Bad Company: How Poor Service Upped One Site’s Google Rank

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For website owners, a spot on the first page of Google’s search results for a given query is the holy grail. Google uses a proprietary algorithm to determine a site’s influence on the web and assigns it a “Page Rank,” named after Google co-founder Larry Page.

Though the full details of how the Page Rank system works are a closely-guarded company secret, one of the basic determining factors is that the more links from reputable, high-traffic sites that lead to the site in question, the higher its Page Rank. So a link to Techland from CNN’s website, for instance, is more valuable in terms of Page Rank than a link from Jimmy’s Tech Blog (even though we want Jimmy to keep reading and linking).

The problem with this system is that, up until now, a link in and of itself doesn’t have any real context associated with it. The New York Times has an interesting piece about why handling links that way can be problematic.

The short version is that a guy running an online eyewear store out of his home in Brooklyn found out that the worse he treated his customers, the higher his Page Rank on Google became.

Why? Because angry customers often turn to reputable, high-traffic consumer complaint sites to air their grievances.

What ended up happening is that this guy’s site got so many links from places like Get Satisfaction, Complaints Board, and the Consumer Affairs websites—all well-respected and high Page Rank sites themselves—that the eyewear site kept getting pushed higher and higher up in Google’s search results for contact lenses and designer eye glasses. The worse this site treated its customers, the more popular the site became in Google’s eyes.

There’s a way to potentially weed out problems like this called “sentiment analysis.” In effect, a sentiment analysis engine can look at a block of text and discern whether it’s contains positive or negative language.

The trouble with employing sentiment analysis with search results, though, is that it would likely weed out otherwise important search results on controversial topics, sports rivalries, elected officials and just about anything else that people tend to debate.

To its credit, Google acknowledged the Times’ story, calling it “disturbing,” and has apparently already developed an implemented a system to address negative criticism of online merchant sites.

According to Google’s blog post:

“[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. 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.”

The post goes on to say that Google doesn’t want to reveal the details of how the algorithm works, since sites attempt to game the system “24 hours a day, every single day.”

However, it’s likely that part of the algorithm detects links coming from sites identified as consumer complaints sites along with seller rankings from auction sites such as eBay and applies some sort of sentiment analysis to particular snippets of text contained therein.

More on Techland:

Earth to Google TV: The Big Networks Aren’t Coming Around

Verizon CEO: “There Are Too Many Players in the Industry”

Every Gmail User Sues Google Over Buzz, Google Settles for $8.5 Million

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