Google Changes Search Algorithm To Penalize Merchants That Get Bad Reviews

Over the week-end, the NYT posted a high-profile story on an online merchant who had managed to leverage his dismal reputation for customer service into a top ranking on Google’s search engine. The merchant told the paper that because so many people had complained about his site online, it ranked at the top of search results, adding that treating customers poorly had therefore proven to be “very” profitable. Google (NSDQ: GOOG) now says it was “horrified” by the report and has tweaked its algorithm to ensure that the strategy can’t be replicated.

In a blog post, Google doesn’t say exactly how it has changed its rankings but says its solution “detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide a extremely poor user experience.” Google Fellow Amit Singhal does say that several seemingly obvious solutions to the issue — like detecting the sentiment of online content or showing reviews in search results — are problematic.

The specific online merchant mentioned in the Times‘ article still shows up at the top of results when somebody searches for the name of the company but not when people look up the specific brands it sells.

The response seems to be a rare admission by Google of what seems to have been a glaring loophole in the way it ranks search results. The company still says however that it’s of course possible that its rankings will be gamed again and describes the change as an “initial solution.”