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Google risks undermining the cervical cancer vaccine program with the negative, scaremongering slant of its search results. Any parents searching for information on the vaccine in the light of the tragic death of Natalie Morton are presented with a page of negative and alarming stories.

There's something we can all do about this - that's link to the relevant NHS page and try to get that in the top 10 results for relevant Google searches. Here's how YOU can help.

How the media wrongly started an anti-vaccine backlash

I pointed out on Tuesday that the papers have learned nothing from the MMR scandal. After Natalie died on the same day as receiving her cervical cancer vaccination, the papers went to town suggesting a causal link, even though there was no evidence of one.

The media continued to link her death to the vaccination even when it became clear she died of a tumour that could have caused her death at any time. Even today, the Mail continues to refer to her as 'cervical cancer jab girl' on its home page.

On top of this, few of the papers bothered to report the detail of how many hundreds of lives a year this vaccination program would save. Instead, they highlighted the small number of cases of side effects (usually minor rashes or headaches).

The comments on online stories quickly filled up with worried parents questioning the safety of the vaccine, others saying they were pulling their children out of the program, and the usual tin-foil-hat brigade blaming vaccines for all the world's ills.

Google showing scaremongering stories

Parents who turn to Google for help are unlikely to be reassured. Searches for 'cervical cancer jab' had already leapt 7-fold on Tuesday, the last day you can check Google for results at the moment. I first pointed out the negative slant of the results yesterday.

Do a search today, Friday, and Google shows, as it often does with topical searches, three news stories at the top and then 10 web results.

Of the three news stories, one is currently a Mirror story that says "Cervical cancer jab is harming a generation, says mum."

Of the 10 web results, the first two are Mail stories with headlines that question the safety of the vaccination (EG "Revealed: the serious health concerns about the cervical cancer jab").

Other results include "Two girls die after cervical cancer jab" and "Mystery illness paralyses girl given cervical cancer jab".

Remember, this is a vaccine that saves hundreds of lives a year with no evidence of any serious side effects.

The only positive result is the last one - but it's an old Cancer Research UK story saying most mums favour the vaccine.

Let's use SEO to get better results in there

So what can we do about it?

There's little we can do about the news results. Google gives priority to fresh content and trusted sources, as it recently revealed in some tips on news SEO. It might want to question its trust in the light of this case, but there's nothing we can do here (except implore the media to run some positive or balanced headlines).

We can do something about the web results, however.

When it comes to these, Google takes many factors into account. But the two key ones are links to a page (which isn't so important for the news results) and the text used to link to it.

The more a page is linked to, the more important it is in Google's eyes. And the more that the anchor text (the words you use as a link) match a searcher's query, the more relevant the page seems to Google for that search.

The relevant NHS pages on the anti-cancer jab are:

  • http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hpv-vaccination/Pages/Introduction.aspx
  • http://www.immunisation.nhs.uk/Vaccines/HPV

So to help them do well, we should link to them using relevant words, like this: cervical cancer jab and cervical cancer immunisation.

So if you've got a blog or work for a web publisher or know someone who can publish online, try to get them to link to that page.

Ideally the links would go in relevant pages or high-profile sites (you could even write up the details of this campaign). Any link is better than no link. But best of all is a link from a relevant page on a high-profile site that also links to other sensible advice, as well, such Cancer Research UK's page on the cervical cancer vaccine or this NHS page about cervical cancer in general.

And use variations on the text you use to link - not everyone is going to search for exactly 'cervical cancer jab' - you might want to include words like information, risks, benefit or bakground, too.

Watch out, too. Many of the outraged blogs about the media coverage have linked to those misleading stories. Google counts those links as a vote for the page - so the very act of linking to the misleading stories will help them do well in Google's results. You can avoid this by adding rel="nofollow" in the HTML. This tells Google to ignore the link when counting up votes for a page. You can read more about nofollow here - if you have wordpress, for instance, you can add the nofollow by switching to the HTML view and typing it in manually.

How long will this take?

I have no idea how long it will take for this to work - I've never tried to try and force a page to the top of the results in the face of sustained publication of stories by trusted (to Google) sources like online media.

At the moment, the NHS page isn't even in the top 150 results for a search on the vaccine.

This is partly because the NHS haven't reacted yet and done any SEO to their own page. It's all about the HPV-vaccination, whereas Google Insights suggests people are actually searching for "cervical cancer jab".

But if we can succeed, maybe we could help stop some parents pulling their children out of the vaccination program. Or at least present them with a balanced view of the results.

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Published 2 October, 2009 by Malcolm Coles

Malcolm Coles is Director at Digital Sparkle and a contributor to Econsultancy. He also blogs at malcolmcoles.co.uk. You can follow him on Twitter here.

16 more posts from this author

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Jonathan Phillips

A longer term solution would be to boycott the Daily Mail newspaper and website. No more vile lies...

almost 7 years ago

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Simon Bennison

Great blog post Malcolm. I hope it has a real impact on the search engine listings.

We've added an article to our site in support of the campaign and I sincerely hope some of the large news organisations pick up on the story and lend some of their weight by providing links.

almost 7 years ago

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Malcolm Coles, Director at Digital Sparkle

Jonathan P - it's google we need to boycott them!

Jonathan B - thanks a lot. I've actually been in touch with the NHS about this. They've not changed their PPC advert (which I think they need to - the last thing anyone probably wants is advice described as 'official' ...) but they've published some more info, such as the URL you've published. I've added that URL to the version of this post on my blog (too late to change it here sadly).

