Google Search Algorithm Will Punish Bad Businesses

Google has developed a new algorithm that will (hopefully) not reward businesses with bad customer service, a move made in response to a New York Times story about a business with a troubling advertising plan: negative advertising is just as good as positive advertising, at least when it comes to Google PageRank.

Google's blog post on the subject states that the company was "horrified" to read about a customer's dreadful experience, and that it "immediately convened a team" to look into the issue. In the last few days, Google has developed a new algorithm that detects merchants who provide (in Google's opinion) bad customer service, and penalizes them in Google's PageRank.

"A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web" tells the story of Clarabelle Rodriguez, who tried to purchase a pair of Lafont eyeglasses from online glasses retailer DecorMyEyes.com. Rodriguez was then put through consumer hell: the store refused to give her a refund when the glasses she requested were out of stock; when she finally received her glasses, they were counterfeit; the store overcharged her $125, and when she called to complain the store's owner threatened her.

Rodriguez eventually disputed the charge with her credit card company, which said it would look into the matter. The owner of the store -- who went by the name Tony Russo -- then started threatening her. First, he filed a lawsuit in small claims court; when she didn't respond to that, he sent her an e-mail with a picture of her apartment building. Finally, he (or one of his friends) called her credit card company, posing as her, and dropped the dispute.

After a frustrating call with Citi Cards in which Citi refused to reopen the dispute, Rodriguez did the only thing she could do -- she went to the Internet (OK, and the New York Times), and found a consumer advocacy site called GetSatisfaction. Here, she found what she probably should have found when she first started searching for glasses: dozens of similar customer stories about DecorMyEyes -- stalking, e-mails, threats, and creepy phone calls.

The problem was this: these dozens and dozens of bad reviews about DecorMyEyes were actually boosting the company's Google PageRank. Before last weekend, Google PageRank was unable to weigh positive versus negative reviews, and so all of the extra buzz about DecorMyEyes was good -- even if it was bad.

As they say in the celebrity world, any publicity is good publicity, right?

Of course, this wasn't an accident -- DecorMyEyes owner (whose real name is Vitoly Borker) told the Times that the negative publicity was all part of his plan. After discovering that his website popped up higher on Google search when customers threatened to go to consumer advocacy sites, he started milking it for all it was worth. The only thing that keeps him in check is credit card companies -- too many customers disputing charges, and they'll kick him out. Borker says he tracks the numbers carefully and gets friendlier if they're getting too high.

Anyway, Google reports that unsavory hustlers like Borker will hopefully no longer be able to game the system (at least, not in the same way). Google says it can't reveal too much about the algorithm for fear that hustlers will figure out a new loophole, but:

"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."

Here's the real moral of the story: make sure you check up on online retailers before you drop $400 on a pair of glasses (or anything). Amazon and eBay make this easier by offering seller ratings right on their pages, but there are plenty of other resources out there for consumers. Along with GetSatisfaction, sites such as ResellerRatings, Ripoff Report, The Consumerist, and Yelp are all good places to get real customer reviews.

Follow Sarah on Twitter (@geeklil) or at sarahpurewal.wordpress.com

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