December 2, 2010, 2:59 PM

Google punishes rogue e-retailers

The search engine acts to ensure that bad reviews don’t raise a retailer’s search ranking.

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Google Inc. announced this week that it had changed the way it ranks retail sites to ensure that abusive retailers don’t move up in natural search rankings as a result of consumer complaints posted on online forums.

The search engine acted quickly following Sunday’s publication by the New York Times of a major article suggesting that an online retailer of designer eyewear, DecorMyEyes.com, was benefiting from the many complaints consumers were posting about the retailer’s poor service, profane language and threatening behavior.

“Being bad to customers is bad for business on Google,” Amit Singhal, a Google fellow, wrote in a post to the Google blog yesterday.

Singhal said Google had identified hundreds of merchants, including the one mentioned in the New York Times article, “that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience.” He did not specify how Google would treat those merchants or how it identifies bad retailers. But he said Google had already implemented a change to the way it ranks these retailers “and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.”

The newspaper article suggested that DecorMyEyes.com benefited from the many negative comments about it on consumer review sites—RipOffReport.com says there are more than 100 complaints about the e-retailer on its site—because those postings contained links from authoritative sites to DecorMyEyes.com, and that search engines like Google give credit for any link to a web site, regardless of whether the comment is positive or negative.

Singhal confirmed in yesterday’s post that Google does not analyze the sentiment in posts that contain links. “If we demoted web pages that have negative comments against them, you might not be able to find information about many elected officials, not to mention a lot of important but controversial concepts,” he wrote.

In fact, the Times says the operator of DecorMyEyes.com, who the newspaper identified as Vitaly Borker, goaded customers into posting complaints on web forums, knowing those pans would boost his ranking in Google and other search engines. That was backed up by a post by Thor Muller, chief technology officer of Get Satisfaction, which operates one of the consumer commentary sites mentioned in the New York Times article. According to Muller, Borker posted the following comment on GetSatisfaction.com: “The more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.

Contacted by Internet Retailer about an interview, an unnamed individual at DecorMyEyes.com responded by e-mail: “I have sent this inquiry to our attorney for resolution. If and when she says it’s a go I will be in touch until then.”

Google’s action can only benefit merchants that provide good service, as they will move up in search rankings ahead of retailers that provide poor service, says Tim Kilroy, vice president of natural search at search marketing firm PM Digital. “This should not raise alarms for anyone who gets the occasional bad review,” Kilroy says. “That happens. Google is out looking for habitual offenders.”

In fact, Kilroy says, while no legitimate retailer would build a business out of abusing customers in hopes of prompting negative comments, savvy retailers can generate more links to their sites—and thus move up in search engine rankings—by responding when customers do post negative comments online. The retailer can include in its replies links to pages on its web site, and often consumers will provide links to the retailer’s site in their comments, all of which gives credit to the retailer’s site in the eyes of search engines.“Extend the conversation as long as possible, and have as many conversations as possible,” Kilroy says. “It will show people you are a concerned online citizen and, as a side benefit, you get better visibility.”

And retailers should be sure to include links to the pages they want to promote in search engine rankings, particularly pages where consumers can make a purchase, says Jim Yu, CEO of BrightEdge, a provide of search engine optimization technology to e-retailers. “Make sure the page you’re getting to rank is the one people can buy from,” Yu says. “Every additional step people have to go through will result in a drop in purchases.”

While the New York Times article suggested that DecorMyEyes.com was benefiting from links from online forums like GetSatisfaction.com and RipOffReport.com, those sites say that’s not the case.

Muller of Get Satisfaction says his site codes links in consumer content with “do not follow” tags that tell search engines not to give any credit to the linked site. Ripoff Report changes web site addresses in user comments from active hyperlinks to plain text; thus, “it’s not necessary for Ripoff Report to include a ‘nofollow’ tag in order to discourage favorable treatment of sites with lots of complaints,” says David Gingras, general counsel for Ripoff Report.

In fact, if DecorMyEye.com was benefiting from links from any sites, it may have been those of new organizations reporting on the company’s activities. “Ironically,” Google’s Singhal writes, “some of the most reputable links to Décor My Eyes come from mainstream news web sites such as the New York Times and Bloomberg.” He points, for example, to a Bloomberg article about someone suing the company behind Décor My Eyes as an example of a link that could have boosted the e-retailer’s ranking.

But Google’s action seems to have overridden whatever benefit DecorMyEyes.com may have obtained from such news articles, negative online comments and the recent publicity. While the e-retailer appeared on the first page of Google search results early in the week on searches for Lafont and Christian Dior eyewear, today the retailer is not to be found on the first five pages of Google results for those two terms.

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