Google modifies search rankings following newspaper expos

‘Being bad is bad for business’ in Google search results

Google announced that it has changed the firm’s search algorithm to adopt ‘sentiment analysis’ in response to an explosive report in the New York Times into etailers using negative press to boost search rankings.

The NYT article focused on rogue retailer and the proprietor’s admitted systematic threatening behaviour towards customers in order to gain favourable listings in Google search results for eyewear related products. The story documented the harrowing experience of Ms Clarabelle Rodriguez who had been subjected to menacing threats and even a fraudulent call to the customer’s bank to retract a credit card dispute.

Less than a week after the report was published, Google Fellow Amit Singhal posted to the Official Google Blog that the firm was horrified to read about the Ms Rodriguez’s experience and ‘immediately convened a team’ to explore the issue. The team subsequently developed a new search algorithm which, Singhal said, is already live on the Google site.

“I am here to tell you that being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google’s search results,” said Singhal.

Google had considered a number of different approaches including so-called ‘sentiment analysis’ which would consider the tone of the language used when linking to external sites. Singhal pointed out that often consumer affairs web sites such as Get Satisfaction were using the rel=no-link attribute in HTML links which instructs search engines not to classify a link in a positive light.

“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,” Singhal pointed out.

The idea of displaying merchant ratings alongside search hits was also considered although it would not ultimately affect the ranking of the merchant. The idea still seems to be under consideration though and would appear to be a good fit with Google’s recent introduction of web preview images to search results.

“Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience,” said Singhal.

“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.”

Singhal said that Google could not be sure that further loopholes in the company’s ranking algorithms could not be found and that it was aware that unscrupulous operators would continue to search for just such loopholes.

This was why, Singhal said, the company does not release information about exactly how Google’s search algorithms work.

However on Tuesday the EC launched a formal investigation into Google on the basis of rival ‘search engine’ shopping sites such as Foundem complaining about Google’s ‘biased’ search results. Google maintains that it assigns lower rankings for these sites due to ‘compelling reasons’ such as low original content on most shopping search sites.

The EC appears to consider that Google has a ‘dominant position’ in search and that lowering search hits belonging to rival companies is worthy of an anti-competition investigation.

While few would shed any tears for the recent changes that would penalise rogue traders such as, the Google’s move highlights how lowering rankings for sites which Google considers an ‘extremely poor user experience for consumers’ will always be controversial.

The fact the EC seems likely to demand visibility into Google’s search algorithms to make a determination in the anti-competition investigation would appear to set the scene for an impending legal battle ahead.

Image credit: The New York Times.

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