Sunday, November 28, 2010

Empowerment Doesn't Mean Safety

A story published by the New York Times tells the disturbing story of a business so unscrupulous that its owner views threats and abuse of customers as a revenue-generating tool. A comment about the story on Twitter prompted me to do some thinking about the Internet and what it does and does not do for consumers.

  • The Internet empowers shoppers
    • Check competitors' prices right from the store
    • Check online reviews of both product and seller
    • Find rebates or discounts the salesperson may not even know about
  • The Internet empowers businesses
    • Watch what your competition is doing
    • Listen to what your customers are saying
    • "Level the playing field" so small business can play big
So, what went wrong in the Times story? Shouldn't the Internet have protected the victim of the abuse? Short answer: Empowerment is not safety. Having tools only works if you use the tools provided to you. The Internet does not countermand the wise saying caveat emptor (buyer beware), but allows the buyer to access information on a scale unimaginable a generation ago. But the customer in the New York Times story did not use the tools. Now, don't get me wrong--there is absolutely no excuse for the greed-driven horror which a despicable person thinks of as "business." It was absolutely not the victim's fault that she was treated badly.  According to the story, however, she took a top Google ranking as a testimonial and never looked beyond it. This is the same as taking one salesperson's word for it when making a purchase—unless the salesperson is known and trusted.

Does the Internet empower? Yes, beyond a doubt. Does empowerment mean that you are protected from harm? No. It means that you have been given power. Whether you use that power or not is up to you.

Give it some thought.

Update: 12/1/2010

Google has implemented what they term "an algorithmic solution" to this problem. You can read the story on TechCrunch. Thanks to Jeffrey J. Kingman for bringing this to my attention.

Update 12/6/2010
The owner of the business described in the New York Times article linked at the beginning of this post has been arrested and charged with fraud and threatening, according to internet Retailer. Thanks to "hestika" @AngelosTzelepis on Twitter for the update.


  1. That was quite the horror story. But I agree, you have to do a little more than just Google before you give someone your money.

    This is also prevalent in camera business. Tons of shady people like him. The latest and greatest camera is "in-stock" on their web site, but not really. The back-order is only a week or so, and it keeps getting stretched out.

    And as in this case, try to cancel your order and you're in a new level of nightmare.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I'm first-hand familiar with such a camera dealer--I was able to spot the bait-and-switch and quickly cancel the transaction. The lesson learned is that price alone should not be the arbiter of a sale--service and customer focus are at least as important.

  3. Roy - Excellent example of how rankings are like statistics: there are "rankings" and then there are "damn rankings" - two very different things. When many people change their normal purchasing process (look, feel, touch) in favor of a quick online purchase, they often forget that anybody can look good on the web yet still be operating out of a trailer in Wheresthatistan.

    Unfortunately, all to many people have fallen into the trap of equating rankings or search positioning with integrity, which we both know is not always the case.

  4. Fred - Thanks for your comment. I agree that it happens too often that people mistake quantity (of hits in this case) for quality. As we know, the two don't have very much to do with each other, as this sad story shows.