Beware the "gripe site"

Just in case you needed another reason to get proactive about your online reputation... there is now federal case law on the books that further drives the point home.

Last week, US District Judge Robert Cleland ruled in favor of, a "gripe site" set up by a solitary dissatisfied customer. The Career Agents Network (CAN) filed suit based on both trademark claims and the accusation of "cybersquatting," neither of which were enough for Cleland to strip First Amendment rights from the aggrieved party:

In his decision, Judge Robert Cleland said that CAN's case "must fail" because the company did not provide evidence that White had intended to profit from the domains. He did acknowledge, however, that White made some attempt to damage CAN's business by climbing the search rankings, but that it was only to warn other potential customers?an action that is protected under the First Amendment. Because White's websites didn't represent themselves as the real company websites for CAN and they provided accurate contact information, they were clearly gripe sites and did not infringe on CAN's marks.

Given the specifics of this ruling - and seen through the lens of RepEquity's years of experience in this space - it becomes clear that almost every "gripe site" out there falls into this newly defined protected class. Very few sites that are thrown up by an angry customer intend to make money on their own; even the fact that the owner of this particular site used aggressive SEO tactics to promote his negative message wasn't enough to convince the judge that there were commercial motives in play.

The lesson here is clear. A single peeved individual has the right - and certainly the opportunity, given the ease of web design - to establish a damaging presence online by piggybacking off of an established brand or trademark. 

The strategy to combat this is two-fold: first, grab any and all domain names that might relate to your company or your name. And on a larger scale, a fully developed online reputation program will build a defensive perimeter that makes it much more difficult for a "gripe site" to gain visibility and prominence in the search results.

Without taking these precautionary steps, you might find yourself battling for significant traffic with one loud Internet soapbox.

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