How bad guys use Google to silence journalists and investigative reporters

by Steve Rhode

This article is going to revel a lot of secrets that bad guys use to silence investigative reporters like myself. But these tricks are already being used now by some and unless we can talk openly about these issues they will only get worse and more reporters and bloggers will find themselves silenced by bad people who don’t like what they publish.

The research for this piece was painful on the job training. You see this site and myself have been the targets of such attacks. People can say what they want about the reality of the use of the web to punish and silence journalists, I’m here to tell you it’s a real threat and it happens.

As an investigative reporter who writes to protect consumers from getting ripped off, undoubtedly I piss off some bad guys. I get it. I’m willing to take those hits to stand up for consumers so they don’t have to get ripped off.

But the difference is reporting is based on verifiable facts and truthful. The attacks that target journalists, like myself, are based on lies and fear. It’s a virtual mugging.

The way I look at it is my reporting helps protect your grandmother from getting conned. The folks on the other side just want to try to silence the journalist and hide their message to maintain their opportunity to con and lie to your grandmother to take money from her.

But those bad people who want to mute journalists have strong tools they can use and have learned how to weaponize Google to stop consumer advocates like me. And if it is happening to me, it is happening to other sites and reporters as well. Maybe it is already happening to you and you just don’t know it yet.

I have been told by insiders in the debt relief industry I report on, they know how to silence investigative reporters like me by using Google as the weapon. All they have to do is trigger the automated processes at Google to get an account suspended or terminated and with little human interaction for me, or anyone, to respond to a human, their plan works. And punishing sites in the search rankings, well that remains easy to do as well. More about the process known as Google Bowling, in a bit.

At least one debt relief industry entity is reported to now be selling services to alter the online record and attack information for consumers.

“Fight back against unethical and or unfair internet postings and increase your bottom line! Morgan Drexen Integrated Systems is expanding its support services to include public relations, video production, online reputation management and website design. Let this team of award winning staffers clean up and boost your online profile. When you decide to take action against erroneous online information that’s costing your company, potentially, millions of dollars… give Morgan Drexen a call.”

FM Weekly said the services would be focused on silencing online criticism, “Official Release: Morgan Drexen Integrated Systems is now fighting online rip-off and scam blogs that are ruining business reputation and potentially costing businesses millions of dollars in revenue. Join the Fight.”

Attacking fair and accurate investigative reporting that is critical seems like an unwritten extension.

You can read more on that story here.

If you don’t think it’s easy to be a target of such an attack. Think again. As one negative SEO expert said, “but I was able to get him filtered for a little while on his name for maybe 120 seconds of my time and less than $50,” hardley a big budget effort. – Source

The Guardian reported the ease of these attacks. “There used to be much debate surrounding the issue of whether or not a competitor could attack your website in such a way that it could have such a hard-hitting detrimental effect on your search engine rankings. It is now a harsh reality that negative SEO practices can cause your site to drop in ranking and even be removed from Google altogether.” – Source

The Attacks Against Me Primarily Used Google as a Nuclear Weapon

On June 15, 2013 my Google+ account was suspended for posting spam. I don’t post spam. I post information and articles my 695 followers at the time wanted to be aware of. Obviously this suspension was another fake spam reporting wave. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this type of organized effort and I’m confident it won’t be the last.

I’m actually not that prolific of a poster on Google+. None of the stuff could even be classified as spam. As of the publication of this article, my Google+ profile is nowhere to be found and now generates a 404 error.

But targeting Google+ also hurts my authorship ranking and further hurts my search positioning for the stories I write.

The suspension of my Google+ account also harms consumers since I host a free virtual debt support group meeting to help people suffering with problem debt. The group uses Google Hangout and since my Google+ account was suspended I can no longer use Hangout.

I have no direct evidence this was a coordinated fake spam reporting attack to target my Google+ account, but it is highly suspicious and follows on the heals of other similar efforts.

However I do have evidence that my site, GetOutOfDebt.org, was a target of paid fake spam reports and then I subsequently lost my page rank which has now been restored. See this story.

The paid fake spam report job posting screenshot

And the GetOutOfDebt.org site continues to be the focus of a negative SEO attack with new spam links posted daily against it. There are hundreds of intentional links posted using the terms “porn pornography”, links about payday loans, links from fake payday loan sites, and a flood of links about companies I’ve written about, possibly in an effort to discredit the stories and bury them in the search rankings.

