Cyberclinic: What can I do if I'm attacked on the web?

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The Independent Tech

I've slung so many words online over the past decade that it's drowned out any unpleasant stuff about me that might be lurking there. If I search for my own name, all that crops up are things I've written – no rants from ex-girlfriends detailing my unpleasant habits (of which there are none, obviously) (habits, not ex-girlfriends), and no exposés of my general uselessness (except the incidents I've confessed to).

I didn't plan it that way; I didn't discover a page badmouthing me in 2001 and toil for seven years to push said page into 4,256th place on the Google rankings. But for people or organisations who have been slandered, there are companies you can hire to do just that. They'll create complimentary web pages that should displace negative stuff to a level where people are unlikely to stumble across it.

Incredibly, it can be more efficient and effective to do this than make futile demands that the original text be removed. The website of one such company, ReputationHawk, carries a slogan: "A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on".

Crusading under a banner of righteousness is all very well, but sometimes I want to know if a company has a reputation for poor service, and if they do, I don't want the evidence to be hidden behind what amounts to an online advertising campaign.

Search engines wage a constant battle against being manipulated in this way, because it's their job to come up with accurately ranked, relevant results. But an entire industry – search engine optimisation (SEO) – has grown up with the sole purpose of beating the system. The self-styled "reputation management" firms are particularly brazen, as they intentionally create biased pages that we then assume are true, purely because they have a high ranking.

The lesson here? First, don't believe everything you read online. Second, maybe skip to the fifth or sixth page of search results if you're digging around for anything uncomplimentary.

Diagnosis required

Email any technology gripes to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk, or join the discussions on the blog at www.independent.co. uk/cyberclinic . Currently under discussion: Can I use whatever music I like on my YouTube videos?

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