This week, search giant Google did something very out of character. Typically secretive and quietly nonreactive, Google changed the way it presents search rank results in response to one man's (very) bad behavior.
It was a fast move that surprised many.
This was shocking if you're familiar with Google, but what was even more alarming was what spurred the change. A Sunday New York Times article profiled a man who had made a tidy profit and career out of getting bad reviews on as many sites as possible, such as Yelp and Get Satisfaction.
Vitaly Borker's chief tactic was to bully, abuse and threaten customers into writing about and linking to him online. It didn't matter what they wrote as long as it was something. Anything. The more he could anger or frighten them, the better. The more they wrote, the more prominent his website appeared on search results.
His tactics, it was suggested, even included threats of sexual assault on female customers in order to game "Google juice."
Google acted fast -- they convened a team and implemented a reputation ranking solution within three days.
I'm not an SEO expert by any stretch - I'll leave that to our SEO Whistleblower Stephen Chapman. Yet there's gaming Google, and there's being evil. Google's informal motto, as we all know, is "don't be evil" -- a phrase that has been thrown in its face on a number of occasions when the company has been seen as stepping in that steamy pile on the street.
Threatening a woman and laughing all the way to the bank, and bragging about it, is right up there with murderous clowns and the sound of Dueling Banjos. Yet it is a monster that could not have existed without Google.
We know that Borker is not the only one -- one of the rules of the Internet, especially vile trolls, is that if one figured out a way to poison the water supply for kicks, then surely five more got to the well before he did. On the Google Blog, Amit Singhal revealed that their new changes showed "hundreds of other merchants" similar to Borker.
Relevancy Or Reputation?
Google's sauce is secret, but one thing is clear: before this it was reliant on a clustering of data that added up to what essentially users perceive as a reputation rank.
Rather than thinking about it in nuts and bolts terms, of actual terms and links, and all the other black magic people do to get rank and traffic, let's look at troll Borker.
He was not a rocket scientist by any stretch, heavens no. Nor did he pay SEO experts to trick out his site. He understood one thing, and that was all he needed: the more reputation he had, the more customers he got. It didn't matter what that reputation was, it just needed to be there and it had to be big.
Apparently Google didn't differentiate reputation between positive and negative either. In fact, most sites that evaluate users for value, if they have any reputation scoring, don’t differentiate between kinds of reputation at all.
And yet, reputation is everything online. The most recent example was the Cooks Source recipe plagiarism scandal. Cooks Source Magazine lifted writer Monica Gaudio's tart recipe in full without the writer's permission. The writer called the editor out on the stolen content, to which the editor claimed it was free to use because she found it on the Internet. The writer, and then the Internet said, no. What you did was wrong. In just over a week, the magazine was out of business; no one would buy their product again.
As we wind tighter and tighter together sharing things in the social space, bringing awareness to rights and wrongs, and voting with our clicks and comments, reputation will make you or break you in half.
Yet things like Cooks Source and even the troll are a show of the power of the people. Not giants like Google, Twitter and Facebook whose reputation markers don't distinguish reputation outside of maths and algorithms.
People online know the value of positive and earned reputation. Online businesses, markedly, do not. That chasm has grown huge with the new age of the social web.
Reputation scoring leeches have attempted to capitalize on rankings, such as Klout who posits reputation by the numbers as "influence and authority." Sites like Klout, Twinfluence, Twitalyzer and others all claim to assign reputation value by Tweets and followers.
People you've never heard of have tens of thousands of Twitter followers, if only because they learned follow-back tricks with companies and follow-bots. Facebook has made "liking" so easy that fan pages for companies or people have become indistinguishable, shallow popularity contests that our eyes glaze over as we click to the next thing - forgetting that we're giving them our data.
Reputation by the numbers is useless if doesn't actually mean anything. As we've now seen, reputation scored purely by the numbers can also be malfeasant.
All that mattered to Google until this week was that you had a reputation. It didn't matter if it was bad. And that's a big problem for all of us, this thinking.
I think we're going to see reputation as a value model (measurement), instead of an on/off switch (or binary), as a trend - and more. Before I invest my social capital in you, or my money, or risk a transaction with you online, I need to know more than the simple fact that you are at the top of the heap. I want to know your reputation. Is it earned, or faked? Is it good, or do you steal, lie and hurt?
This week, the social web and an Internet utility had a major head-on collision. Turns out, it was a long time coming. Google, an entity that assigns reputation by way of their search engine, was very publicly faced with the problem of reputation without assigned value.
As are all the other search sites. Bing, I'm looking at you.
Google wasn't exactly forced to make a decision about rewarding reputation based on good versus bad - nor did it. But they were pressured into devaluing certain sites that had bad reputations. Interestingly, they made it a business decision, stating outright that being bad to your customers is bad for business.
We can only wonder, then, how this could affect Facebook's reputation. I mean, search rank.
What do you think: does the case of Vitaly Borker make you care more about reputation? Do you trust search results more, or less now? Talk back in the comments and let me know.