Call her Brenda. The prospect, a single female, is annoyed the first time that an appointment setter explains a New England home improvement company's policy regarding sales calls. The policy requires that all buying parties be present. Brenda takes offense.

When, a day or so later, a confirmer calls to inquire once more about whether or not there's a Mister in the house, Brenda interprets it as gender discrimination and cancels the appointment. She then takes her irritation a step further and posts a three-paragraph description of her interaction on “By this time,” she writes, “they could put the windows in for free and I still would not have them do it.”

Communication breakdowns happen in every kind of contracting. But in the age of the Internet, at a time when, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center study, 58% of Americans have gone online to research product or service purchases (up from 49% in 2004), chances are good that the misunderstanding that arose while buying windows, siding, or roofing becomes public rebuke. And then, who knows where it goes or how many people see it. For instance, once posted online, Brenda's complaint became the first item to appear on organic search results when this particular company's name was typed into Google. A week later, it still topped the search list. Six weeks went by and Brenda's beef continued to appear on page one. Today, almost four years later, it's still there on the first page of Google's organic search results.

THE RISE OF COMPLAINT SITES An online post such as Brenda's, on what's called a complaint site, can remain high on organic search results for years. Such complaints cost companies money. Seeing the consumer's gripe, hundreds, even thousands, of people looking for information about a company — many prompted by the marketing that the company pays for dearly — simply click away to the next link on the list. It's a problem that home improvement companies increasingly encounter. Anyone who has reason not to like you or your company — that could be the employee you fired; the prospect outraged by a rep's boorish and insulting behavior; a competitor posting anonymously; or a customer disappointed in the product, installation, or service process — can go to any one of dozens of sites similar to and hurl virtual dirt.

The draw of such sites is similar to that of trash TV: viewers are titillated at the prospect of unsavory details and disputes carried on in the public arena. Sites such as Ripoff Report,, Consumer Complaints Board, Pissed Consumer, and many more, are unregulated, often unpoliced, and are swollen with negative consumer commentary. And all that content gets these sites placed at or near the top of online searches such as Google's.

By functioning as a magnet for the dissatisfied, complaint sites never have to worry about adding their own content. And since visitors arrive in droves, the sites are also often heavy with paid advertising. Moreover, complaint sites don't worry about whether the posts are honest, accurate, or even real. They don't have to: Courts have fought for their First Amendment right to publish anything without having to defend for libel. “Because the reports on Ripoff Report are authored by users of the site,” explains an item on the home page of this granddaddy of complaint sites (founded 1998), “we cannot be legally regarded as the ‘publisher or speaker' of the reports contained here, and hence we are not liable for reports even if they contain false or inaccurate information.” Ripoff Report maintains that it is a forum and that its responsibility is simply to ask users to be truthful. It's up to those posting to comply.

SORTING OUT THE SITES Not all Internet sites are created equal. Before complaint sites proliferated, homeowners already had ways to make their displeasure with contracting companies known. Typically they would contact their local Better Business Bureau. The BBB posted ratings of companies, based on the number of complaints received, as well as whether or not such complaints were resolved and how many had been resolved. The BBB also provided a means for contractors to mediate or otherwise take care of consumer complaints. Local BBB sites continue to list both the number of complaints filed against a business in a 36-month period and the status of those complaints.

Website Angie's List operates differently. Unlike the BBB, Angie's List is a member organization of consumers. It encourages members to rank and report on companies they do business with. Home improvement companies that disagree with the rating they receive can write a rejoinder, posted on the Angie's List site. They can also request that their grade — based on all the reports filed about them — be changed or that a specific post be removed, if they can make a solid case for why. Many home improvement companies monitor both their BBB and their Angie's List ratings. In fact, Angie's List has become a strong lead source for some companies which reap referrals there.

Sites that solicit customer reviews and post them — Yelp, Yahoo, and Judy's Book are three among many — differ from the BBB and Angie's List as well as from complaint sites such as Pissed Consumer and Ripoff Report. They gather customer feedback — positive and negative — on companies. The idea is to give consumers an idea of what doing business with that company might be like. For home improvement companies, an appearance on Ripoff Report is cause for worry, while a customer review on Yahoo, Citysearch, or Yelp is typically a positive thing. Rankings in local Google and other searches depend to some extent on reviews.

WHAT YOU CAN, OR SHOULD, DO Of course, you can assume that no one has ever said anything negative about your company on the Internet and simply not bother to check. Or, if you have seen negative posts about your company, you can ignore them and hope that they just go away. The problem with either approach is that your prospects — the majority of whom will be checking out your company online before making an appointment — will not ignore those comments. With the result that those prospects may go away.