Update (Nov. 29, 2010)

1. Good to see Jeff Jarvis echoing my thoughts. He says, in his blog,

But I donâ??t think this was Googleâ??s failure (cue fan-boy accusations). The moral of the story should be that if you search Google for the name of Borkerâ??s company, you see plenty of loud complaints in the results. The internet doesnâ??t nullify the First Law of Commerce: caveat emptor.

2. One of the players mentioned in the NYT story, Get Satisfaction, posts a fitting response too!

…throughout the article the implication is that bad behavior such as this pays. It is not until the last page of an EIGHT page article that it becomes clear that Mr. Borker is quite troubled financially. This is no formula for success.

The response from Get Satisfaction, and the quoted sentence above is particularly interesting. The investigative piece by NYT suddenly looks a lot less interesting than I assumed it was.


New York Times has a fascinating story (investigative!) on how an online seller is harnessing negative reviews and buzz to be on top of Google. I found it fascinating for all the wrong reasons and not ones the piece actually intends. I should logically be fascinated by how the site games Google and how it makes sales (and money) out of negative reviews.

Nope. What caught my eye is this,

But hereâ??s the first question: Is Mr. Borkerâ??s enterprise actually viable now? And the most important question: 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?

And this,

For competitive reasons, Google wonâ??t disclose whether its algorithm includes â??sentiment analysis,â? which would give points for praise and subtract for denunciations.

You mean, we need to be spoon-fed by Google who to trust and who we shouldn’t? Shouldn’t Google just do the job of searching and leave moral decision making to us, humans? An ecommerce-specific system like eBay or Amazon asks people to explicitly rank vendors based on satisfaction and product quality, so we trust those rankings before we spend our money. But why trust Google to define what is right and wrong?

This is just the case of money – we spend and lose money with an errant seller, but consider how sentiment analysis may work for larger topics. Who is Google to decide what is wrong and what is right, say, in case of Iraq invasion or the mess in Afghanistan? Do we expect Google to give us the ‘right’ story on top in those cases?

I agree that an errant seller is considerably less ambiguous than a political story – the former has negative reviews (defined by a lot of keywords for ‘negative’) to dig into, but again, if a user is savvy enough to search for a vendor, why not search whether the vendor is worth doing business with? Particularly when that vendor appears on top of Google search results!

We trust Google to bring in results, not to judge them on our behalf. If we do, shouldn’t that be our mistake? Remember…Caveat emptor?