FindLaw SEOThere’s little question in my mind that FindLaw’s selling links to law firms in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines was a big mistake.

Not only may FindLaw be liable to law firms for the millions of dollars paid by law firms to FindLaw for these spam links, but FindLaw and its parent company, Thomson Reuters, has damaged its reputation and brand in the eyes of lawyers and the search community, including Google, for years to come.

Dad always said there’s a right way and a wrong way to handle everything. FindLaw needs to do the right thing and to do it now.

Here’s the right thing to do:

  1. Acknowledge immediately to your lawyer customers who bought the spam links and the legal community as a whole that ‘FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business,’ acted wrongly and in violation of Google’s webmaster rules.
  2. Apologize immediately to the law firms and the legal community for FindLaw’s course of conduct.
  3. Announce immediately that FindLaw will refund within 30 days all the money paid by the law firms for these links.
  4. Perform an immediate accounting of all monies paid for the links by the respective law firms. (Appears to be in the hundreds, possibly thousands of law firms and for all I know could be $3 to $5 million).
  5. Report the results of the accounting publicly.
  6. Hold the FindLaw people who authorized the sale of links, who had to know it was improper, personally responsible. That includes senior management who very likely knew.
  7. Establish an in-house ethics review committee and ethical standards protocol to prevent future improper conduct.

Tuesday will be the 7th day since the news of FindLaw’s selling links was reported on the net as well as 7 days from when Google’s Matt Cutts became aware of the violation. And at least the 4th day since FindLaw was penalized by having its website PageRank dropped from a 7 to a 5.

FindLaw has chosen not to respond – to the public, to its customers, or to bloggers. This is rather surprising in these days of corporate damage control and where word spreads like wildfire on the net.

I worked as a VP of Business Development for LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell – lawyers.com, FindLaw’s largest competitor, following the acquisition of my prior company. I may never have agreed with everything Martindale did, and God knows I am a vocal critic of Martindale here, but Martindale always looked at itself as having a reputation to uphold because of its history and its role in the legal community as a whole.

I can’t believe Martindale senior management would have ever allowed this sort of thing, no matter the pressure for incremental revenue. But if Martindale did get itself in trouble, I have to believe it would have held itself accountable to its lawyer customers and the legal profession.

FindLaw needs to act accordingly if it wants to seriously compete with Martindale and lawyers.com, reduce the damage to the Thomson Reuters FindLaw name, and to attempt to reestablish itself as a respected member of our legal community.

The legal community looks forward to FindLaw’s response in the next day or two.

Update: Based on an inquiry from a sales rep I want to make myself clear. In no way did I mean to imply that Martindale ever sold spam links – Martindale, to my knowledge, has not ever sold links like FindLaw did. My point was that the Martindale senior management I knew while serving as a VP of Martindale would never have even thought of doing something like FindLaw did. Related posts:

  • I think everyone needs to take a deep breath here. First, I don’t condone what FindLaw did, but violating Google’s terms of service is hardly some sort of ethical misstep, nor is it really something you should apologize for (unless you are apologizing to Google to get your site re-indexed).
    Second, the vast majority of firms that participated in this program knew very well that buying links is a violation of Google’s terms of service. So if those links are now devalued, that was a risk they took themselves.
    And lastly, the toolbar PageRank drop you are seeing is very likely a coincidence. Toolbar PageRank is very inaccurate and almost always lags months behind actual changes in PageRank. Google’s normal operating procedure is to leave the visible, and most likely the actual PageRank the same, yet prevent those violating pages from passing on any of that PageRank to the pages they link to.

  • Suggesting everyone should take a deep breath here is a little naive Nick. It’s a little surprising that you appear to think what FindLaw did was not all that bad.
    Have you practiced as a partner in a law firm and advised your partners that they buy something at a significant expense because you believed in the product and the vendor, and then have one of your partners find out what you advised the firm to buy may have been worthless and in violation of the rules governing what’s acceptable in the industry? That’s what’s going on here and I think a lot of law firms are pissed off and have a right to be.
    Sure, some of the firms knew that buying links was in violation of Google’s rules and I guess all the firms that did so were complicit to the extent they paid the cash.
    But there’s no way the vast majority of the firms who bought the links ‘knew very well that buying links is a violation of Google’s terms of service.’
    I speak around the country to bar associations and legal marketing associations. The vast majority of lawyers know little, if anything, about SEO. They sure ain’t reading Google’s webmaster rules, attending SEO conferences, or reading blogs published by reputable SEO professionals.
    Look at the list of the 100 personal injury law firms listed in the spam links on the bottom of this web page at FindLaw. Maybe there’s some shady firms in there, I don’t know. But there’s some good firms in there as well. Some of whom I personally know from my days practicing law. There ain’t no way they’re involved in a scheme to scam Google – they are upstanding legal professionals whose reputations are beyond reproach.
    These law firms buying links got caught up in a scheme that no ethical SEO professional would touch with a ten foot poll because FindLaw was selling a product that would help the firms website on the search engines. It’s as simple as that. Look at the FindLaw sales collateral used to sell the product. It’s pretty convincing and gives no hint that what’s being suggested is wrong.
    We’re dealing with the legal profession here, a profession that many fine people entered into because they saw it as a fine and noble profession.
    FindLaw, as a vendor to the legal community making hundreds of millions of dollars from lawyers, has the obligation to act in a forthright and ethical fashion. Thomson Reuters, FindLaw’s parent company, makes billions from legal professionals.
    That’s okay. Just honor the fact that this is a profession, not something and someone to game in a get rich quick scheme.

