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Gaming Google's Rankings By Being Bad

Posted on December 6, 2010 by Trevor

The Google ranking mechanism is an interesting topic, as having good organic rankings has become the lifeblood of many businesses. Most people, when searching Google, find what they are looking for on the first page or two, so getting your link at the top can be the most important thing you can do to increase sales. It's always struck me as odd that power over such a large sector of the economy has come to be in the hands of a single company. Not that I think Google is doing a bad job. As a customer, I've always found that Google returns the best search results for my queries. Nevertheless, such a centralized system does have its downsides.

Rather than parsing and ranking sites by hand, an insurmountable task, Google relies on a complex internal algorithm to automatically return appropriate search results. Since this algorithm is at the heart of most of its ventures, Google keeps a careful eye on it, remaining tight-lipped about its internal details and reserving entire teams toward fine-tuning and updating it. Even so, any algorithm can be susceptible to gaming, and the promise of doing so is so great in Google's case that there is no shortage of attempts.

One recent story that's come to light is of a small eye wear company called "DecorMyEyes" that did just that. As it turns out, the owner of the one-man operation did everything in his power to enrage his customers and generate public complaints. Why? Well, there's a saying in show biz that goes, "There's no such thing as bad publicity." It turns out, that saying was literally true online. Many of the posts and articles lambasting the company's service also included a link to its site. Google, noticing the many links but oblivious to the reason for them, happily kicked the site up the rankings until it was near the top. Then visitors, seeing a site near the top of the rankings, would visit and make purchases. It was an ingenious attempt to exploit a loophole in Google's algorithm, and for a while it worked pretty well.

However, due to the additional exposure the company gained through the article I linked, Google itself became aware of the situation. Clearly directing Google visitors to sites that cheat and threaten them is not in Google's best interest, so they quickly set about rectifying the situation. They soon made a blog post announcing that the loophole had been closed. Unfortunately for us, Google remains as tight-lipped as always regarding the details of their solution, mentioning only that they are not specifically blacklisting the site or using some kind of content analysis to detect "negative" links. Presumably, then, they are analyzing the traffic to this and similar sites, and picking up subtle differences from legitimate retailers.

Of course, this is good news for those of us who *are* legitimate retailers and pride ourselves on giving a good customer experience. Presumably this same algorithm should not only eliminate fraudsters, but also lower the rankings of competitors that attempt to maximize volume at the expense of individual customer experience. However, as I said before, any algorithm is susceptible to gaming. This is simply one more step in the fight between Google (who needs to keep visitors coming by serving them relevant and desirable search results) and online businesses (many of whom want to capture as many of Google's visitors as possible, regardless of relevance or desirability). Only time will tell how effective this measure will be, or where the next threat will appear.

Update: After I made this post, one more event in the story has occurred. Vitaly Borker, the owner of DecorMyEyes, has been arrested on counts of fraud and threats. So, as it turns out, there is indeed such a thing as bad publicity for Mr. Borker.


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