Note to unscrupulous merchants: all of that negative online buzz you’ve
been creating to boost your sites ranking on Google won’t do you much
good anymore.

At least that’s what Google is saying following the New York Times’
high-profile story about Mr. B, who just might be the web’s most
unscrupulous merchant
. His strategy: treat customers like crap,
encourage them to complain about him online and watch his site’s
presence in the SERPs improve with every complaint.

Mr. B’s story made waves, and caused many to ask: how is it that Google is rewarding a site that generates nothing but complaints?

On Wednesday, Google responded:

…in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.

Google did not reveal the nature of the algorithm change, or what signals it takes into account, citing the potential for the unscrupulous to craft loopholes.

Some are complimenting Google on its quick reaction to the problem, and Google insists that “our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results“, but the fact that Google was, within a week of Mr. B’s story hitting the New York Times, able to adjust its algorithm to weed out hundreds of supposedly unscrupulous merchants hints that Google may be neglecting search. After all, if this was such an easy algorithm change to implement, why hadn’t Google done it proactively? One would assume that Google employees are constantly evaluating search quality and looking for ways to improve the search experience.

Had this been an isolated incident, it might be easy to buy Google’s explanation. But it isn’t. While Google claims that there isn’t a “widespread problem” here, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Recall, for instance, the fact that sites hawking counterfeit Uggs were discovered to be boosting their rankings using some of the most unsophisticated black hat SEO techniques, and even after being shut down by Scotland Yard, many of these sites retained their top rankings for weeks. And as I’ve detailed, legitimate retailers are using the same unsophisticated techniques, including paid links, with great success.

Others may not use the loopholes Mr. B was exploiting, but the outcome for searchers is the same: thanks to an inability to filter the wheat from the chaff, Google leads them to sites that are gaming the system and may not be the best sites for the query.

Obviously, it’s unrealistic to expect that Google is capable of detecting every ‘bad‘ site that has rankings higher than it should. But it’s also not difficult to wonder if the ever-growing portfolio of Google initiatives, from Android to Google TV, haven’t distracted the company. While Google has a significant staff, and many are still dedicated to search, there’s the distinct possibility that Google is getting a little bit too complacent. After all, it has such a dominant position in the search market that it can probably afford to slip up now and again.

Long term, of course, the slip ups add up and eventually there’s a fall. Hopefully the embarrassment caused by Mr. B will give Google a much-needed kick in the butt. Search quality matters, and Google should remind itself of that every day.

Photo credit: Carlos Luna via Flickr.