Google’s “Gold Standard” Search Results Take Big Hit In New York Times Story

The New York Times has a great, detailed story out today about a merchant with an unusual marketing strategy: be mean to customers. Any publicity, even negative publicity, means a win with Google’s ranking algorithms. Is he right? Maybe. Certainly the story illustrates the fallacy of Google’s “gold standard” search results.

Rank Well With Bad Reviews?

A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web is the story by David Segal. It’s long, but be sure to read it. In it, he examines the woeful customer service record racked up by online eyeglasses retailer “Decor My Eyes.” Customers have been treated rudely, hassled by email and phone calls. Police have been called. Credit card companies contacted. But owner Vitaly Borker, speaking amazingly candidly in the article, finds that a key to his success:

“Hello, My name is Stanley with DecorMyEyes.com,” the post began. “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.”
It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about DecorMyEyes, even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.”
That would sound like schoolyard taunting but for this fact: The post is two years old. Between then and now, hundreds of additional tirades have been tacked to Get Satisfaction, ComplaintsBoard.com, ConsumerAffairs.com and sites like them.

“Stanley” is an alternative name Borker has used occasionally online. Continuing further in the story, there’s more about how he came across what he claims is his success strategy:

He stumbled upon the upside of rudeness by accident.
“I stopped caring,” he says, and for that he blames customers. They lied and changed their minds in ways that cost him money, he says, and at some point he started telling them off in the bluntest of terms. To his amazement, this seemed to better his standing in certain Google searches, which brought in more sales.
Before this discovery, he’d hired a search optimization company to burnish his site’s reputation by writing positive things about DecorMyEyes online. Odious behavior, he realized, worked much better, and it didn’t cost him a penny.

Can Google Tell The Good From The Bad?

Google declined to discuss with Segal whether it can tell the “good” sentiment about a company from the “bad,” when people talk about a company or maybe link to it. Instead, Google suggested that the reporter talk with me further about it. That’s how I connected with Segal about a month ago.

I talk to reporters all the time about search engine-related issues. One of the delights in talking and emailing with Segal was that he was coming to this situation with fresh eyes. He wasn’t versed in the intricacies of search engine optimization (SEO) or how Google ranks things. He just had this crazy sounding story. Was it true that any publicity is good publicity when it comes to Google? And more important, why would Google want to reward a business like this? As he writes:

Not only has this heap of grievances failed to deter DecorMyEyes, but as Ms. Rodriguez’s all-too-cursory Google search demonstrated, the company can show up in the most coveted place on the Internet’s most powerful site.

Having seen the crazy things that Google will rank high over time, it’s easy to become jaded and think “that’s the way it is.” Many SEOs I know feel this way and have largely given up assuming anything will change, or that Google will take the SEO view of its ranking problems seriously. Heck, Google still won’t let people look up all the backlinks leading to a site, which might allow outsiders to do a better job helping them police their results.

It’s all stuff that can be dismissed as “inside baseball” and not what typical people care about. But typical people do care, do get puzzled, as Segal was as he explored this case. And what Google ranks tops can have a terrible impact on real consumers.

Understanding The “Reviews” Signal

Let me take the ranking issues first. As I’m cited in the story saying, I don’t think Google is trying to determine the good sentiment versus the bad in its web rankings. As I said, there are some reasons why you would NOT want Google to do this:

“If you have a lot of people who hate Obama, for instance, and you decided to rank on love or hate, you might not be able to find the White House and that would be terrible,” he says.

However, Google absolutely can tell if a business has a lot of positive or negative reviews about it. As I explained to Segal, and as is mentioned in his story, you can see this when you do a shopping search on Google rather than a regular web search.

Bad Reviews Shown In Shopping Search

For example, consider this search for christian audigier eyeglasses on Google Product Search:

Decor My Eyes shows on the first page of shopping results, as ranked by “relevancy” (and high on the second page for “christian audigier glasses.” (NOTE: About an hour after I wrote this, as I proofread before publishing, Decor My Eyes was no longer ranking and appears removed from Google Product Search).

Notice the arrow on the screenshot. It indicates that Google knows there are at least 343 reviews about this merchant across the web — and that it has a three-out-of-five star rating. If you click into the review summary page, it’s a mixed picture:

Why Not Use Or Show Reviews In “Regular” Google?

The first key question is why doesn’t Google seem to factor reviews that it collects more heavily into the rankings on Google Product Search. It’s not even an option to manually sort results by ratings. Relevance and price are the only sorting choices.

The second question, and more important question, is why Google doesn’t reflect these reviews when a merchant appears in its regular listings?

