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soup naziHas Google been rewarding businesses that behave badly? A New York Times article published last week suggests that it has. Now Google says it has fixed the problem, although the exact nature of that solution remains vague.

The Times article described an online glasses merchant called DecorMyEyes that actively provokes customers into leaving bad reviews, under the assumption that those reviews will only increase its rank in Google. The merchant was even responding to unhappy customers with hostile, vaguely threatening emails.

In a blog post today, Google said that the DecorMyEyes case was “an edge case and not a widespread problem.” For one thing, when you link to a company that you don’t like, you can use a “no follow” link that doesn’t increase their search ranking. In fact, Google says that the links on Get Satisfaction, the customer service site where many of the complaints were published, were made in that format.

Still, Google said it has gone ahead and demoted DecorMyEyes in its search rankings. The blog post runs through a number of possible solutions that Google could have pursued … and the post explains why the company didn’t use them. It didn’t just block DecorMyEyes because that doesn’t solve the wider issue. It isn’t using sentiment analysis to turn negative comments into a search demerit because that would be a problem for politicians. And it didn’t add user reviews into the search listings because that wouldn’t affect the search ranking itself.

As for the actual solution, Google is pretty cagey about it, because “attempts to game Google’s ranking, like the ones mentioned in the article, go on 24 hours a day, every single day.” In other words, revealing too many details about the algorithm would make gaming attempts easier. However, the blog post says, “we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience.”

This caginess was also present in the Times article, when a Google spokesperson basically dodged the reporter’s questions and redirected him to search consultant and blogger Danny Sullivan. So does Sullivan have the answer this time? Not exactly. Sullivan wrote today that Google is probably using merchant reviews as a way to adjust the ranking, but the company won’t confirm that.

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