Social Ratings and Search Rankings

Last time, I wrote about the fact that users are now spending more time on social networking sites than on search engines.

This week I’ll talk about the impact that social ratings (online customer reviews, etc.) may begin to have on websites’ search rankings.

Bad Business Reviews = Good Search Performance?

My interest in writing about this topic came about very recently. First alerted to this by my former colleague and veritable search guru, Helen Overland at Search Engine People, only yesterday, I knew this was a story I couldn’t pass up.

Overland does a great job of reviewing the story, and the full story is available on NYTimes.com, so I’ll just summarize it quickly:

Essentially, a November 26 article in The New York Times detailed how a website owner was bragging about his site’s negative customer reviews and how they have garnered his site increased inbound links and search engine positioning, resulting in a huge spike in traffic and sales. He was priding himself on treating people horribly because of the benefit it was having to his online business.

Are you suitably horrified?! Should negative publicity really earn you top rankings in search results?

Google’s Reaction and Quick Action

Google’s lightening quick response made it clear that bad reviews shouldn’t earn you a top spot. By December 1 (three business days later), Google already implemented a solution to this conundrum. Google posted a response back to the Times article on its official blog.

At the heart of the article, Google asserts that bad business practices are bad for your business. The company described the process it implemented to detect this merchant and others that have been getting very bad reviews from customers:

“…in the last few days 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. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.”

These steps will undoubtedly help reduce the perpetrator’s positioning and that of the identified fellow “bad business” merchants, but what about all those other sites that may get a host of negative reviews in the future? How will Google handle those sites?

What Does This Mean Going Forward?

The tweak to the algorithm sounded very specific to that merchant and other existing online retailers that had been identified as having poor practices, but it doesn’t seem like there has been a wide-scale solution implemented to detect these sites moving forward.

What’s not clear to me is: Will poor customer reviews have a negative impact on sites’ rankings going forward? And conversely, for the “good” business people among us, will happy customer reviews generate a positive effect on rankings?

It’s clear that Google is working on this, but it is the first to admit that the ultimate solution has not been uncovered just yet.

In the blog post, Google also talked about some of the methods it’s considered and ruled out thus far as it has not deemed appropriate, all-encompassing solutions.

Among these included Sentiment Analysis (reviewing the content of the page and demoting those that had negative comments and promoting those with positive). But the issue with Sentiment Analysis is that if you demoted any pages that had many bad comments/reviews associated with them, as Google points out, “you might not be able to find information about many elected officials, not to mention a lot of important but controversial concepts.” Touché, Google, touché.

That said, as it’s still only been about a week since this story ran, we’ll give Google some lead time. My guess is that Google has not nearly put this issue to rest and will continue to work to uncover a potential solution to begin truly integrating social reviews into the core algorithm.

The Bottom Line

Online reviews matter. How much, and to what extent, will probably only increase over time. All other things equal, it’s better to be a good business than a bad one! So keep your customers happy and the rankings will eventually come!

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