Google Updates Algorithm After Embarrassing New York Times Story

Jeff Berman
December 2, 2010

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a story entitled A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web.  The piece is a story about a woman who purchased eye glasses from a merchant she found in the organic section of Google's search results.  The gist is that the merchant's strategy was to berate and torture his customers in an effort to get bad publicity, negative reviews, and links back to his website.  His reasoning was that with all the publicity...and links, his site would rank well and help his business.  For a time, this was true.

Google Updates It's Algorithm

Needless to say, after the story came out Google was none too pleased. Earlier today, they published a blog post of their own about the issue.

We were horrified to read about Ms. Rodriguez’s dreadful experience. 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.

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. 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.

Thanks For All The Details About Your Algorithm Update Google (Sarcastic)

Since Google is being, per usual, less than transparent about the changes it made, we need to look to other experts in the field. Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land speculates that the update now is taking aggregated reviews of businesses around the web into account as a search ranking signal.

I think these [reviews] are being used. As you’ll see further below, Google talks about how it is NOT using reviews as something it will display in its results, because that alone wouldn’t be enough to “demote” sites. What would? Using the reviews as part of the ranking algorithm.

Also further below, Google talks about how it’s NOT using sentiment analysis to determine if links to pages indicate something good or bad about a merchant.

That leaves Google with few options to tell if a merchant has a good or bad reputation — and yet, it says it has a mechanism now in place to determine if a poor user experience is happening. I think this means tapping into reviews that it already collects.

That doesn’t mean reviews necessarily override all other ranking signals but rather that they are yet another factor among many to be considered.

What This Can Teach Us About Quality SEO

While this story was a blatant, and rather stupid, attempt at gaming Google it is a good example of how to think about search engine optimization. Quality SEO is less about figuring out cutting edge ways to "trick" Google and more about giving Google more of what it wants. The last thing Google wants is to be embarrassed, or worse yet, have a main stream paper such as the New York Times writing articles talking about it's search results being sketchy. This is money out of Google's pocket and damaging to their brand.

Quality SEO is about building equity in your business online and doing so in a way that isn't a flash in the pan. By devising an SEO strategy that takes into consideration what is best for users, Google, and your law firm you are much more likely to build lasting value.

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Jeff Berman
Jeff Berman, is co-founder of AttorneySync. "Properly marketing a law firm online is about producing relevant content that helps a prospective client understand your expertise and how you are able to help them. Finally, it’s about getting that content found by the people you are trying to help."
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