January 24, 2013

Is Your Veterinarian Trying to Game Google? Watch for These Red Flags (and What You Can Do About It)
The Internet is a mixed blessing. Never in the history of veterinary malpractice have veterinary victims been able to find each other, compare notes, offer advice and support, research veterinary malpractice cases and board complaints, and help one another get through the horrific process of sorting through the wreckage of their lives after an incompetent, negligent veterinarian has injured or killed their companions.

The Internet is a double-edged sword for BadVets. It makes it more difficult for the worst of them to fly under the radar; many veterinary boards post their state's disciplinary actions online; and searching for a vet's name and/or the clinic's name can often lead to a client or potential client finding out things the vet would prefer that nobody know about.

It's the "searching" part that provides BadVets with a silver lining: There are ways to manipulate the public in cyberspace in much the same way they do in real life; specifically, perverting SEO (search engine optimization) techniques and misusing links and aggregate sites to artificially increase their page rankings on Google. In short, gaming Google.This makes it more difficult for the average person to find anything negative about BadVets, because the first few pages can be dominated by the vet's manufactured trash specifically and deliberately designed to "push down" the rankings of sites that have negative information about the vet.  

If you recognize your veterinarian in any of the following, take note. Depending on how brazen, arrogant, or stupid they are, BadVets may be leaving a trail of evidence that you can gather, document, and use in filing a board complaint for unprofessional conduct, honesty and fair dealing, or similar statutes; or possibly even a lawsuit for things like false advertising and fraud (e.g.,In Texas, the statute of limitations for fraud is four years, so it's important to keep good records if you think a vet is or has been trying to game search engine rankings). Remember these involve two entirely different jurisdictions: 1) Check your individual state's Veterinary Practice Act for specifics on categories like honesty, fair dealing, false advertising, unprofessional conduct, and the like; and 2) consult with an attorney licensed to practice law in your state to discuss lawsuit options regarding fraud and false advertising. 

In the meantime, watch for any signs of the following:

Splogs. A combination of the words spam and blog, splogs are a BadVet's best friend. Splogging involves creating (or paying others to create) an insane assortment of blogs that appear to be legitimate on the surface but are nothing more than canned spam with the vet's and/or the facility's name repeated over and over in an attempt to “game” the search engines into indexing the page and treating it as a legitimate blog. When consumers search for info using certain keywords, they will likely be inundated with hits that have little or no actual pertinent information. If they don't read past page 3, they may never see anything negative about the vet because the vet or his hired gun has made sure of it. RED FLAG: A vet doing this, or hiring others (usually a so-called “reputation defender” who will mass produce trash sites with the most common keywords) is engaging in this highly unethical activity for one reason only: To create enough hits – sometimes hundreds – to overtake any web sites or negative reviews exposing the truth about them. WHAT YOU CAN DO: If you are researching a vet you are interested in, keep digging. Not even the sleaziest vet can bury everything. Go beyond the first few pages of hits (where the vet's collection of "trash" is), and you'll eventually find what the vet is trying to hide. If you and your site are victims of this activity, keep track of when these trash sites and garbage blogs first appeared, who owns the domain name, and take screenshots (thus ending the he said/she said crap that vets resort to when caught). Print out copies of this as soon as you find them – BadVets start immediately covering their trail if they think anyone is on to them and will try to "clean up" their mess after the fact. If you have copies or screenshots saved with the dates they were on the Internet, BadVets can lie and deny all they want – but they will get caught. 

Suddenly social. Of course competent and ethical vets use social media. Unfortunately so do BadVets, and on the net everybody's going to look the same. Almost. If your vet has been in a technology coma for decades and is suddenly everywhere -- Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, tumblr, weebly, and dozens of other social media sites all at once – take note. He or she is probably getting advice to “wipe out” the page rankings of the “enemy” (that would be you, the victim) and some vets are stupid enough to take it. RED FLAG: If you are suddenly seeing multiple creations of a page or account on social media sites with not much more than their name and facility, it's possible that you are dealing with a vet who is attempting to link to enough high-profile, high traffic sites to bury the rankings of a site that he or she doesn't want the public to see. WHAT YOU CAN DO: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Use their placements on legitimate sites like the above as a road map and set up your own accounts and pages where they are -- but unlike lazy Dr. Do-Little who's basically just repeating his or her name and facility over and over and over to get Google to create pages of hits of a bunch of useless sites, use your site to actually tell your story -- with names, dates, details, documents, patient chart, lab work, and anything else that substantiates what happened. Compared to the truth, all of the vet's shameless self-promotion is going to be exposed for exactly what it is – shameless self promotion. Smart consumers will be able to tell the difference and hopefully keep looking -- for a vet who doesn't engage in such practices. 

What's in a name? BadVets are notorious for reinventing themselves, changing the format of their names (e.g. a first name and middle initial suddenly becomes an initial and middle name) or the name of their facility if the negative reviews are so numerous they can't control or hide them. RED FLAG: A hospital or clinic changing its name may have a legitimate reason. Others may simply by trying to obfuscate an alarming number of negative reviews under a former name that they can do nothing about (ask any vet who's ever tried to use the legal system to get a negative review removed or web site taken down and ended up with his tail between his legs). Like any BadVet, some facilities that change their names count on consumers' inherent trust in vets and would probably never think to do further checking. How many people would suspect that a name change could signal previous problems?  WHAT YOU CAN DO: Ask the people at the facility itself if it has ever been known by another name. See what they say, then start researching  both the old and new names. Ask around, go to the courthouse to find name change records, call the state board or local Veterinary Medical Association. If a clinic or hospital was taken over by conglomerates like Bluepearl, VCA or Banfield, search all the vets at the new-name facility to look for a history of problems (NOTE: Complaints cannot be filed against a facility; complaints are filed against individual vets, so be sure to check each veterinarian's name). Sometimes these big guns come in to provide a BadVet or vets with a clean slate, appearing to be a “new” facility when it's the same old same old with nothing more than a coat of paint to further confuse an already unsuspecting (and trusting) public.