And most of the top referring domains to the site come from Poland. That’s certainly odd as well.

Last year my YouTube account received one strike in a three strike policy and was instantly terminated without the chance for me to defend the video reported as a problem. Because of the termination I lost access to all the many educational videos I had produced. Stupidly I had not downloaded backups of them because at the time I believed nothing like that could happen. I was wrong. I lost everything.

This and other alleged copyright violations are problematic for journalists since it has been reported Google takes such accusations into consideration when it comes to search engine rankings. – Source

Keep in mind, there was nothing improper about my video.

The video and alleged infraction was wrong and incorrect but there was no good mechanism for appeal at the time. The video was simply me speaking the title of an article and in that title was the name of a company the article was about.

The use of the name in the article and video is not a copyright violation and is permitted under “fair use” since the title falls squarely under the exemptions of Section 107 of the copyright law.  I wrote about the experience and there is a copy of the video that led to this misfortunate, here.

§ 107 . Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors. – Source

Without a person someone can deal with at Google when these things happen, the bad guys win and they have successfully learned to weaponize Google to silence consumer advocatesand journalists like myself.

Scammers who harm people financially and take money from people in trouble have a lot of resources to use against journalists and investigative reporters because they basically stole from consumers by lying and cheating and used that money to hire smart people to use Google as a weapon to bury the messages from journalists. Consumer advocates like me don’t generally have such resources. The bad guys automatically win.

If you think the internet is an innocent and safe neighborhood for journalists and investigative reporters, unfortunately you are wrong.

More Negative SEO Tools

Anyone unhappy with any article or story an investigative reporter publishes has easy access to tools to launch a negative SEO attack.

The list below is an example of how easy it is to do this but I’m not divulging anything here that can’t be easily discovered. I’m also not publishing some very specific tricks I’ve uncovered that are not easily found yet.

  • Spam Trigger Links – Thousands of links using spam topics can easily be generated against your story. Using spam keywords can flag the site with the links pointing at it as spam and telling the search engines the story should be disregarded. Think “porn pornography.”
  • Comment Spam – Negative SEO attacks can take the form of spam links from low quality sites, typically in comments. These links can be generated automatically by the thousands at a time and be virtually untraceable.
  • Scrape Your Content – Content can be scraped and posted over and over again to create a duplicate content penalty against the site. There are sites out there that have at times scraped every story I have posted and have ranked higher in the search engines than my own original story.
  • Report the Article to Google – Requests to have links removed from Google is an exploding occurrence. If we look at just the 2012 data, you can see how this has become a hot thing to do as well to try and get content removed from Google.
  • Google Bowling – Earlier I mentioned this term. The Google bowling process is nothing more than creating hundreds or thousands of links from low quality website to your story. Easy automated tools are available to launch massive numbers of such links anonymously. In the chart below the dashed green lines indicates new links found. As you can see there were waves and bursts of new links generated as these attacks were unleashed.
  • Ripoff Report and Other Such Sites – I am very familiar with the tactic of people filing fake reports with complaint sites in an effort to discredit me so people will not believe what I write. In my case people have filed many fake reports against me in an attempt to discredit me and my work. These accusations have included all sorts of bad acts including selling kids into prostitution, doing things on school busses, etc.A recent fake report even named one of the media outlets I work for in an attempt to harm me there as well. Thanks to some excellent people at Ripoff Report, a journalist can take action when this happens. But it takes a lot of work and some connections.
  • Denial of Service Attacks – These attacks result in waves of web traffic that is intend to overload your server or host to take your site offline. They also try to overload your web usage quotas or get your hosting company to terminate your account because of the attacks. My site has been the subject of several of these attacks.One site reported a denial of service attack took their site and others on the same server offline for a day and a half.

“On the morning of 14 January 2013, a DDoS attack was directed at Noblego. Because they share a server with other webshops, all of the shops on the server were offline for 36 hours.” – Source

This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. Anyone unhappy with anything you write, who has a pulse and at least one finger can launch an attack against you, your employer, your media outlet, or an article and try to bury them all online.

Reporters Have Some Tools as Well to Fight Back

The bad news is there appears to be little opportunity for reporters to fight back against automatic spam triggers with Google. But don’t despair, there is a little bit of good news.

This year Google launched a new appeal process for YouTube accounts. I feel confident if that process had been in place last year I might have been possibly been able to have rescued that account. At least I would have had a better chance to respond.

