Google's Search Tweak Puts A Company At Risk Google recently launched a new algorithm for generating search results — one meant to keep low-quality sites out of top hits. For Mitch Lieberman's online furniture business, the change has led to a mass drop in rankings and profits. He's taken on a daunting, expensive effort to reverse his company's fate.

Google's Search Tweak Puts A Company At Risk

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Google is in trouble in South Korea again. Police there raided Google's office in Seoul on suspicion the company illegally collected personal information without permission. Officials say the company may have collected information about the location of smartphone users for advertising purposes. This comes after a previous probe by South Korean police into Google's collection of data for its Street View mapping service.


Google has been trying to improve the quality of its search results. We've been reporting on Internet sites that churn out thousands of low-quality articles in order to improve their search results, which then brings advertising revenues. Google is not happy about the sites, so a few months ago, Google changed its formula for search results. Now, when you search for, say, a leather sofa, your results will be different. And that change is having some real-life consequences, as NPR's Zoe Chace reports.

ZOE CHACE: You know the expression 80 percent of success is just showing up? Mitch Lieberman will tell you that's just not true.

Mr. MITCH LIEBERMAN (President, One Way Furniture): It's a matter of who appears before the other one.

CHACE: I met Mitch Lieberman in his corner office in Long Island. He sells furniture. There's no warehouse. He's the middleman, aggregating, say, couches, from more than one manufacturer, in one place online - think Amazon, for chairs and tables. It's called One Way Furniture. And if your entire store is online, then visibility in a search result is everything.

A few days after February 24th, Lieberman got an email.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: Someone - a competitor of mine, actually - had emailed me a list. And it showed that One Way Furniture was in the top 100 for the biggest drop, you know, in rankings.

CHACE: Immediately, Lieberman pulled up his traffic numbers. Two-thirds of his customers had disappeared.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: As days went by, and I saw that dip in the graph was holding -and it was a cliff. I mean, it was really a shocking drop. And as I looked at this, my first reaction was to measure, not react, trying to find articles related to this update. What is it about?

CHACE: Lieberman formed a support group of sorts, with other competitors who got badly hit. They called and emailed back and forth, desperate to parse Google's intent.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: It's kind of like the Fed chairman. When he speaks, everybody listens to every single word that he's saying and trying to get hints and clues.

CHACE: It took a few weeks, but Lieberman came up with a plan.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: I decided, you know what? I can't dig deeper than what's on the surface. Google is saying time and, you know, over and over again, content. It's related to content. And I decided that's where I need to shift my focus.

CHACE: Indeed, the Google update was aimed at pushing low-quality content out of the top results. Lieberman figures the main reason his site got caught in the dragnet is because he pulls product descriptions from other manufacturers, so Google's new formula thinks the writing on his site isn't original.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: We all wanted to believe that it was something else, because, you know, rewriting the content is a tremendous task, you know, when you have 35,000 pages.

CHACE: Thirty-five thousand pages, with dozens of individual pieces of furniture. That's how we get this...

Ms. LAUREN FERNSTROM (Senior Account Executive, Hunter Public Relations): Imagine yourself sitting next to the pool, enjoying a hot summer day with a teak round patio dining room table.

CHACE: Lauren Fernstrom is one of the writers tasked with rewriting the product descriptions of every item of furniture on One Way's site. She writes 20 in an hour. That's three minutes per item. But each, you know, bar stool on the site - and there are a lot of them - gets a makeover.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: We're going to give it, you know, more romance. And we want customers to imagine, you know, sitting in a warm, summer day, drinking their favorite beverage and sitting on that particular stool.

CHACE: This is not the only change Lieberman will have to make. He's looking at possible furloughs or cuts. Okay, Google, you control 70 percent of search in this country. Was this your intent, that a furniture seller be romancing each bar stool? In a word: yes.

Mr. MATT CUTTS (Google): So the sites that do put a little more individual care and attention and work into the content of their site - whether it be a product description, or a blog post or an essay or an article - those are the ones that users tend to prefer a little bit more and appreciate.

CHACE: Matt Cutts, Google's lead engineer on the update, says it's unfortunate, but these are the breaks. An algorithm doesn't make exceptions. And then this Internet curator laid out his vision for what he wants the Web to look like.

Mr. CUTTS: Think about something like, you know, an Apple product. When you buy an Apple product, you open it up, the box is beautiful. The packaging is beautiful. Just the entire experience is really wonderful.

CHACE: Google's top engineer wants the Web to look like a brand new Apple iPhone. And he wants every entrepreneur to think as hard about the look of their site as they do about the service they provide.

Mitch Lieberman is hoping the careful work of freelancers like Lauren Fernstrom will meet that standard.

Ms. FERNSTROM: Add a touch of romance and glamour to your bedroom with a coaster metal vanity set in black.

CHACE: Seven thousand in, 25,000 to go. Google will re-rank One Way Furniture -or not - in the next few months.

Zoe Chace, NPR News.

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