Seems like everybody is talking about the New York Times article that outlines how an ecommerce vendor in New York City uses caustic customer service to promote his business. Yes, you read that correctly, he actively abuses his customers in the hopes that they will write bad reviews that generate a great deal of SEO activity for his website. While this is certainly NOT something we have ever recommended to our SEO reseller community, it poses some interesting ethical and mathematical questions.

I am not going to link to the story due to the obvious irony

First of all, the ethical ramifications are obvious. Abusing your customers as a stunt to grow your business is clearly not acceptable. All of us here in the SEO reseller business know that customer interactions can be difficult. This is true in any service business. But smart businesses take customers seriously. I've said it a million times:

Your reputation is defined by how you respond to negative customer feedback, not by the total avoidance of those situations

By this I mean: "Things happen." There are hard times in any business relationship just like there are in life. We advise our SEO resellers to arm themselves to have the best possible defense when customers are unhappy, but to also be prepared for the fact that some people are just going to be unhappy. It's a war of averages and acting with integrity will put you on the winning side of those statistics.

But how does being a jerk help SEO?

In short, people like to link to controversial things. The more the reader's blood boils, the more likely they are to take steps to communicate and share their outrage. In the world of the Internet, this means links from forums, complaint websites, social media mentions, etc.

Hey wait! That's what we tell SEO resellers to do for their clients!

Exactly. This guy has learned that Google's link-counting machine is extremely good at finding all the links, but is fairly indiscriminate toward the sentiment of those links. While this type of outcome is condemned as deadly in the social media world, in the SEO world of inbound links, this can really work.

But it only works if the increase in business due to SEO outweighs the loss of business due to reputation damage

So perhaps this only works in the short run. In my heart of hearts I very much WANT to believe that abusing your customers for the sake of outstanding SEO rankings is a short-lived game. And this will be a great case-study to watch. I do think there is a very constructive take-away from this story. For the more skillful marketer, the lesson is that thoughtful controversy can be harnessed for great SEO results. Just check your ethics and make sure you are not crossing lines just for business as this guy has clearly done.