The Google Search Conundrum

The New York Times reports on a Web eyeglass merchant named Vitaly Borker, who allegedly provokes consumers with rude behavior that generates complaints -- which in turn lead to higher Google rank. The article muses:

He might ... be a pioneer of a new brand of anti-salesmanship -- utterly noxious retail -- that is facilitated by the quirks and shortcomings of Internet commerce and that tramples long-cherished traditions of customer service, like deference and charm.

Nice? No.


"Very," says Vitaly Borker, the founder and owner of DecorMyEyes, during the first of several surprisingly unguarded conversations.

"I've exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment. So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?"

But this tactic is hardly new as a variation on the "no such thing as bad publicity" theme. As I mentioned in an earlier post, It has been used -- first inadvertently, now probably deliberately -- by anti-Semitic groups to advance their sites in searches on Jewish themes. The Google people decline to interfere with the results, understandably because the precedent would ultimately force them to become arbiters of controversial subjects, but their own official explanation exposes the paradox:

If you use Google to search for "Judaism," "Jewish" or "Jewish people," the results are informative and relevant. So why is a search for "Jew" different? One reason is that the word "Jew" is often used in an anti-Semitic context. Jewish organizations are more likely to use the word "Jewish" when talking about members of their faith. The word has become somewhat charged linguistically, as noted on websites devoted to Jewish topics such as these:

Someone searching for information on Jewish people would be more likely to enter terms like "Judaism," "Jewish people," or "Jews" than the single word "Jew" In fact, prior to this incident, the word "Jew" only appeared about once in every 10 million search queries. Now it's likely that the great majority of searches on Google for "Jew" are by people who have heard about this issue and want to see the results for themselves.

So just as incensed consumers are building traffic to the eyeglass site -- and yes, I realize this post may be helping, too -- protesters of any kind of Google ranking may be reinforcing bad behavior, like so many of those frustrated pooch owners who turn to the Dog Whisperer. Google also implies that you have only yourself to blame by entering an expression that is statistically more likely to be used by bigots than by sympathetic inquirers, even if it has been used neutrally for centuries and is efficiently short.

But results revealing religious bias or concealing unpleasant consumer experiences have an unexpected bright side. They expose the limits of search engine algorithms. The results may be helpful, or misleading, and you often need to know quite a bit about the subject to choose the right links. I saw a related phenomenon in the 1980s when I tried to use scientific citation indexes to identify prospects for book authorship. It's true that most future winners of major prizes often have very high citation rates. But citations can depend as much on the size of a field as on the quality of work, and negative citations are a perennial issue in debates on the technique. (For the complexity of using citation analysis to compare universities internationally today, see this page.)

All electronic ranking systems have flaws and reflect tradeoffs. They're just tools. The good news is that users, by experimentation, can improve their use, as they do with physical equipment. It may take controversy to remind us of the obvious.

One practical suggestion: try variations on your search. Computers, like human beings in opinion surveys, are sometimes surprisingly sensitive to small differences in phrasing.