Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a very interesting story about an eyeglasses store that used bad publicity, gotten by abusing its customers, to rank well in Google Search. While it wasn't entirely accurate that the mentions the site got by abusing customers lead to better ranking, Google is no less taking steps to ensure that online stores that treat their customers badly are demoted in the search ranking.
"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," Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow, wrote.
"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," he explained.
The NYT article indicated that, based on what the site's owner believed, bad reviews on consumer protection sites lead to better ranking. However, most of these sites don't link to the offending sites or use "rel=nofollow" to make sure that their links aren't used by search engines for ranking.
While Google wouldn't go into details on how it's now demoting these sites, it did list some of the things that it's not doing. One step Google could have taken is to block the particular site, Decor My Eyes, but that wouldn't have solved the larger issue, just this one case.
One way of distinguishing negative mentions versus positive or neutral ones is to do sentiment analysis. This is actually rather straight forward and can be done with relatively simple algorithms.
The problem with sentiment analysis is, even if you manage to be very, very accurate, it's not a particularly relevant way to rank things for search engines. Controversial subjects are going to spark heated debates with people taking both sides of the discussion. And even if most people will have a negative reaction, the subject may be important and need to be revealed.
Another option, Google said, was to simply add ratings, based on reviews, in the search results. It already does this for some type of results. However, this would not affect the ranking itself.
Google says that it has developed an algorithm solution to the problem and that this should prevent sites like Decor My Eyes from ranking well. However, Google won't disclose how it achieves this.
It's most likely a combination of things, Google does have a variety of data sources for determining user experience at merchants, though no single one would probably enough. Reviews, from a number of sites, are probably used and maybe direct data from its own products like the Toolbar, Analytics and so on.