The New York Times recently published an article claiming that a small business owner was able to leverage negative customer reviews on consumer-focused sites like Get Satisfaction.

Can your competitors do the same? Can you? The quick answer: Not likely. Here’s why.

Consumer Review Sites Are (Usually) Smarter Than That

When consumer review-focused websites like Get Satisfaction and Yelp record and publish user-written reviews that link to a business’ website or Google Places page, those links are usually given a hidden modifier in in the review site’s code (called “nofollow”) that instructs the automated web crawlers used by search engines not to regard those outbound links as relevant.

Search engines usually give higher ranking to sites that have received a lot of links from huge sites like Yelp, but the nofollow rule prevents them from doing so. Most review sites operate this way.

Some don’t, though, so the problem did exist in some form another. But not anymore.

Google Is (Usually) Smarter Than That

Google has always guarded its search ranking algorithms like a popular restaurant guards its secret sauce recipe. We can study it from the outside to glean what we can — that’s what search engine optimization (SEO) experts do — but some things we’ll never know.

Among those unknowns: Whether or not Google’s computers try to figure out the sentiment surrounding an outbound link, and use that sentiment to decide whether or not to give the linked website additional weight in searches.

Most SEO experts believe it does not, but either way, Google is aware of the problem The New York Times wrote about. After the article drew attention to the problem, Google released a quick algorithmic fix to make sure business owners can’t use negative press to improve their rankings.

Unsurprisingly, Google has not revealed how its new algorithm works, but it implied very strongly in a blog post that sentiment analysis is not part of it.

So How Does Google Rank Local Businesses?

While outside links do help local listings in Google’s Places database (where most searchers will find local businesses via Google Maps), SEO experts have discovered that links are not as important for Places as they are for websites. Apart from that the strategies for locals and non-locals are similar.

If you’re a local business, you may have better luck ranking your Places page highly than your own website, so be sure and claim your Places page at Google’s website for businesses.

Include your business’s type in the Places listing or website title just as people might search for it. Google gives special consideration to the titles, so a website or Places listing called “Golden Orange: Seattle’s 24-Hour Diner” is more likely to be found by would-be customers than one simply named “Golden Orange” since searchers are likely to type in “24-hour diner Seattle.”

While inbound links from customer reviews probably won’t help, having a strong presence on social networks like Twitter and sites like Yelp and Metromix will help local businesses gain credibility with both search engines and customers.

The simple answer is this: The more you engage with customers online, the more search engines and social media will give your business exposure. SEO voodoo can add a slight edge, but it won’t help you if you’re not already engaged.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below.