In the November 28, 2010 New York Times there was a fascinating article about a guy who found a new way to get his company high in the search engines.
The Times recounts how a woman shopping online for eyeglass frames did a careful Google search and finally ordered the frames she wanted from a company that came out very high in the search engines. When the frames arrived she realized they were not what she wanted and not what the company had represented them to be, so she did what most of us would do — she called the company’s customer service line.
Up to now, the story is unremarkable. But what happened next was not. The customer service person she reached was not only uncooperative, he was abusive. Extremely abusive in fact. According to the Times he “threatened to find her and commit an act of sexual violence too graphic to describe in a newspaper.”
Fortunately she was not easily intimidated and so, in addition to filing a complaint with her credit card company, she went to a review site to put in a nasty review. Only to discover that hundreds of people had already done the same thing.
And here’s the interesting part. The Times reporter visited the owner of the company and had a long (and surprisingly pleasant) talk with him. It turned out that this was simply a marketing strategy. He had discovered that if he was abusive with customers they go online and submit a review tearing him to pieces. Google, however, does not read reviews. Google only cares how many websites have a link pointing to your website. This guy had thousands of website links pointing to his site. They all warned the reader not to do business with this guy, of course, but as noted, Google doesn’t care about that. It still gave him top billing when you search for the frames he carries.
So should Google take reviews into account when rating a website? That’s a tougher question than you might think. For example, suppose some political figure has a lot of enemies (are there any that don’t?). The writings of his enemies would undoubtedly be negative, so those reviews might lower the search engine rating of his website to the point where it would never appear anywhere in the search engines. This would immediately be added to the arsenal of various special-interest groups, and things could get very complex very quickly. To its credit, Google is including more links to reviews next to company listings, which will help. Certainly in a case as blatant as this the reviews would be an instant tip-off.
Are the credit card companies interested in helping? Not really. It turns out that most credit card companies have a monthly threshold of complaints that will trigger tossing a merchant off their networks. The owner of this company had cleverly determined those limits and kept the number of customers he abused each month below the limit.
There must be a moral here somewhere. Ah yes: If you are shopping online, don’t just go with the company at the top of the search engine listing. Dig further and read some reviews about this company. There may be an unpleasant reason why it is so high in the listings.