Why Google's grifter is our problem
Lots of people are linking to David Segal's profile of online scam artist/bully/search-optimization genius Vitaly Borker, and for good reason: It's a rollicking whodunnit about a devious online merchant that's actually an incredibly sophisticated look at the world Google creates for us -- or, as Google would have it, the world we create for Google.
Borker is exploiting the neutrality of Google's search algorithm. Simplified a bit (well, a lot), Google ranks pages by counting links to them. But it doesn't separate good links ("go to this great site!") from bad links ("this guy robbed me and killed my dog -- don't buy eyeglasses from him!"). Borke recognized this and embarked on an effort to piss off customers so they'd badmouth him in online forums. In fact, he'd even link them to the online forums where they could do the badmouthing. The result? If you were looking for complaints about his business, you could find plenty. But those complaints rocketed his business up the Google rankings. And there were a lot more people searching for designer eyeglasses than complaints about online designer eyeglass retailers.
But though Google is a largely neutral carrier of information, not all gatekeepers take such a studiously Swiss approach. So it's worth noting who scared Borker:
Mr. Borker is perfectly capable of minding his manners. And he does so, right now, with every order that comes through a store he runs through Amazon.com’s affiliate program. (He declines to provide that store’s name.) He handles those transactions like a Boy Scout because Amazon doesn’t mess around, he says — the company just kicks you off its site if you infuriate customers. ...
The only real limit on his antics is imposed by Visa and MasterCard. If too many customers successfully dispute charges in a given month, he can be tossed out of their networks, he says. Precisely how many of these charge-backs is too many is one of the few business subjects that Mr. Borker deems off the record, but suffice it to say he tracks that figure carefully and dials down the animus if he’s nearing his limit. Until the next month arrives, when he dials it back up again.
In other words, Visa and Mastercard intimidated Borker, but he figured out how to game them. Amazon stopped him, at least where its own customers were concerned. Score one for Amazon, and for partiality.
Don't dismiss this as the inconsequential story of one colorful con artist who managed to exploit Google's search algorithm. There are plenty of outlets and organizations and individuals who aren't so vile as Borker but nevertheless get their name mentioned by arousing controversy rather than spreading good information. In the Googleverse, they become more powerful and prominent than blander sources that don't get people talking. Google's (usual) impartiality is one of its great strengths -- I don't want Larry Page and Sergey Brin judging blogs, or newspapers, or individuals -- but it doesn't always work in our favor. "Don't be evil" may be Google's motto, but it has very little to do with what turns up when you press "search."
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