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What Google's Search Change Means for Your Website A new search algorithm to downgrade sites with bad reviews should prompt small businesses to re-examine their SEO strategies.

By Katherine Noyes

Google's rapid response to a New York Times story about unscrupulous e-commerce company DecorMyEyes has garnered significant attention over the past few days. That's not just for the shocking nature of the abusive eyewear vendor's behavior, but also for Google's admission that the story uncovered a weakness in its page ranking algorithm.

"We were horrified to read about Ms. Rodriguez's dreadful experience," wrote Google Fellow Amit Singhal on the Official Google Blog Wenesday. "We immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue. That team developed an initial algorithmic solution, implemented it, and the solution is already live."

"Being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google's search results," Singhal added.

Of course, Google never provides much detail about its algorithms -- presumably for fear that if it did, its search engine would be more easily manipulated. Nevertheless, the new tweaks to the system -- while only a first stab, Singhal admitted -- detects merchants that provide "an extremely poor user experience" and then assigns them lower rankings.

User Reviews and Ratings
Most likely, this means that online customer reviews are now being incorporated into Google's page rankings.

Singhal explains in his post that one option Google considered was "to expose user reviews and ratings for various merchants alongside their results. Though still on the table, this would not demote poor quality merchants in our results and could still lead users to their Websites."

A much more logical approach, then, would be simply to include the overall nature of those ratings as one of the many factors used to create Google's ranking results. I'm betting that's what Google now does.

'Black Hat Techniques and Dumb Luck'
Before going on, I should note that at least one expert in search engine optimization (SEO) disputes the assertions made by DecorMyEyes owner Vitaly Borker that the countless negative reviews of his company were what elevated its rankings.

"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," Borker reportedly wrote in a post on a complaint site. "My goal is NEGATIVE (sic) advertisement."

According to Search Engine Land's Byrne Hobart, however, it wasn't those negative reviews that did the trick. Rather, a post in the New York Times's own NFL blog last year linked to DecorMyEyes when it mentioned Versace 2049 Sunglasses.

Hobart went on, in fact, to analyze DecorMyEyes' traffic using Yahoo Site Explorer, and found predominantly spam sites and paid links referring to the site, as well as a few group shopping sites and blogs.

Most of the complaint sites don't even link to DecorMyEyes, Hobart found, suggesting that the company's abusive tactics don't actually have much to do with its ranking success. Rather, "a combination of black-hat techniques and dumb luck" helped the site to rank well, Hobart concluded.

The Top 5 Factors
The top five most important factors in search engine rankings are as follows, according to SEOmoz, which provides a search marketing platform and tips:

  1. Keyword-focused anchor text from external links.
  2. External link popularity.
  3. A diversity of link sources.
  4. Keyword use anywhere in the title tag.
  5. The trustworthiness of the domain based on its "link distance" from trusted domains.

Looking at this list -- particularly the first, second and fifth items -- you can see why that link from the New York Times's NFL blog was so valuable to DecorMyEyes.

Top negative factors for a site's search engine ranking, on the other hand, include link acquisition from known link brokers and sellers, according to SEOmoz, among many others.

So what does this all mean for an SMB trying its best to rank well on Google's search engine? Here are a few suggestions.

Go for the Biggest Effect
First, assuming you haven't been attempting unscrupulous gaming tactics like DecorMyEyes has, my advice is to stick with the solid SEO tactics that are already out there, making use of lists like those on SEOmoz to exert as much influence as you can on what are widely believed to be the most important ranking factors.

Those, after all, are the ones generally understood to have the biggest impact on your page rankings. My PCWorld colleague James Martin offers some good suggestions in his article, "Five SEO Secrets to Make Your Site More Visible."

Steer Clear of Negative Tactics
In light of Google's changes, it's more important now than it ever has been before to avoid any Black Hat or other dubious techniques such as those employed by DecorMyEyes. Google's got an especially sharp eye focused on this area now, and you don't want to be penalized or even get kicked out of the index altogether for attempting some of these ill-advised tricks.

Pay Close Attention to Reviews
If I'm correct and Google is actively incorporating customer reviews into its newly tweaked ranking algorithm, you're going to want to pay more attention to these than you may have in the past. Take a proactive approach and keep careful tabs on both positive and negative reviews from around the Web so that you can learn from them and address them quickly and appropriately.

Focus on Customer Service
This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you treat customers fairly and well -- meeting or surpassing their expectations almost every time -- you'll have fewer negative reviews to worry about.

This is particularly critical when customers are dissatisfied. Research has shown, in fact, that a customer whose dissatisfaction is resolved quickly and completely ends up being more loyal than one who never experienced that dissatisfaction in the first place.

There's a very good lesson in that. Do good, as the old saying goes, and good will come to you.

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