If you’ve been listed on Ripoff Report, you know how frustrating it is and how helpless you feel. You’ve read the fine print and have probably thrown in the towel. There’s just no way to get off of Ripoff Report once you’re on it.
Well, I’m here to tell you there’s a proven (and up until now, nearly secret) way around this problem: get the listing removed from Google’s search results.
While it doesn’t get rid of the Ripoff Report listing itself, it keeps the average web searcher from finding it, which is the important part. Allow me to back up and explain…
In case you’re not familiar with Ripoff Report, it’s a consumer complaint website where anybody can post a “Ripoff Report” about any business or person. The only assurances of truthfulness required by the website are a valid email address and the author’s own verification (via mouse-click).
Once posted, the Ripoff Report is there forever — and pages on the Ripoff Report have an uncanny ability to rank very high with search engines, especially Google. Even if the parties resolve their differences, Ripoff Report won’t let you remove the original complaint.
How Can That Be Legal?
Well, Ripoff Report claims it is immune from liability due to a federal law known as the Communications Decency Act. This law says that websites are not liable for the content posted on their websites by third parties. (The law makes sense to a degree—if every time a person defamed another person in a Yahoo! chat room imposed legal liability on Yahoo!, there would be no chat rooms.)
Unfortunately, the law also protects websites like Ripoff Report that refuse to remove illegal content even after receiving notice that certain content posted on their sites is false, the original author of the offending content requests its removal, or a court of law declares the report defamatory.
This can be very frustrating, especially when both parties request the removal of the offending content. Ripoff Report’s argument is that if they allowed parties to remove postings, it would create a means for big companies to bully consumers into submission.
Traditional Options For Dealing With RipOff Reports
People have generally taken one of five different options to combat these damaging listings:
1. You can post a “rebuttal” to the offending report
Rebuttals only appear beneath the original report, and do not change the negative language that appears in the original listing (which is also the blurb that usually shows up in the search engine results). It sometimes can make things worse by providing more content for search engines to index.
Here’s a free tip: if you do post a rebuttal, avoid using any names or words that would give the search engines more keyword terms to find! Instead of saying something like “Smith’s Furniture…” try using “The company noted above…”
2. You can pay Ripoff Report to join its “Corporate Advocacy Program”
In a nutshell, Ripoff Report will perform an “investigation” into the reports made about you and post their findings above of the original report. Even if the offending reports are true, Ripoff Report may say that you have resolved the reports and committed to 100% customer satisfaction (provided that you make such a commitment to Ripoff Report).
The original report remains on the Internet, but the positive content appears above the negative report (though that doesn’t change the fact that you’re still listed on a website called “Ripoff Report”) which can be damaging in and of itself.
Interestingly, Ripoff Report now offers a “VIP Arbitration Program.” Basically, you pay a fee to a Ripoff Report arbitrator and are then allowed to contest the truthfulness of the report made against you. If the arbitrator finds in your favor, Ripoff Report may redact the untruthful statements from the report.
From what I understand, Ripoff Report’s VIP Arbitration Program can be cheaper than its Corporate Advocacy Program, but either way you have to pay the company that published the complaint about you in the first place — Ripoff Report.
3. You can sue the original author of the report
Few people take this path because rarely does the original author have the financial resources to pay for any monetary judgment that might be obtained. Plus, Ripoff Report won’t allow the original author to remove the offending report anyway, so getting a court injunction requiring them to remove the report is of little value.
4. You can hire a reputation management firm to “bury” the Ripoff Report about you
Reputation management firms, which are basically just PR or SEO (search engine optimization) firms, will devote countless hours to creating additional positive websites, articles, and other media about you in an effort to push the offending Ripoff Report off of the first page of Google search results.
In many cases, these efforts are successful. But in others, Ripoff Report listings are too strong to push down permanently, and the damage continues. And since SEO efforts usually require ongoing effort, any success can be short lived.
5. You can sue Ripoff Report
Most lawsuits against Ripoff Report have had very little success due to the protections Ripoff Report enjoys under the Communications Decency Act, discussed above (they have an entire page about why you shouldn’t sue them).
Ripoff Report believes it is completely immune from liability, and vehemently fights all lawsuits brought against it, making this the most expensive and perhaps least effective option by far (it’s hard to say how expensive without specifics, but expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, easy. And no, no lawyer is going to take this type of case on a contingency fee.)
