Defamatory Threats To Have Chilling Effect On Link Builders?
Recently, Google reached a settlement with a UK businessman who took it to court over defamatory web content. Columnist Eric Ward discusses the potential ramifications of this legal battle.
By now, you have probably heard about how Google agreed to remove malicious links from the SERPs that damaged the reputation of a UK businessman. The settlement terms weren’t disclosed but likely involved specific actions on Google’s part to remove the defamatory material.
You can read the details here: Google Settles UK “Defamation” Suit, Agreeing To Remove Malicious Links.
FYI, here is what a Defamation Removal From Search Notice looks like:
If you receive one, it means a page (or pages) on your site may contain inaccurate content about a person — and that person is really PO’d and has filed a legal action with Google.
I’ve heard about Google removing links from its search index due to a DMCA copyright infringement or because of the new “Right to be Forgotten” ruling in the EU, but this latest “defamatory content” ruling is a much different animal.
Google is sending out link removal notices in response to legal complaints for “alleged defamation.”
In other words, if you decide after reading this column to drop a post in the comments section below (or anywhere on the web that Google indexes) calling me an illiterate link-building moron, I can sue — or at least force Google to remove the URL upon which that comment resides from its index.
And it’s not because you called me a moron. I can’t fight you on that, and my wife likely agrees with you.
Your mistake was calling me an “illiterate” moron — which I most certainly am not, and which I might take offense to. I can read, and while it’s arguable as to whether or not I can write, I can still try to force Google to make a decision about indexing that page/comment that I feel is defamatory.
I’m not sure this is a good thing.
I am against defamation as much as anyone, but this particular situation is fraught with scenarios that cut to the heart of freedom of speech, freedom to link, and freedom of the web in general.
That freedom drove so many of us here in the early days. The web in 1993 was an absolute blast — crazy, unedited, full of smart (and not so smart) people, and truly much more “wild west” than people that were not there realize. I had some epic flame wars on forums via Compuserve that I still recall with great fondness.
How Might This Impact SEOs & Link Builders?
Let’s say you have a site and you allow user-generated content, such as blog comments or forum posts. You now have to be far more vigilant regarding what you allow to appear in those comments.
Why? Because if someone doesn’t like what you write about them, and they file a legal action with Google, your pages containing those comments could be removed from Google’s search index as a result. Put simply, publishing anything that could be seen as defamatory could result in pages being removed from Google.
What’s to stop someone from hiring a third party to start participating in forums and dropping lies about people, so that the site gets nailed with Defamation Removals? Will this become another potential negative SEO tactic?
And what if you are simply linking to a blog post that contains the defaming content?
Links are the primary reason the offensive content ranks well in the first place. And let’s be honest here — if there’s something defamatory on the web about you, and it does not show up in anyone’s search results, you, the defamed, probably don’t care nearly as much as you would if the defamatory information was/is ranking highly.
When was the last time somebody hired a reputation management company to try and get rid of an unpleasant blog post that ranked at position seventy-three? If that same blog post ranked at position three, you are more likely to take action to try and remove it.
Since links are the primary reasons for high-ranking defamatory content, this means the next step in the legal process could be to go after the linkers.
More Food For Thought
Let’s take this thought exercise a bit farther.
If a page you are linking to contains defamatory information and that page is removed from Google’s index, then all is good again, right?
Well, maybe not. After all, has the problem truly been solved? The defamatory content still exists and can be linked to, liked, tweeted, shared, etc. The only thing that’s happened is Google removed it from Google’s index.
Wouldn’t it now depend on the visibility of the page on which the defamatory content resides? If the defamatory content resides on a page that receives significant traffic from sources other than search, the defamed is still unhappy. I would be.
So the defamed now goes after the content owner and threatens legal action if the content is not taken down. And hasn’t the case against the content owner been made stronger since Google has de-indexed the content? Is Google’s act of de-indexing a tacit acknowledgment of defaming?
So the next step is that pages are taken down manually by the webmaster, meaning anyone linking to a page taken down is now linking to a page that does not exist — 404, baby.
This means that now your site, as well as the web in general, is littered with a trail of dead links (since links were driving the high rank) left in the exhaust of the legal engines.
And of course, you, as a webmaster, would want to clean up your site’s dead links, right? Because that’s a negative ranking signal. So, you do. Good for you!
What if the URL on which the defamatory content resided is cleaned up in a way that removes the defamatory words/sentences/paragraphs/comments, and the URL is re-indexed by Google? The now-updated content is no longer defaming anyone and has been re-admitted into the Google index. Now, your link removal was all for nothing.
Content on the web is not permanent, even though URLs can be.
For example, articles I have written over a decade ago reside at a URL that is permanent. Sometimes, I choose to update the content on those old articles so they remain relevant/evergreen, but the URL itself has not changed — only the content has.
This is no different than removing defamatory content from an indexed URL. If the URL remains the same, the sites linking to it have no reason to remove those links; but at the same time, those sites cannot know if a defamatory action is in the works or if the page is about to be pulled, or if the owner of the page is going to clean up and remove the defamatory sections.
Are you confused yet? If not, let’s keep going.
What about our old friend, the rel=nofollow element you have the option of including within your <a href> tags? Would including such a tag possibly protect you from linking to defamatory content? Do we need a new rel element? Something like:
<a href="http://www.EricWardIsAnIlliterateMoron.com" rel="if there is anything defamatory on the page this link is linking to then I do not believe it and am certain it's all a pack of lies">Gosh That Eric Ward is Stupid</a>
And we also must look at this from the other direction. What about content you have chosen to link to that at the time you linked to it was the most innocuous, polite, kind-hearted bit of effusiveness you have ever read; but, a couple years later, the owner of that content changes his or her mind and edits the content on the URL you are linking to so it now contains defamatory statements and/or blatant lies?
Are you really to be responsible for the changing content on every single URL you link to for the rest of your life?
By now, you can probably tell that I’m annoyed by all of this foolishness. And just so you know, I’ve had occasions when I’ve felt my reputation was damaged by unfair comments online. But the idea of suing never crossed my mind, nor would it ever.
Those posts may be defamatory. And you know what? No big deal.
As much as I hate to write this, my advice to SEOs and content creators at this time is to police your user-generated content with a fine toothed comb, and don’t allow any comments that, if they were made about you, would upset you.
As for linking, this may be dangerous advice, but here it is: Link to whatever the heck you want to link to, and the consequences be damned. If you end up in court, I’m sorry. I’ll help you raise money for your defense on Kickstarter or iGive, because our ability to link freely must remain.
I have great hopes that cooler heads will prevail. For the web to remain the elegant mess that continues to change the world, we must retain the right to say and link to whomever and whatever we want.
To encourage this, I urge you to use the comment section below to both compliment and/or insult me in any manner you wish.
Don’t worry about lawyers. Worry about the fact that your kids (and mine) will read these things.
It doesn’t have to be as hard as we seem to want to make it.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.