story in the New York Times business section today (reported by David Segal) about an online eyewear merchant in Brooklyn who discovered, almost by accident, a business model that defies all of the conventional rules of retailing. He has found that if he goes out of his way to antagonize any customers who make complaints, those customers will post all kinds of negative chatter about him on the internet, which has the effect of boosting his Google search ranking. He can afford the bad feelings he creates in customers insulted by his rude and aggressive tactics, because those disgruntled customers actually drive more traffic to his site. It seems that people who are searching for a place to buy particular brands of eyeglass frames, don't always take the trouble to find all the bad reviews. They just find the guy's site.
I suppose this story could be seen as yet another example of the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but that saying is not usually applied to a customer service business. What this story really illustrates is that negativity attracts a high degree of interest on the internet. People like to read and write bad reviews, just as people are more likely to slow down on the highway to view a car wreck than to admire pretty scenery.
A lot of the political sites I like to read, both on the left and on the right, are infected with name-calling and nastiness. People seem to enjoy attacking one another in print, and also enjoy reading such attacks. I'm not immune to negative feelings myself, and there is nothing I like better than a good argument. Sometimes I'll post a provocative comment on the Huffington Post or Daily Kos just for the pleasure of reading some idiot attacking my brilliant thought. Most of the time, however, I just find it tiresome to read the negative, hateful remarks people make on such sites. When I created this site, I made a deliberate decision to keep the tone as positive as I could (not necessarily optimistic, just positive). And I'm happy to say that most of the comments I receive (even those who disagree with me) seem to reflect that same spirit. It is discouraging, though, to think that if I had created a site called Hate and Fear, instead of Hope and Change, I might have a lot more readers.
People also respond favorably to negative political advertising, even though they claim they don't like it. And people respond to aggressive tactics by politicians, even when they do not accomplish anything with such tactics. A lot of Republican supporters want to see an even more uncompromising opposition party. A lot of Obama supporters want to see the president get mad and come out swinging against his political opponents. I don't fall into that camp, as I've discussed previously, as I think that those tactics would backfire against a president who campaigned on a different philosophy.
Anyway, according to the New York Times, the Brooklyn eyewear merchant finally seems to be experiencing a net that is slowly tightening around him, as he finds it more difficult to maintain his accounts with MasterCard and eBay, and as even Google and perhaps even the police may eventually catch on to him. We would all like to think that maintaining good customer relations is more beneficial to a business's reputation than mistreating one's customers, just as we would like to think that hope wins out over fear, and love conquers hate.
(David G. Klein illustration from the New York Times)
UPDATE (12/1/01): Google claims it has already fixed the problem.