Business Rebels vs. the Consumer-Complaint Death Stars

It feels like 1977 all over again.

Star Wars hit the theaters. I saw it with friends seven times within a few weeks, living off buttered popcorn.

The climactic scene is where the rebels – the good guys – are desperately trying to find a vulnerability of the Death Star before it destroys their base.

They find it – a tucked-away exhaust port leading to the Death Star’s reactor. During the rebel’s last-gasp in a furious battle, Luke Skywalker fires the inspired shot that explodes the Death Star just in time.

Many businesses feel like they are facing two online Death Star’s and are probing furiously for the legal vulnerability to take them out before they themselves get destroyed.

Welcome to the world of online consumer complaint websites. The current biggies – today’s Death Stars − are Ripoff Report and Pissed Consumer.

They share a fascinating business model driven by search engine rankings, principally Google.

Each site allows anyone to post complaints about businesses. While each site has terms of use that prohibit lying, in practice they allow anyone to post anonymously just about anything about any company. Neither site screens complaints for honesty.

These sites then engage in heavy search-engine optimization. Their goal is to get their sites listed as high as possible in Google searches for the company reviewed.

For example, if you were searching on Google for information about SlickSkin swimsuits (I made that up), they would like the gripe page on their sites dedicated to complaints about SlickSkin to be near the top of search results.

Why? So they can get paid by the criticized. These sites try to sell “reputation management” opportunities to the companies that get negative reviews.

For example, Ripoff Report tries to sell to you the ability to have an arbitration firm determine if the complaint against you is wrong and, if it is, to get that finding posted next to the complaint. (It’s policy is to never take complaints down.)

It also tries to sell to you membership in a “corporate advocacy program,” which would enable you to rebut all meritless claims and generally clean up your image on the site ­­− all for a fee it does not publicly disclose.

So, at a high level, they solicit bad publicity about your company without caring about its truth, pump it up in Google, and they offer to sell you ways to tame it down.

Several criticized companies have tried suing Ripoff Report and Pissed Consumer to get what they claim are false complaints taken down. But, these gripe sites haven’t lost a case yet. The companies can’t seem to find the vulnerable exhaust shaft.

So, if you’ve been stung unfairly by such sites, what can you do?

You could spend tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of dollars to have lawyers try to find and exploit a not-yet-discovered legal vulnerability of these sites. Good luck!

You could pay the sites for the privilege of rebutting and cleaning up the false charges. If you must take action, that’s probably the cheapest path, but how would you feel about paying these folks?

You could post free rebuttals on the sites. But that might elevate the complaints in search engine results and, regardless, your rebuttal will get buried under the complaints.

You could try to sue the anonymous gripe poster and, when you win that case, take the court order to Google and it to de-index the complaint from its search engine. The complaint would remain on the Internet but Google wouldn’t list it.

I’ve read a report claiming that Google will comply but I can’t confirm that from experience. Regardless, that takes litigation, so you’ll spend lots of money trying it.

You could hire an online reputation management firm to try to bury the bad stuff in search engine results under lots of glowing stuff. I have not used such services but get the impression that they are expensive and that you need to vet them carefully before hiring.

Or you could just ignore the gripes and hope they fade away in search-engine ranking.

Except in extreme cases, the do-nothing approach probably is best. Most folks know to not blindly trust online consumer reviews. They realize some reviews are made for ulterior motives or by cranks. Indeed, consistently perfect reviews look suspicious.

Righteous anger may inspire you to rush to battle against these online Death Stars. If you are so moved, just remember that, in the movie, most of the rebel flyers got killed in battle. Consult the legal force before you open your wallet for the attack.


by John B. Farmer

written on July 19, 2012


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