And Google has launched a new tool that sites can use to fight back against intentional link spam. The disavow links tool. It can sometimes feels like you are using a slingshot to fight back against a cannon but it’s a free tool you can use to fight back.

Search Engine Watch has a very good article about How to Use Google’s Disavow Links Tool the Right Way.

The video above from Google web spam expert Matt Cutts talks about this new tool. While Matt appears to feel there are very few people that actually launch negative SEO campaigns to hurt sites, I’m here to tell you it does happen.

I have spent hours creating my disavow links file and uploaded it to Google and along the way I discovered some additional tools to use I wanted to share with you.

Google wenmaster tools

If you login to Google Webmaster Tools you can download a list of recent links to your site. You’ll want to do that and use that list as a starting point to identify spammy links back to your site.

It’s the best initial list to use because it’s the listing of links Google is using to judge your site with.

To find the list you have to login, on the left click on Traffic, then click on Links to Your Site. You will see the heading below, click on Download Latest Links.

Link Research Tools has a very nice product called Link Detox. You can upload your latest links from Google Webmaster Tools and run the links to find risky links in a minute or less. You can also run a report using Links Research Tools that will identify additional links you’ll want to disavow.

Ahrefs.com

There are a number of sites you can use to find sites and links to your site. Tools like Moz,Cognitive SEO, and Majestic SEO are great tools. Personally I happen to prefer ahrefs.com for its ease of use and more affordable pricing.

Their site has a very good tutorial that explains how to performa a link analysis.

If you want to quickly spot problematic anchor text that is being used to link to you, ahrefs.com makes it so stupid easy to do and the process takes less than two minutes.

DUMP IT

Once you’ve evaluated the bad links being placed against an article you’ve written the bad guys are trying to hide online, using the tools above you can quickly update your Google Disavow Links file and upload it to neutralize the impact the bad links have against you.

There are lawyers that specialize in negative SEO attacks

There are even attorneys that specialize in going after people and entities that engage in such actions. For example, one site says:

The good news, is that organizations such as the Circle of Legal Trust, have specially trained attorneys who know how to seek out and mitigate these attacks, and even sue the offenders. As we have discussed before, it is almost impossible for the offending webmaster to not leave a digital footprint. You can sue the offending website networks linking to you, conduct discovery and get IP addresses of the people trying to hurt you. – Source

Free Google Alerts

You should setup a Google alerts for your name or column name and be notified as soon as new material about you is published so you can deal with it as soon as possible. It’s free.

DMCA takedown requests

As an on again off again member of the National Press Photographers Association I have nothing but praise for the NPPA. They also have a very good online examples that can show you how to create a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notice to have illegally copied work removed.

But DMCA takedown requests work both ways. Back in 2010 I was the subject of a DMCA takedown request by one of the entities I had reported on. They managed to get my server shutdown for a few hours after claimng I had used the name of the company in an article in violtion of their copyright. See this story.

But what I learned from that experience is there is an easy process to deal with such false requests. The Chilling Effects Clearinghouse has an excellent tool to create a DMCA counter-notification letter to have material put back online.

Cloudflare

CloudFlare is a great service which buffers traffic and helps to stop many denial of service attacks or strange waves of traffic and security threats. It is a relatively inexpensive service and works exceedingly well. I can’t recommend them enough. There is no investigative reporter who manages their own site who should not be using the service.

As an example, CloudFlare has defended my site from 9,835 attacks and threats in the past 30 days.

The Tools Are Great, But Google Can Do Better

As it stands now, there is no resource I am aware of at Google to help journalists like us who are the subject of such deliberate attacks.

It would be great if Google launched a support line where people could pay $500 to speak to a senior level department and get some attention and action when issues like this happened. Why the big fee? Simply to stop the wave of people who are not serious and have a legitimate need to reach the right person for real help.

Back in the 1990s when I was doing a lot of Microsoft server babysitting, Microsoft offered a service back then where you could pay $300 a talk to a senior engineer at any time of the day or night. When you ran into problems you could not solve there was a lifeline you could reach out to in an emergency and speak to an expert. As far as I am aware, there is no such service offered by Google. Heck, you can pay Facebook $100 and send Mark Zuckerberg a message. –Source

Investigative reporters and journalists need to be aware of the risks of having their work buried online, learn how to take take proactive action, monitor the attacks being launched against them and fight back regularly.