What should Google do?

Twitter was abuzz last night with links to the David Segal’s amazing NYTimes yarn of a bad internet actor who says he uses — and eggs on — customer complaints to get more links and mentions online, thus more Googlejuice, thus more business.

The Times didn’t go the next step to ask what Google should do about this. And Google didn’t help itself by dispatching only an unnamed spokesperson who then, Segal complains, didn’t send a followup email. Google would have been much wiser to have hooked Segal up with Matt Cutts, the company’s wizard in the game of bad-guy whack-a-mole, to discuss the options and implications.

It’s not as simple as it seems, for Google and its algorithms are now a set of laws of the web and if you intervene in one way, you may trigger the law of unintended consequences in another.

What if Google sensed the positive or negative sentiment in links and used that to guide its placement in search, as some suggested? Makes sense in the case of bad-guy Borker and his virtual eyeglass store. But as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, if Google did let sentiment affect rank, then what would it do with the negative links regarding Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, to Islam or GM? How would you write that law, remembering that the code is the law?

What if instead Google intervened in a case such as this and, seeing all the complaints, manually downgraded the guy in search? The first problem with that is scale: how do you find and investigate all the bad guys? The bigger problem is whether we want Google to be the cop of the world. Google has been sued by companies it decreed were link-bating spammer sites, downgrading them in search, while the sites said they were legitimate directories. This is the one case in which Google holds the power of God in a market and it’s a dangerous position to be in.

I have suggested before that Google should set up a jury of peers to adjudicate such cases. I didn’t use the verb “crowdsource,” for crowds can be gamed, as Mr. Borker amply demonstrates. But a trusted (cue Craig Newmark) jury could give Google distance from the decision. I say peers — fellow business people — because in cases such as this, their interests and those of Google and us, the users, are aligned: We don’t want bad guys to game search. Google, especially, wants to — in Cutts’ words — find more signals of quality and originality so its results are of higher quality and relevance.

What I’m really saying is that as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other private players come to be the law of the land on the internet, they need to start acting like public players with Constitutions and Bills of Rights and the means of enforcement and adjudication with due process. I’ll be exploring this notion in Public Parts.

In the end, Segal’s story looks like a failure of search, Google, and the internet. The internet made it possible for a bad guy to win. Well, so does Wall Street.

But I don’t think this was Google’s failure (cue fan-boy accusations). The moral of the story should be that if you search Google for the name of Borker’s company, you see plenty of loud complaints in the results. The internet doesn’t nullify the First Law of Commerce: caveat emptor. When I had my now-legendary problems with Dell, I kicked myself for not doing a search of “dell sucks” before buying my computer. That’s my responsibility as a shopper. And, as I pointed out at the time, Google would have given me the information I needed. Ditto for the lady in Segal’s story. If I think of buying from a new vendor, I’ve learned my lesson: I search Google first because fellow customers, using Google, will help protect me.

That is the lesson The Times should have given its readers: Use Google to guard against those who would use Google.

P.S. In fairness to Dell, I should add that we made up and it became a leader in social media. I figure everybody who comes here knows how that story ended, but in case not….

: UPDATE: Google responded to the story and the problem; here’s the blog post explaining. The NYT does a followup, the last graph of which kind of deflates the entire story and its premise that being bad is good for business:

At the blog Search Engine Land, Byrne Hobart also wrote in a recent posting that the review-generating strategy was not the driver of Mr. Borker’s success. His analysis found that Mr. Borker benefited chiefly from various “black-hat tricks” to improve his site’s standing, including links from what he called auto-generated spam pages. He also found that the store was frequently linked to by mainstream media sites — The Times included — when references were made to high-end eyeglasses.

  • Oops, new story up? Pls see my (admittedly OT) comments to the older one, Jeff! And if I’ve been too harsh, I apologize. Nothing personal, you may remember I was as enthusiastic as you about the “citizen reporter” experiment at “Der Westen”. But in the The Local story, you used quite aggressive language, and imho you have to take as good as you give in this controversy. Ok?

