November 29, 2021

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Reputation attack sites have plummeted in Google, but can still harm

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Reputation-harming sites have long positioned themselves as admirable venues for consumer complaints while hosting unverified content that is often damaging to organizations and individuals. Fortunately, the most infamous of these websites took steep hits in 2018 and have not recovered rankings in Google since. However, these sites, including Ripoff Report, Pissed Consumer and Complaints Board, still can (and do) appear prominently at times in search results where they can severely harm reputations. Here is an update on the situation, along with some tips on how to make their reputation damage go away.

Ripoff Report, Pissed Consumer and Complaints Board have essentially made a business niche out of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which roughly states that internet publishers of third-party materials are not liable for those materials. Since users write the reviews found on these types of complaint reviews websites, the websites are not legally responsible for that content, and cannot be compelled to remove it. (There are a few exceptions, such as in instances of copyright infringement.) 

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Visibility Index for Ripoff Report. Source: Sistrix.

As many who are involved in the online reputation management (ORM) industry, or who have kept up with the search landscape for years, know, RipoffReport.com has long been one of the most notorious websites out there in terms of the damage it causes, and its seeming imperviousness to removal requests. The website presents itself as a protector of consumers’ freedom of speech, providing a place where people can securely post complaints about anyone and anything. However, unlike more moderate consumer reviews websites, Ripoff Report does not allow one to remove complaint reviews. Ever. It does, however, offer to post editorial comments around defamatory information if you pay their “corporate advocacy” fees, making them into what often feels like a barely-legal extortion scheme. 

By contrast, many more moderate review websites (Such as Yelp, YP.com and BBB) will allow post authors to update or remove reviews they have published, or tend to be more responsive when presented with evidence that contents are false. In further contrast to the reputation attack sites, the Better Business Bureau only allows consumer reviews to be posted if the reviewer provides some proof that they are indeed customers.

Both Pissed Consumer’s and Complaints Board’s policies are considerably more flexible than Ripoff Report’s, as they will remove content when presented with a court order, as well as for breaking a number of their user policies. But, from my perspective, deciding to use these sites to resolve consumer complaints is not advantageous for a few key reasons:

  1. Each of the sites has purposefully negative domain/site names which inflict damage on the entities reviewed there — simply having one of their pages appearing in the search results for one’s name creates a bad first impression.
  2. Replying to the negative reviews/complaints posted on these sites actually optimizes those damaging pages more, because the added content, recency of content and ongoing interactions are often signals to search engines that the page is more interesting and popular — by responding you potentially increase the ranking of the page that’s harming your reputation. 
  3. If you pay these sites in order to facilitate dealing with complaints through them, you are helping support the companies that are harming you.

Complaints Board and Pissed Consumer also have suffered very deep drops in overall rankings between late 2018 and the present.

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Visibility Index for Complaints Board. Source: Sistrix.
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Visibility Index for Pissed Consumer. Source: Sistrix.

Despite the drops in these sites’ Google rankings, they remain a reputational threat for companies and individuals because their pages can still appear very prominently for name searches under certain conditions.

What caused the reputation attack sites to drop in rankings?

Over time, a number of people asked Google to demote these websites. There has even been some valid basis to do so in the case of Ripoff Report, where they have arguably committed a form of blackhat SEO in changing URLs to evade Google’s actions to remove some of their pages from search results. However, I think it unlikely they have been formally penalized.

Ripoff Report’s ranking decline coincides with the Medic Update in 2018. Complaints Board also saw a decline following one of the Medic Update(s) in 2018, although they regained some rankings a few months later through the next year, up until plummeting once again shortly after the September 2019 Core Update. They dropped further into January and February 2020, and have not recovered. Pissed Consumer dropped at the 2018 Medic Update, and then again following the September 2019 Core Update.

While each of these sites suffered from the algorithm updates, their commonality suggests that Google’s algorithms will disfavor these types of consumer websites with unverifiable authored entries for the foreseeable future. Other items also theoretically factored into their declines — chief among those are various quality ranking elements, and perhaps authoritativeness or trust factors.

Another very controversial element that might be at play could be sentiment analysis involving the websites: That they have been so frequently reviled online and sued that they may now be hampered in search rankings through a mechanism that Google suggested might be developed following the bad publicity surrounding the “Decor My Eyes” incident, wherein Google stated that they might take action against sites with very high degrees of associated negative user sentiment.

Do the reputation attack sites remain a risk?

I believe these sites have attempted a few methods to recover and improve rankings, but have thus far been unsuccessful. It is still possible, however, for these sites to make alterations that will reverse their ranking declines, and it is still possible that the search engines could change algorithms such that they would regain their previously very high visibility in search results. So these sites do remain a risk for companies and individuals.

More importantly, despite these sites’ decline in rankings, their pages can still appear very prominently in search results for some individuals’ and businesses’ names. I have seen attack sites still ranking on the first page of search results in Google for both companies and individuals when searching by name. And Google continues to index newly published pages from these websites.

Despite the significant reputational risk these websites pose, there are things that marketers can do to mitigate the risk or to recover from having the damaging review pages appearing high in search results. Reputation management agencies, in-house marketers and individuals managing their own online presence can take some very straightforward steps in displacing damaging pages from Ripoff Report, Pissed Consumer and Complaints Board in search results.

How to displace negative pages from reputation attack websites

As you can see from the graphs, these reputation-damaging websites lost rankings across the board. In real terms, this means that many other websites are now successfully outranking them on the various keyword phrases that the graphs are based upon. The websites’ ranking ability has diminished, making them weaker in their ability to gain and hold prominent positions. The key takeaway from this situation is that Google de facto made it harder for them to rank and easier for many other types of media to outrank them for the same keywords.

