Google’s Algorithmic Fix Sends Bad Merchants to the Boonies

Google announced Wednesday it has changed its search algorithm to make sure bad merchants don’t soar to the top of search results due to strings of complaints against them. The decision to alter its algorithm was a response to a story The New York Times ran last weekend about an eyeglass merchant,, that encouraged negative reviews in order to get higher rankings. At the time, the Times story appeared, the eyeglass company was showing up on the first page of Google’s search results.

Google convened a team to solve the problem, it said in a post on its site. While Google insisted this was an “edge case” and not a “widespread problem,” speculation in the blogosphere suggested that negative comments on highly regarded consumer complaint sites were driving positive search results. However, Google insists that those sites utilize special coding to make sure complaints against troublesome merchants don’t get counted favorably.

Google’s Solution

Google considered several solutions to make sure bad merchants were not rewarded for bad behavior.

“After The New York Times reported that a particular online merchant had deliberately abused customers to increase his ranking on Google and other search engines, we immediately convened a team to look carefully at the issue,” said Jake Hubert, communications manager for search in the global communications and public affairs department at Google.

“We do have a search quality group that regularly works to improve Google search rankings, which are currently based on more than 200 signals,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “These change on a daily or weekly basis, and we made more than 500 improvements in the past year.”

Changing the Heart of Search

The solution reached by the team was to change the algorithm, which now detects and hundreds of other merchants that, in Google’s opinion, provide “an extremely poor user experience.”

In some cases, Google makes a manual change when faced with a problematic listing instead of altering its algorithm.

“Coming up with something algorithmic is an unusual move,” Giovanni Gallucci, consultant on social media for You+Dallas, told the E-Commerce Times. “If they remove the company, the have to move the bad stuff as well.”

While the eyeglass company came up on the first page before Google’s algorithm change, it showed up on page seven as of Thursday.

“When you’re on page seven, you might as well be removed,” said Gallucci. “By the time a searcher gets to page three, fewer than 1 percent of them will go to page four. By then, they will refine their search and move on. Page seven is like house arrest as opposed to being in prison.”

Is Google the New Consumer Cop?

By taking on this problem, is Google showing good citizenship, or has the company become a vigilante?

“The way they position this, it sounds like the algorithm change will fix everything else like this. They claim they have an algorithm solution. I have no idea how you could come up with an algorithm to solve this,” said Gallucci. “Computers are inherently dumb. They don’t know context.”

The change in algorithm also opens up the possibility of competitors posting negative comments to weaken their competition.

“You could cut your competition down at the knees. This is Google going well beyond search and saying, ‘OK, now we’re going to police the real world,'” said Gallucci. “Do we really want them to assume the job of the world’s consumer protection agency?”

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