No, You Can’t Rank Well Just By Cultivating Terrible Reviews

Byrne Hobart on
  • Categories: Channel: SEO, Features: Analysis, Google: SEO, SEO - Search Engine Optimization, SEO: General
  • Over the weekend, the New York Times carried a great article on DecorMyEyes.com, an eyewear site whose owner claims that bad reviews got him to page one of Google. Danny Sullivan responded to the piece with a look at why Google’s algorithm fails and why reviews should be a bigger part of rankings in this particular case. Yet, according to a post by Vitaly Borker, the site’s owner:

    “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.”

    The Times explains his master plan:

    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.

    It all sounds dubious but doable—and DecorMyEyes does rank for some desirable eyeglasses-related terms. But is getting bad customer reviews really how they did it?

    Not exactly. While DecorMyEyes’ owner may think that his review-generating strategy is responsible for the site’s rankings, those links aren’t the ones that are benefiting them the most.

    Actually, the reason DecorMyEyes.com ranks for “Versace 2049 Sunglasses” is that they got a link to the appropriate landing page, from a reputable site. Specifically, they got linked by the New York Times.

    NYT NFL Pro Football Blog Circa 2009

    Shady Links?

    A review of their site on Yahoo! Site Explorer reveals the actual sources of links, likely leading the site’s traffic:

    • Lots of spam sites.
    • Suspected paid links.
    • A few links from group shopping sites like Polyvore.
    • A smattering of links from blogs, including the NYT piece posted above, Oh No They Didn’t, and random blogs.

    But what about the complaints?

    At best, one of the complaints sites may be positively influencing DecorMyEyes’ rankings for their targeted terms. But that’s a tiny fraction of the 14,000+ links the site has gotten.

    Is This A Viable SEO Strategy?

    If DecorMyEyes isn’t successful due to its complaint-cultivation strategy, why does it rank so well?

    • The site was spammed early and often. Many of the links to DecorMyEyes come from auto-generated spam pages. It’s a risky strategy, but the difference between “risky” and “stupid” is that for some people, “risky” pays off nicely.
    • They use paid links. Many of the links to DecorMyEyes.com are keyword-rich sidebar links from irrelevant sites. This is a good sign that they’ve purchased those links. While this is certainly a way to get exactly the link you want, from exactly the site you’d like to get linked by, it does carry some risks. There’s a decent chance that many sites pursuing similar strategies have already been caught and penalized by search engines.
    • They rank well for “prestige” terms. It’s easy to explain the links from random bloggers and the NYT: DecorMyEyes ranks well for glasses that are too expensive to drive much e-commerce revenue, but are prestigious enough to be talked about. This is a clever strategy for anyone in the fashion business—or real estate, for that matter; use high-quality pictures of the unattainable in order to attract links.
    • They allow hotlinking. Many of their links are hotlinks to images. They could get a bigger rankings boost by creating an easy-embed code that would wrap each image in a border that included appropriate anchor text, but the presence of lots of hotlinked images is probably not hurting them.

    The DecorMyEyes story is entertaining, but it’s really two stories in parallel. One is the story of Vitaly Borker, jerk par excellence, who browbeats his customers into accepting ripoffs. The other is the story of DecorMyEyes, a typical low-quality e-commerce site that used a combination of black-hat techniques and dumb luck to rank well.

    Vitaly wouldn’t have customers to abuse without DecorMyEyes’ SEO success—but DecorMyEyes.com’s rankings have nothing to do with Vitaly’s abuse of customers.

    Postscript: Google has now announced that merchant reviews (not links from merchants, but aggregate reviews themselves) will have an impact on rankings. See Google: Now Using Online Merchant Reviews As Ranking Signal.

    Postscript 2: See DecorMyEyes Merchant Vitaly Borker Arrested After NYT Piece On Google Rankings.


    About The Author

    Byrne Hobart