Update: Power of the Press

True or false? All publicity is good publicity.

False. The New York Times reports that Vitaly Borker, owner of the DecorMyEyes website who threatened customers to generate publicity that would push his site higher in Google search results, last week was sentenced to four years in prison and $100,000 in restitution and fines. (See prior post.) After The New York Times broke the story in November 2010 Google changed its search algorithm to ensure that “being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google’s search results.”

Perhaps Borker’s lawyer’s leniency argument sounded better in court than it does in the Times article:

Mr. Amorosa also contended that only a tiny fraction of Mr. Borker’s customers were threatened and that his business was otherwise a thriving enterprise. DecorMyEyes had thousands of repeat customers, he said, and millions of dollars in revenue.

“He threatened, horribly, 25 people,” Mr. Amorosa said, suggesting that was a small number, given the scale of the company.

Power of the Press

Last fall the New York Times reported on the abusive tactics of DecorMyEyes.com, seller of designer eyeglass frames.  The site’s owner, Vitaly Borker, intentionally practiced horrible customer service, figuring that customer complaints on online consumer advocacy sites would raise his site’s profile–more mentions of the company’s name, more links to the site, more buzz for search engines to pick up–and generate more business.  His insight was true, for a while.  Google’s search algorithms did not adequately distinguish between positive and negative references to a site, so any press was good press.  Until it wasn’t.  The Times reported that when one customer complained about receiving counterfeit frames and said she’d call her credit card company after the site refused to resolve the problem, someone identified as Mr. Russo said

“Listen, bitch,  . . . I know your address. I’m one bridge over” — a reference, it turned out, to the company’s office in Brooklyn. Then, she said, he threatened to find her and commit an act of sexual violence too graphic to describe in a newspaper.

The Times reported that the site’s campaign of threats, retaliatory lawsuits, and harassment continued for months.  Borker freely admitted what he did:  “I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment. So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?”

Here’s why not.  The Times story prompted Google to revise its algorithm to prevent this type of gaming, and prompted law enforcement to investigate Borker’s practices and bring criminal charges.  A few weeks ago the Times reported that Borker pleaded guilty “to two counts of sending threatening communications, one count of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud.”  He’ll be sentenced on September 16.  Under federal sentencing guidelines he could receive 5-6.5 years; his lawyer expects a sentence of 12-18 months.  Another case in which the Internet amplifies the consequences of stupidity/a failed moral compass/poor judgment.