Simon - great, thanks. I'll be monitoring it and will publish a round up of who took part and what happened next week I hope.

almost 7 years ago

Jonathan Beeston

Jonathan Beeston, Director, New Product Innovation, EMEA at Media & Advertising Solutions, Adobe

You should lob this over to Ben Goldacre as well, if you haven't already.

almost 7 years ago

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sally watts

This is an over reaction. You are grossly unfair in your characterisation of newspapers which have a superb track record reporting on medical topics, not least exposing drug companies and how they market cancer drugs.

Newspapers are going out of business sadly. I'd be interested to know how we are going to find out about drug companies in the future since new media seems entirely based on cost per action payment by the likes of drug companies. If your story doesn't sell my product we don't pay you. Newspapers had a business model for exposing truth, new media doesn't.

The target of your campaign should be websites like mumsnet where ideas like swine flu parties, petting farms being the most adorable, cute day out for toddlers and scare stories about cervical cancer jabs go unchallenged. The blind leading the blind. 

I asked around among my friends what they thought about Natalie Morton, all of them said they knew she did not die from cervical cancer vaccine.

almost 7 years ago

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Victor

Why? Every parent with a daughter in the age group will have the NHS propaganda. You do not know this vaccine is safe; you’re just leaning on the PR activity of the drug companies and their customer. There are serious unanswered questions about this vaccine that need open public debate. Concerned parents should go behind the headlines and review the evidence and then they can make an informed decision on the safety of this vaccine. Pushing the NHS view up the search list adds nothing to the debate and the inference that their view is the one to accept is nebulous. Google “Thalidomide” and you will see the results of not questioning a harmless drug; caveat emptor, who cares if your daughter is the one in a million?

almost 7 years ago

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Liz Bell

Victor, the point here is that the evidence being presented by Google is not fair or representative.  In fact, much of it is not even evidence.  Blogs and websites (including newspapers) which publish and link to stories which are only opinion and speculation are pushing those stories up the rankings.  Contrary to what many people believe, the way SEO works does not and cannot ranked sites by truth or real quality (and in this case I mean quality of the scientific evidence).  If we can get the first page results to include the sensible, non-scaremongering, factually correct articles, then it will be more balanced and parents will be able to find the information you quite rightly say they should have.  The most important point here is that the vaccine is every bit as safe as everyone thought it was the day before Natalie Morton so sadly died (from a totally coincidental tumour - and yes, that sort of coincidence does happen).  The current media furore is not getting that across.

almost 7 years ago

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Malcolm Coles, Director at Digital Sparkle

Sally - some newspapers have a ood record on some issues. Many hyped the MMR non-issue - they do not have a good record. The Mail even attacked the government here for rolling out the cervical cancer vaccine - at the same time as attacking the Irish government for not doing so.

The target of my campaign isn't Mumsnet as (1) they didn't report this story, they are just reacting to it and (2) Mumsnet doesn't fill the google results. The newspapers' stories do. I also doubt, posting on econsultancy as you are, that you and your friends are typical of the general public.

Victor: correct, I don't know that the vaccine is safe (although it's been given to 1.5 million children with no serious side effects). However, until the newspapers erroneously linked Natalie's death with the vaccine, no one was arguing in a high-profile way that it was unsafe. The backlash against the vaccine, with worried parents cancelling their daughter's involvement because of factually inaccurate causal links reported in newspapers, is wrong.

Liz: brilliantly put.

Everyone: The Express yesterday: "THE cervical cancer vaccine may be riskier and more deadly than the cancer it is designed to prevent, a leading expert who developed the drug has warned." This is a cancer that kills hundreds of women a year, and apparently the vaccine is deadlier than that according to the Express.

almost 7 years ago

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sally51

Ok first of all, enough with the word "jab."  I mean honestly, who says that?  It's called a vaccination.  Second of all, this vaccine killed her.  Period.  And I think that deserves to be plastered all over the media so that big pharma companies who care absolutely nothing for human beings can go out of business.  And fyi, I am a pharmacist and I happen to know how these things work.

almost 7 years ago

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Lucy

I am 17 and a few weeks ago i recieved a letter from my doctors telling me to go get this vaccination.I have done research on it and have decided not to get the vacination until im older.

Many companies/newspapers are saying " Get the vaccination when your young" But i was in my local pharmacy the other day and they are offering it to people up to 30 years old.

Plus there are too many girls becoming ill because of the jab,im allergic to the flu jab and what is in the HPV i could be allergic to that too. Personally i'd rather live a healthy life with no vaccination ,then to have it and end up ill.

P.S Even Europeans are refusing to get it .The french are still unsure and are only offering it to those who want it .( Friends in France told me this)

I just think its a test .

almost 7 years ago

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GrumpySEO

Good work people. I see the NHS page is on the 1st page of Google already. Using SEO for a good cause? That's sure to cause a few ripples in the industry press eh?  Keep going. It'll hit the top before long.

almost 7 years ago

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Malcolm Coles, Director at Digital Sparkle

Sally51 - I used google insights to look for what was beign searched for. Jab was ahead of vaccine / vaccination (possibly because all the papers were calling it that). Also, she had a tumour. The vaccine didn't kill her.

Lucy - that is your right. I was merely trying to get balance into the search results.

GrumpySEO - thanks. I'll be blogging shortly about how its gone ...

almost 7 years ago

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mike

This is an interesting article, and I am sure many lives will be saved by this vaccine. Your blog was near the top of the first page of Googles search results, which is a good sign.

over 6 years ago

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