  • The issue, which the story rightfully pointed out or implied is that the more links Borker gets from these high Page Rank complaint sites, the more he’s able to rise in the organic SERPs for long tail buying search terms such as “Prada sunglasses”.

    The issue of Decor My Eyes and the complaints, which are visible in the search results are mostly irrelevant.

    Few people who land on a site, which Google has placed at the top of the organic SERPs for products consumers are performing searches to buy will Google the name of the company they’re buying from and thus, the complaints essentially remain buried to the consumer.

    • Jon, yes, but when I search on a product and see a good price from a vendor I don’t know, I then search for that vendor. That’s the essence of wise shopping online, of caveat emptor. Yes, Google doesn’t like being gamed and employs Cutts and his army to prevent it everytime they see it. But the bad guys will always be one step ahead online as they are in physical commerce (want to buy a Gucci watch in New York? I’ll send you to a streetcorner with one heckuva deal!). So the Times should have given consumers tips to find their way around. And the tips would have paid off for lots of generous but burned customers went to the trouble to warn those who would follow not to follow. And Google dutifully surfaced them. What more would you have them do? That’s my point.

    • Yeah, but reputable site use rel=nofollow links for the comments, so, at most, this guy was getting a couple of links from GetSatisfaction, not enough to give him SEO juice for all of the brand names. The premise of the article is wrong.

  • One point that comes out in the story is that Google doesn’t talk to itself. Other Google services can tell what’s going on, but they don’t inform Google’s main search. Google’s algorithms are more mechanical than intelligent. They count a bunch of links, but don’t understand what those links are saying.

    I envision a need for a private eye to set up shop to help people deal with problems like this. I also notice it took an old-school journalistic sense of right and wrong to get action from an online world that has grown to accept spammers, scammers and phishers.

  • Let’s remember Google’s famous statement: “Do no evil!” Yeah, that’s bold, and sure sounds good. But what do they actually DO to prevent evil? Well, whenever there’s a controversial issue, people can hardly get Google to answer, not to speak of change their ways. Sure looks as if they only talk the talk, but don’t really walk the walk. Lame.

    • Google’s unofficial motto is “Do no evil”, but its unofficial corollary is “do no labor”. Google doesn’t like things that can’t be fully automated, and going after system-gamers like Borker involves manual intervention at some scale. (Answering to your user base: also labor-intensive.)

      • “do no labor” hehehe, good one!

      • Yes, it is a matter of scale. But it’s also a matter of trying to set rules that work across all cases.

    • Actually, the motto is “Don’t be evil.” Not the same as “Do no evil,” for better or worse.

      • fjpoblam

        Thanks for pointing that out, Rob Hof. It’s too often forgotten. The difference between “Don’t be evil” and “Do no evil” is very important. It leaves room for Google to do evil, so long as it’s “not by intent”, I guess. Google does know evil.

  • Jeff,

    Actually, there’s a very good suggestion as to what Google should do on Page 3 of the story:

    But Google, he adds, doesn’t need sentiment analysis to help people like Clarabelle Rodriguez. It could simply become better at incorporating consumer reviews on the main page of its search results.

    The company has already started doing that in other realms of commerce. Today, after you tell Google your ZIP code, a search for “pizza” yields a bunch of links in the middle of the page for pizza joints near you, along with a rating of one through five stars and a link to review sites, like Yelp and TripAdvisor.

    Including customer reviews as part of e-commerce search results would quickly flag the eyeglass site as a bad actor.

    • The reviews *are* there for the store’s results. I’m not sure about putting them on the mfg brand results; would be cluttering.

      • There are ways to do it without showing details. Google could pull in aggregate ratings data for 1-5 star rankings, etc. Or use a mouseover effect similar to its new preview feature. Yeah, there are UI issues, but the benefits may outweigh the cost.

        • Aother opportunity for gaming, I think, Dwight. Simpler is best. If I search on that store, I find the people complaining about it. It just requires me to search. Caveat emptor, again.

        • “caveat emptor”, the battle cry of all who stomp for deregulation! Not that I thik you’re for disbanding the FDA, or against the consumer protection agency, but this can easily be misunderstood. Let’s not forget, the ability of the costumer to safeguard himself has severe limits. It’s especially limited by his/her lack of knowledge. Which results in other people falling into traps that you safely avoid, Jeff.

