Ripoff Report, a controversial website that makes it easy for anyone to post something negative about companies or individuals, disappeared from Google's index on Tuesday. Although the site is now back in the index with all of its pages, questions remain, such as how this could have happened to such a popular site?
Before we delve into the tale of who might have done this and how, let's take a look at the simple facts of what happened.
Ripoff Report De-Indexed
Sean Hakes is credited with first discovering that the site was de-indexed around 9 a.m. ET on Aug. 9. By 1 p.m., the news was common knowledge – a [site:ripoffreport.com] search produced no results. A Google spokesperson told Search Engine Land that the site wasn't banned and that the de-indexing was a result of a request made (most likely through Ripoff Reports' Webmaster Tools account).
As of 12:32 a.m. yesterday, the site was confirmed back in the index. The fact that it was so quickly brought back online implies that indeed it was an incorrect request and that Google restored the site quickly when the situation was cleared up.
You may be asking why this matters? The site got de-indexed and less than 24 hours later it was back with its rankings. Case closed right? Not quite.
The most interesting question in this tale is actually made more interesting by the fact that the site is now back in the index. How did this happen? There are two possible scenarios I can come up with: accidental (highly unlikely, given the evidence) or intentional, which is the more likely answer and would definitely explain their reaction which was, "Ripoff Report did not intentionally request Google to delist the website, and we are still investigating what occurred."
Who Would Want Ripoff Report De-indexed?
Who could be the third party that intentionally removed Ripoff Report from Google's search results?
I'll start with the tongue-in-cheek answer: "every company with a negative review on the site." Now that that's out of the way, let's look at some possible scenarios around who would want to go to the effort of getting the site de-indexed (and who is probably very disappointed at how quickly they got back into Google).
- Email Hacked by One Seriously Angry Individual. Perhaps one of the emails with access to their Webmaster Tools account was hacked by an annoyed company owner or some equally motivated individual. I view this as one of the least likely possibilities.
- Disgruntled Employee. Perhaps a disgruntled (former?) employee accessed the account either due to the oversight of not removing their access/email account after leaving, or it was done just prior to their exit from the company. This is one of the highly likely possibilities, though perhaps that person should have just filed a Ripoff Report if they were disgruntled and had a legitimate gripe.
- Corporate Insider Espionage. There are many persons and companies in conflict with Ripoff Report and with it's owner, Ed Magedson. Be it from the perspective of people who just want to cause them problems to developers of competing sites and script developers of Ripoff Report clones (I won't name names – you know who you are). With a will, a few dollars, and a connection to someone on the inside who's willing to look over the shoulder of a staffer with Webmaster Tools access to get their information, the job could easily be done. While not as likely as the disgruntled employee possibility, this definitely falls into the realm of moderately likely.
An interesting coincidence on this third point is that at roughly the same time that Ripoff Report went down, so too did at least two Ripoff Report clones, though they just went to "Site Maintenance In Progress" notices.
I hope I'm wrong, but I find it unlikely that we'll ever know the full details. Whatever flaw in the system created this scenario, I don't think Magedson and the Ripoff Report staff will be anxious to reveal how this happened. Hopefully if anyone uncovers additional details, they'll post it in the comments below over the coming days.
So What Did We Learn?
Looking through all the possibilities of how this might have happened to a site as prominent as Ripoff Report, one can see a common thread: it was caused by lack of control over access to the ability to do this type of damage (or, even if it was accidental, the access being given to people who clearly don't have the knowledge to warrant such). This is a good lesson.
Webmaster Tools and site access are extremely sensitive privileges. You need to think seriously about who you give access to.
The verbiage Google uses when you give someone access to the Webmaster Tools for the account is "Add Owner," not "Add User." Treat this as, "You are telling us (Google) that this person is an owner of the site and has all the rights to tell us how it should be treated as you do."
I don't know about you, but I've kept access to my own Webmaster Tools to one person: me. There are definitely times when it's helpful or even necessary to grant access to others (your SEO for example) but this must be documented and should things ever look even the slightest bit shaky, this access needs to be withdrawn immediately.
Remember, it's your job to protect your site health and information, not Google's. And should this happen to you, I wouldn't count on the situation being remedied in under 24 hours.