  • Kevin:
    FindLaw has the right to do anything they want with their site. And, if selling links is something they want to do, that is perfectly fine. Likewise, Google has the same right to do what they want with their site. And, they are welcome to discount FindLaw’s outbound links or remove FindLaw from their index entirely. We’re talking business decisions here, not ethics.
    InjuryBoard does not buy, nor do we sell, links. But to suggest doing so is “unethical” is ridiculous. It’s simply a violation of a search engine’s guidelines. Nothing more, and nothing less. And to say “These law firms buying links got caught up in a scheme that no ethical SEO professional would touch with a ten foot poll,” shows your lack of understanding of the industry you are discussing. Oilman himself closes his blog post with, “The(y) should have stayed underground and partnered with a decent broker.”
    I suspect your real point is that you feel the firms buying these services were mislead. I can’t speak to that. The only documentation I’ve seen has been incomplete. But I do agree that if deception was used as a sales tool, some apologies and refunds are clearly in order. But in that case, the ethical violation is old school and obvious (they lied). It really has nothing to do with links, or Google or the Internet at all.
    And for the record, I have much less faith than you. A lot of firms, when you get right down to it, are indeed looking for a get rich quick scheme when it comes to Internet marketing. That’s what makes finding great firms to work with so difficult.
    And as a final note, the Google definition of a Link Scheme is relatively vague.
    http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=66356.
    Many companies may be a little closer than they think to violating Google’s terms.

  • Agree with some of what you say Nick. In using the term ‘unethical’ I am referring to ethical standards to be upheld by responsible business leaders. In my book, selling something you know violates Google’s guidelines without disclosing that to lawyers is unethical business behavior.
    It’s certainly not the conduct that FindLaw employees could take pride and confidence in.
    Thomson Reuters, the owner of FindLaw, has shared values and standards they assume as a leader among information companies. Before it’s all over, I’m confident you’re going to see them acknowledge their mistakes here as well as refund monies to lawyers. There’s just too much at stake.
    Sure, SEO experts do SEO work to garner links at all types of sites, but I haven’t seen many good ones, if any, create the type of spam link pages FindLaw has done and overtly sell links for millions of dollars.
    It was greed on FindLaw’s part and something that good companies don’t do.
    I still have the faith of a little kid in our legal profession, and I realize I am one of the few. Each day, I get to speak to good lawyers, who happen to be great people, from around the country or the world who are are looking to acheive something more – both personally and professionally.
    They’re doing it, or soon will be, through personal publishing, dialogue with other thought leaders, and networking on the net. Something that was never before possible. Sure, like everything, some aren’t has good or inspired as others. But that’s life.
    Bottom line, blogging and social networking for lawyers is a remarkable development for the legal profession. Personal empowerment resulting in content and discussion that serves the legal profession and the public. That’s cool and what causes me to remain faithful.
    Hang in there. Some day we may even turn the reputation of the legal profession around.

  • Have to say, I’m probably stuck right in the middle of you two. Google’s guidelines are a bit aggressive at times, especially at dictating what others can do (or not do) with their own websites.
    The bigger problem, and what I suspect Google’s coming down hard on, isn’t that Findlaw was selling link based advertising. More that Findlaw was using their measure of PageRank as the basis for selling those links. That act alone turns PageRank into a measure of link value, and if they permit it to continue, creates an instant marketplace for link sales. Something Google clearly doesn’t want to see happen. A very slippery slope…
    It will be interesting to see how Findlaw responds. If they don’t comply, do they get a full-on Google penalty and stop ranking? As of today, their visible PageRank was effected, but not their rankings. Do Thomson Reuters get nasty and start lobbying for anti trust measures? As I said in a post earlier today, it’s an old publishing economy vs new publishing economy stand off. Pass the popcorn! :)

  • Thanks for the comment Steve, most appreciated. Though Google has not penalized the search results for FindLaw, Google appears to have diminished the PageRank value FindLaw can pass to another site across the entire FindLaw website.
    Wow, an anitrust action by Thomson versus the hand that feeds you to keep $5 or $10 million in incremental revenue a year? And against the finest lawyers money can buy who work on these issues day in and day out. I have been wrong as many times as right, but I don’t see it.
    I think it’s going to be a short running movie with FindLaw ceasing its practice and refunding money soon.

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