Consider this same search on regular Google:

On shopping search, Google associates reviews next to Decor My Eyes. On the far more heavily used regular Google search, it doesn’t — nor does it seem to factor those negative reviews as one of its over 200 ranking signals used by its algorithm to decide what shows up and what doesn’t.

(NOTE: Before publishing, Decor My Eyes was still showing up on regular Google as shown above and below. I’ve seen some reports via Twitter that it has gone. It could be that it has been removed from Google and that this removal has not yet fully hit all of Google’s various computer data centers. Rankings may also change in the future).

When Google DOES Show Reviews

Now consider the regular Google search results for christian audigier glasses below. Decor My Eyes no longer outranks the official web site, as the owner says in the story and as he did when Segal looked at the results earlier this month. However, he’s still in the first page of results (and yes, I’ve verified this to ensure it’s not just Google giving me personalized results). The big arrow points at Decor My Eyes, but notice the ads and the arrows pointing at them:

Those ads have little star ratings next to them. Why? Because Google allows advertisers who want to show ratings next to their ads to do so.

Now consider this search for apple tv reviews (and be sure to read my own Apple TV review posted yesterday!):

See the little star reviews? Those aren’t reviews about the page but rather a way that the authors of those reviews can indicate the star rating they’ve assigned to the products they are reviewing through microformats, to create what are known as rich snippets.

In both cases, with the ads and the rich snippets, Google is allow publishers and advertisers to provide valuable information right within its search results. That’s good, because it allows searchers to make better choices from what’s presented. In fact, Google introduced Instant Previews earlier this month saying it was yet another important way for searchers to get to the right information, faster.

If Google Shows Reviews From Bricks-And-Mortar Merchants….

Ad ratings and rich snippets in Google’s “organic” or “free” or “editorial” results are voluntary things. You wouldn’t expect merchants with bad reviews to enable these. That brings things back to one of the big fails on Google with some of this. Even if it’s too difficult from rewarding a merchant with bad reviews with a top ranking (and it really shouldn’t be), Google could certainly at least make those bad reviews more visible. Consider this search for plumbers in los angeles:

Here, reviews about businesses ARE listed in the search results. They show up regardless of what the business owner thinks. To my knowledge, they can’t be removed. They were added as part of the new Google Place Search that rolled out in October.

Google’s brick-and-mortar local listings have long had relevancy issues. That’s improved over time, and as I told the New York Times, I see these reviews as showing up now as part of Google attending to the “squeaky wheel” of poor local search. Now with today’s focus on shopping search, I’d expect Google to spin round and patch things up there.

Over At Bing, The Same Problem

The New York Times article focused solely on Google. It’s important to note that Google’s chief rival, Bing (which in turn provides results to Yahoo), has the same issues. For example, here’s a search for bottega veneta eyeglasses where Decor My Eyes ranks in the top results:

Over at Blekko, the same search above brings up Decor My Eyes. Interestingly, Blekko-powered Duck Duck Go does not. In fact, the entire decormyeyes.com site appears to have been barred at Duck Duck Go. Good relevancy, if that was done before the New York Times article spotlighted the issue. Not so good if it was done after the fact.

My piece here is focusing on Google for two reasons. First, the New York Times piece does. Second, Google’s the market leader and over the past year or so has aggressively pushed that it has great search quality in a variety of ways, such as public relations and blog posts. That doesn’t excuse Bing from needing to do the same improvements. But similarly, the “Bing has the same problem, too” response won’t wash with me.

Beyond Google: Credit Card Companies

I’ll get back to the search issue in a second, but the story goes beyond the problems just with Google in the case of this particular merchant. eBay hasn’t seemed to have done much policing, in contrast to Amazon, where the merchant says he’s forced to behave “like a boy scout.”

Perhaps most fascinating, or discouraging, were the sections about Citibank in particular and credit card companies in general not cracking down.

As it happens, I’m dealing with Citibank right now on fraudulent purchases made on my card. I’m not worried about getting these refunded, though after reading this article, perhaps I should be. However, I am disturbed at how little the company seems to care to catch the perpetrators. They bought things actually shipped to my house! Crazy. They bought advertising on Google, which means that there might be a route to finding them that way.

My calls to Citibank basically gave me the response of them not being interested. Fraud is just part of their business, even if their business ought to be better protecting consumers and good merchants. Then again, with Citibank, this is a company that seems to have a fictional customer service manager that they’ve maintained for years.

