Spectaclegate: should Google police bad businesses?

Paul Raven @ 29-11-2010

Nothing grabs attention and raises ire like a story of shameless bad business practices, which explains the popularity of this New York Times piece on a charmless chap by the (delightfully meme-ready) name of Vitaly Borker. To boil it down, Russo actively cultivates a negative image for his online eyeglasses sales business because all the incoming links from complaints by disgruntled customers boost his site’s search rankings.

Stories that give people a reason to have a pop at Google and its perceived monopoly are also popular, and the saga of Borker has plenty of people thumping pulpits and claiming that the Big G should be managing its search algorithms to prevent scumbags like Borker from profiting from malpractice. The thing is, if Google were to do that, they’d actually be strengthening the perceived monopoly that these people like to complain about in the first place. Jeff Jarvis lays it down:

What if Google sensed the positive or negative sentiment in links and used that to guide its placement in search, as some suggested? Makes sense in the case of bad-guy Borker and his virtual eyeglass store. But as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, if Google did let sentiment affect rank, then what would it do with the negative links regarding Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, to Islam or GM? How would you write that law, remembering that the code is the law?

What if instead Google intervened in a case such as this and, seeing all the complaints, manually downgraded the guy in search? The first problem with that is scale: how do you find and investigate all the bad guys? The bigger problem is whether we want Google to be the cop of the world. Google has been sued by companies it decreed were link-bating spammer sites, downgrading them in search, while the sites said they were legitimate directories. This is the one case in which Google holds the power of God in a market and it’s a dangerous position to be in.

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In the end, Segal’s story looks like a failure of search, Google, and the internet. The internet made it possible for a bad guy to win. Well, so does Wall Street.

But I don’t think this was Google’s failure (cue fan-boy accusations). The moral of the story should be that if you search Google for the name of Borker’s company, you see plenty of loud complaints in the results. The internet doesn’t nullify the First Law of Commerce: caveat emptor. When I had my now-legendary problems with Dell, I kicked myself for not doing a search of “dell sucks” before buying my computer. That’s my responsibility as a shopper. And, as I pointed out at the time, Google would have given me the information I needed. Ditto for the lady in Segal’s story. If I think of buying from a new vendor, I’ve learned my lesson: I search Google first because fellow customers, using Google, will help protect me.

That is the lesson The Times should have given its readers: Use Google to guard against those who would use Google.

I can’t help but feel there’s a subtle mirroring of the Cablegate issues here: information itself doesn’t make us free, but it enables us to take responsibility for our own freedoms. Google’s algorithms likewise provide a powerful tool for anyone fortunate enough to have access to an internet connection; as tempting as it may be, we can’t blame them for our own failure to use it to the fullest. Caveat emptor, indeed.