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It's nice to know that chunky ole Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) can still be nimble.
Reacting quickly after a scathing New York Times expose that detailed how a merchant was able to turn negative publicity into higher search rankings, the country's leading search engine has tweaked its algorithms to keep bad actors from bubbling to the top of its search queries.
Google's PageRank platform has served it well over the years. In deciding ordered results for keyword queries, Google has leaned on its PageRank system to promote relevant websites that have been linked to often from prominent websites.
The risk for Google -- and the opportunity for the controversial e-tailer profiled in the article -- is that drumming up negative publicity on established consumer sites also helped improve the merchant's visibility in organic search queries.
Well, Google will have none of that. Its results will never be perfect. There are too many people out there excelling in ways to game the system. However, things could have gotten ugly if more controversial merchants began encouraging negative reviews to be rewarded with higher keyword priority.
The obvious solution -- for Google to factor in the sentiment behind the website mention -- isn't as easy as it sounds. As Big G points out, marking down websites being badmouthed would make it harder to find politicians or pages devoted to controversial subjects.
Google also considered blocking offenders or running reviews alongside search results, but neither practice is perfect. Perpetual policing is a tall task, and nefarious e-tailers can simply launch new ventures. Reviews can also be misleading. Expedia's (Nasdaq: EXPE ) TripAdvisor often finds rivals badmouthing the competition or scribing fake glowing reviews about their own hotels.
Google's solution, for now, is to penalize the sites of companies that provide poor user experiences. It seems like a never-ending vetting process, but it's better than letting unsavory retailers run amuck on its first few pages of search results. Google claims that many of the leading consumer sites set up their forums so that posted links aren't endorsements, but it still doesn't explain how the controversial eyeglass vendor was able to rank so high for the names of leading eyewear designers.
Obviously, Google needs to be careful here. It may be the runaway champ in search, with Yahoo!, Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Bing, AOL (NYSE: AOL ) , and IAC's (Nasdaq: IACI ) Ask.com as tiny specks on its rearview mirror, but it can't take that for granted. If Google's results become easily gamed by websites with nefarious intentions, consumers will eventually perform their queries elsewhere.
Online users appear to trust Google now, but reputations can erode pretty quickly in cyberspace.
Can bad actors be weeded out of search queries? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.