SEO Versus Spam

Ultimately, is Decor My Eyes right? Have all those bad reviews been helping, simply because there are enough links pointing at the site regardless? As I said, maybe. I took a cursory lookup last month (you can bet several SEO blogs will be doing detailed looks to come). Nothing immediately leapt out as a reason for the site to do well. When I looked with Segal last month, I found some sites that were worse than Decor My Eyes, in terms of content presented, that still were being ranked well by Google.

From an SEO perspective, I still wouldn’t advise anyone to follow this strategy. For one thing, who wants to be that type of a merchant? For another, in the long term, I still think the bad reviews will catch up to you. As with local listings, I think Google will begin showing online merchant reviews right within its results.

Of course, that will further open up the gaming that already happens in those reviews, as well as concerns that businesses might be hurt by fake negative reviews. No doubt, we’ll have warnings that you shouldn’t buy reviews. Maybe we’ll even have ways to “nofollow” reviews that aren’t trusted, in the way sites can “nofollow” links and ask they don’t carry credit with Google through its PageRank and link analysis systems. Won’t that be fun.

However, the more immediate concern remains why Google would have rewarded a merchant like this, right now, with its existing systems. The answer is that Google’s ranking systems are far from perfect. You get a few good matches, and that satisfies many people. But some poor quality sites still get rewarded. This isn’t about pulling spam, because a bad merchant doesn’t necessarily equal a merchant that’s spamming Google. This is about Google actually doing what Google is supposed to do. Ensure that only the best things show up in the top of its results.

Will Google Fix It Now?

I’ve covered what I’ve perceived as a decline in Google’s search quality twice now in the past year, talking about how things get into the top results that aren’t up-to-snuff. I’d encourage you to read them

Others in the SEO space have also seen it, as well, where Google seems to tell site owners one thing but the reality of the search results says something else.

Here’s hoping that having its failure splashed across the pages of the New York Times will get Google to do more.

For related commentary on this topic from across the web, see here on Techmeme.

Postscript: In my story above, I realize in the end that I didn’t dwell much on the aspect of whether the links — in good comments or bad about the site — really did count for much. I might come back to take a deeper look at this later. But for now….

Get Satisfaction has a post up explaining that in their reviews, links are “nofollowed.” As I explained above, this is a way for a site to indicate to a search engine that it doesn’t “trust” a link or vouch for it, and thus doesn’t want that link to gain credit with ranking systems.

I’ve now looked at several of the other review sites mentioned in the New York Times article, such as Complaints BoardConsumerAffairs.com and Ripoff Report, along with a few others. They all seem to nofollow links, to ensure the sites reviewed aren’t gaining credit. Ironically, Ripoff Report especially stands out among the crowd as a site that has its own bad reputation, making some think it should be removed from Google.

Of course, there are many “scraper” sites out on the web, sites which copy content from one site and create mishmashes usually to rank on Google and often tap into AdSense money from Google. If they copy from some of these review sites, it’s possible that the nofollow part of links might be dropped off.

As I said in this piece and in the New York Times article, “maybe” those bad reviews helped Decor My Eyes. It’s possible, and I didn’t spend much time trying to debunk that portion, hence my maybe.

Why not spend more time on that aspect? For one reason, it’s just a stupid SEO strategy, to me. Being a bad business to your customers really doesn’t seem a long-term business model, even if it MIGHT bring in some Google traffic

More important, most of my time talking with the New York Times and in this piece was spent focusing on what I thought was the bigger issue. Could Google tell what someone thought about an online merchant — if it was reputable or not? I think many would agree that if Google could do this, that would be an important factor to weigh in its ranking algorithms.

I think it’s clear that Google CAN do this, given that it collects reviews and aggregates star ratings for shopping search. But it appears not to let this influence how well a site can rank in either shopping results or its regular results. And in its regular results, it doesn’t to show aggregate reviews at all.

Google recently found it important to show all searchers Instant Previews of web sites but hasn’t found it important to show aggregate reviews of online merchants? That’s a fail, to me.

Postscript 2: Today (Monday), I had a closer look at some of the places linking to Decor My Eyes. In particular, I used SEOmoz’s Open Site Explorer to do a backlink lookup. I was surprised to see that Get Satisfaction was listed in one case as providing a link that does carry credit to the site. It’s on this page. That’s not the same as every review link carrying credit. Each review, bad or good, doesn’t add more credit. But yes, by being on Get Satisfaction at all, that site is transmitting some authority to Decor My Eyes. Reseller Ratings has another example of this.

Postscript 3 (Dec. 1): No, You Can’t Rank Well Just By Cultivating Terrible Reviews from Search Engine Land today looks further at how review links to the merchant didn’t really help.

