Luke Dringoli
Luke Dringoli
Editor, Social Networks

Negative Advertisers Face Digital Justice

The story of online glasses retailer Decormyeyes.com has exploded since the New York Times reported on the owner’s “negative advertising” scheme. Online complaints about the company’s horrendous customer service may have produced great SEO, but now the article has induced Google to actually change their search algorithm. And the owner has been arrested. Turns out there is such a thing as bad press.

The NY Times story introduced readers to Vitaly Borker, the site’s owner and a real rabble-rouser. We learned about the way he bullies his customers into accepting bogus designer specs via absurd and often shocking customer service practices, threatening those looking to make returns and, in Clarabelle Rodriguez’s case, using her address and personal information to instil fear and dissuade her from taking legal action against him.

In part by accident, Borker discovered the more he insulted and lashed out at his customers, the higher his site climbed in search results and the more prominence it gained on Google. “The upside of rudeness,” as New York Times reporter David Segal described, was more eyeballs on Borker’s page and more sales from it — all from folks oblivious to the site’s bad rep.

As it turns out, though, bad press and negative advertising don’t pay forever. Just days after the NYT article was published, Google revised their search algorithm to include a fix, stating, “being bad to your customers is bad for business.” The solution identifies sites like Decor My Eyes as providers of a “poor user experience” and adjusts their search status accordingly.

Which begs the question: can an algorithm tell right from wrong? Should robots and formulas really pass such judgement on issues that aren’t always so cut and dry? While DecorMyEyes.com may be an obvious example of ugly business practices, how will countless other sites, viewed as “poor,” now vindicate themselves and win back a better reputation? As always, it’s unclear what criteria the notoriously tight-lipped Google is using. We don’t really know how banishments from their search kingdom operate.

It’s also possible that “negative advertising” is a false idea. Consumer advocacy sites like Get Satisfaction (along with Google) have dispelled much of Borker’s “negative advertising” rationale. Turns out the majority of these well-meaning advocacy sites include a specific line of code that omits their references and link-backs from Google’s crawlers. So what was the real root of Borker’s anti-marketing success, then?

It was major online news outlets, not these complaint boards, that provided the link juice that propelled DecorMyEyes.com, says Google.

Links, seen as highly reputable by Google’s search bots, came from earlier articles posted by Bloomberg and, ironically enough, The New York Times itself. Borker owes his anti-marketing success more to these select few articles, along with various underhanded techniques, than he does to all the complaint pages.

No matter the trickery, doing bad business in this day and age is a failing stratagem. While Borker was able to game the system for some time, by the end of Segal’s piece, he didn’t exactly seem well-off for it. And for all the trouble he went through, squabbling with customers over various disputes ad nauseam, one expertly reported piece has all but ruined him. And, thanks to Google’s quick fix, his demise comes at the hands of the very customer reviews Borker swore had helped his site achieve prominence. How fitting that those fervently negative comments are what, no doubt, sent Decor My Eyes plummeting down Google’s refined ranking into obscurity.

However, there is something to be learned from Borker’s relentless engagement with his clientele. Had he approached customer service as intensely as he did with an antithetical attitude, he’d be sitting pretty now with a devoted following and an owned audience of repeat buyers, rather than dissatisfied, one-time purchasers. See Zappos.com’s business ethos for a prime example of the exact opposite of DecorMyEyes’ slanted approach and outcome. Zappos is an online retailer that puts the user’s experience and happiness — not the company’s search position — above all else.

Not only is Borger’s incendiary “negative marketing” approach seriously flawed, it’s seriously illegal. In the latested development to the saga, he was arrested on federal charges pertaining to the New York Times piece. The charges are he faces are cyber-stalking, making interstate threats, and mail and wire fraud.

Ultimately, had it not been for the disgruntled users who created interest enough for such a story to be explored and told, the eventual outcome — a meaningful change in Google’s search functionality — would never have come to be. The story changes only when consumer action spurs it. Consumers now, like never before, have the power — the duty, even — to control the brands they encounter.