Publisher's Outlook

Gaming Google with Bad Customer Service

By Rich Tehrani, CEO, Technology Marketing Corporation  |  December 01, 2010

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Customer Inter@ction Solutions.

I was fairly amazed to read in the New York Times about how a retailer of glasses with very high rankings on Google (News - Alert) seemed to thrive on providing extremely aggressive, even hostile, service. The site, has an owner who goes by an alias Tony Russo (his real name is Vitaly Borker) and threatens customers by calling them names like “bitch” and does things like sending them pictures of their homes as an intimidation tactic.

The story explained that the more horrible the customer service level, the more complaints were generated on high-ranking sites such as, which increased the ranking of the site.

Basically, a negative viral loop was set up where customers were drawn into using the site because of high rankings, creating more chances of having poor service issues and, subsequently, more links were created to the site.From a consumer standpoint, this is a nightmare but, from the perspective of the retailer, it encourages them to give worse service – or at least that is what the owner of the company believed.This is a great investigative piece by the reporter, David Segal.

One area of the article that threw me, though, was when he wrote that Google knew of the problems with this e-tailer, because Google Shopping includes about 300 comments and most of them are livid and include words like “Robbery!” My initial thought is Google doesn’t necessarily “know” anything unless there is a programmer somewhere who is instructed to look for these words and factor them into search results and rankings.It turns out that Google read the story and says it was horrified that it could be partially responsible for perpetuating the negative viral loop.

To the company’s credit, it goes through a variety of potential solutions, including:

Block the particular offender.

 That would be easy and might solve the immediate problem for that specific business, but it wouldn’t solve the larger issue. Our first reaction in search quality is to look for ways to solve problems algorithmically.

Use sentiment analysis to identify negative remarks and turn negative comments into negative votes.

While this proposal initially sounds promising, it turns out to be based on a misconception. First off, the terrible merchant in the story wasn’t really ranking because of links from customer complaint websites. In fact, many consumer community sites, such as Get Satisfaction (News - Alert), added a simple attribute called rel=nofollow to their links. The rel=nofollow attribute is a general mechanism that allows websites to tell search engines not to give weight to specific links. It’s perfect when you want to link to a site without endorsing it.

Google has a world-class sentiment analysis system (Large-Scale Sentiment Analysis for News and Blogs). 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. So far, we have not found an effective way to significantly improve search using sentiment analysis.

Yet another option is to expose user reviews and ratings for various merchants alongside their results. Though still on the table, this would not demote poor quality merchants in our results and could still lead users to their websites.

Instead, the company developed a special algorithm – let’s call it a “Poor CRM rank,” which it says this merchant, along with a few hundred others, fits into. The blog post further explains that people are gaming Google 24/7 and, subsequently, details of the solution can’t be revealed.I always get a bit nervous when the world’s leading search engine makes rapid changes to its algorithms based on poor behavior of a few. I just hope there are no unintended consequences. I am fairly certain a new category of company will sprout up as a result of this news – one that can be hired to destroy the search engine rank of a competitor by plastering the Web with fictitious and negative feedback.Then again, it seems like perfect search engine results are like success... More of a journey than a destination.

Rich Tehrani is CEO of TMC. In addition, he is the Chairman of the world’s best-attended communications conference, INTERNET TELEPHONY Conference & EXPO (ITEXPO (News - Alert)). He is also the author of his own communications and technology blog.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi