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Google Search Formula Tweak a 1st Step to Include User Sentiment?

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The swirl of negative publicity surrounding suddenly infamous ‘Black Hat’ online marketer, Vitaly Borker - whose anti-social online marketing practices and absolute lack of any business ethics were featured in an interesting yet scathing report in The New York Times – seems to have forced Google to tweak its all-important search algorithm. But, as ever, the folks at Google’s MountainView, CA headquarters are being circumspect about the changes to the highly-secret search algorithm that is at the core of Google’s business.

CNET reports that, “Google has changed its search algorithm to penalize sites deemed to provide an "extremely poor user experience" following a New York Times story on a merchant who justified abusive behavior towards customers as a search-engine optimization tactic.” (For those who haven’t read the lengthy, disturbing yet oddly fascinating NYT article, check it out.  (This guy’s not merely “abusive;” more like “psychotic.”)

Top-level search engineer, Amit Singhal, posted Google’s response to this now infamous anti-social online marketer on Google’s blog.  Although they rapidly determined that this particular instance was “an edge case and not a widespread experience,” a team of Google’s search experts immediately implemented “an initial algorithmic solution,” according to Singhal.  (As it turns out, not all of the nation’s ”quants” are employed gaming trading platforms on Wall St. Google, it seems, was all over this story from the time it hit the press.)

Mr. Singhal’s response did, however, leave open the question if, and to what extent, user sentiments affect page ranking.   “Google has a world-class sentiment analysis system,” Mr. Singhal acknowledges. “But,”, he points (rather amusingly, “if we demoted web pages that have negative comments against them, you might not be able to find information about many elected officials, not to mention a lot of important but controversial concepts.” So far, Mr. Singhal notes, Google has “not found an effective way to significantly improve search using sentiment analysis.” They will, however, he promises, “continue trying.”

Call me cynical, but Mr. Singhal, seems to have left his team plenty of room to further tweak whatever degree user sentiment currently plays in ranking sites.  “Significantly improve search” is a much higher threshold than to merely “improve search.”

A minimum tolerance for egregious online marketing tactics has, however, been built into Google’s all-important but opaque algorithm. While rejecting (at least for now) displaying ratings and reviews alongside merchandising results – an option which, “remains on the table,” according to Mr. Singhal – he did announce a new “algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article, along with hundreds of other merchants that provide . . . an extremely poor user experience.”

Is it possible that Google could track small claims court actions to weed out bottom feeders? While that may be beyond the pale, you can be certain that search engineers are working on a number of diverse avenues to incorporate reputation and user ratings in their “secret blend of herbs and spices.” In the words of Mr. Singhal, as he concludes his post: “We can say with reasonable confidence that being bad to customers is bad for business on Google.”

James Barry covers internet marketing and related topics for Wolf21.com, a Toronto-based firm offering a full line of SEO services .

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