        • Andy Freeman

          > Let’s not forget, the ability of the costumer to safeguard himself has severe limits.

          Oh really?

          > It’s especially limited by his/her lack of knowledge. Which results in other people falling into traps that you safely avoid, Jeff.

          You’re asserting that Jarvis has some special way to avoid those traps, a way that is unavailable to most people. Your argument fails if that assertion is false.

          He runs a good blog and all, but the assertion is false.

  • Russell Barrett

    The problem with thinking shoppers should do a search for “xxxx sucks” before buying is you will almost always be inundated with results. Try replacing “Dell” in your search with any other big tech brand and you’ll see similar results. Our love of complaining has made such queries meaningless.

    • Alice

      But that is why you look through the reviews, see how many bad to good, and very importantly, how many bad reviews are having similar problems (if bad reviews are consistent in what they are complaining about you can probably be sure you’ll have the same problem).

      If anyone looked at the reviews for this site, they’d know to stay far away. The one place I saw reviews everyone gave it a one and all said they got ripped off (If there was a good review I wasn’t patient enough to actually search for it). It is very obviously a rip off site if you bother to just look for reviews for it. It’s not just that people will complain about anything. In that case you might find a review or two and they may not even say the same problem cause yeah, you do get individuals that will find issues anywhere, but due to invdividuality, they usually aren’t the same thing.

  • I think Google should account for the ability to place user-generated content on any given page, i.e. links in main content should have higher influence than links in the comments.

    Then again, I can’t imagine they don’t do that already.

  • The Google algorithm is way behind the times. The fact that they have such a commanding market share I think makes them lazy in some respects. So long as they have the market, they don’t really need to innovate.

    When Larry and Serge wrote their seminal paper in the 90’s, people shared URLs via web pages. Today that isn’t true. We do it via Twitter and Facebook, and Facebook data is locked away from Google.

    An enormous part of the web is nothing but astroturf pages designed to be indexed by Google to make other pages rank higher. Google has publicly stated that they will punish people who sell links, but they have no problem with voting for yourself or stuffing the ballot box, which is what creating your own links does.

    The NYT article is just a novel case of SEO tactics. The people with SEO’s is not with SEO’s, it is with Google.

    Much of the spam problem online is directly Google’s fault because they fund it via AdSense and allow for spam sites to rank in the search engine.

    Google has to move away from the link and towards social media as a means of determining authority. The Internet is made up of people, not pages. Google was built on pages because when it was founded, that was the only data they had to work with.

    I’m not anti-Google, I just think they haven’t changed as rapidly as the rest of the internet has. Sadly, until someone can seriously threaten them, they have little reason to change.

    Someone will eventually figure out social search. It might be Facebook. It might be Bing. It might be someone else. If Google has any weakness, that is it.

  • I was responsible for Terms of Service enforcement in the early days of AOL, and I can tell you: a “jury of peers” doesn’t work either. If you put a bunch of people in charge of cracking down on, well, anything, you get a bunch of people who really like to crack down on things. Endless proscribed-behavior rules, exceptions to rules, layers of rules, appeals for exceptions to rules, rules about making rules. It quickly turns into the Stanford Prison Experiment.

    For a real-world example, think about the people who usually end up running homeowners’ associations. “*I* will decide if that color paint is appropriate for this neighborhood!”

    I like Dwight’s idea of including reviews in the search results. Transparency is the solution here, not adjudication.

    • Of course, I agree about transparency. Thus you put it all in the hands of caveat emptor, which is pretty much what I say. But there are cases of eliminating bad actors. Google does decide who’s a spammer; it does that algorithmically but also manually (as in the cases in which it is being sued; it had to affirm its decision to downgrade). Now the question is whether Google has to decide about a scammer.

  • “If you put a bunch of people in charge of cracking down on, well, anything, you get a bunch of people who really like to crack down on things. Endless proscribed-behavior rules, exceptions to rules, layers of rules, appeals for exceptions to rules, rules about making rules. It quickly turns into the Stanford Prison Experiment.”
    Sounds like Wikipedia nowadays…

    • Tex Lovera

      You beat me to it. My fear is that the “jury of peers” just turns into another caste of high priests.

