A New York woman's Google search for fashionable eyewear led to an incredible, Kafka-esque consumer nightmare - which makes it a tale especially worth reading if you're planning to shop online today on "Cyber Monday" or later this holiday season.
Clarabelle Rodriguez's story began in July when she searched for a brand of designer eyeglass frames and wound up at DecorMyEyes, a website so highly ranked by Google's algorithm that it appeared right beneath the paid ads, according to the New York Times.
Rodriguez got the wrong merchandise - the frames appeared to be counterfeit, she told the Times. The bullying and intimidation began as soon as she called to complain and seek a refund, and escalated when she called to dispute her MasterCard payment.
You can read the whole story here, and you should. Some of the things Rodriguez was called aren't reprintable, and the threats read like they're out of a crime novel - including a threat of sexual violence and an email that included a photo of her apartment building on the heels of a phone warning saying, “I know your address. I’m one bridge over.”
The owner of DecorMyEyes, Vitaly Borker, boasted to the Times' David Segal that he exploited one of the little secrets of Google's algorithm: that any link from a "respected and substantial" website - even a link saying "Don't shop here!" - can add to a site's ranking:
“I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment. So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?”
Does it really work that way? Segal didn't get much of an answer from a Google spokesman:
For competitive reasons, Google won’t disclose whether its algorithm includes “sentiment analysis,” which would give points for praise and subtract for denunciations.
Ultimately, the spokesman sidestepped the question of whether utterly noxious retail could yield profits. The best he could do was decline to call Mr. Borker a liar for saying that it did. Then he recommended talking to Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the blog Search Engine Land.
“Google is just cagey about everything,” Mr. Sullivan explains. That, he said, is because the company is perpetually worried that the more it reveals about the vaunted mathematical formula it uses to drive search results, the more people will try to game it. Mr. Sullivan says he does not believe that Google uses sentiment analysis, and he sees potential pitfalls if it were to start.
So what's the answer for a cagey consumer?
Above all, remember that shopping online is no different from shopping anywhere - and that the Internet shares some traits with the Wild West or a Middle Eastern bazaar.
If you're not dealing with someone you trust, you're always better off if you visit a website that comes reliably recommended.
And if you find a site by searching for a fancy brand name, as Rodriguez did, take a moment to look up the site itself - perhaps followed by the word "complaints."
Do that with DecorMyEyes, and you'll get an onslaught of warnings, and maybe avoid a 1 a.m. trip to the police station to file a complaint.