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Google Says Bad Publicity Now Hurts Search Ranking

A change in the company's search algorithm aims to prevent abusive merchants from profiting from online infamy.

Among many marketers, the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity reflects a belief that any kind of attention is better than being ignored. That attitude is on display in a recent New York Times expose about how online merchant DecorMyEyes benefits from poor customer service.

In the article, the company's founder and owner Vitaly Borker explains that the online griping of unhappy customers translates into prominent placement in Google search results and high levels of Web site visitor traffic. That's partially because Google's PageRank algorithm treats inbound links, particularly from big Web sites, as votes for relevance.

On Wednesday, Google expressed dismay that its system was being manipulated to reward bad behavior. In a blog post, Google fellow Amit Singhal said, "being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google’s search results."

And if it wasn't so before, it's more likely to be so going forward: Singhal said that Google has altered its search algorithm to punish merchants who offer a poor customer experience.

"[I]n 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," explained Singhal. "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."

Singhal did not explain the kinds of signals Google is using to evaluate whether a merchant has been naughty or nice. He provides a list of techniques Google could have used: blocking egregious offenders, applying sentiment analysis to identify negative remarks, and exposing user ratings more broadly when applicable. But he also identifies problems with these techniques. For example, relying on sentiment analysis would make the Web sites of political candidates, for whom there's no shortage of detractors, difficult to find.

The reason for this lack of disclosure, Singhal says, is that people are constantly trying to game Google's algorithm.

Such persistent attempts manipulate Google suggest that it's not being bad that's bad for business, in terms of search results. Rather, it's getting caught.

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