Allied Against Consumers and Ethics: Google and the Sociopathic Businessman

Today the New York Times extensively documents the unethical business strategy used by the owner of a web-based eyewear business.

After making the discovery that Google does not distinguish between positive and negative mentions of a business on the Internet, he resolved to treat complaining customers as badly as possible to encourage complaints about his company on consumer sites. I do mean “as badly as possible”: the Times relates the accounts of customers who received insulting phone calls, threatening mail, and other harassing and bullying communications from the entrepreneur, who uses multiple aliases. The method works well: since on-line diatribes, complaints and bad reviews have piled up over his poor service, outrageous conduct and often shoddy merchandise, the man’s business is booming. Its name consistently nears the top of Google’s search results when a potential customer types the name of his or her favorite eyewear designer and “eyeglasses,” sometimes placing higher than the designer itself.

The Times interview with the owner reveals him to be devoid of ethical or moral bearings. His sole motivation is financial success, and he is willing to do or say anything, mistreat anyone, and violate any principle of fairness, honesty and decency if it can achieve his goals without landing him in jail. For him, so far, unethical conduct pays off handsomely. He could serve as Exhibit A in the case to show why the argument for good conduct taught in many schools, churches and families—that if you do the right thing you will be rewarded—does not necessarily produce an ethical approach to life, just a pragmatic one. Those who are so taught often discover that doing the wrong thing can have its rewards too, and we end up with  Bernie Madoffs and Tom DeLays, who calculate that they can achieve riches or power by judiciously breaking  rules, taking advantage of the inherent trust human beings have for each other, and perverting systems that only work well when they are used in good faith.

If someone has no conscience, like the eyewear salesman, then his response to the discovery that his search engine results will improve the more people complain about him on-line is natural and obvious: abuse more people. His answer to the objection, “But that’s wrong!” is “So what? It works.” Since ethics won’t influence him, the only alternative is to make sure that bad conduct stops being profitable. This means that Google shares in the responsibility for his abusive business practices, for its search formula is what makes them work so well.

The web giant now has an obligation to solve the flaw. Most entrepreneurs and business owners are not sociopaths, but there are plenty willing to abandon ethics when the potential rewards are significant enough. If Google allows unethical businesses to prosper by being more unethical, we will soon have more unethical businesses. In this situation, Google’s famous motto “Don’t be evil” dictates that the company must not allow evil to be a successful business strategy.

[ For the second time this month, Ethics Alarms is posting a story that withholds the identity of its subject. I apologize, but there is no other ethical course. Though this will make it less likely that our post will be found and read, at least it won’t help elevate this unethical business’s search results. You can learn the name of the company and its owner in the Times article, here.]

16 thoughts on “Allied Against Consumers and Ethics: Google and the Sociopathic Businessman

  1. While search engine hits are indeed one of the metrics businesses use to measure “reach” of a marketing campaign, the number of those hits indicates ACTIVITY, not value or “goodness”, as you pointed out.

    I would rather, as a consumer of search engine results, filter for myself, what is “good” or “bad”, rather than receive filtered results using some standard that may or may not align with my own sense of ethics/values.

    I suspect that the businessman’s shoddy treatment of his customers and resulting notoriety will be short lived, prolonged only by media mentions like the Times article.

    A simple google search brought up not only the offending business, but on the same screen, the complaints. So, buyers have ample information to make an informed choice. As people become better consumers of internet information, this type of “gaming” the system will be less and less effective.

    Making Google the “BBB” of the internet is not the answer.

    • I’m not sure your optimism is justified. The mantra “any publicity is good publicity” is as old as newspapers. Careful users of the web will always be a minority. How many employers, even now, check references? In the Times article, the owner says that he doesn’t want the business of anyone who actually researches diligently enough to learn about his methods, that there is more than enough business from the rest. I think that will continue to be true. Google only has to fix the problem if they want people to trust it as a way to find the “best” and “most popular” sites. If it also features the least popular in high rankings, it’s going to start losing business. So it has both a pragmatic and an ethical motivation to fix the flaw.

  2. I think the difficulty comes with equating “most popular” with “best”, or “most hits” with “most popular” AND “best”. This is a USER perception problem, not a search engine problem. If I go into a shoe store, I don’t get mad at the mall with a store selling shoes that don’t fit me or not my style or too high priced or rude salespeople. I just move on. If a search brings up links to sites that don’t have what I want, or have bad reviews, I MOVE ON. I don’t care how POPULAR the site is, if it doesn’t meet MY criteria, I MOVE ON.

    Google is not in the business of providing “safe” internet shopping. And it would open itself up to litigation if it started filtering searches based on some “goodness” standard. Look at the screaming that Google endured as it tried to work with China and their search restrictions. People don’t want to have their internet censored. They want MORE information, not less.

    Technically, counting “likes” and “dislikes” as part of a search engine algorithm significantly increases the complexity of the programming. If I click on a website, read it for 3 min and move on, is that a “like” or a “dislike”? If I link to a site from my site, is that a “like” or a “dislike”?

    There are other better mechanisms to solve the problem of identifying bad businesses whether internet based or “brick and mortar” based.

    I enjoy your blog – keeps me thinking!

    • Thanks…since it’s impossible to always know what’s right, thinking about it is often the best we can do.