Video Killed the Radio Star. Like the old Buggles song, YouTube has now killed everything else. Anyone with a few minutes, a cheap camera and willing (or paid) assistants can be – as Jon Stewart says – “on the teevee.” Yep, everyone wants to be on the teevee, even BadVets, looking to present themselves as experts to an unsuspecting public when their history shows repeated investigations by the state board or allegations of violations of the standard of care (veterinary malpractice). RED FLAG: Once again, this could be less about producing videos and more about the vet getting their top search terms (name of clinic, name of vet) on one of the biggest sites in the universe in order to inflate their search engine rankings. While they're at it, they may also be trying to turn some bad publicity into a kind of pseudo-celebrity image aimed at those impressed by people  "on the teevee." WHAT YOU CAN DO: Make your own video and tell your own story. If the clueless public finds Dr. VideoStar's latest "expert" home movie, they just might run across yours as well, fully backed up with documentation, labwork, patient chart, etc.. Again, take your cue from BadVet. If he or she suddenly feels the need to be on every site in the world, why shouldn't you? 

Speaking of review sites... This is going to be the subject of a whole other post, but while we're here, pay close attention to any glowing 5-star reviews about vets with a known history of official investigations, substance abuse violations in either use or recordkeeping, and lawsuits, plus public record of DUIs, arrests, criminal activity, and the like. BadVets are shameless about soliciting, directly or indirectly, friends, family, even their own employees (and their spouses) to post reviews posing as legitimate clients. RED FLAG: With BadVets with a history, watch out for miniscule, vague reviews like “caring, compassionate folks,” or any reviews singing the praises of how cheap or “nice” the vet is, how the vet doesn't care about money, pointing out the degrees they have, their military or religious affiliation, or community standing (these are obvious shills - no legitimate client would care about any of that over the standard of care), and anything that deflects or distracts from documented medical cases of negligence and incompetence. WHAT YOU CAN DO: If you are researching a vet, look beneath the surface. Go to the end of the long list of reviews and work backwards. I guarantee you will find the real story buried underneath an avalanche of "fans" who could have been mobilized into action to help out their friend (or employer) bury a bad review. We see this constantly: Once a legitimate bad review goes up, here comes the onslaught from the “fan club” to try to discredit the victim and more importantly, push the bad news as far down the chute as possible. Anybody in league with a BadVet to do things like this is just as bad as a BadVet; don't expect any of them to have a conscience about protecting their fearful leader at the cost of animal lives.

Kick ass and name names. Even if only for your own edification, get the webmaster's and/or domain owner's info. Find out who is designing and maintaining BadVet's site. If he or she is behind any of the tricks used above, including splogs, spam, and repetitive use of keywords on otherwise useless sites, you might be able to expose and report them along with BadVet for engaging in questionable business practices.. BadVets constantly surround themselves with patsies and minions – anybody they can hide behind if the going gets tough. RED FLAG: BadVets always keep a layer of protection between him and any authority – the board, the law, DEA, DPS, etc. using their staff, family, friends, tech people, lawyers, or whoever, as human shields.  WHAT YOU CAN DO: Drag these vampires and anybody working with them out into the sunlight. If you gather enough evidence of any of the above, take the information to your state board, and then report everyone involved to Google with evidence of screenshots, splogs, misuse of aggregate sites, obvious garbage sites – anything and everything that points to them or someone working on their behalf to try to game the system. Remember that many BadVets are completely clueless about how the Internet really works; their stupidity works to your advantage, especially if they are paying a webmaster who is reassuring them that everything they're doing is perfectly legit. 

And any BadVet arrogant enough to think that Google won't care about what they're doing might want to think again. Check out this quote from a Google spokeswoman in an article from The Hill, about moving company scammers gaming Google. We’re always looking for ways to make it harder for scammers to trick consumers, so we appreciate the specifics the committee provided. Sen. Rockefeller’s concerns point out how important it is that search engines continue to have the ability to constantly and quickly improve our results for our users,” the spokeswoman said. 

Take note of "the specifics the committee provided." It is essential to document everything you can find about who, what, when, where and how a BadVet might be abusing the system, either now or in the recent past (check with a lawyer about the fraud statutes in your state) and report them to Google and their state vet board. An attorney licensed to practice law in your state can advise you regarding any potential violation of consumer or trade laws. 

Bottom line: BadVets are capable of anything, up to and including using others to employ sneaky tactics to bury negative reviews and web sites, inflate their image, their search engine rankings, and their business, and then blame everyone and everything else when they get caught. Trying to game Google is just a part of what a BadVet can do if desperate enough. For some of them it's all about winning, many of them too stupid to realize by their own words and actions, they've already lost not only the battle, but the war as well. 

The good news is that if you tell your story, the truth of what a BadVet did to your pet is there for all the world to see, along with their attempts to abuse the system or anything else. If veterinarians haven't done anything wrong, then they have nothing to worry about, right? But if BadVets are using SEO tricks, games, manipulation, and loyal minions to do their dirty work, it can get them into even more trouble than they're already in. And that's the best news of all.