Making Businesses of Negativity

by Chris Silver Smith

I decided a long time ago to avoid pursuing business/career options which involved more negative ways of making money. The philosophy first came to me in college when I observed how lucrative — and vile — the local businesses were which operated towing services for our campus. (My university openly and purposefully sold far fewer parking permits than there were students who needed to use them, and then received a percentage of funds back from the towing companies which charged huge towing fines.)

Complaints - A Bully Horn

In the internet world I work in, I try to help companies in ranking well in search engines when people search for their keywords, and I also try to help those companies when they have reputation management problems. One type of problem that I feel is increasingly targeting companies and individuals are sites which are set up to specifically encourage people to complain about companies or even make false accusations against them.

I’m not talking about all sites which enable people to write ratings and reviews. I love sites like Zagat, and TripAdvisor, which can be really helpful in finding good restaurants and hotels. I was pleased to find ratings of doctors (see RateMDs, Vitals.com & HealthGrades) and dentists (see DR.Oogle) when I was seeking an oral surgeon recently on a business trip, and I see attorney ratings, too (Avvo).

I’m also not referring to Yelp, although recent class-action lawsuits have highlighted just how sensitive business owners have become about their online portrayals (and, Yelp’s recent adoption of an SMB Advisory Board is nearly an admission that some of their policies were bad business or that they possibly had some rogue employees who gamed the system).

I’m talking more about companies which, by their very names and/or policies, appear to purposefully push negativity about businesses and individuals. Some of those would include:

RipOffReport, ComplaintsBoard, IAccuse, DirtyPhoneBook, Pissed Consumer

You can see that these businesses have all named themselves to appeal solely to people who have an axe to grind – the names, if not the structure of the services, are predisposed to encourage negative comments or even malicious slander.

Some of them have even been criticized for policies which seem borderline extortionary — accepting large payments to “suppress” the horrible comments posted about a particular business, for instance.

I can imagine these companies attempting to compare themselves with the Better Business Bureau or somesuch, but it doesn’t require much exposure before you see big differences between them and other, more-neutral, higher-quality review and ratings services. I’m not saying that higher-quality ratings services should favor businesses when complaints arrive, but they do try to apply fair standards in what is or isn’t allowed, and they don’t name themselves in such a way as to try to embarrass businesses outright. The BBB has general profiles about businesses, for instance — so, having a page about your company on the BBB isn’t instantly assumed to be proof of bad business.

Once a person or a company gets mentioned on one of these sites, a number of them have optimized themselves to rank highly for the targeted person’s name in search engine results. In a number of cases I’ve worked upon, these pages have a tendency to rank very well for brandnames — much better than an unqualified/unverified individual’s rant really ought to rank.

(And for some of you SEOs out there who are assisting these rant-promotion companies on one hand, while taking payments for reputation management assistance from businesses that get targeted by their users on the other hand — you should really be ashamed of yourselves! This reeks of ethical bankruptcy!)

There are a number of things that business review and complaint sites ought to seriously consider if they’d ever like to improve the stature of their field:

  • You should verify the identities of people who post on your site to insure there is sufficient recourse if someone falsely slams someone’s character.
  • Having the identity of people who post should help check to see if they happen to share the name of a slammed business’s rival — so if a business suspects a competitor has filed a false complaint they could bring that issue up with you and you could resolve it by deleting it. Also, if the person who posts is located in Calcutta, it calls into question their review of a business in Peoria.
  • If the “internal logic” of a complaint negates it, you should honor a business’s request to delete it and flag the person who posted it. For instance, if the person stated “I have never bought anything from this business, but my friend says they treated him really badly.” This sort of complaint should be deleted because it’s not valid to complain about a business when you’ve never been its client.
  • Providing some forum for the business owner to post a response to complaints is a good idea.
  • Obscenities, insults, criminal threats should never be allowed.
  • There’s some feeling that these complaint sites shouldn’t be held accountable because the “business had it coming to them”, and many consumers feel a sense of pleasure to see companies receive their comeuppance — everyone’s had a bad customer experience once in a while. However, companies have many employees and stockholders who had nothing to do with any particular action, so a company deserves some degree of protection on your part.
  • It’s really not fair that a company should necessarily have a complaint page dogging it in the search engine results pages forever, even years after a particular incident has been reconciled. Consider allowing complaint pages to expire or go into non-indexible archives after a period of time, or after a complainant might decide that their issue was resolved by the company.

Consumers should definitely have a voice, and the internet has been great for enabling customers to demand good service. But, companies which create a forum for those complaints have a responsibility to insure a level of fairness in their policies and to police to reduce instances of companies and individuals from being falsely harmed.

I’m still pleased with the philosophy I adopted in college. I’m glad I don’t work at a business that’s founded upon negativity and only tears things down. I’d rather be working on building things up.

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7 Responses to “Making Businesses of Negativity”

  1. [...] Silver Smith blogging on Search Engine Marketing, Local SEO, Technology & more. « Making Businesses of Negativity    submit_url = "http://www.nodalbits.com/bits/when-being-negative-is-good-yavoid/"; [...]

  2. Mike Stewart says:

    When is the last time you were WRONG? Another great one. What happens when you are so consumed and feel so right, are being told you are right, but nothing changes? What is the next step? How do you accept the unacceptable?

    I believe it to be best for reputation experts to manage the ethics of negative reputation sites…all of them!

  3. [...] piece on “Making Businesses of Negativity” apparently caught the attention of one of the businesses that I criticized, [...]

  4. Thanks, Mike.

    I think what I was alluding to was that I believe that these sorts of sites are bad from the get-go. I think their business plans are likely unethical to begin with, so it’s unlikely that even my suggestions for tweaking their policies would actually move them to improve. Very transparently, they derive their money from causing harm in a lot of cases, and they have no desire to change.

    While it’s certainly the goal of every business to be profitable, I think it’s better to choose a business plan that’s going to be symbiotic – something that mutually benefits the public and the company.

  5. [...] the other hand, I’ve complained before about intentionally negative directories such as DirtyPhoneBook. Such websites encourage people to beat up on businesses — sometimes [...]

  6. [...] found this article and this article to be thoughtful commentaries on review [...]

  7. My client was the slandered by a competitor who left only their first name. Rip-off wanted $7500 for what they call their reputation protection whereby they put up a boiler plate of positive comments. What a sham.

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