The New York Times recently highlighted how one insidious online retailer was able to use the power of negative reviews to drive his site to the top of Google and drive his business revenues at the same time. The piece brought to light a flaw in Google’s valuable algorithm; and drew a response from Google, who announced that they had made changes to keep this type of thing from happening again. The problem is, of course, Google can’t say what they changed in the algorithm or how they went about solving the problem. And they can’t because, like the Coca Cola recipe, their algorithm is secret and worth billions of dollars a year in revenues. Google’s secrecy will continue to leave it open to attacks of this kind and the negative press associated with them; and that secrecy is bad for business. That’s why Google should take a page from Blekko and open up about it’s algorithm.
And here’s why. Let’s start with the original article from the New York Times:
It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about DecorMyEyes, even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.”
That would sound like schoolyard taunting but for this fact: The post is two years old. Between then and now, hundreds of additional tirades have been tacked to Get Satisfaction, ComplaintsBoard.com, ConsumerAffairs.com and sites like them.
Not only has this heap of grievances failed to deter DecorMyEyes, but as Ms. Rodriguez’s all-too-cursory Google search demonstrated, the company can show up in the most coveted place on the Internet’s most powerful site.
The article states that links from sites like Get Satisfaction, even those in negative reviews are driving the site higher in the Google rank. The article makes the argument that inbound links that his site was getting from negative reviews was actually helping his search ranking; and potential customers who took his high rank as a mark of credibility fell into his scam. But then Get Satisfaction jumped in with a response basically saying that Get Satisfaction was wrongly implicated because of the company’s use of “nofollow” tags which prevent valuable link juice being passed from posts in their support forum:
But the article is unintentionally misleading. The story implies that links on Get Satisfaction positively accrue to the benefit of a company, even if they’re negative. Like any online community that cares to combat spammers, we code our user-submitted links so that Google ignores them for the purposes of calculating page rank (specifically, we attach “rel=nofollow” to anchor tags). Somebody trying to gin up their Page Rank by encouraging complaints on Get Satisfaction would be sorely disappointed.
Which makes sense to people familiar with the web, and absolves Get Satisfaction of unwillingly helping this crook, but could be easily missed by a reporter on a salacious story who doesn’t know which facts to check.
So, today Google comes out with the following statement about the fiasco on their blog:
We were horrified to read about Ms. Rodriguez’s dreadful experience. Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue. That team developed an initial algorithmic solution, implemented it, and the solution is already live. I am here to tell you that being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google’s search results.
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. 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. We can say with reasonable confidence that being bad to customers is bad for business on Google. And we will continue to work hard towards a better search.
And while Google is (rightfully) getting praised for their responsiveness, I can’t help but think that this entire fiasco and misleading story would’ve been diffused before it even got started if Google was more like Blekko. If you aren’t familiar with the new search engine, you should invest some time to checking it out. They have some innovative features, most notably slash tags, but they also do something novel in the search space – they put their search recipe out for the world to see. You, me, everyone can see the how, what and why that goes into each and every listing on their site. Danny Sullivan does a nice overview of Blekko in his piece on Search Engine Land, worth a full read:
There’s much, much more that you can drill down into, enough for a separate article in the future. Using the “Visualize URLs” feature, you can even compare four different sites to each other
Blekko had considered if it should refine its reporting to make it a paid service for SEOs but decided instead to stick with what it shows as a way of being more transparent about how it works behind the scenes.
“Our primary purpose is to be open in how it works,” said Skrenta. “It might be the case that in the future, we’ll provide an API for people who want to build tools further on our data.”
This openness is not only refreshing, but provides users a clear view of how the search engine thinks. It renders the stories like the ones in the Times moot. By looking at a domain in Blekko you can clearly see what factors go into the ranking, you can see the inbound links and the ranks of those links, you can get a very clear picture of what elements Blekko is using to rank domains.
In fact, if you searched the domain in question at Blekko you’d see that there are no Get Satisfaction links being used to rank the site (because of the “no follow” tags,) and that Polyvore was the largest inbound link contributor used in ranking the site in Blekko. If Google was open like Blekko the reporter or fact checker could’ve easily clicked on the seo tag for the entry and received a much clearer picture of the math that went into the ranking, rather than relying on the business owner’s word for it and incorrectly implicating sites like Get Satisfaction.
The web would be a better place with more openness in search. Black hat SEO would be less likely, people could get a better understanding of why sites were ranked where they were, and there would be more trust in the rankings themselves, because search companies can stand on their algorithm, point to the data used and let the community have a conversation about it, rather than simply saying “We’re not evil. Trust us.”
And this is what Google can learn from Blekko. It’s not the slashtags (although cool) that’s the killer feature of the engine, it’s the openness. And Google should work towards a day when they can point to the data in response to inquiries about their search, rather than say “don’t worry, we’ve got your best interests in mind,” and expect that to be the end of the conversation.
Blekko has published a “web search bill or rights” that clearly outlines how they think about web search and includes things like “search shall be open,” and “ranking data shall not be kept secret.” I hope that one day soon, Google will provide its users and customers the visibility and access that will make search more open, transparent, understandable and safer for everyone.