Flipping Off the Customer for Fun and Profit

A must-read for today is A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web, by David Segal in today's New York Times. It's a story of on online bully, Vitaly Borker, who runs an e-commerce site that sells eyeglasses. His intentional goal is to make customers complain about him online. Why? He says it increases his Google rankings, and that's good for business. In this account, the wronged customer is a woman by the name of Clarabelle Rodriguez. There seem to be hundreds of others.

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From a pure storytelling perspective, Segal nails it. His, you know, journalism is fantastic. He digs into the people and the story, and actually goes out there (both online and off) to learn what he can about what's actually taking place, showing up unannounced at Borker's house and wrangling an impromtu living-room interview. Go read the whole thing. Here's the link again.

Both Segal and Jeff Jarvis point out the role that Google has in this whole drama. As search engine results drive an increasing amount of traffic to e-commerce sites, the question becomes what role (if any) does the search giant have in identifying, ferreting out or penalizing bad actors? Should sentiment analysis factor in to where a site falls in search results? I say "no," by the way; any topic worth discussing will have opinions on both sides. The example given in the article on how search terms such as "Barack Obama" would be affected by sentiment analysis is a great hypothetical case.

The focus on Google and search's role in this saga, however, is a bit misguided. There have always been those who feel that there's no such thing as bad publicity. This is the internet-age corrolary: there's no such thing as a bad inbound link. Conceptually, the two concepts are the same. There are those who have felt that anything that gains notice is good for business, and Borker's approach is no different.

As Jeff Jarvis points out in his linked article above, the old caveat emptor saw still holds fast, whether an individual is a customer in a shop or on an e-commerce site. A small amount of homework can prevent a significant amount of angst. Be a smart customer. Do a modicum of research before engaging in a transaction with an unknown actor. Miscreants like Borker are only in the game for the transaction, not the relationship. Build your own relationships with those who are trustworthy.

A Couple of End Notes:

Big props and kudos to Wendy Lea (@wendyslea) and the gang at Get Satisfaction, who get well-deserved notice in the article for being the hub where customers and ethical brands can interact over issues just such as this one. You go, girl.

Here's the Get Satisfaction community where folks are sharing their experiences noted in the NYTimes piece.

One More Thing

I really, really enjoyed Segal's reporting and writing in this piece. Then I started asking myself what was it about the article that was so compelling? Being the geek that I am, I decided to deconstruct the article a bit and see what was actually there. Here's what I found:

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(You should be able to click on the word cloud to expand it.)

I suppose I subconsciously knew the following before doing the analysis, but it's kind of cool to see it writ large. Ultimately this article, like all great stories, is about people. It's about Borker versus Rodriguez. It's also about business philosophy, and is a great personification of the underlying discontent that there are those businesspeople out there who will do anything to get their next customer, regardless of the karmic cost. It is, at its core, a contemporary story of good versus evil, updated just in time for the holiday shopping season.

The Google angle is the hook that makes this story timely, and it's the thing that seems to make this story different. But it's not, really. As noted above, I think the Google aspect is a red herring.


Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land does a great followup post showing when and where Google integrates customer reviews into its experience.


Thor Mueller from GetSatisfaction shares some more detail on GetSatisfaction's interactions with Borker over the years

Cartoon: David G. Klein, NYTimes

4 Replies to “Flipping Off the Customer for Fun and Profit”

  1. > Should sentiment analysis factor in to where a site
    > falls in search results?

    I’d agree with you that I don’t want Google filtering my results. I think what I want from them in a case like this is *more* results, maybe about the vendor’s record. I can think of some sources for that — local consumer protection agencies, BBB, Yelp — and I’d imagine Google can come up with more. But if they’re going to commit themselves to indexing all information everywhere, then their relevance ranking needs to address the relevance of related information where it can. Yes, that’s asking a lot. And yes, it’s the consumer’s job to look further than just the first page of search results before hitting submit on a credit card form. Google’s taken on the job of supporting that access, and here’s a clear area where they can improve relevance in their results.

  2. David, exactly. And there are a couple of ways to get there. The first is what you suggest; that Google (and others) make more information available an integrate it in more useful manner, so that these types of miscreants can be more easily identified.

    The other is a more personal one. What are the tools that *we*, as customers, should be wielding to empower ourselves more effectively? (This is what ProjectVRM is trying to do, by the way, at http://www.projectvrm.org .)

  3. LOL. This is interesting. Different approaches work all the time and Segal’s definitely worked fine. However, I think that keeping that kind of strategy when it comes to business will eventually lead to unfavorable consequences.

  4. Maybe this approach can work at a certain period but I think it’s going to be short-lived. I mean, intentionally “blackening” your reputation can yes, make way for curiosity, but later, will also make way for rejection.

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