More important, Google has now also announced that merchant reviews will be part of its ranking algorithm, to keep merchants with bad reputations from appearing. Google: Now Using Online Merchant Reviews As Ranking Signal has more about that.

Postscript 3 (Dec. 6): See DecorMyEyes Merchant Vitaly Borker Arrested After NYT Piece On Google Rankings.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: General | Google: Google Shopping | Google: Web Search | SEO: General | SEO: Spamming | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.ericgoldman.org Eric Goldman

    It seems like the entire problem goes away if the consumer review websites nofollow their links. To me, they are the real weak link in this story. Eric.

  • http://www.blindfiveyearold.com ajkohn

    The problem around using reviews as a major part of the search algorithm revolve around reputation and relevance.

    Can you identify real reviews from fake reviews? Anyone in eCommerce can tell you how easy it can be to boost your star rating on any number of shopping comparison portals. This type of manipulation isn’t talked about much (a lot like buying iinks) but it happens.

    Even when they are real reviews, are bad reviews always valid? Reviews are subjective, but at some point you have to discount ones that are clearly not useful. They might have bought it thinking it would do something it actually doesn’t do.

    Or maybe they had unrealistic expectations. Or maybe they were just in a bad mood when they wrote the review. Conversely, maybe the review is overly good. They always give perfect reviews because you get back when you send into the world (or some other pollyanna type mentality.)

    How many reviews has this person ever submitted? Do they have any sort of track record to indicate that their review should hold more weight?

    Bill Slawski (search patent watch dog) recently blogged about how Google may be trying to tackle this issue.

    http://www.seobythesea.com/?p=4550

    From that article, other conversations and the rise of social identities, I believe Google (and Facebook) are looking at ways to rank reviews based on the reviewers reputation. But until that time, it seems like using reviews (without the aide of a review partner) as a major signal would be too easy to manipulate.

  • JezC

    While this makes for an interesting story, I don’t think it’s a major strategy for businesses to adopt, and I don’t think it represents a large slice of internet business activity. The real primary message here is that anything that gets the customers’ attention is good; but I suspect that anything that favourably impresses a client is better. Businesses that don’t interact with their clients, will fare worse than those that do.

    Much more worrying, to me, is that there are so many sites high in search results that have clearly been designed to draw in users so they will click on AdSense. While it may be true that Google doesn’t rank an advertiser based on their advertising, Google does appear to give full credibility to the utmost rubbish – and effectively sponsors the creation of drivel, by rewarding the site owner with cold hard cash. AdWords arbitrage? No – but SEO arbitrage? Maybe.

    These MFA sites earn money for their owners and for Google, by pushing users towards display advertisers who may have the real answer. I don’t know whether that is a conscious strategy at Google, but I don’t believe that it makes for a good user experience, and it isn’t great for Brand experience to have your display advertising shown on some page of total inanity.

    I do agree that Google’s handling of reputation can be appallingly callous. If you’d like another nasty example, how about a company that hosts a discussion forum on which there are negative comments about competitors – such that a search for a minor brand name can show the damaging comments from the forum on the first page of results? Google won’t do a thing about that.

    Are Google really wanting to encourage companies to set up negative and controllable communication about competitors? Seems so. That’s more worrying to me than this case, too. The only way to handle this for an attacked business, without recourse to law, is to wash the results off the front page, by getting other content on other sites. Not content focused on the user, simply any content on a high enough ranking site that it might push the negative commentary off the page. It adds costs to a small business, to clean its’ reputation, which is only damaged because Google is so naive and uninterested in the financial interests of competitor’s messaging.

    I think you should take a look at Product Search and user ratings again. I can see a pattern, I think, suggesting that reviews are believed and used in ranking. Look at the results that you showed – Amazon’s count of reviews and rating are highest, and the listings decline in volume and rating down the page, with DecorMyEyes below some unrated sites… Surely there’s a pattern there? :)

  • http://wefollow.com/hardaway francine hardaway

    Algorithms aren’t applicable here. This is a case of human factors. I’m no expert on search, but I am one on publicity, and it’s crap that any publicity is good publicity. Eventually, DecorMyEyes would go out of business, if it hasn’t already. The Times article will do it in, even if Google does not. The guy running it has a case of advanced hubris, and while that always makes for good drama, it doesn’t make for good business.

  • http://daggle.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Eric, I added a postscript. Many do use nofollow.

    ajkohn, agreed, using reviews is tricky. But then again, Google already displays them in shopping search and in regular search for local businesses.

