Why is my site rated red?

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If you have a website that already has ratings posted on its WOT Scorecard, and if you are dissatisfied with those ratings, you obviously want to fix the situation. But where do you start?

First, take a deep breath. Take a moment to calm down. It's alarming to find your site has a yellow or even a red rating, and your first thought may be that you have some personal enemy. That is rarely the case.

WOT ratings are the sum of all the votes of all the WOT members who expressed an opinion about your site. However, they are weighted based on how reliable each member's previous ratings have been. When a site doesn't have many ratings yet, they have less statistically reliability. But that means there is also more chance to dramatically change your site's ratings.

The WOT Forum is frequented by many volunteers who want WOT to be more useful and accurate. Some have high rating reliability scores; some don't. (Scores are secret, even from the members themselves.) These members also want to see more sites earn good WOT ratings by improving things like privacy and security. They want to help you. But they are volunteers and also want to be respected, just as you do. They are from all over the world and represent many languages and cultures. What is legal in your country may be illegal in theirs. You may need to look at your website in a new way.

So take a little time to orient yourself to WOT before you dive straight into a forum thread. Cool down before you end up in a flame war.

Understanding WOT Ratings

The first and most important thing to understand is that comments are NOT ratings. Ratings are the rainbow-colored numeric sliders on the top half of the Scorecard page. They determine your site's color coded "donut" and whether any warnings pop up when people visit your site.

Comments are the textual posts on the bottom half of the Scorecard. They are a chance for people to explain their ratings if they wish. But they are optional. Often the comments will seem to completely disagree with the rating, as often happens if large numbers of people rate a popular site highly, and the more security-conscious reviewers use the comments to point out why they disagree with the majority.

Wot security scorecard.png
A WOT scorecard with no ratings or comments yet. The colored bars are for ratings.

Comments do not affect ratings. A reviewer can comment without rating and rate without commenting. Someone can give your site an overall good rating while raising a red flag about one particular aspect of your site they consider concerning. If your site has a red rating, the comments people have posted may give you some hint of why, but the comments themselves are not the cause of the rating.

If your site has a green color background and the numeric rating sliders are in high numbers, your site has a good rating. If someone has posted a comment that says bad things about your site, keep calm. Negative comments can be addressed, of course. They can be removed or edited by the person who posted them. But you don't want to lose your good, green rating by behaving boorishly while trying to force someone to remove a comment that isn't really hurting your overall rating in the first place.

"Meritocracy" vs. "Democracy"

Nobody wants the fate of his site decided by some competitor who registered a hundred usernames on WOT and rated his site down. Nor does anyone want some mentally unstable person with nothing to do but post ratings on WOT to be unduly influencing things. That's why the WOT system weights each user's vote based on reputation. Reputation is secret, even from the users themselves. The votes of new users carry little weight. And the weight of their votes won't increase unless their ratings show reliability in terms of being in agreement with other users. In addition, there are algorithms to detect unusual rating activity that will reduce the weight of those unusual votes or even lead to members being banned.

A very active user -- even a "Platinum member" may not have a good reputation. Regardless of the activity level, his ratings may carry little weight. Don't get distracted by activity level and assume that some disagreeable user posting on the forum is the one responsible for your site's poor reputation.

Website owners often ask how they can improve their reputation. The obvious answer is for people who know and trust a site to rate it on WOT. But one effect of the weighting system is that telling hundreds of users to run over to WOT and rate one site will usually have almost no effect on its reputation (and could be interpreted as scorecard manipulation). The first ratings votes that users cast will have nearly zero weight. Tell your loyal users to join WOT, spend some time, learn about the rating system, read the wiki, rate a variety of sites they know to be trustworthy (or not), participate in the forum discussions, then come back and rate your site. Their votes will carry much more weight once they've rated enough sites that it becomes obvious which users are legitimate and which users are just being paid to spam a site's ratings.

