Legal Briefing

How to deal with online conspirators: a sticky problem


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TMT | 01 December 2011

Ever wondered why that obviously fake, self-righteous review of your company’s service, sits stubbornly underneath your carefully manicured LinkedIn page? Or why that obscure blog attacking your CEO sits firmly on page one of your company’s Google search? Welcome to the murky world of online reputation warfare.

Since the dawn of the online search engine, companies have fought tooth and nail, using weird and wonderful optimisation techniques, to get their company website to the top of search rankings when a prospective customer types in the name of their business sector. A whole industry was created around this art, which became a marketers buzz-term known as search engine optimisation (SEO).

It was only a matter of time before SEO techniques shifted away from merely 
self-promotion, and into the dark world of hitting competitors right where it hurts; in their neatly crafted online reputations.

The first page of Google search results has effectively become a corporate and personal CV. Within minutes of meeting someone at a networking event, people will be tapping away on their BlackBerrys hauling up brand pages on Facebook, 192.com entries, LinkedIn profiles and corporate Twitter feeds.

However, these aren’t the pages that really matter. What stands out is the lone blogger or negative news article which was written about your business five years ago, but like the proverbial bad penny, it stubbornly remains on the first page of your Google results and simply won’t disappear into the depths of cyberspace.

We were recently engaged by a new client to look at why a seemingly petty WordPress blog was ranking so highly against online searches for the company name. By examining the blog page, we uncovered an intricate web of over 2,000 links from other websites, all directing traffic to the unsolicited WordPress blog. Having identified that the problem page had been maliciously promoted, the client was able take action against the hosting company, and have the page removed.

Generating inbound links is just one of the common SEO techniques that is now being used maliciously to muddy the online reputation of companies, organisations 
and individuals.

How do you know if your ‘problem page’ is being maliciously promoted?

  • Website metadata manipulation will be used – a technical trick used to make search engine spiders find a webpage quickly (very hard to spot).
  • Mechanical Turk – run by Amazon, this claims to be the biggest workforce in the world that is available for menial tasks… like getting 100,000 people to click a link, or ‘Like’ a webpage (this can instantly propel even the most shoddy of websites into the Google ranking stratosphere – although if Google finds out this has been used, it’ll drop the page like a stone).
  • Unnatural repetition of keywords in 
the text.
  • Malicious links building into, and out of, the webpage.

Many believe that once something is posted online nothing can be done; but there is still a level of control online that mirrors 
the restraints on the traditional printed press. While blog sites encourage opinions and reviews, most state that promoting pages maliciously is against their terms 
and conditions.

The first port of call when tackling a problematic ‘anonymous’ blogger or ‘mud-slinger’ is to find out who is behind it. While a sophisticated, organised internet attacker may hide their identity well, tricks and techniques can be used to trace individuals online and identify where they are located.

Once you have an identity, legal steps can be taken to build a case against the individual(s), and ultimately sever the malicious optimisation, or ideally have the page taken down all together.

As the old saying goes, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’… it’s just that today’s pen is writing on a tablet computer.