You probably read or heard about a New York Times article that was published over the holiday weekend that talked about a business that was intentionally creating poor customer experiences to boost their search rankings. It was hard to believe that such a thing would work, but it seemed to do so for one particular business, and Google quickly penalized the business once the article exposed the issue.
Google has gone further, however, and with good reason. This kind of thing looks really bad not only for Google, but for algorithmic search in general, which is one reason I think social will continue to play an increasingly important role in consumers' search habits, and why Blekko thinks it can be the "third search engine."
Google's solution was still an algorithm, but at least the issue was tackled (supposedly anyway). "We were horrified to read about Ms. Rodriguez’s dreadful experience," says Google Fellow Amit Singhal of the customer discussed in the article. "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."
While this is certainly the way it should be in search, I can't imagine too many businesses finding a great deal of success in treating their customers poorly regardless of their Google rankings. The smart would be customers are likely to do enough digging to realize that much of what is being said is negative, anyway. Jeff Jarvis has a good idea: before making a decision about doing business with a brand, maybe you should conduct a search for "that brand sucks" and see what comes up. While the results for such a query may not always paint a fair picture of that business, you can at least compare the findings with those of a regular search and get a more balanced view of how consumers feel about that brand.
Will Google's new algorithmic solution prevent further abuse of this type? Probably not entirely.
"We can't say for sure that no one will ever find a loophole in our ranking algorithms in the future," Singhal acknowledges. "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."
While Google does that, users still may find themselves turning more and more to humans over algorithms (or at least in addition to them) before making decisions. That's precisely while we'll see more integrations of social media into search like Bing's new shareable shopping lists.