Defamation with SEO
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How SEO is used to spread defamation
Everyone has a soft spot. Being called a certain bad name in public could cause you a lot of damage and harm your career.
For example, a doctor might be described as "negligent", a solicitor as "incompetent", a builder as a "cowboy", or a teacher as "stupid". Such labels would be regarded by any of these people as a personal attack on their reputation and integrity.
But perhaps the most harmful insult of all was suffered by a top civil servant who was a social worker for the Children’s Service at a district council in the north of the country.
Meet Stuart Granville, as we shall call him (not his real name). Stuart had specialised for many years in teaching children with learning difficulties, and had achieved a tremendous professional respectability within his county council and beyond. He was shocked to learn one day from a colleague who searched his name on the internet that the top three results were news stories about social workers who were convicted and jailed for offences of child pornography!
The news stories were not about Stuart Granville at all, and his name appeared nowhere in them. Nevertheless, they mysteriously appeared at the top of the search pages whenever the search term "Stuart Granville" was entered. As you may imagine, the implications were serious indeed for Stuart. Someone who works with children, associated with convicted child molesters?! It was mind-boggling, beyond comprehension.
Stuart had become a victim of online defamation.
Stuart immediately became concerned about his career, and later on about his personal reputation and even his and his family's safety.
Stuart did not have his own website and was not allowed to have one because of the delicate position that he held within the Children’s Service. That left an internet vacuum for his name. The vacuum was filled by someone who wanted to harm his career and knew just how to do it on the internet.
Who did it? How was it possible for one individual to cause so much devastation to an innocent and very respectable member of the public? We will come back to the question of who did it in a moment.
But first, let me show you the incredibly simple technique that was used to inflict such damage on Mr Granville and his family.
The technique that was used is one that every company and individual should be aware of. It is called tagging.
Think of tagging as providing a description of an item so that search engines can see it. Tagging was developed to allow search engines to associate an article or a product with certain keywords.
The best way to understand tagging is to forget for a moment about the internet and think instead about a can of Coca-Cola. If you were asked to tag (describe) a can of Coca-Cola with the most relevant words that come to mind, you might say "red", "fizzy", "cold", "can", "drink", "refreshing" and so on.
Now, think about the article that you are currently reading. How would you tag it if you wanted search engines to find it? Or in other words, what would be the best way to describe it in short, simple words? Probably some words that come to mind are "internet law", "tagging", "social worker", "online reputation", "reputation attack", and so on.
Are you starting to see how tagging helps search engines associate a word or a phrase with a product or an article? A tag can be added to any article posted on the internet by its publisher, or by someone given permission by its publisher. Tagging, then, is simply a series of keywords that aims to describe an online item, whether it is a product, a service, a news story, or a book - anything, really.
The publisher of the web pages containing the news articles about a social worker convicted of sexual offences against children had tagged each of these articles with a "Stuart Granville" tag, and from that point forward, whenever an internet search was carried out (particularly with Bing and Yahoo), the search engine made an association between Stuart Granville and the news articles which were tagged with his name.
This process of copying a news article and publishing it on the internet with damaging tags can be done in less than 5 minutes. It can destroy someone's career, family, and reputation forever.
Simple? Yes. Powerful? Most certainly.
Tagging is therefore something to be aware of and to keep at the back of your mind at all times.
As for the perpetrator of the reputation attack on Stuart, Stuart believed beyond doubt that it was a parent who had had her children taken away from her by Social Services following an allegation of severe abuse.
At the time, she promised Stuart, who was in charge of the Social Services Team that intervened and took the child away from his abusive mother, that he would live to regret his actions.
Stuart has never proven the identity of this person. In fact, he never seriously attempted to do so, because once the problem was taken care of by internet law specialists, it disappeared within days and never returned. Rather than seek revenge, Stuart just wanted to get on with his life, which is exactly what he did.
Stuart's story has a happy ending, but many victims of online defamation by tagging continue to be damaged by it. Don't let it happen to you.