All Publicity is Good Publicity – Does it Apply to SEO?

Over the last few days, the SEO world has been abuzz with a story that was originally printed in The New York Times (you can read the full story here) where it was claimed that an online business owner was deliberately annoying and threatening his customers so that they would go online, post negative reviews and subsequently increase his organic Google rankings.

It was claimed that these reviews were generating a massive boost to his online search engine rankings, as many of these sites featuring negative reviews were providing a link back to his site.

As the number of links pointing to a site does impact on a its search engine ranking, the owner of the business felt that by aggrivating dissatisfied customers, he could stir up more publicity (and more links) for his site. Since many of his customers were simply typing in things like “designer glasses” and purchasing without checking the reputation of the company they were buying from, one unhappy customer was turning into 100 new ones for the business.

So do unhappy customers actually boost search engine rankings? When it comes to Google, is all publicity good publicity?

On the face of it, the idea seems plausible. Hundreds of negative reviews all linking back to the site they were ripped off from, providing the owner with a bevy of new links to his site on a daily basis.

One thing is for sure though, the article drew the attention of Google itself, who have (kind of) admitted there was a slight flaw in their logic (you can read Google’s official release here). They have since rolled out a change to their search results, designed to take into account “bad” customer experiences as part of their algorithm.

The official release from Google made some interesting points though. As they mentioned, they can’t just go penalising sites that have negative publicity (otherwise you’d never be able to find a politician’s website), and most review sites (like TripAdvisor and RippedOffReport) use “nofollow” tags to stop the links carrying any SEO impact.

What Google has actually changed remains a tight-lipped secret, however it does raise an interesting issue. If “bad” reviews are now having more of an impact on a site’s rankings, it does open the door for “black hat” SEO sabotage whereby a dodgy competitor can post hundreds of fake reviews on your business around the web attempting to get Google’s new algorithm to pick it up and punish you in the search results.

This seems like a dangerous position for Google to put itself in, which is why I doubt it’s that simple.

Long ago, Google put in place ways to stop shady companies deliberately putting links to their competitor’s pages from other dodgy sites by simply not counting them, rather than actually penalising. This meant that even if your competitors went out and sent 10,000 dodgy links your way, it wouldn’t negatively affect your rankings. You might get a temporary boost, but when Google realised they were dodgy links you would simply return to where you were (unless Google can find evidence that it was you who did the linking).

I suspect that a similar approach is probably going to be taken here, whereby negative reviews and posts don’t affect your SEO rankings at all, reducing the likelihood of these situations from happening again.

However, this issue is not finished with yet. As Google’s official statement says, they are “reasonably confident” that being bad to your customers will be bad for your Google rankings.

Craig Somerville is a Director at Reload Media, having worked extensively on the digital and online strategies of leading companies within Australia and around the world. With a background in marketing and economics, Craig's unique experience offers great insight into how the world of search and online marketing is changing in today's rapid marketplace. He is also a Google AdWords Qualified Professional and regularly consults on all aspects of digital marketing including search engine optimisation (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM) and social media.