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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.

Patricio Robles

Published 3 December, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2377 more posts from this author

Comments (7)

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James MacAonghus

Good point. Given the inertia of users to switch, they may be keeping search at a good-enough level and reallocating developers to the other areas they are trying to enter.

over 5 years ago

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Dan Howard

It seems like 'theres no such thing as bad press' no longer applies! About time too!

over 5 years ago

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Vincent Roman

"..in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution" hardly inspires confidence.  Algorithms are not the answer to life, the universe and everything.  They sort one issue and people game Google in another way, whilst plenty of other unscrupulous merchants still fall through the cracks.  I don't envy Google, but at the same time, this ain't the great panacea it's cracked up to be.

over 5 years ago

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Andreas Pouros

“Yes I think being bad on the web can indeed be good for business BUT it's a risky strategy to deliberately employ, so only lunatics/scammers would intentionally go down that route. It does suggest that Google will likely begin to use other signals to inform 'trust' beyond what it is using now. Sentiment analysis is difficult here though as, for example, there would be lots of negativitiy about George W Bush online but that doesn't mean he shouldn't rank for his own name.”

over 5 years ago

Pauline Randall

Pauline Randall, Director at Florizel Media

Does this mean that if you create loads of bad vibes for your competitors they will be downgraded in Google? 

over 5 years ago

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craigm

Google search results exist for one reason:  

To maximise Google ad revenue.  

They are good enough for people to keep using them, but everything about them:  results set, order, their new strategy of minimising unique urls (hence why some authority domains now get as many as 4 results on page 1), etc.,  are about maximising clicks on adwords.

Genuinely useful natural search is something that needs a truly revolutionary approach... perhaps combining a massive-scale distributed model (operated on a non-for-profit / public service basis by multiple operators) with a genuinely complimentary commercial layer(s) (insights, enterprise services, even ads*) for whoever needs to make money to support this new ecosystem.

Google on the other hand faces a decade of regulatory attention, lawsuits and a gradual decline.  

(*However, control of selling advertising and control of the results set cannot realistically exist within the same commercial enterprise)

over 5 years ago

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Tom Atkinson

People will have to think of better examples than the goverment based Whitehouse and George Bush for this comparison, because those 2 examples are not e-commerce shops, and are so far in a different category, that they could be excluded from this filter due to category.

A decent conversation about this should raise examples in the e-commerce field that a) get negative sentiment with links and b) are actually valid non-evil companies.

Probably large e-com sites like amazon, ebay, and so forth could stand to loose some rankings by this filter for example.

over 5 years ago

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