(Within 24 hours of posting this essay on our website, as of noon June 29, 2004, the Google sponsored links of third parties on CEDU, Jane Schoenfeld and others we had checked on throughout the month of June, had been removed. Incidentally, it has just came to our attention that Coldwater Creek Inc., an Idaho company doing business worldwide, has just filed suit against some competitors for the same kind of cyber-squatting. The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Idaho, CIV 04-0313-N:EJL, which can be found at www.id.uscourts.gov . This will be a very interesting case to follow. –Lon)
A year and a half ago, I published an essay on what I like to call cyber-squatters (WR: Do You Own Your Own Name, September 2002 www.strugglingteens.com). That is, Internet entities that redirect prospective clients to their own sites through using other people’s personal and business names as key words. They were piggy-backing on the reputation of the consultant or program. Things seemed to clear up after that for awhile.
However, THEY’RE BACK!
Throughout June, I’ve done multiple Google searches using the names of various well known special needs consultants and programs. The resulting reports often include advertisers and sites I think are independent of the consultant or program whose name I had entered in the search. But, to the parent looking for a consultant or program, it might easily be interpreted as a working relationship and a shared credibility. In other words, the piggy-backing cyber-squatter is sharing in other people’s reputation to their own advantage. It obviously is also to the disadvantage of the consultant or program who will likely never hear from the parent that gets misdirected to the other site.
I might add that as of June this year, there are no piggy-backing cyber-squatters on the key words of Lon Woodbury or Woodbury Reports, like there were a year and a half ago. I presume it is because I made a public fuss about it when it happened then, which was supplemented by a pointed Cease and Desist letter from my attorney to a particular flagrant copyright violation. This suggests that a pointed proactive defense will work.
Here’s how piggy-backing cyber-squatting works!
One of the most common means of advertising on the Internet is purchasing key words from search engines. Then, whenever an internet user puts that key word into a search engine, your advertisement will be displayed along with the rest of the results. Google uses the term “sponsored link.” This is a slippery term since a novice to the Internet, or someone who is quickly surveying the findings, might conclude that link is sponsored by the individual or program keyed into the search, or perhaps there is some kind of working arrangement between the two. Either way, some of the traffic intended for the consultant or program might be misdirected to the person who bought the advertisement. The objective of the cyber-squatter is to obtain personal advantage from using somebody else’s reputation.
Here are two examples. CEDU is a very unique name, but throughout June when I did a Google search on it, there was the ad of an independent referring business prominently displayed to the right of the regular findings. I doubt if CEDU has a working relationship with this business, or gave their permission for this, but obviously “CEDU,” which I assume is a trademarked name, was purchased as a key word to give exposure to an independent business. Of course, this is happening to many other schools and programs also.
Another example is Jane Schoenfeld. She is well-known as the President of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), and as having a prominent long-term successful practice of her own helping parents find the right school for their child. I could see people hearing about her and wanting to see what they could find out about her on the Internet, or look at her web site. Yet, when I put her name into a Google search, there to the right hand side of the report is a prominent advertisement for a referring business site helping parents of troubled teens. Since Jane apparently does not have a web site, the only thing people will learn about her on the Internet is what the advertiser wants to say. This strongly looks like a purchase of Jane Schoenfeld’s name for a third party benefit, without Jane’s approval.
Other Misleading Internet Practices:
There are some other practices that bring up ethical and sometimes legal concerns. In this essay, I’ll mention them only briefly. One is the existence of so-called Directories. Now, directories on the internet are a legitimate source of information that can benefit the professionals named as well as the hosting site and parents searching for information. However, that can be abused. In a site by a referring business devoted to helping parents of struggling teens, a listing of consultants and programs implies permission and a working knowledge and relationship with all the consultants and programs listed. This means that that referring business is benefiting from the reputation of the consultants and programs. When possible abuse occurs is when some directories will have a brief description of the program, but you have to contact the referral site to get more information, including contact information, thus redirecting visitors looking for information on that consultant or program. Others will provide program and consultant contact information, but clearly makes the impression that to get a third party perspective on the consultant or program, you should call the 800 number on the site. Where consultants are listed, it is basically suggesting you contact the site to find out about a competitor. This is a possible problem because some of these directories have very prominent listings in the free search engine reports. For example, in the example above regarding Jane Schoenfeld, the number two slot in the free listings is a troubled teen directory where Jane is listed.
Anonymous web sites are also of concern. These are sites with a catchy name, and full of promises of experience and concern for the parents and their children. Many of these sites are very professionally done. These are all over the net, very prominent in many searches, but they contain absolutely no information as to who is hosting the site. Do the people behind the site have any credentials or relevant experience? How can a parent, or anybody else, assess their track record, or even if the parties have a criminal record? Exactly who is it that the parents are expected to trust for advice about what to do with their children? In response to this situation, we at Places for Struggling Teens™ have initiated a policy that we will not accept advertising from any site that does not contain on their site the names and experience of the principle persons involved, and their physical location.
Nasty web sites are those that are devoted to specific schools or programs, usually by critics of those schools in discussion boards. Some of the posters are so nasty that they drive away anybody that has something positive to say about a program. Under cover of allegedly free speech, anonymous posters can say anything they want with no fear of being held accountable. At least one of these sites does not block search engines, so some of these extremely critical, one-sided and unfair criticisms come up in google searches of program or consultant names.
First, if you are an educational consultant or work in an emotional growth/therapeutic school or program, do a Google search to see if anyone is piggy-backing on your name. It would be a good idea to also check on some of the other search engines. If you find a cyber-squatter on the search, then unless you have given them permission in one way or another, there are several things you can try.
Of course, you can decide to live and let live, allowing your reputation to be used by another business.
Complain to the search engine. Google will respect a trademarked name if you can prove legal rights, and will prevent anyone from using it as an advertisement key word. I’m not sure if that will apply to personal names, but we would be interested in what anybody finds.
A Cease and Desist letter from your attorney sometimes will do wonders.
The two professional organizations connected with this network have both expressed concern, the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP). Encourage them to take action. We at Places for Struggling Teens™ have discussed this with both Executive Directors and pledged our help and support for anything their organizations can do.
Publicity of your concerns can also do wonders. Even a simple published notice disavowing any association could be effective in bringing public light onto the situation, and we would be interested in publishing it, especially on the Internet where it would be picked up by search engines.
There is a concept in economics called Gresham’s law. That is, bad money will drive out good money. I think something similar is happening to the network of Emotional Growth/Therapeutic schools and programs, and that this growing development of piggy-backing cyber-squatters is a threat to the private practice of providing competent professional services to families with struggling teens. We are open to any thoughts or suggestions.