<< A recent article by the New York Times related a disturbing story (nytimes.com/2010/11/28/busines ...). By treating your customers badly, one merchant told the paper, you can generate complaints and negative reviews that translate to more links to your site; which, in turn, make it more prominent in search engines. The main premise of the article was that being bad on the web can be good for business.
We were horrified to read about Ms. Rodriguez’s dreadful experience. Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue. That team developed an initial algorithmic solution, implemented it, and the solution is already live. I am here to tell you that being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google’s search results...
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.
We can't say for sure that no one will ever find a loophole in our ranking algorithms in the future. We know that people will keep trying: attempts to game Google’s ranking, like the ones mentioned in the article, go on 24 hours a day, every single day. That’s why we cannot reveal the details of our solution—the underlying signals, data sources, and how we combined them to improve our rankings—beyond what we’ve already said. We can say with reasonable confidence that being bad to customers is bad for business on Google. And we will continue to work hard towards a better search. >>
(David G. Klein, The New York Times, November 28, 2010)
This is a remarkable development, for several reasons.
It shows that Google is really getting in to the (algorithmic) value judgement business. Of course search results have always been an algorithmic value judgement, but it's only Google's business that suffers if the algorithms aren't very good. Now, it's other people's businesses that suffer if the algorithm is poor.
Google has made it pretty clear that they're not using a straightforward analysis of web content and links. As they point out, this would cause all kinds of anomalies, because "famous" and "infamous" share so many attributes.
So how is Google doing it? They have access to so much data nowadays that they can look way beyond web content. They could, for example, work out whether new customers who try a business once tend to become repeat customers or not.
Whatever algorithms Google uses, it opens "cans of worms". Every type of business is different. In some businesses, repeat business is relevant. In some businesses, reputation is important. In other types of businesses, happy customers value privacy and keep quiet.
In many cases, there will be very limited data available for small businesses. Will Google's value judgement tend to prefer big businesses that treat customers blandly, or will it still give a chance to the tiny family business that has great customer service?
Finally, I see that Google rejected sentiment analysis because "if we demoted web pages that have negative comments against them, you might not be able to find information about many elected officials". They say this as if it would be a bad thing to motivate elected officials to increase voter satisfaction! But Google, as a mega-corporation, is probably reluctant to bite the hand that regulates it. I think they know that the moment they downgrade a politician's website, they will invite unfavorable treatment from that politician.
"But Google, as a mega-corporation, is probably reluctant to bite the hand that regulates it."
Roger Browne, I don't think that Google has an issue with being disruptive or taking stances that not everyone approves of. The full sentence was "But 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." You wouldn't want a bunch of anti-vaccine sentiments to cause vaccine info to be ranked lower, for example.
Agreed, Matt. It's a very difficult problem though.
I once stayed at a hotel that had terrible online reviews, but it was very cheap and was actually excellent for the price. I would hate for businesses like that to drop down the rankings.