Ratings confidence

On your website's scorecard, there are icons that look like a row of people's heads. Some of the heads may be a darker grey than the others. The number of shaded heads indicates the confidence of the rating level. A rating that is the result of few users, users with low reliability, or users that disagree with each other, will have a low confidence level. Such ratings are easier to change.

WOT Means "Web of Trust"

WOT is about "trust." That's a broad concept, and many people interpret it differently. It's not just about whether a site hosts pornography or computer viruses. Some people may consider a website trustworthy because the owner strongly believes in a principle, yet someone else may distrust his site precisely because he promotes that principle. Some people may distrust a website owner who is rude, yet someone else may consider them refreshingly honest. All those people have a right to express their opinions on WOT. Ideally, all of them respect free speech and only allow their personal biases come into play if they feel a web site is using deceit, intimidation, or other untrustworthy means of making its case. In the long run, if users can't make that distinction, their own reliability score will be lowered. But each vote, no matter how enfeebled by biased voting, will still be part of the overall rating.

Hacked websites

Hacking is probably the main reason good sites get bad ratings. People with obscure websites are dismayed to find their sites suddenly become well-known if there's something dangerous hosted there. The problem can also be related to the IP address where they are hosted, rather than the domain itself. (If you already know your site was compromised, it's not a good idea to post on the forum pretending to have no idea why your site has a red rating. The regular forum participants are perfectly capable of digging up that information and will be annoyed at you for wasting their time. Be up front about it, remove the blacklistings, tell them how you have improved your site's security, then ask how to move forward from there.)

There are a number of websites that collect and post reports of such incidents, such as hpHosts, URLVoid, MalwareURL, Joe Wein's spam blocklist, StopForumSpam, Clean-MX.de (see midway down page for links to malware, misuse, and phish look ups), Project Honey Pot, ZeusTracker, Spamcop.net, PhishTank, Spamhaus and other trusted sources.

Using a search engine to look for mentions of your domain name on one of those can be very revealing. For instance, if your domain is called "example.com", Google will show all mentions of it on the clean-mx.de site with this search:

"example.com" site:clean-mx.de

Searching for mentions of your domain on the same page as the words "phish" or "malware" can also be useful. (The word "spam" occurs so often that searching for it tends to get too many unrelated hits.)

There's more information at How To Check For Blacklisting.

Marketing practices that hurt your site's reputation

Email spam

Everyone hates spam. Even spammers don't want to receive it. But many people who use email marketing are surprised to be accused of sending spam. Email doesn't have to be about penile enlargement or erectile dysfunction to be spam.

It's important to understand that many forms of marketing that are not illegal (at least not in all countries) are still considered spam by recipients. The most basic definition of spam is either "unsolicited bulk email" (UBE) or "unsolicited commercial email" (UCE). But the "unsolicited" part is key. People can only handle a certain volume of email, and they don't want to receive more than that, no matter how reputable the sender. If every reputable company sent every recipient just one unsolicited email a month, the total volume would be overwhelming. That's why reputable companies don't do it.

Many new businesses want to jump into email marketing in a big way, and they try to use short cuts. It isn't possible to buy a list of "100% opt-in email addresses", because there's no way the people on that list could have opted in to receive email from you. You can't buy a software program that will magically increase your website traffic without risking your website being shut down or blacklisted. And it's risky to hire an outside company or to enlist affiliates to market for you, because you are going to be held responsible for their actions -- both legally and in terms of your company's reputation. You must build your email list by having your customers ask for your emailings. You do that over time, by building trust and offering value. Email marketers that use the best practices to make sure their email is welcome are also most successful at having it delivered and read. Having a longer list of email addresses does you no good if the messages end up in spam bins or get your mail server blacklisted.

In addition, it's important to use a technique called "double opt in" to prevent becoming a tool for pranksters subscribing other people to multiple email lists. After your visitors add email addresses to your list, you should send an email to those addresses to ask them to confirm. Tell them they must respond to the email to be added to the list, and that if they do not want mailings, they should simply ignore the email. DO NOT do the opposite -- don't ask them to ignore the email if they want mailings and to respond if they don't. That's how spammers confirm that email addresses on their lists are valid, so they can sell them at higher prices. Trying to make people opt out instead of inviting them to opt in will get you branded as a spammer.