      But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like to see weasels like this eyeglasses jerk get what they’ve got coming….

  • Actually, I think the customer complaint sites have a role here. It would be fairly easy to give their users tools to add “nofollow” tags to links companies they are complaining about. If you turn all the links complaining about DecorMyEyes.com into nofollow links, then their scheme would fall apart.

    Perhaps this should be a feature we have on all websites, where the people posting the links make the determination if the site is deserving of attention or not. After all, isn’t it the link poster’s judgement of value that is being measured here?

    • Kirk, This is exactly what I thought of when I read this article. Just like Wikipedia links don’t improve the organic search results because fo the “nofollow” tag that is automatically applied to all links outside of the site these consumer advocate sites could apply the same settings. The problem comes with the distributed networks of blogs that people are going to vent on.

      I see it all the time when a blogger wants to vent but at the same time not help them they pretend like the offensive group is Voldemort and call it the company who shall remain nameless. Couldn’t Google add an easy to use button into their CMS on Blogger that clearly allows users to mark a link as negative or venting so that it gets the “nofollow” tag applied automatically? The same thing could easily happen in WordPress.com and other blogging platforms but Google could take the charge adn I think it shows what Google *should do.

  • Jeff-

    You are starting from the presumption that the site in question should not benefit in pagerank from spiteful links and customer complaints. Does this mean that you regret the googlejuice you gave Dell with your “Dell Sucks” tirade so long ago?

    In your idealized view of how Google should override the algorithm, if I went to Google to search for information about this fight and not the company, I would get less than ideal results, would I not?

    Furthermore, people using bad press to garner attention for themselves, their products, or their companies is not novel, nor is it something Google could stop any more than Jerry Springer’s bouncers could.

    • “You are starting from the presumption that the site in question should not benefit in pagerank from spiteful links and customer complaints.”

      I don’t read it that way. Imho Jeff doesn’t care about that question at all! It’s all a technical issue for him, and a question of practicability, with an eye on costs. Afaics he doesn’t care too much about neither the offender nor the victims. It’s all about google.

    • Aha. Interesting. What this guy did was turn those bad links into a business plan; that’s the perversion that’s attracting everyone’s attention.

      • Imho the primary attention is on the jerk’s ugly personality, and his totally unscrupulous behaviour (which may remind many of other “successful” business men they know or heard of). And then, people ask themselves, how can I safeguard myself against becoming a victim?

        Only then, readers may wonder if Google should or will do something. I don’t think too may expect the internet giant to invest in improvements. Because, quite obviously, for Google the profit always comes first. The company is closer to Borker than to his victims.

  • “I figure everybody who comes here knows how that story ended, but in case not…”
    Interesting story, didn’t know that. So, nowadays Dell stands for great service, but products that aren’t on the same level (yet)? Just like the ole IBM, or not?

  • That article was telling, wasn’t it?

    It happens that I wrote a post this week that made me feel as though the Times was watching me (OK, they kind of do, but this one really made me twitch). Here’s the link to that post:


    I point this out for a pretty important reason:

    I wrote that post in such a way as to 1) tell the story, 2) make Google think the post was important, and 3) get the attention of both the company it was written about and anyone who might be interested in hiring my company to handle their search engine optimization.

    “1” was of course completed.
    “2” seems to have worked as well; we’re already #5 for that company’s name in Google.
    “3” will either work, or not.

    The point is that this s just the way things work on the ‘net. Any algorithm changes Google makes will be digested, just like those that have come up until now have.

    Jeff is right: you need to know what you’re doing/reading

    • Well, but neither you nor Jeff answer the question that prolly is in the heads of most NYT readers: How to prevent falling in such traps if you DON’T know thre inner workings of the system? Cause not everybody surfing the intertubes is as smart as you…

      • Funny, Gray.

        your point SEEMS to be that the unwashed masses need either protection or education . . . which is fair, and maybe even “accurate”. But here’s the problem:

        Assuming it’s education, and assuming that the aforementioned unwashed can even be educated [holds for laugh], there’s still the issue of them knowing how to use that education, and there’s no direct path between information and enlightenment.

