January 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Gaming Google

A rare spotlight on black hat SEO techniques uncovers legitimate tips for improving search rankings.

Lead Photo

Can being bad to customers be a ticket to great natural search results?

That question was the focus of a Nov. 28 article in the New York Times that set off a broad debate among specialists in search engine optimization, led Google to change its ranking algorithm and ultimately led to the arrest of the e-retailer at the center of the debate.

While the newspaper story claimed that Vitaly Borker, founder of luxury eyewear retailer DecorMyEyes.com, achieved high rankings in Google by deliberately goading customers into posting scathing reviews on online review sites, a closer examination by SEO experts and Google refuted that theory.

But just to be sure, Google responded to the Times story by changing its algorithm to ensure that DecorMyEyes.com and several hundred other retailers it deems abusive would not benefit from customer complaints. “Being bad is, and hopefully always will be, bad for business in Google’s search results,” Google fellow Amit Singhal wrote in a posting to Google’s blog.

But SEO experts say there are lessons to be learned from the DecorMyEyes story that can help legitimate merchants move up in natural search results, without abusing customers.

Talk of the town

The suggestions that Borker parlayed thuggish behavior into high natural search rankings set off a discussion across the web. “Every SEO expert was talking about it,” says Ian MacDonald, director of e-commerce at multichannel pond supplies retailer The Pond Guy Inc. and formerly vice president and general manager of party supplies e-retailer CenturyNovelty.com.

The New York Times reported that Borker repeatedly shipped defective or counterfeit goods, and physically threatened, often in the most graphic terms, customers who complained or asked for a refund. That account was largely echoed by federal authorities in charges they brought against Borker a few days later (see story on page 14.)

But what intrigued SEO experts were Borker’s claims that he deliberately provoked unhappy customers into posting comments on consumer review sites like GetSatisfaction.com and RipoffReport.com, believing that the links from those sites to DecorMyEyes.com boosted his search results.

In one of his posts on GetSatisfaction.com, Borker wrote: “The more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.” And in fact, DecorMyEyes.com did appear on the first page of Google search results for products like Versace and Christian Dior eyeglasses.

Asked to comment by Internet Retailer, an unidentified individual at DecorMyEyes.com e-mailed the following reply: “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.” The retailer did not reply to further inquiries.

A closer look

The Times story appeared initially plausible to SEO experts because they know inbound links from authoritative sites are among the best ways to boost an e-retail site’s natural search rank.

“Backlinks are a key signal search engines use,” says Jim Yu, CEO of BrightEdge, a provider of search engine optimization tools. “From an SEO perspective, any backlink is better than no backlink.”

Even links from scathing reviews? Yes, because Google does not factor in the sentiment expressed, just whether a company or individual is mentioned on reputable sites. As Google’s Singhal explained, “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.”

But when SEO experts took a closer look they concluded that it was not primarily the links from online complaints that was boosting DecorMyEyes.com in search results.

In part that’s because review sites are aware that such links from complaints could benefit abusive retailers. “Like any online community that cares to combat spammers, we code our user-submitted links so that Google ignores them for the purposes of calculating page rank,” noted Thor Muller, chief technology officer of GetSatisfaction.com in a post responding to the New York Times article.

GetSatisfaction.com prevents sites like DecorMyEyes.com from gaining authority from its links by adding a “nofollow” code to links in user reviews, telling Google and other search engines that GetSatisfaction.com does not vouch for the linked site. RipoffReport.com takes a different approach to achieve the same end, converting links in user reviews to plain text. No link means no authority passed along.

Unlikely supporters

But then how did DecorMyEyes.com achieve high search rankings? Part of it came from so-called black hat techniques aimed at tricking search engines, says Byrne Hobart, a marketing consultant with web design firm Blue Fountain Media.

Using a tool called Yahoo Site Explorer, Hobart detected more than 14,000 links to DecorMyEyes.com, many from pages filled with random words and links to various sites. He also found indications that DecorMyEyes.com paid sites that had no connection to eyewear to put a link to the e-retail site.

Those techniques are against Google’s policies, Hobart says. “If they catch you, at best they’ll devalue the link and you’ll be paying for nothing. At worst they’ll penalize you.”

But DecorMyEyes.com also garnered link juice from some unexpected sources.

A Bloomberg article about a suit against DecorMyEyes.com was one link that boosted the site’s authority, Singhal noted on the Google blog.

And an article in the New York Times that highlighted the eyewear of Pittsburgh Steelers football coach Mike Tomlin linked the phrase “Versace 2049 sunglasses” to a product page on DecorMyEyes.com that had an image of those glasses.

Having that link to DecorMyEyes.com anchored to the product’s name is ideal, Hobart says. “It’s a very strong endorsement in SEO terms,” he says.

That may have been dumb luck, but Hobart says it could be a strategy for many online retailers: Feature high-end products that consumers may crave and like to talk about, even if they won’t sell a lot. Bloggers and others discussing such products online may search for images or descriptions, and, finding them on a retailer’s site, might link to that site, creating valuable backlinks.

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