Google’s Latest Search Changes Could Be Very Bad News For Retailers

Written by Evan Schuman
December 8th, 2010

A Brooklyn retailer was arrested Monday (Dec. 6) and federally charged with fraud and harassment. But the most heinous offense of eyewear-hawker Vitaly Borker was his criminally cynical manipulation of retail rankings within Google.

Borker figured out that any kind of comments from customers—including really negative ones—would send his pageviews from Google soaring. Note: This didn’t help him if a customer typed in his retail brand (Decormyeyes), but few prospects had a reason to do that. They’d be much more likely to type in major optical brands such as Ciba Visions, which Borker resold. Because of the Borker case, Google has changed its search mechanism. But that might be bad news for many legitimate retailers.

Google is being cagey about the changes it made, but Google Fellow Amit Singhal did post a few comments on the Google blog: “In the last few days, we developed an algorithmic solution which detects [Borker] along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result. 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 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.”

Before we get back to Google, we want to say that what Borker is accused of—and he seemed to concede many of the accusations in an interview with The New York Times—is serious and quite criminal. He literally threatened one customer who wanted a refund with rape (anal rape, to be specific) and backed up his threats by sending her a picture of the front of her house. But the changes Google made will likely go well beyond punishing merchants who behave poorly and even criminally.

The theoretical goal of every search engine is to figure out what searchers really want and to deliver that information to them. The assumption is that someone searching for “Panasonic HDTV and Samsung HDTV” is quite likely thinking of buying an HDTV. The system then suggests some major retailers that are known to sell such products.

So far, that purchase assumption will probably work. Sure, some searchers may want market stats on HDTV activities, HDTV buying guides or maybe technical discussions on how HDTVs work. But when two competing brands are mentioned in the search field, the buying intent guess seems legitimate.

The problem is the next step: Which retailers should be displayed and in which order? The old way was, more or less, a clean numeric calculation. How many links to each retailer’s site exist and how many are coming from popular or well-regarded external sites? And—at issue here—how many people are referencing these sites in comments, which we will informally refer to as the “famous” factor.


One Comment | Read Google’s Latest Search Changes Could Be Very Bad News For Retailers

  1. A Reader Says:

    Google could be adjusting page rank based on identifying positive and negative reviews. Starting with Amazon and several of the major hitters, they could continually be training it to recognize the formats of various review sites, downgrading links to the average 0- and 1-star sites, and upgrading the value of 4- and 5-star average reviewed links. They’ll also likely factor in the page rank of the review site itself, so as to reduce the impact of astroturfers. I think they may already have some of this information on their shopping site. It’s just a Small Matter Of Programming to tie them all together, of course.


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