        Assuming it’s protection . . . well, protection comes with “control”, and no-one wants that shoved down their throats, right?

        So the question becomes . . . cripes; I don’t even know. I mean, if you believe that I served the powers of good rather than evil in that piece I referenced above then that’s great, but the bad guys are doing that kind of stuff too.

        I guess the real issue is that Google has already taken on the omniscient, omnipresent role and now all we mortals can do is play by their rules.

        Which they won’t reveal. Yikes.

        Jeff Yablon
        President & CEO
        Answer Guy and Virtual VIP Computer Support, Business Change Coaching and Virtual Assistant Services

        Answer Guy and Virtual VIP on Twitter

      • Yes, indeed, I think control, regulation agencies, something YOU may call a nanny state, is the answer. Because otherwise the number of victims will become too high. I’ve worked in IT support long enough to have NO illusions about the abilities, attention span and self discipline of most computer users. They won’t be changed, biut they don’t deserve to be robbed bacuase of their inabilities, so something else has to be changed.

  • Jeff if as you contend, Google et al are becoming “law of the land on the internet,” shouldn’t we ALL get a vote.

    Or do we need trust-busters?

    You may be onto something that’s much, much bigger than corporate profits and policy.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Jeff if as you contend, Google et al are becoming “law of the land on the internet,” shouldn’t we ALL get a vote.

      You do have a vote. You vote every time you use Google instead of one of the alternatives.

      If you’re not using that vote to reflect your values, why should we introduce another one, one history shows will be filled with rent-seekers and other parasites?

  • A simple and scalable solution is for Google to provide a link next to each indexed item, perhaps labelled (why it’s here) that shows the back links that gave the item its Google juice in the first place. This would allow everyone to ‘check the source’ quite easily – we could see if they’re negative or self-created or stuffed-forum-footers. Optionally, they could add value to this page algorithmically rating these referrers as positive (green) or negative (red) or even suspected-as-gamed-links (purple). They could even indicate something about this rating next to the ‘why’ link on the main page (+17 – 49) They could figure it out. The answer is your favorite word Jeff – transparency.

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  • Jeff, I think the Google bit is really a red herring. There have always been those who feel that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, to quote Behan. This is just the the modern-day corollary: there’s no such thing as a bad inbound link.

    Is this really Google (or any search engine’s) problem? No. This is our problem, or opportunity, as customers. We need to take a more active role in our interactions with brands and vendors, and not be the ones who are having things done *to* us.

    You and I have discussed this at length back in 2005 in the context of the Dell example, and it’s still true. The caveat emptor approach needs to be continually reinforced. Back in the day, we needed to scan the horizon for (actual) predators. Now, we need to do the same thing for transactional ones.

  • Caveat emptor is good advice, but it won’t solve Google’s problem. Especially if it means you can’t trust Google’s results. Caveat Googler.

  • JMS

    Great story by David Segal.

    Jeff, it looks like any Google search for designer eyewear today does not bring up that bad guy’s site anymore. It appears that the publicity got Google to manually intervene.

    Is that what happened and if so do you agree with their actions?

    Also, I like how the guy compared himself to Howard Stern:)

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  • Google is a search engine and it is one of many. As noted by the article, Mastercard and Visa have a responsibility to ensure a secure transaction, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the consumer.

  • KEllis

    Maybe as well as asking What Should Google Do, we should ask what should CitiBank or eBay do? Both of them are making that sleaze-bag’s job easier. How about if you’re using the Verified by Visa online password, they display the rate of disputes for the vendor before you confirm? They’re sitting on a pile of information that would be enormously useful for ranking vendors, but don’t share it to the benefit of consumers. That’s not something Google would do.

  • Javaun Moradi

    I agree with you Jeff in that this fear of bad companies “exploiting” google is overblown. They may see some short-term lift, but in the end Google and the Market will sort it out and they’ll be punished.

