January 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Gaming Google

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“You can imagine a car dealer having a page about an incredibly expensive car that no one’s going to buy,” Hobart says. “It’s not going to drive direct business, but it might get a lot of links.”

A version of that strategy has helped generate some links to HomeFurnitureShowroom.com and other sites operated by Allied Trade Group Inc., says Tom Heffernan, search marketing manager. The retailer sells chandeliers for up to $25,000, often to interior designers or resorts, and sometimes the buyer will chat about it online and link back to the site.

“They might be bragging about how great it is, and how they picked it up online at lunch,” Heffernan says. He adds, however, that Allied only features products that it actually sells, and wouldn’t put up images of products just to generate links.

Keep talking

The DecorMyEyes.com story also suggests another way to boost search results. When consumers comment, good or bad, a retailer should respond and keep the conversation going, says Tim Kilroy, vice president of natural search at search marketing firm PM Digital.

A retailer can include links to his site in responses, Kilroy says. “And just the mere fact of that comment thread being made longer and more prominent helps,” he says. “It’s not just about links. Google is scanning the text on the page and knows how many times your brand is mentioned.”

MacDonald of The Pond Guy says it’s always been his practice to respond to customer comments on comparison shopping sites like Shopping.com, primarily to provide good customer service, but also with SEO in mind. He provides links back to pages on his site and those links could boost a page’s rank. He can’t say if it works because there are many factors that influence search rank.

But he makes sure the link goes to a page on his site where the customer can buy. “Any link I have in cyberspace hardly ever goes to the home page,” MacDonald says. “You want it to go to a product page or category page that will aid in conversion.”

And pages that gain authority can convey authority to related pages, says PM Digital’s Kilroy. Thus, if a retailer’s toaster page ranks high, link from that page to a page on toaster ovens to boost its standing.

MacDonald says Google’s aim is to satisfy the consumer, and he focuses on SEO tactics that do the same, and not on trying to trick search engines. “Google is smarter than any of us and it’s going to figure this stuff out,” he says.

It took a newspaper article and web-wide discussion, but Google figured out there were many retailers regularly slammed by consumers and downgraded them in search results. Google hasn’t said how it identifies bad merchants—although experts believe it’s from scanning online reviews—but Kilroy says legitimate retailers needn’t worry that a single complaint will land them on this blacklist. “Google is looking for habitual bad offenders,” he says.

In the case of DecorMyEyes.com, it no longer shows up on the first several pages of Google search results for search terms that once landed it on page one. But it’s still near the top of page one for that model of Versace sunglasses that the New York Times linked to. That shows the power of an authoritative link. l


DecorMyEyes.com founder charged with cyber-bullying and fraud

It’s not a crime to trick Google. But federal authorities say the founder of online eyewear retailer DecorMyEyes.com did far worse.

Vitaly Borker, who bragged to the New York Times that he used customers’ online complaints to move up in Google search results, was arrested Dec. 6 by federal authorities and charged with four counts that included cyber-bullying and selling counterfeit goods.

According to a complaint filed in federal court in New York City, Borker since January 2007 has sold counterfeit or damaged goods and made unauthorized charges to customers’ credit cards. When customers complained or requested refunds, the complaint says “a campaign of aggressive, obscene and intimidating conduct followed from a representative of DecorMyEyes.com.”

The complaint, filed by postal inspector Douglas G. Veatch of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, details several instances in which Borker allegedly threatened customers and their family members by telephone and e-mail. In one case, Borker told a customer “I know where you work” and “I can hurt you,” and then sent an e-mail to the customer’s workmates accusing him of dealing in drugs and homosexual practices.

“Millions of people shop online and rightfully assume they are dealing with legitimate and honest vendors,” Manhattan U.S. attorney Preet Bharara said in announcing the arrest. “Online consumers should never be in fear for their safety simply because they have chosen the convenience of Internet shopping. But that is what allegedly occurred in this case.”

The complaint charges Borker with one count each of cyberstalking, making interstate threats, mail fraud and wire fraud. The cyberstalking and interstate threats charges each carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison; the mail fraud and wire fraud charges carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Borker and DecorMyEyes.com did not respond to requests for comment.

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