The amazing thing about the story is it explained that the more horrible the customer service level, the more complaints were generated on high-ranking sites such as RipoffReport.com which in turn increased the ranking of the site.
So basically a viral loop was set up where customers were drawn into using the site because of high rankings and the more customers, the more chance 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.
A Google spokesperson referred the reporter at the New York Times who wrote the story to speak with Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the blog Search Engine Land who ended up calling Google cagey and explaining that the company does not use sentiment analysis. Moreover he said if the world's leading search engine were to do so, it may be impossible to find a link to the White House if a lot of people hate the President and say so online.
Google doesn’t need sentiment analysis to help people like Clarabelle Rodriguez [referred to as a victim of the company in the article]. It could simply become better at incorporating consumer reviews on the main page of its search results.David Segal, the reporter behind the story - deserves a raise because this is a great investigative piece. One area of the article which threw me though was when he said 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 ended up reading the story and they say they were horrified that they could be in-part responsible for perpetuating the negative viral loop I described above.
To the company's credit, they go through a variety of potential solutions to the problem listed below:
- 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 in a general way. 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 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, and it’s perfect for the situation when you want to link to a site without endorsing it. Ironically, some of the most reputable links to Decor My Eyes came from mainstream news websites such as the New York Times and Bloomberg. The Bloomberg article was about someone suing the company behind Decor My Eyes, but the language of the article was neutral, so sentiment analysis wouldn’t have helped here either.
As it turns out, 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. Of course, we will continue trying.
- 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.
But it seems logical that if a site is selling items and has words like thief, crook, liar, rip-off and other similar terms associated with it online, that retailer will now be toast. Of course there is likely a counterbalance of sorts looking for phrases like great experience, I love this company, etc.
At TMC we have preached for decades that good customer service is crucial to your company and moreover we have explained frequently that providing poor service can actually damage a company far more quickly in the age of the Internet. It seems the loophole in what we espoused is finally extinguished - but I for one 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. In fact I am fairly certain a new category of company will sprout up as a result of this news - one which 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.
In closing - this news marks a shift for Google who will now be taking CRM and especially SCRM much more seriously and search rank will now be determined in-part based upon satisfaction levels. At least that is the logical future of Google's new algorithm.
So once again, let me state - providing good service levels is more important now than ever. Be sure you end up getting written about in the New York Times for the correct reasons.