In an uncharacteristically public way, Google has acknowledged modifying its search engine so it can identify businesses that provide bad service and lower their search results rankings accordingly, reversing an anomalous situation in which an eyewear retailer claimed that negative comments about his business pushed it up in Google's rankings, getting him more exposure.
Google took action after a recent story in The New York Times detailed the tactics of an online eyeware store owner who claimed his site's high Google rankings were directly proportional to the many complaints posted by upset customers.
"I've exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment. So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?" Vitaly Borker, founder and owner of DecorMyEyes, told the Times.
That tactic won't work anymore, Google said Wednesday. "I am here to tell you that being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google's search results," wrote Amit Singhal, Google fellow, in a blog post.
Google seemed embarrassed and surprised by the article and quickly moved to address the issue, said industry analyst Greg Sterling from Sterling Market Intelligence. "It just shows that Google is fallible and must continue to adjust its results as new circumstances arise," Sterling said via email.
Without going into much detail, Singhal said Google developed "an algorithmic solution" that flags merchants that provide "an extremely poor user experience" and assigns them lower rankings. This is an initial solution to the problem, which Google will continue addressing, he said.
Incidentally, Singhal disputed that DecorMyEyes' ranking benefitted from the many complaints posted online against it. Rather, its ranking was helped ironically by articles from reputable media sources about the company's troubles.
The situation is also leading Google to work on making its "sentiment analysis" search system more of a factor in results ranking. Currently, Google hasn't found a way to give this system more weight without disproportionately affecting the ranking of controversial people or topics.
The Times article clearly struck a nerve at Google, which runs the world's most popular search engine and prides itself on delivering what it considers the best and most relevant results through constant and intense improvements and innovations.
Thanks to its popularity with users, Google dominates the highly profitable search engine advertising market. Last year, Google had $23.6 billion in revenue, most of it from search advertising.
Although hundreds of disgruntled customers had posted complaints about DecorMyEyes online -- including allegations of personal harassment and intimidation by Borker -- the store enjoyed high rankings for eyewear queries for years.
"We can't say for sure that no one will ever find a loophole in our ranking algorithms in the future. 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," Singhal wrote.
"We will continue to work hard towards a better search," he added.