Forum spam, comment spam, astroturfing, sock puppets and other "blackhat SEO"

In addition to the familiar email spam, the definition of spam has been expanded to cover other types of marketing that are intrusive because they make use of other people's resources without permission or compensation. "Forum spam" or "comment spam" means posting on other people's websites for off-topic marketing purposes, using functions designed for on-topic discussions. Obvious examples are totally off-topic posts (discussions of sites selling shoes on a forum for discussing French impressionists, for instance), but your reputation will also be harmed by multiple forum registrations by "users" who make lame "I agree" and "this-is-a-great-website" posts to include links in their signatures or forum profiles for marketing purposes.

"Astroturfing" refers to posts that pretend to be endorsements from real customers of a product/service but which are really just ads by hired shills (trying to pretend there is a fake "grassroots" reputation). A company that needs to do that doesn't appear to have much confidence in its own ability to achieve customer satisfaction. That hurts trust. "Sock puppets" is similar -- one user creating multiple accounts to have a conversation with themselves, usually with one user account posing a problem and another offering a solutions that involves visiting the sponsor's website. (Imagine a puppeteer with a hand puppet on each hand pretending they're talking to one another.)

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the science of trying to make sure your website is "found" by search engines and that it isn't buried in the deeper pages of search results. The right way to do that is to make sure your site has text and meta tags that include key words that represent your website accurately, as well as by making sure your site isn't constructed in such a way as to prevent the search engine bots from finding those key words. Then people who want to find your site are able to do so more easily. The wrong way is by forum spamming, astroturfing, creating useless websites whose only function is to create links to other sites, "link exchanges", "blog blasting" software, or other methods whose goal is to get your site in the top of every search, regardless of whether the Google user wants to find sites like yours or not. In addition to harming your reputation at WOT, you may find that Google will eventually adjust its ranking algorithm if they find your site is being misrepresented. The result can be completely deleting your site from any search results. It's like getting the search engine death penalty.

Innocent website owners are constantly being approached by scammers who claim that they can improve their sites' search engine ranking. While a rewrite of your website's code may be very beneficial, anyone who makes promises about boosting your Google ranking should be suspect. Certainly anyone who sends you spam in order to get you to use their SEO services is unclear on the concept of "reputation." Do not become involved with such people. It's nearly impossible to remove spammy posts on neglected forums whose owners have lost interest. Those posts remain as evidence of past misconduct and can make the harm to your site's reputation very long-lived.

Trust issues

Sometimes there are simply trust issues with a website. Common ones:

  • Your site requests information and perhaps money from users, but it has privacy-protected registration, is registered to a postal drop box, or otherwise lacks transparency without valid reason
  • Your site requests personal information but doesn't have a privacy policy
  • Your site has a privacy policy that allows you to share identifiable data about your users without a compelling reason
  • Your site appears to collect more information than is necessary to carry out its functions
  • Your site requests more detailed information than name/email address, but it doesn't have a valid SSL certificate issued in the name of the domain that is using it.
  • Your site sets cookies that come from third-party sites, cookies which are longer-lasting than necessary, or cookies which are not explained in the privacy policy
  • Your site has web bugs
  • Your site promotes illegal activity or activity many people consider immoral (counterfeit goods, illegal drugs, gambling, pornography)
  • Your site is part of a multilevel marketing program
  • Your site is selling financial services or work-at-home programs by advertising the profits made in atypically successful cases (particularly when your affiliates would end up cutting into each others' profits if they all worked that hard)
  • Your site is about that famously controversial pair of topics, religion or politics, which typically attract extremes of opinion -- especially if the number of people who disagree with you far exceeds the number who agree. In some cases, such as sites promoting extremely unpopular opinions, it simply isn't going to be possible to get a good rating from WOT. WOT's ratings measure something different from what your site is trying to achieve.