Secret Option #6: Get Google To Delist The Report From Its Index
There is a far lesser-known option that I have found that works wonders (which is probably why Ripoff Report makes no mention of it on their site). You may not be able to get the damning listing removed from Ripoff Report, but in my experience, you can get it removed from Google, which is almost just as good.
Here’s what you need to do, in three steps:
First, file a lawsuit against the original author of the report for defamation, business disparagement, false light, or any other claim that is legally appropriate. The big point here is that you have to prove your case in a court of law — you have the burden to prove the report made about you is false.
Be honest with yourself here (otherwise, you’re just wasting time and money). If the report about you is true (or if you can’t prove your case), you do not have a valid claim for defamation, and this option will not work for you. Again, the key here is being able to prove your case in a court of law. If you can’t do that, game over. You’re stuck with one of the other options above.
Also, you should only sue the author of the report—do not sue Google. Your lawsuit will cost a fortune (Google has plenty of good lawyers), fail very quickly, and you will only serve to anger the one company that can help you the most.
Second, obtain a court order declaring the offending report to be false and defamatory (this of course assumes you win your case). The specific content of this order can take various forms, but you should make sure to seek an order that refers to the offending report specifically.
Third, present the court order to Google.
In my experience, Google will honor the court order and completely remove the offending webpage from its search index. While the offending report will still appear on the Ripoff Report website, the reference to that report in the Google search index will be gone completely, and Google will display at the bottom of the search results page where the Ripoff Report listing previously appeared, the following statement:
How much will this option cost? Google has never charged me so far, so all you are faced with are the litigation costs. That includes a few hundred dollars in filing fees and service of process fees, and attorneys’ fees which can run the gamut.
But in my experience, often defamatory statements on Ripoff Report are so blatantly false that defendants know they cannot defend them in a court of law. Once you pull the litigation trigger with a strong defamation case, defendants will usually agree very quickly to a court declaration that the offending report is false and defamatory.
Note, this strategy is not limited to defamatory postings on the Ripoff Report. Google has honored court orders pertaining to content on other websites (such as Complaints Board, Pissed Consumer, and Scam.com) and removed those webpages from its search index.
Also note that this method works on a search engine by search engine basis. Just because Google delisted the offending report doesn’t mean that another search engine (for example, Bing.com) will. Though given how much of the market share Google has, getting the report delisted there will certainly be a huge step in the right direction.
While I’ve not had first-hand experience in doing so, it stands to reason that you could probably pursue this same method with Bing or any other search engine that displays court-declared unlawful webpages as search results.
Why Do I Need A Court Order?
While I can’t speak for Google, in my experience, Google will not remove defamatory webpages from its search index without a court order.
If you put yourself in Google’s shoes, requiring a court order makes sense.
Like any search engine, Google wants to be neutral with respect to the content it displays in its search results. Users trust Google will display the most relevant search results every time. Google does not want to violate that trust by adjusting its search results based on unverified defamation claims that can be easily fabricated.
Court orders, however, change the game.
If you want to be neutral, you can’t just say “anything goes”—that’s socially irresponsible. Rather, you have to respect the role of society’s proper arbiters of legal disputes—judges and juries. While our judicial system is not perfect, it is the best system we have, and it has safeguards to protect the rights of all parties. By honoring court orders, Google exercises responsible neutrality.
Of course, the best medicine is always prevention. Try to avoid ever getting listed on sites like Ripoff Report (there are several similar sites too). Conduct business in a way that even when there are disputes, the parties don’t have to resort to this sort of guerrilla cyber-warfare. Mudslinging on the Internet is a two-way street and is very hard to undo or contain once it’s out there.
If you do find yourself going down this path with an opposing party, swallow your pride, bite your lip—do whatever it takes to keep them from making additional postings (this sort of thing can snowball quickly since it’s so easy to retaliate). And that just plays right into the business model of companies like Ripoff Report who charge you to let you clean up the mess.
So take the high road when you can. But if you do find yourself the victim of damaging reports on Ripoff Report or similar complaint sites, at least you now have an option to stem the damage. It’s not perfect, but when successful, it’s a lot better than most of your other options.
Editors Postscript: For the purposes of full disclosure, Kenton J. Hutcherson has served as lead counsel in three lawsuits against Xcentric Ventures, LLC, the company that manages Ripoff Report.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.