Maybe, The New York Times recently reported a story about an online glasses and contact lens merchant who purportedly garnered top search engine rankings because of negative reviews left by dissatisfied customers around the web. The online retailer bragged to his customers: "I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement."
His operation worked like this: somebody would order glasses or contact lenses from his site, he would then place an order for cheaper versions of glasses or contact lenses and have the package forwarded to the customer's shipping address. But when people complained about receiving suspiciously cheap eyewear, the owner and his henchmen fought back with alarming intimidation and threats.
One such incident occurred when the unnamed company's customer Clarabelle Rodriguez refused to be billed for a brand of contact lenses she did not order. The company threatened her and told her "I know your address. I'm one bridge over" (they were both from NYC). The drawn out ordeal eventually involved the police, Rodriguez got her money back, but not after serious emotional trauma. Since The Times broke the story the owner has been charged with fraud, cyberstalking and harassment.
Hundreds of similar complaints surfaced around the web, all appearing to provide the company with valuable inbound links and increased page rank.
But Google is telling a different story.
Google suggests that customer community sites like Get Satisfaction use "no follow links" for the express purpose of preventing inbound link building for crooked businesses. The experts at SearchEngineLand.com also found that the company used risky "black hat tactics" to fool Google into displaying "inaccurate" rankings. Tactics like links from auto-generated spam pages and paid links, not the AdWord kind, but sidebar links within highly trafficked (but unrelated) websites.
Black hat tactics are likely to get sites penalized and even banned from Google. But what's to stop an operation from starting up again on a different domain? It's definitely a game of cat and mouse, but one that Google has become adept at playing.
Google blogged that they have "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."
So what's the best way shop smart online?
• Go with brands you can trust. If you must use an online retailer you've never heard of before, do some research. Look for some user generated reviews or better yet google the company's "name" and "scam." If they're shady you'll likely find some results. A little research could have led this sorry shopper to ClearlyContacts.com, a company who really values their clients.
• Research their return policy and whether or not they're true to their word.
• Make sure they offer multiple payment methods and that they're encrypted (look for the small lock icon on the corner of your browser).
• If you're purchasing something larger, try ordering a smaller ticket item first and see how they handle your order.
• Keep a record of your receipt and associated emails.
Don't let your online holiday shopping end up as a sad byline on the New York Times. Shop smart and enjoy the fantastic online shopping experiences that exist all over the web. Happy holidays everyone!
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