Did being evil boost a firm's ranking on Google?

After reports of a New York business purposely mistreating customers to boost its online ranking, Google puts the brakes on evil business practices.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
In this Oct. 8 photo, a sign at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. is shown. The rise and fall of a New York eyeglass company prompts a question: Can doing evil boost a company's ranking on Google?

Celebrities have long known that acting evil can be good for getting noticed. At least one company found it could be good for online business, too.

The worse Vitaly Borker treated his customers, the higher the Google ranking of his New York designer eyeglass company rose. Or so it seemed.

A Nov. 26 New York Times article detailed how he went out of his way to harass a minority of customers – reportedly overcharging them, threatening lawsuits, and worse. His company, DecorMyEyes, landed on the first page of searches for specific designer eyeglasses.

"We were horrified" by the story, wrote Amit Singhal, a Google fellow in a blog post Wednesday. "I am here to tell you that being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google’s search results."

As it turns out, it wasn't the complaint sites that were driving up Mr. Borker's ranking, according to Mr. Singhal. Those sites often use a kind of Web command that allows them to link to a site without endorsing it.

Instead, one of the big drivers was the media itself. "Some of the most reputable links to Decor My Eyes came from mainstream news websites such as the New York Times and Bloomberg," Singhal wrote.

Publicity matters, even if it's bad publicity.

But the story doesn't end there. Goaded by the reports, Google, famous for its super-secret algorithms, implemented a new secret algorithm to ferret out bad businesses.

"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," Singhal wrote. "We can say with reasonable confidence that being bad to customers is bad for business on Google."

He calls the algorithm an initial step to solving the problem.

The solution seems to have worked in the case of DecorMyEyes. By Monday night, the company was languishing on page 14 of a Google search for "designer eyeglasses."

That, however, may be the least of Borker's problems. According to The New York Times, he has been cut off by his web-hosting service, thrown out of the MasterCard system, barred permanently from using eBay to buy his stock of eyeglasses, and arrested for aggravated harassment and stalking of a customer.

Somewhere in this story is a moral about bad business not paying off in the long run – and how the glare of media can sometimes turn against you, especially when you use bad-boy antics.

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