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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 11/29/2010

Why Google's grifter is our problem

By Ezra Klein

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."

By Ezra Klein  | November 29, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Tech  
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Comments

"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"


Ezra, if you want to write a column about how Fox gets more viewers than MSNBC by being the "Crazy Eddie" of networks, why not just say so?

Also, how is this any different than the car companies calculating the costs of a recall, versus the costs of suits and settlemnts from problems they ignore? You act like this guy INVENTED the idea.

Finally, I would defend this post as no MORE inconsequential than most of your posts lately have been.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 29, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

The whole principle behind this article is misleading. The links on GetSatisfaction are rel=nofollow and transfer no page rank.

http://blog.getsatisfaction.com/2010/11/28/when-businesses-attack-their-customers/

Posted by: staticvars | November 29, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Impulse buyers get burned on the Internet. Not really new news but the (very long) article was a good read.

Posted by: tuber | November 29, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

The article was funny, scary and helpful. Be aware! But some sites I buy from are unbelievably friendly and Mom&Pop.

One I called today told me to try all three of the devices when I said one didn't work to be sure none of them worked. I'd bought them for gifts. If only that first one didn't work, they'd send me a replacement, no charge.

I checked out the other two and they didn't work so they told me to send them all back cheaply (not the expensive way they sent them to me) and they'd reimburse not only for the devices but for the return postage.

These websites are like the guy in the article: Wizard of Oz websites, that seem like real businesses but are often just people providing a service. For a profit they hope. Some do it the old-fashioned way.

Happy Holidays! (irony intended)

Posted by: tallfl | November 29, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

I second staticvars. Google ignores links with the nofollow tag. Any reasonably competent forum will automatically add nofollow tags, and this is standard practice to prevent all sort of pagerank scams.

Some sites will also use robots.txt to indicate that forum pages should not be indexed by crawlers like Google's. (and thus they won't give anyone PageRank)

Posted by: zosima | November 29, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

An extension of this point is that Google has proved spectacularly unsuccessful at properly weighting personal information.

That said, Borker and other dubious enterprises (say, the various Brooklyn camera dealers) are just perpetuating storefront enterprises that existed in the days of print adverts in glossy magazines, where people were equally unaware of the legitimacy of the bricks-and-mortar operation.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 29, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

SearchEngineLand analyzed the links on the consumer complaint sites and found 1 that might pass value in Google's search index. If this was really the guy's strategy, it was an amazingly UNsuccessful one.

More likely, the links he was getting from shopping sites where his product listings appeared were what did the trick for him.

While the New York Times reporter is to be commended for doing the deed of getting one bad guy knocked off the Web for a week or two, he'll probably be back soon and there are many more like him.

This article will do a lot of damage by misleading people into thinking that the complaints sites are providing link value that they don't provide.

Posted by: michaelmartnez | November 29, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

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