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.”


Jill Kocher
Jill Kocher
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Comments ( 10 )

  1. thundercloud47 November 30, 2010 Reply

    I found this site today because of a story on the Today show about an on-line retailer who uses negative feedback to promote his business through Google.

    The victim in the story had ordered a pair of eyeglasses on-line only to have the transaction go terribly wrong. I don’t trust reporters to get a story right so I do my own research. Also in my humble opinion there was something not quite right about the victim.

    I used the same search parameters the victim did. On the very same search result page that the offending seller was there were negative reviews about them right out in plain sight. As a frequent on-line buyer myself that would have been enough right there to prevent me from purchasing an item from them.

    Now to be fair I’m sure those search results were different back when she did her search. My point here however is that unless you know the company you had better do some research first.

    I used to be a seller on e-bay. My experience with that showed me that even when customers are very happy with a purchase they will not leave any feedback at all. I was a seller who believed in above and beyond customer service. These scammers are taking advantage of the fact that people are far more likely to complain and leave negative feedback.

    I will bet that before all is said and done the victim in this story will sue Google. She will be more likely to get money from them than she will her on-line seller. Had she done just a bit of research this situation may not have happened.

    On-line crooks are always going to find a way to get around the system. No company on-line no matter how good they are is going to be able to prevent that 100% of the time. 99% of my on-line transactions have been positive. Whenever possible I do bother to leave positive feedback.

  2. Paul Chaney November 30, 2010 Reply

    I read the NY Times article and was flabbergasted. How a company pride itself on poor customer service and shady business practices all in the name of SEO is beyond me. It seems there is another acronym that needs to come into play here, BBB, as in Better Business Bureau. In the meantime, _caveat emptor_.

  3. Brian November 30, 2010 Reply

    @Paul – pretty much along the lines of what I came here to say. The BBB needs to somehow be in contact with Google. If a company is logging (cant remember exact numbers, but i think the article said) over 300 complaints in a 10 month span they have to be de-indexed by Google. 300 complaints would almost start to make it Google’s fault for constantly returning that website as a quality result for any related search queries.

  4. Dean iodice November 30, 2010 Reply

    Its sick to even imagine someone would promote bad reviews to build good SEO, what happens when someone reads the review do they even have a chance at getting the business. Personally if I see bad reviews about a business I just don’t use that company.

    It’s true people will write more negative comments than positive. But you can take steps to talk to your customers and ask them if they are satisfied with your service to write a positive review, there is nothing wrong with that. Websites like Yelp.com get highly indexed in the organic search and I’d much rather have positive than negative reviews.

    It all comes back to the way you optimize your site, always optimize for the human reading your page. Shortcuts will always catch up to you.

  5. Shirley Tan December 1, 2010 Reply

    I think its a bit nutty to have Google be the feedback police as well. Consumers have to bear some responsibility in the purchasing process. If they make a purchase online, they should do their homework to ensure as much as they can that their dealing with a legitimate company. There are lots of legit companies that plainly don’t care about their customers, but those are far and few. No one really sets out to do bad business unless they’re just straight up bad people.

    With social media these days and the internet, its so easy to find information on individuals or companies. There is no excuse not to have done any research on companies you’re going to do business with.

    Having said that, even good business have bad days. Satisfaction is subjective and if I was a merchant and I got taken out of Google because I was having a bad month, that would be worrisome for the rest of us, because its so easy to game the system.

  6. Shirley Tan December 1, 2010 Reply

    Here is the update to the article above. I guess Google will be policing reviews now in some form, how we don’t know.

    As of today, his site DecorMyEyes has been manually delisted and no longer found in Google.

    To read more on this story, visit
    [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/02/technology/02ranking.html?_r=1&ref=technology](http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/02/technology/02ranking.html?_r=1&ref=technology).

    and here is further comments on this topic from
    [http://searchengineland.com/no-you-cant-rank-well-just-by-cultivating-terrible-reviews-57333](http://searchengineland.com/no-you-cant-rank-well-just-by-cultivating-terrible-reviews-57333)

  7. Dan Megan December 2, 2010 Reply

    Good luck selling that business in the future…..

  8. Bill Sebald December 2, 2010 Reply

    This isn’t a new tactic for MFA spammers and affiliates.

    Google responded with an algo update that supposedly helps fight this, but isn’t a full "sentiment engine" yet. Nice to know it’s being worked on though.

  9. frank65l December 3, 2010 Reply

    "But Google’s algorithm does not pass judgment on the quality and integrity of the stores and sites it ranks,"
    I am sorry, but did no one see this statement? If Google passes no judgment, then wouldn’t the results be random, getting different sites every time you searched? Google has said repeatably, the more links you have coming in, the higher you will rank, and the more links from higher page rank sites, the higher you will go. This is a quality score, is it not? At least that is what Google says. Even human ranked sites are subjective.

    Their will never be fair rankings in search engines, kinda like free trade! He who has the most wins, or can win easily if they know what their doing.

  10. Jill Kocher September 7, 2012 Reply

    An update on this story after almost 2 years. From Search Engine Land today: "[DecorMyEyes Merchant Vitaly Borker Sentenced To Four Years In Federal Prison](http://searchengineland.com/decormyeyes-merchant-vitaly-borker-sentenced-to-four-years-in-federal-prison-132434)"

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