    I’m an search guy, and I’m the first to admit that the SEO view can be a bit myopic: controversial content = linkbait = more links = more juice = more traffic. Eventually this will blow up. Some of those negative reviews will popup. More pissed off customers will lead to more negative content. Eventually this will bite them, whether the channel for disclosure is search, social media, or word of mouth. Bad companies may get short-term lift from search engines as seen in their web analytics, but there is no analytic that shows lost opportunity: what they lost in social media or other sales because customers were turned off.

    Google looks at hundreds of signals beyond links, and consumer behavior is increasingly important. If consumers start to click away from DecorMyEyes, they’ll also drop in rank. Google has started to reward big brands as “gatekeepers” or trust because that’s what they see consumers prefer in click behavior. Bad companies will be downgraded in google just as they are in the offline world when word gets out.

    And of course bad companies change names once word gets out. At some point, the BBB or FTC get involved.

    In the short term, these companies may have boom times in Google. But it’s fleeting and in the long run if they’re a bad business, consumers will walk away. Google acts like an efficient market. People game it for a short period of time, but for 99% of the cheaters, it’s not sustainable and there’s and they would’ve been better off being honest in the first place. That 1% that gets away with it are the ones boasting at SEO conferences. A few make money, but many of them eventually get their wings clipped.

  • Javaun Moradi

    Sorry, not enough coffee today. I missed the part about the “bill of rights”. Neither Google nor Facebook’s have this responsibility. Track child molesters – YES –ensure adjudication and fairness — NO. They’re private businesses and perform a service to make the internet easier to navigate and easier to find good information. If they don’t keep up the standard — if they let bad businesses game their system — they will fail. That’s the only incentive they need as a business.

    It’s never been harder to be a bad retailer or a spam site. Some of that is regulation, but the government is only good at catching the biggest offenders. Google has simply gotten better and making it harder to cheat for a long duration, and that’s made cheating less profitable.

    Google’s entire business model — and Matt Cutt’s talks about this all the time — is to automate almost everything. Matt’s spam team intervenes to manually remove a site in an astronomically small percentage of cases. Most of the time, they look at trends and defeat them with algorithms. Of course, those algorithm’s can be influenced by crowd behavior, like looking at hundreds of millions of visitor’s click reports.

    A small number of the very best spammers will get away with it. I’m sure there’s an adrenalin rush there. But most of them will waste their time.

    One thing I think Google does need to crack down on harder are McContent sites like e-How (demand media), who churn out crappy articles based on search terms. I’d like a filter so that I never see any content from that site, Wiki Answers, and a host of others. There are a lot of people like me who don’t care for that stuff, and if Google doesn’t give me a way to remove it, I’ll go elsewhere (like Blekko, who does let me do that). I don’t need a law to make Google do that, I’ll vote with my feet…

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  • OFF TOPIC: On TWIG you said about the TSA gate-rape policy, “Blame the underwear bomber. What else can we do”. I really lost a lot of respect for you with that statement. Where do you draw the line? Is there no search you won’t endure? Full body-cavity searches are next. Polygraph? DNA testing? Fingerprints?

    This new policy is just because the TSA is embarrassed about letting Mr. Bang Drawers through. But the passengers stopped him. Nobody is going to ever high-jack another plane in the USA again. The cockpit door is now stronger. The pilots won’t open it for any reason. The passengers will not allow a takeover again. Just like flight 93 we will stop them.

    I guess I have more faith in our citizens than you do.

    What happened to the 4th amendment? Where’s the probable cause and warrants?

    And before you trot out that “flying is a privilege, not a right”, first consider if liberty is a privilege or a right. One part of liberty is the right to travel in our own country where and when you want without unreasonable government interference. If you’re okay with the government stopping us from flying without full-body cavity search, which passes my threshold for unreasonable, then how will you feel when they start applying it to other forms of transportation?

    Oh, one more thing. I read an expert that said that the X-rays from the backscatter scanner will cause a terminal cancer one time in 30 million. Pretty low. Now consider that the chances of dieing in a plane exploded by a terrorist is about one in 30 million.

    So the TSA is killing the same number of people as the terrorists. How’s that for irony?

    Disappointedly …. very disappointedly,


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