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Posted on 12.29.2010

When Bad Publicity is Just Bad

Ever heard the saying any publicity is good publicity? Until recently, one online retailer lived by that adage with astounding success. Like many people, I was aghast after reading a recent New York Times article profiling this retailer’s practice of leveraging negative customer reviews to secure top ranking in Google and other search engines. Essentially a nastier, online version of the famed Soup Nazi (minus the quality product that kept people lining up for punishment), the retailer achieved infamy by berating, harassing and even stalking customers and then capitalizing on their outrage as they posted negative comments

You see, in the world of search engine optimization (SEO) the more a site is talked about or linked to, the more important it becomes to search engines. It’s the same logic that makes blogs, in and outbound links and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter effective tools for raising your online profile. In this case, the retailer ignited such a fury in his customers that their angry comments actually helped propel his site to the top of Google rankings – ahead of national chain stores and even the designer eyewear brands it sold. Bad for their reputation? Yes. But also good for business… According to the retailer, his site’s top ranking translated into serious profits. But karma – and, in this case, Google – appears to have had the last word. After initially side-stepping the issue in the NYT piece, Google took quick action – convening a team of experts and ultimately altering its search algorithms to exclude sites with significant negative feedback. While it won’t reveal its methods, Google addressed the issue on its blog – providing a straightforward and human response to this complex mathematical issue. Since then, the retailer has been arrested on charges of cyberstalking and fraud. There are many lessons to be learned from this debacle. Of course, any publicity isn’t good publicity. (Just ask BP, Bernie Madoff or Segway.) But, more importantly, it underscores the fact that doing the wrong thing is bad for business. Always. Exploiting a loophole might result in short-term gain but will ultimately be outweighed by long-term consequences. It’s a lesson business-owners and marketers alike can take to the bank.

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