Internet giant Google has been forced to change its secret ranking algorithm after a website operator in the United States used negative reviews and spam comments to push his site to the top of results pages.
An investigation conducted by the New York Times revealed Vitaly Borker, who operates the eyewear retail site DecorMyEyes, pushed his site into the first page of Google by abusing and harassing customers, which in turn caused them to publish negative reviews all over the internet.
“I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment,” DecorMyEyes owner Vitaly Borker told the NYT. “So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage.”
Google fellow Amit Singhal said in a blog post the company was “disturbed” by the story and that the company “developed an initial algorithm solution [and] implanted it”.
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“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.”
But Singhal also said the fix is temporary, and it doesn’t mean that other sites can be stopped from using the same tactic in the future. He also says that Google is considering exposing user reviews and ratings for merchants alongside their results on the main page.
But Singhal also said the situation posed a problem, considering that the company cannot automatically demote pages just because they have negative comments associated with them. “If we demoted web pages that have negative comments… you might not be able to find information about man elected officials, not to mention a lot of important but controversial concepts”.
In a bizarre twist, it was actually news reports about complaints against DecorMyEyes published on large news sites such as Bloomberg that caused the site’s ranking to rise.
The decision has sparked a widespread outcry from SEO experts condemning the tactic. But Byrne Hobart, writing on Search Engine Land, said that negative reviews aren’t exactly how DecorMyEyes gained its number one ranking and warns other sites not to try the same tactic.
“While DecorMyEyes’ owner may think that his review-generating strategy is responsible for the site’s rankings, those links aren’t the ones that are benefiting them the most,” he said. Instead, he says the site ranked well because of lots of spam sites, paid links, and a few links from shopping sites.
“Many of the links to DecorMyEyes come from auto-generated spam pages. It’s a risky strategy, but the difference between “risky” and “stupid” is that for some people, “risky” pays off nicely.”
But Stewart Media chief executive Jim Stewart says making spam and attracting negative sentiment isn’t a good long-term strategy, and serious eCommerce sites should avoid copying DecorMyEyes.
“It’s what we call link baiting, getting people to do things to link you. From an SEO perspective… I think in the longer term it can only backfire on you. It’s not a good business strategy.”
“Sure, you might rank for some things, but after someone does some rudimentary investigation they’ll find that you’re not doing well and that will affect you in the long-term.”
But Singhal says the company “can’t say for sure that no one will ever find a loophole in our ranking algorithms”, suggesting other sites might try the same tactics.
“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.”