Practical Ecommerce

SEO Consequences of Negative Reviews

An alarming new flavor of search engine optimization surfaced on Friday when The New York Times reported on DecorMyEyes, an unscrupulous eyewear etailer who goads customers into writing negative reviews for SEO benefit. Nothing boosts a well-crawled site’s rankings higher than an infusion of link juice, even when that juice is sour.

Good and Bad Reviews Are the Same

Packed with shocking details like the business owner’s stance on customer service, graphic threats to customers and layers of indifferent officials, the article highlights a disturbing truth in the world of search marketing and search algorithms: Searchers trust Google to “recommend” the best stores at which to shop. After all, they wouldn’t rank well if they were bad, right? But Google’s algorithm does not pass judgment on the quality and integrity of the stores and sites it ranks, nor should it. Each individual’s experiences, values and culture influence decisions about good and bad, right and wrong. Expecting an algorithm to make those determinations for searchers is frightening, if not rare.

But surely there is a line, a common ground of wrongness, that all would agree to? Surely allowing a business that has so many scathingly negative reviews registered on so many sites to rank well is wrong, right? But where’s the line at which a penalty flag is thrown? And if there’s a known line, what’s to stop competitors from trashing each other to trigger that penalty?

Bad Reviews Pay Off?

Every system has its rules, and unfortunately every set of rules is harassed by jerks looking to make a quick buck. Online villains thrive by turning positive systems to negative advantage, taking the short cuts because doing business ethically is harder. According to The Times article, the negative reviews boosted DecorMyEyes’ business faster than paying a search optimization company to churn out false positive reviews. And it’s free.

Ethical and branding concerns aside, DecorMyEyes has a point. Links are good. Third-party review sites are a source of links, some of which are not tagged with no-follows. Therefore, more reviews on external sites must be better. But DecorMyEyes’ SEO strategy diverges from the norm in that it has learned that it’s easier to generate reviews–and therefore links–from negative experiences than to offer its customers a positive experience.

Happy Customers Don’t Post Reviews

A mildly happy, neutral or mildly unhappy customer isn’t as likely to write a review, tweet, or a post to Facebook. Extremes get a reaction. If you don’t want to work toward offering extremely good service, extremely bad service may seem to be an easier way to get ahead. As long as you’ve got the stomach to harass customers, ignore their distress, circumvent financial and legal systems, and burn your brand to the ground in the process.

Leveraging negative reviews is really just a new flavor of the “turn and burn” strategy that old-school domain spammers used. They didn’t care if an individual domain or two was eventually discredited or banned from the search engine results because they had hundreds more coming up the rankings. In this case, the effect of negative reviews on a no-name brand is minimal because so few online shoppers bother to research the sites they buy from. The Internet’s anonymity means do-badders can change their brands, domain, name, address, phone, email, and whatever else they need to in the blink of an eye. MasterCard kicks them out of its network? Feedback ratings get trashed on eBay? Just reapply with new credentials and they’re back in business.

No Long Term Benefit to Negative Reviews

Ethical etailers have a lot of challenges to overcome without worrying about the threat of competition from fraudulent businesses thriving on negative reviews. One of the biggest questions is whether the good guys should dive into the mud pit with the bad guys to even the playing field. My answer: Absolutely not. The legal and financial risk alone are prohibitive, even if the etailer’s brand is disposable and his moral compass points steadily south. Intentionally causing negative reviews for SEO benefit is a strategy that can only “succeed” for a business committed to simultaneously burning what it’s building.

I take the high road. If you would be embarrassed to admit an SEO strategy to your grandmother, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. It’s just not worth the risk. The tried and true ethical SEO strategies work, but they take hard work too.

Still, reviews do represent a source of links and customer reviews should be encouraged ethically. Along with the emailed receipt, consider including a suggestion to review the purchased products on your own site (if possible), your site’s Facebook page, popular industry forums, or reviews sites.

Positive Promotion Still Is Best

Some sites, like GetSatisfaction.com, still pass link popularity through some links. For example, the link to Groupon.com, the company for which I’m the SEO manager, is do-followed at http://getsatisfaction.com/groupon with a toolbar PageRank of 3. Others, like Epinions.com, pass all external links through tracking redirects or scripts to remove their link value. Regardless of the actual link-building value, encouraging customers to communicate the good and sometimes not so good is free promotion. The value of positive promotion is obvious. But even negative promotion can be beneficial if a company is committed to responding positively for the customer’s benefit. Doing so publicly can earn more kudos and negate the impact of the negative review in the minds of the other readers.

For more on the SEO implications and algorithmic ins and outs of reviews rankings, see Search Engine Land’s “Google’s “Gold Standard” Search Results Take Big Hit In New York Times Story.”