In most cases I have reviewed, the organizations or persons who continue to be impacted by pages from these sites are ones that have a very weak online presence. This is a classic case where if one does not have some good web assets to appear in rankings for one’s own name, it leaves open a weak position where anything negative can appear. The instances where I see something showing up for Ripoff Report, Pissed Consumer or Complaints Board are almost universally instances where the subject involved has a very unique name that is not shared by others, no website, no social media accounts and few third-party information pages appearing that are optimized for their name.

For these reasons, simply setting up basic reputational materials and developing them out some is likely to begin displacing the negative sites. Here are some basics:

Website. There should be a website appearing just for the subject’s name. While Google has stepped down the innate advantage of an exact-match domain name (one which contains the exact same sequence as the name people will search upon—for instance, my exact-match domain name is “chrissilversmith.com”), the name should closely match the words people search, because this continues to help in making it easier to rank for name matches.

The website set up on the domain needs to be optimized for search by containing customized information, including mentions of the subject’s name. The HTML title on the homepage should reflect the subject’s name.

Setting up the website on WordPress can provide some good off-the-shelf optimizations if set up correctly, including configuring it with a site-wide name, which will appear in the pages’ HTML titles. There are a great many other specific optimizations possible that can lend advantages if you are new to this, but Google is actually pretty sophisticated at understanding websites and their content. If using WordPress, select a theme that claims to have SEO and is mobile-optimized or “responsive”, since search engines focus increasingly on websites being optimized for smartphone users.

Twitter. Set up a Twitter account and develop it out by connecting with other users who have similar interests, and post frequently—say, a few times daily. Again, the subject’s name presented on the profile should be the way that the name is most frequently typed into search engines. Be sure to put links to the subject’s Twitter profile on the website! (Read my article on “Twitter SEO: Tricks for reputation repair” for more details on how to optimize your Twitter handle, profile, and postings.)

Facebook. Businesses and organizations should have Facebook pages that are developed out and optimized in the sense that the page names will closely match the subject’s name. For individuals, one may use a personal account if it is set to display some content publicly, but I typically encourage individuals to set up a separate Facebook Page (Pages are set up through a personal Facebook account as an administrator). It is often advisable for individuals to use a Facebook Page as their public-facing persona, so that they may have more unfettered communications directly with family and friends connections privately.

YouTube channel + video. Videos remain one of the best types of content out there for advantageous ranking potential on Google. You really do not need to have an expensively produced video in order to derive advantage from it in search — being a perfectionist with a video is going to delay it from beginning to work for you, so it’s best to do one quick-and-dirty and get it out there, rather than to obsess about it and pay lots for little difference in terms of being able to appear and help with a reputation issue.

Use Google’s own platform, YouTube, and optimize your channel with descriptive text about the subject and links to the website and associated social media accounts. Then, post a video about the subject. It could be a resume overview for an individual or a simple description for an organization.

Directory profiles. Either business directory profiles or personal professional profiles can appear prominently in search results, so creating some of these for the subject if they do not already have some will potentially be very beneficial. Directories can include online yellow page sites, Yelp, or directory guides specialized by industry. Professional directories, such as memberships in professional organizations like bar associations for attorneys, physician associations, accountant associations, etc., will sometimes come with public profile pages that will rank for individuals and can be very strong instruments in an online reputation campaign. Do not forget that LinkedIn is also a directory that is particularly strong!

Google Search Console. Without disclosing a subject’s new website to Google, one could wait for days, weeks, or months for the site to get indexed and achieve rankings. Google will eventually discover the site, crawl it and index it, but one of the easiest ways to expedite this process is to visit Google Search Console and follow the steps necessary to verify ownership of the website, then use the URL Inspection tool to request that Google index the main pages of the website. If there are not many prominent webpages ranking for a subject’s name in search, then the new website could rocket to the top pretty quickly. But if there are other items already established that are optimized for the subject’s name, the difficulty of getting higher could vary based upon the number of acceptable, high-quality links pointing to the page and the website.

Other methods. There are many other things that can also be used in an online reputation campaign to offset a reputation attack website page — there are many other social media platforms that we cannot expand upon here, such as Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr; and blogs hosted separate from the subject’s main site, such as WordPress.com, Blogger, Tumblr, LiveJournal, etc. The same general principles apply: one must set them up to strongly feature the subject’s name in the influential components, develop them out to have links pointing to them and develop their in-network connections.

Assuming materials have been published with sufficient degrees of technical SEO, such a campaign could see success within just around six weeks, although it may be more typical to see negative items supplanted from page one after some months. Iterative, continued development should occur since that will accrue ranking benefits as time progresses and help get a negative item to begin a downward trajectory.

These simple tips should help those suffering from reputation attack websites, since their overall rankings have weakened so much in the past few years. After negative items have been displaced from page one, it is highly recommended that you continue the development practices that resulted in success, so that you can further insulate the subject’s name searches from having the progress reverse, and to make it harder for the negative items to regain a foothold. 

Unfortunately, it is always possible that an algorithmic change or improvement in SEO on the reputation attack sites’ part could reverse their fortunes, bringing negative items back to the forefront. For this reason, it is ideal to continue online marketing and social media development for an extended period to build strength and to proactively manage the subject’s reputation against any potential future attacks.

With simple steps and good practices, it is much easier to displace the negative materials from these websites. The relatively smaller numbers of people and organizations that continue to be affected by Ripoff Report, Pissed Consumer and Complaints Board illustrates the fundamental paradigm of online reputation management: It is vital to have established online identity materials targeted for ranking on one’s name searches, and without those assets, one is a veritable sitting duck for any negative item that can appear.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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