  • http://www.techwang.com Dan Rogers

    @francine, unless Google manually edit DecorMyEyes out of the SERPS (which they will likely do) coverage in the NYT is SEO gold dust and is only likely to help the site even more….

  • http://www.twitter.com/GregBogdan Greg Bogdan

    Danny,

    Nice post, thanks. I hope that Google is reading and looking for smart ways to address.

    Seems like any algorithmic approach to fix the problem also introduces SEO black hat opportunities. Must be some very interesting conversations going on in Google search algorithm gait keeper land. I would personally like “trusted” site reviews to matter but then trusted sites use nofollow links so they can’t matter and if they did matter then trusted sites might get spammed by people that figure out that they do matter.

    I guess this is where my personal social network could matter more, as it already does. One answer to “plug the leak” might be to evaluate any inbound link looking for negative words associated with it, and then at least “discount” the inbound link in ranking. That does not address the opportunity to use trusted reviews to influence rank but it does help to neutralize potential offences. A game of cat and mouse for sure.

  • http://www.aqute.com Aqute Intelligence

    duckduckgo explain why their results didn’t include decormyeyes:

    http://twitter.com/duckduckgo/status/9284042486714368

  • http://upwardtrend.wordpress.com/ Philip Segal

    This article is perhaps a very valid look at why comparison shopping sites – especially one like http://www.bizrate.com that specifically exist to rank merchants along with comparison shopping – are still much more relevant than Google for online shopping.

  • http://brohanistan.com/ Brendan Rohan

    This appears to the update to that old adage ‘The Only Bad Publicity is No Publicity.’

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    He seems to have a lot of shopping site links that are NOT nofollowed. Seems much ado about nothing to me, asking how he ranked so well.

  • http://answerguy.com Jeff Yablon

    Danny, I wrote about te (point of) this phenomenon a few weeks ago :

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/41714293/Google%E2%80%99s-Secret-Sauce-Revealed-The-Death-and-Life-of-Search-Engine-Optimization

    The point is that the SINGLE most important factor in SEO efficacy is now (probably has always been, but as it all matures this becomes more and more meaningful) the quality and age of your links.

    PERIOD.

    And . . . so what?

  • SSteve

    @Jeff Yablon

    I think the REAL point here is that what Google is delivering is a big steaming pile of $%# to its users. I have solely focused on optimizing sites in ONE industry for months now and it is not until you actually focus in on what’s going in one industry segment, in one geographical area that you see the utter futility of delivering “QUALITY” to the folks over at Google.
    The Google crew are talking the talk BUT they sure as heck aren’t walking the walk: Each and every day you see the same garbage listings cluttering up the same SERPS day in and day out. You likely have a whole slew of good solid sites that are sitting in oblivion thanks to the wonder that is the aging delay (Think about it: The Web is about immediacy and the folks over at Google have literally replaced a Ferrari with a wagon pulled by a mule.). Should any of us actually be surprised that the subject of this story has actually succeeded when he should have failed? I’m not: Google is a complete and utter joke when it comes to delivering “quality results” – here’s an example: Optimize a business for a geographical area – say Santa Monica. Your competition? The dumbasses at Google will deliver a result from Mars if that guy happened to have a street address that read 123 Santa Monica Blvd somewhere on their website.
    This story once again points out that the Google crew have hoodwinked the lot of us into thinking that if we labor away day after day in a dark room somewhere pumping out “quality content” that it will somehow pay off in the end. It hasn’t and it won’t. Google is a joke.

  • applehot

    Let’s face it, the Google model is broken and you continue to perpetuate SEO/SEM as viable given this silly notion of Google being the gatekeeper to the Web’s information.

  • http://www.edeninteractive.com searchengineman

    Wow when Danny Yells, Google Jumps then the Feds.

    A) I think it is good news, that there will always be a need for human editorials and human intervention. Even the Great Google (OZ) ..still needs the little man behind the curtain, to spot this kind of stuff.

    B) Another annoying bully of a human being is going to jail for being a jerk

    C) This will give pause to other psychotic business owners that being a jerk really
    does come back to haunt you. In this case we see 2 years of bad Karma in a Google Instant! You would think that most people would know being a jerk will ultimately cost you money in the end. I’m glad Google has introduced this Algo change.

    Like grandma says “What goes around, comes around” or the older Russian proverb “As the call, so is the echo.”

    Searchengineman

  • avo

    The site ranks #1 now on google for the sunglasses term in the article (won’t include link, to keep from exacerbating the problem). Google apparently hasn’t removed this guy… Apparently ANY publicity is good publicity!

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