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:
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.