offender’s behavior, but also the embarrassment factor. Users expect to find relevant results from search rankings, not the merchant from hell and it wouldn’t be a far stretch of the imagination to imagine a law suit winging its way from New York to Mountain View.

Ratings and Rankings

The second observation is how business conduct is going to impact on ranking results. Supposedly, hundreds of websites are now being caught by Google’s algorithm changes to pick up bad user experiences. The issue is what constitutes bad behavior? Merchants are always going to have customers who hate them no matter what they do, so how do websites protect their online reputations? It seems that the days of any publicity is good publicity are over, and monitoring what your customers are saying about you online is increasing in importance.

Your Thoughts

With the change in search algorithm, what does this mean to the businesses that have unfounded bad reviews? Will this mean online reputation will become more difficult, expensive, and valuable? Please share your thoughts in the comments.