Search Engine Algorithms: When Is Bad “Bad”?

Google has altered its rating algorithm in an effort to keep the web sites of bad businesses from achieving high search rankings because of widespread discussion of their offenses, according to a Google blog piece “Being bad to your customers is bad for business.”

“Bad” in this case means those online merchants who “…, provide an extremely poor user experience.”

This is significant since there is a growing industry and body of practice built around gaming search engine results to achieve the best ranking when web users search for anything vaguely related to your business. It’s called “search engine optimization.”

Google didn’t give details of the exact tweak that it made, but the blog piece, written by Google Fellow Amit Singhal, carries a great discussion of how difficult the process is.

— Blocking an individual site is easy enough to do, but doesn’t solve the larger issue.

— Google rankings for an individual site are based in large part, on the number of other sites that link to it. Customer complaint sites include “rel=nofollow” attributes in their page code so search engines don’t mistake the links on their pages for recommendations. Also, the stories on news sites about offensive or criminal sites contain neutral language, so, extensive discussion of a bad site could actually boost its rankings.

— Google has something called “Large-Scale Sentiment Analysis for News and Blogs,” but it has limits. Singhal wrote. “…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.”

— Apparently Google has considered posting user reviews and ratings next to search results. “Though still on the table, this would not demote poor quality merchants in our results and could still lead users to their websites,” Singhal wrote.

The New York Times ran a story detailing one merchant who appeared to benefit in the rankings by outrageous behavior (as well as other black-hat SEO techniques): “Google Acts to Demote Distasteful Web Sellers“.

Tom Kelchner is Research Center Manager at Sunbelt Software. Tom is a communications professional with extensive background in computer security, anti-virus application testing and computer virus analysis. He is a former daily newspaper reporter and deputy press secretary to governor of Pennsylvania.