We rely on Google to deliver the most accurate and helpful search results. But what if an online business could game Google's search algorithm to be listed first by providing terrible service? David Segal of The New York Times talks about an online merchant who did just that and Google's subsequent response.
BOB GARFIELD: Google has changed the world by instantly reliably delivering relevant and helpful search results. Because page rankings are determined in part by how many users link to a given page, placing high in a search result seems like a de facto endorsement from the Internet at large. But what if you could move yourself up in Google rankings by being most disliked? New York Times reporter David Segal wrote a story last Friday about a woman named Clarabelle Rodriguez who purchased contact lenses and some designer eyeglasses from the online store DecorMyEyes.com. When the package arrived, according to Rodriguez, among other problems, the eyeglasses were counterfeits. That’s when she contacted Vitaly Borker, the man behind DecorMyEyes. And, according to Segal, things quickly got out of hand.
DAVID SEGAL: And when she made it clear to Vitaly, who always poses as one of his alter egos, in this case a man named Tony Russo, that she wanted to return them and that she would contest this charge on her credit card, he just erupted. And that was the beginning of about two months of very, very unpleasant email and phone harassment. The day that the credit card company finished its investigation, someone posing as Clarabelle Rodriguez called it and said, I drop this contest. So Clarabelle was contacted by Citibank, who said, well, we're glad that you've dropped your contesting of these charges and your credit card has been billed again. She just flat out said, look, you've been hoodwinked. Someone posing as me has called. Citibank completely stonewalled her. I mean, they flatly refused to even entertain that complaint.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Clarabelle Rodriguez dealt not only with Borker and with Citibank, she took her complaints elsewhere as well, did she not?
DAVID SEGAL: She figured out, a little too late, that Vitaly/Tony Russo had been complained about endlessly on a bunch of consumer websites, including one called Getsatisfaction.com. She also posted a thing on that website that said, I'm going to try to build a case against him, and anyone who’s had interactions with him should write to me and we'll bring it to this detective who's looking into the case. That further incensed Vitaly and drove him to new heights of nastiness.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so naturally you contact Vitaly Borker.
DAVID SEGAL: I called him because he had posted something on Getsatisfaction and said, all of the complaining that you do helps my Google ranking.
BOB GARFIELD: From what little anybody knows about the Google algorithm, it’s based on the number of links to your pages, and if lots of people link to them that pushes your ranking up.
DAVID SEGAL: And he was kind of weirdly delighted to share what he thought was this interesting business model because Google couldn't tell the difference between withering critiques and adulatory buzz. He felt like he had discovered some remarkable new strategy to succeed in Web commerce. He basically spends all of his days in a lather, either [LAUGHS] selling glasses or screaming at people who've bought from him and are trying to return them.
BOB GARFIELD: I can sort of see how being a boor moved his page rank up, but has he no fear of how these other businesses on which he depends – his Web hosting company, his Internet service provider – might react to his shenanigans?
DAVID SEGAL: It was next to impossible for Clarabelle to get any traction with any of the complaints that she made. MasterCard does not inspire a lot of fear in Vitaly Borker because it turns out that he got bounced from their system last year, and he just changed something about his identity and got back on. More than anything, it was just a lesson in how futile life is for a consumer who just has a phone and doesn't have a newspaper standing behind her or him to help out.
BOB GARFIELD: But, as it turned out, Clarabelle Rodriguez did have a newspaper [LAUGHS]. And, as a consequence of your story, a number of things have happened. Maybe, most amazingly, Google has made fixes that it says will mitigate the problems created by characters like Vitaly Borker. That’s quite a feather in your cap.
DAVID SEGAL: I'll say! [LAUGHS] I think it’s the first anything has changed as a result of anything that I've written.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, as I saw your story, I wondered to myself if there’s actually a, a bona fide business model in making a jerk of yourself in order to move up in page rankings or whether this is an outlier.
DAVID SEGAL: I think he is an outlier. I think he is an extreme case. I write a column every other week for the Sunday business section where people write to me and complain about things, and I try to call the company that has wronged them and rectify the situation. And mostly it’s just companies that are ignoring people. They're not out to terrify them.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of this is about the quirks of the Google algorithm, but some of it also has to do with the people’s habits when using search engines and their seeming reluctance not just to click on something and do business there because they're at the top of the list, but to drill at least a couple of levels deeper to find out what’s what.
DAVID SEGAL: Any time you buy anything on the Web, just type the name of the company and the word “complaint” into a Google search and you will learn everything you need to know.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm typing in –
[SOUND OF CLICKING KEYS] - “David Segal, New York Times -
DAVID SEGAL: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - complaint.” Let's see what we come up with. Oh! [LAUGHS]
DAVID SEGAL: There’s a violinmaker by that name.
[BOB LAUGHS] I'm sure it’s about him.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] David, thanks so much.
DAVID SEGAL: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: David Segal is a reporter for The New York Times.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman, P.J. Vogt and Bret Jaspers, with more help from Nerida Brownlee, and it was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were John DeLore and Dylan Keefe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs, and the cream in our coffee. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [FUNDING CREDITS] **[END]**