Why do some users have such high post counts?

Some WOT members are researchers into internet crime, spam, and other security/safety issues. Because dangerous sites are constantly being shut down, criminals respond by registering new ones by the thousands. It's therefore far easier to find bad sites than good ones. People who concentrate on rating bad ones can get very high post counts. Once they have established their credibility over the course of submitting a large number of ratings and forum posts, they may be given access to the Mass Rating Tool (MRT). When a researcher has a list of hundreds of identical sites that all need identical ratings and comments, the MRT permits them to do so in groups of 100. The MRT user is required to leave a comment to explain how he/she rated and why. Should you feel your site was given an erroneous rating or that an old rating no longer applies, you can usually contact MRT users via private message or by posting a thread in the "Site Evaluations" forum (if you own the website), or otherwise in the "Reputation Discussions" forum.

How can my site have a red rating if there are no comments (or most of the comments are positive)?

Repeat after me: "Ratings are not comments." You can rate without commenting and comment without rating. You can leave a negative comment despite giving a site an overall good rating, and vice versa. A comment that clearly spells out the reason for a rating can magnify the influence of a user by convincing other people to rate similarly, but it is not required. People using WOT as a browser add-on may be quickly rating obviously bad sites they run into while doing an internet search; they don't necessarily need to take the time to stop and compose a comment for every useless scammy site clawing its way into higher Google rankings by using misleading keywords. Requiring comments would discourage participation from most users and would allow more scammy sites to remain unrated.

The only time comments are required is when experienced users are rating multiple sites using the Mass rating tool. In that case, not only must they leave a comment, they must allow people to send them private messages to ask for more information. Though high activity level may not always translate into a high reputation weighting, experienced users at least have been rating enough sites to have had a chance to build reputation. The longer someone has been posting, the less likely it is for someone who is abusing the WOT rating system to escape detection.

If your site seems unfairly rated, you will find it frustrating to have no explanation in the comments. On the other hand, since the experienced users are more accustomed to leaving comments, a scorecard with no comments may be one whose rating is easier to improve with more ratings.

I still think someone is rating my site poor for malicious reasons

Face it, everyone can rate on WOT, and some of those people are immature trolls. If you believe someone is attempting to manipulate a site's scorecard ratings, the appropriate course of action is to submit your concerns to WOT's administrators using this form: http://www.mywot.com/en/support/feedback

Starting a thread to post public accusations is not encouraged. Such accusations usually cannot be substantiated and merely make the accuser's own site look less trustworthy. The administrators have access to information about who has rated and from which IP addresses, and they place a high priority on preventing scorecard manipulation.

What if I still can't find any problems?

Come to the forums. Read the information in this wiki about using the forum, read a few other threads to get the idea of how to get help without starting a flame war, then start a thread to ask for help (only one thread, please, and remember to include the URL of the site you're asking about, with the "http" changed to "hxxp"). The regular volunteers at WOT have a lot of experience tracking down problems and analyzing sites. It can be hard seeing your site dissected in detail. But please realize volunteers spend a lot of time providing a valuable analysis of your site at no charge to you. Keep your cool, look at the information dispassionately, ask detailed questions if you don't understand, then go back to your site and reevaluate things.

If someone has left a negative comment on your site's scorecard, it is appropriate to send that particular user a private message to request they reconsider. Better yet, provide the user a link to a thread you have started through the regular process for having your site evaluated. It is NOT appropriate to send private messages at random to users you have seen posting on the forum. If you send private messages to request ratings from members who have not previously given your site any ratings or comments, it is considered spamming. Your request will either be ignored or will bring unfavorable attention on your website. There are thousands of sites requesting ratings, and it is unreasonable to expect members to deal with private messages from all of them.

For more information

The WOT FAQ and the Wiki FAQ can help answer more questions in detail. Look them over before submitting your site for review. To get an idea of how much depth is contained in this wiki, take a look at the "All Pages" page.