Archive for December, 2010

The Power of Negative Attention

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

I’ve been writing a lot of “cautionary tale” blog posts recently. This was not my plan at all but I keep coming across stories I think we can learn a lot from. I recently read a horrifying article, A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web, in the Business section of the New York Times that I felt warranted yet another cautionary tale blog post.

The article is long but it’s a good read and definitely worth the time. It’s a story worthy of a John Grisham novel. And although it’s a story still in progress, it looks like the bad guy is going to get his due. Here’s a very brief summary of what happened.

The Horror Story:

A woman wants a good deal on eye glass frames. She does a search for her favorite eye glass designer in Google. The #1 ranking website has the frames she wants at a price she likes so she buys them. The frames show up 2 days later and are obviously fakes. She also realizes she’s been charged an additional $125. She asks for a refund. Not only does the company owner refuse to refund her, he threatens her! When she contests the charge with Citibank, he leaves messages threatening to hurt her and even emails her a picture of her house!

Citibank gives her a provisional refund. Some days later, she received a letter from Citibank acknowledging that she has canceled the claim. She calls Citibank and tells them she has not canceled the claim. She informs them that she has been repeatedly threatened by the person who owns the company she has the claim against. Citibank’s customer service response is “It’s not our problem.”

The woman goes to the police and although they take it seriously, they can’t do anything until they build a case which takes several months.

This Is Where Things Get Weird…

So why would anyone not only rip off customers, but threaten them when they complain? Because it boosts rankings!!! That’s right. This cretin has figured out that customer’s complaints on sites like www.getsatisfaction.com and www.yelp.com don’t hurt his rankings, they help!

How is this possible? If we’ve talked or you’ve read my free ebook, Higher Rankings in Plain English, you know that getting links to your website is an important part of rankings. Google considers links to your site from other sites as a vote of popularity and all other factors being equal, the site with the most links wins the rankings war.

The problem is that Google can’t (or chooses not to) discern between positive attention and negative attention. So when burned customers complain on review sites, Google just knows there’s a link to this website. Unfortunately, we the buying public, assume that high ranking sites must be reputable companies.

What Can You Learn?

I don’t think this woman did anything wrong when she made her initial purchase. The internet is still in its Wild, Wild West Phase and criminals spend a lot more time figuring out how to rip us off than we do defending against them. But, I can see some things she could have done differently. Here’s what you can learn to avoid her horror story.

Lesson #1: High Rankings & Snazzy Graphics Does Not Equal Reputable Company!

If you know how to hire people overseas, a reputable looking site will only cost you a few hundred dollars. And what you have to do to get to the top of the search results is not a mystery. If you know what to do and are willing to spend the time and money, your site can be #1 in Google too.

Lesson #2: Do Your Homework First!

Many of the comments to this article were along the lines of “If it’s too good to be true, then it is.” I think this is blaming the victim. Why? Because we all go to the web to look for better deals. Sometimes it’s not so easy to discern “Too easy to be true” scenarios.

As the article states, Google is better at providing reviews of local companies than it is internet based companies. If it’s not a major company or website you’ve heard of before (i.e. Hewlett Packard, Nordstrom, Amazon), do your home work first. If you do a search in Google for “review sites,” you will see that there are dozens of review sites on specific topics such as restaurants and tech toys. Here are a few of the major review sites:

http://www.getsatisfaction.com/

http://www.yelp.com/

http://www.angieslist.com/angieslist/

Lesson #3: Don’t use your debit card to make online purchases.

Granted, Citibank could have been a lot more helpful when the woman called to say she hadn’t canceled the complaint. But, if she’d used a debit card instead of a credit card, the burden of proof would have been on her, thus making contesting the charge a lot harder.

Lesson #4: It’s Virtually Impossible to Shut Down the Bad Guys.

Criminals can move quickly on the web. Shutting them down is a game of Whack-a-mole. The article states that when the reporter contacted the criminal’s hosting company, they shut down his website. He’s back up and running again on another hosting company which probably only took a few hours to do. The only way this guy is really going to get shut down is to go to jail.

It’s important to know how quickly criminals can move online for 2 reasons. First, it speaks to the importance of doing your homework. Second, keep in mind that it makes it look like there are more bad apples out there than there really are. The vast majority of online business owners are honest people who want happy customers.

Don’t Let This Scare You

I wrote this blog post because it never occurred to me that you could boost your rankings by ripping off customers. But, knowing how Google works, it makes sense. A link is a link. But I’m willing to bet that based on the negative attention Google has received from this fiasco and article, they will be doing something about this.

Sure. It is the Wild Wild West out there but this guy is probably going to jail thanks to the persistence of people like Clarabelle Rodriguez. I tip my hat to her and David Segal who wrote the article. I think Google, MasterCard and law enforcement agencies will change their policies as a result of this article.

If you’d like to learn more about how to ethically get reviews from clients, check out this recent post, The Decor My Eyes Fiasco & Local Reviews Tactics on SearchEngineland.com.

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