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News?How to game Google: make customers hate you

Google says it has addressed a deficiency in its search algorithm that allowed merchants to gain top billing in search results by treating customers badly.

The move is a response to an investgation  by The New York Times into online eyeglasses store DecorMyEyes, whose owner deliberately harassed and abused customers in order to generate reams of negative online reviews and comments, which in turn pushed up the site’s page ranking on Google.

“I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where  (TaylorMade R9 Super Tri Driver) they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment,” DecorMyEyes owner Vitaly Borker told the paper.

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“So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage.”

The issue proved embarrassing to Google, which closely guards its secret algorithm for ranking websites. It is believed the problem stemmed from the fact that Google has traditionally looked mainly at how many reputable sites are linking to any given web page in order to determine that page’s importance, rather than factoring in an analysis of the sentiment surrounding a particular site.

Dominic Gluchowski, founder of Melbourne search engine optimisation company SEO Falcon, said he was not aware of Australian merchants adopting a similar strategy but nonetheless saw it as a serious  deficiency on Google’s part.

“For websites with such bad reviews and bad client experiences to show so high in results for brand sunglasses, it shouldn’t happen and I think that people have the expectation that the top few websites that appear in Google are trusted websites,” he said.

In  a blog post  published overnight, Google fellow Amit Singhal said the company was “horrified” to read about the claims against Borker and “immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue”. Singhal said Google had already developed and implemented an “initial algorithmic solution”.

Google is constantly evolving its search algorithm and Gluchowski said it implemented an average of two changes every day in the first half of 2010.

“I am here to tell you that being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business (Callaway X-22 Irons) in Google’s search results,” Singhal wrote.

The solution “detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience”.

But Singhal stressed that the algorithm change represents only an initial solution and Google could not say for sure that no one would find a loophole in the future.

He did not reveal specific details about the solution, saying attempts to game Google’s search results occur all day, every day.

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