Are there more profits to be made on the Internet by being bad rather than good? There’s lots of money out there waiting to be picked up. All you need is an idea. And the idea can even be something along the lines of “be famously evil to make money.” Check out this story in the NY Times:
… she found the perfect frames — made by a French company called Lafont — on a Web site that looked snazzy and stood at the top of the search results. Not the tippy-top, where the paid ads are found, but under those, on Google’s version of the gold-medal podium, where the most relevant and popular site is displayed.
Ms. Rodriguez placed an order for both the Lafonts and a set of doctor-prescribed Ciba Vision contact lenses on that site, MyI’s The total cost was $361.97.
The NY Times article provides a hyperlink to the web site named above. I’ve removed it and changed the name of the company for a reason that will be come clearer as you read on.
The next day, a man named Tony Russo called to say that DecorMyEyes had run out of the Ciba Visions. Pick another brand, he advised a little brusquely.
“I told him that I didn’t want another brand,” recalls Ms. Rodriguez, who lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. “And I asked for a refund. He got rude, really obnoxious. ‘What’s the big deal? Choose another brand!’ ”
With the contacts issue unresolved, her eyeglasses arrived two days later. But the frames appeared to be counterfeits and Ms. Rodriguez, a lifelong fan of Lafont, remembers that even the case seemed fake.
Soon after, she discovered that DecorMyEyes had charged her $487 — or an extra $125. When she and Mr. Russo spoke again, she asked about the overcharge and said she would return the frames.
She soon discovered that she’d entered a world of pain. When she called Citibank to contest the charge, she started getting a barrage of phone calls and emails telling her to cancel the dispute. The guy emailed her a picture of the front of the building where she lives and threatened her with sexual and physical violence as well as law suits. And someone called Citibank pretending to be her and cancelled the credit card dispute.
By then, Ms. Rodriguez had learned a lot more about DecorMyEyes on Get Satisfaction, an advocacy Web site where consumers vent en masse.
Dozens of people over the last three years, she found, had nearly identical tales about DecorMyEyes: a purchase gone wrong, followed by phone calls, e-mails and threats, sometimes lasting for months or years.
“This might sound like exaggeration, but I feared for my life,” she says. “I was actually looking over my shoulder when I left my apartment. Because I had no idea what he was capable of. Psychologically, he had gotten to me.”
So why would this web site behave in this way? It turns out it’s all part of an ingenious plan.
“Hello, My name is Stanley with xyz.com,” the post began. “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”
It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about DecorMyEyes, even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.”
See, the more posts this guy gets that mentions his web site, whether positive or negative, serves to increase his Google Pagerank. He shows up higher and higher on the search page, people click on the link and buy from him, and he’s just getting richer and richer.
The NY Times talked to some people at Google about this but got far from definitive answers.
Is it true, as Mr. Borker says, that Google is unable to distinguish between adulatory buzz and scathing critiques when it scours the digital universe and ranks the best and the brightest?
… what about people, like Ms. Rodriguez, who search by using brand names, like “Lafont” and “Ciba Vision”?
A crucial factor in Google search results, the spokesman explained, is the number of links from respected and substantial Web sites. The more links that a site has from big and well-regarded sites, the better its chances of turning up high in a search
Web advocacy sites like Get Satisfaction are vast and score high on Google’s augustness scale. The spokesman surfed the Web as he spoke and said he could see scads of links between RipoffReport.com and DecorMyEyes. But nearly all of those links, as well as those from other consumer sites, were tales of woe and obscenities.
So, again: Can’t Google separate catcalls from huzzahs?
While searches for this specific web site yield all of the complaints about the company, those who search merely on brand names don’t get to see that. And while Google does incorporate consumer rankings from sites like Yelp into search results for things like restaurants, they’re not doing it for online shops yet. And all of this makes the owner of that site so happy that he even agreed to sit down with the NY Times reporter for an interview.
Mr. Borker perks up, explaining his business philosophy like a professor unveiling new research, talking at a frenetic pace, tossing in plenty of profanity and ending sentences with “do you understand?” to make sure I’m keeping up. His accent carries a hint of Brooklyn and only the faintest trace of Russia.
“When I fly to Las Vegas I look down and see all these houses,” he starts. “If someone in one of those houses buys from [my company] and ends up hating the company, it doesn’t matter. All those other houses are filled with people, too, and they will come knocking.”
Selling on the Internet, Mr. Borker says, attracts a new horde of potential customers every day. For the most part, they don’t know anything about [this company], and the ones who bother to research the company — well, he doesn’t want their money. If you’re the type of person who reads consumer reviews, Mr. Borker would rather you shop elsewhere.
When he first heard about Get Satisfaction, it was by e-mail from one of the site’s employees, who was trying to mediate on behalf of unhappy customers.
“They wrote to me, ‘We’d like to talk to you; we should take a proactive approach.’ ” Mr. Borker sneers and rolls his eyes. “I sent him a photograph of this,” he says, raising his middle finger.
“Look,” he says, grabbing an iPad off a small table. He types “Christian Audigier,” the name of a French designer, and “glasses” into Google. [His company] pops up high on the first page.
“Why am I there?” he asks, sounding both peeved and amazed. “I don’t belong there. I actually outrank the designer’s own Web site.”
Mr. Borker doesn’t regard himself as a terror. He prefers to think of himself as the Howard Stern of online commerce — an outsize character prone to shocking utterances.
Interestingly, this guy was an NYC police cadet and worked for Lehman. He also operates another web store under a different name via Amazon and runs that one completely honestly “because Amazon doesn’t mess around … the company just kicks you off its site if you infuriate customers.”
So what can one do to avoid this? If you do a lot of online shopping, every now and then you’re going to want to get something from a site you’ve never heard of before. Maybe they have something you can’t find on Amazon or Ebay, maybe they have a cheaper price. The only thing you can do is to check out these sites carefully before placing your order. Something as simple as a Google search or checking some of the consumer protection sites mentioned in this article.
And it’s interesting how the NY Times knowingly plays along with his little game because they, a well-respected site with a Google Pagerank of 9, not only mention his company multiple times in the article (each mention is hyper-linked) and the article essentially includes all of the keywords that will simply serve to push this guy up higher and higher in search results. Actually I suppose my own search rankings would go up if I included that name, but I’d rather not.