      The problem is that Google has to deal with perceptions rather than reality. If people didn’t assume that the first listed results of a search were the best and safest, then people wouldn’t try to get their websites listed higher. Google is to blame for flawed expectations, but being aware of predictable human responses to their work, they share responsibility for it. It’s not responsible to sit back and have your message be misunderstood and people harmed as a result and to say, “Well, I’m clear; it’s not my fault.” The perceptions of the audience is what matters, and to send a flawed message knowing it will harm others is unethical, whether or not the real reason is laziness or ignorance.

  3. I do not blame others for my flawed perceptions/expectations. I work to improve my ability to perceive accurately.

    It would be good business for Google to work to manage their user’s expectations via training, knowledge transfer, web page structure, etc. But they cannot be responsible for my or your expectations; that responsibility lies with each of us. Seems to me that’s part of adulthood – taking responsibility for my actions, expectations and interactions with the world.

    The effectiveness of Google’s communication with me about what they are providing depends on 1) Google’s clarity of communication and 2) my ability to understand. If I am unable to, or refuse to understand (or recraft Google’s message into what I WANT it to say) how can the communication be successful? How can Google fix what is outside of their control?

    I want to be 21, thin and gorgeous. My expectation is that my mirror will show this. It does not. Hmmm. Bad mirror or bad expectation?

    • But Mary, you are not a giant, powerful international web entity that facilitates business, determines fortunes, and molds the country. (At least, I hope not…) With extra power comes extra responsibility and liability. In this case, size matters is everything.

      • I must agree with Mary here. Google is an extremely effective gateway to the Internet, I do not want it to act as a filter. The moment it does, I and others will find a new search engine to fill the void. The flip side of that, Jack, is that if enough people start feeling that Google’s algorithm is leading them to undesirable organic search results, they will likewise vote with their feet and find a new search engine. The free flow of information and free markets are the best disinfectant in this case.

  4. The most fitting thing for this oaf would be either:

    1. For him to be arrested for threatening sexual assault.
    2. For the Internet vigilante machine to swoop in and wreck this guy the way Cooks Source got wrecked (this is a much more deserving target, to say the least).

    You’ll note I said “fitting,” not “ethical.”

  5. I’ll see your ethical dangers and raise you up a level to deadly.

    Search-engine warnings are now included in the training for crisis line counselors dealing with questions on HIV and AIDS. The alert in this case is the phrase “I saw online that . . .”. A simple scan of the opening Google page on the most common concerns — risk, testing, symptoms, treatment, etc. — made it clear to the trainees that not only was reliable information NOT coming through online but that severely outdated, misguided, conflicting, inaccessible, inadequate, mythological, and downright (deliberately?) mistaken websites were at the head of the page. Usually the first three or four. Never the first. And were the most inviting – short and simple. Thus are stigma, confusion, fear and pandemic perpetuated.

    What search engines can do about this is questionable. Google can’t police websites that have wrong information, or haven’t been updated for 20 years, or are using statistics that are not applicable to the reader. The ones the get the most hits will always rise to the top. (Haven’t we been socialized into believing that Number One is better than Two? And Two than Three? What, then, about the reliable website that comes in at number four? How is one to tell?

  6. If individuals cannot develop the capacity to critically think about what they are reading (online or on paper) or hearing (online or on TV/news) then there is little chance that those same individuals can program a search engines to filter for only “good” information.

    News, education, TV, etc used to have a near monopoly on information; it was filtered, simplified, strained and colored for popular consumption. The internet has disrupted that model (Disruptive Innovation) and cast us headlong into the so called “Information Age”. As such, old methods of determining “safe” and “unsafe”, “true” and “untrue” are ineffective (“CNN says it, therefore it is true”, “Google search listed it first, therefore it is good”). While the change is disruptive, and uncomfortable, the new environment is, to my way of thinking, better. It gives us EACH the potential, the ability to develop the capacity to think for ourselves, to determine, for ourselves what is the truth, what is good, what is real. That the general public is not yet fully competent (or as competent as we would wish) at critical thinking (let the buyer beware, eg), is no reason to thwart the opportunity to learn. And in fact, there are many important reasons to encourage the development of critical thinking.

    Painful to watch? Yes. Strong impulse to intervene and make safe? Yes. Critical to let the learning happen? Absolutely.

    I have a personal rule I apply when dealing with managers and executives: “Never come between an executive and the consequences of their decisions; it short circuits the learning process”.

    Good grief. If we can’t trust someone to see through a bad internet business, how can we expect them to make good decisions at work, raise ethical children, elect good officials?

  7. As a follow up:

    From the article:
    “Federal law enforcement agents on Monday arrested a Brooklyn Internet merchant who mistreated customers because he thought their online complaints raised the profile of his business in Google searches. . . .

    . . .It is unclear if Mr. Borker was right about the cause of DecorMyEyes’ surprisingly strong showing in online searches. But last week, Google published a post on its official blog stating that it had changed its search formula so that companies were penalized if they provided customers with what it called “an extremely poor user experience.” “

      • I agree; particularly with the arrest. I know of several instances where forum/blog interactions got intense and hostile, and then bled over into “real life” stalking. Cultivating civility and practicing it it online and in real life is valuable.

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