Law firm SEO on GoogleThe lead story in the Business Section of Sunday’s New York Times, ‘The Dirty Little Secrets of Search,’ ought to be a wake up call for law firms paying companies for search engine optimization – SEO.

Do you know what your law firm’s SEO company is doing in an attempt to achieve higher search results for you? Is the SEO company using tactics that will end up sabotaging your firm’s long term search results in order to achieve short term gains? You know — gains you can see when you’re paying the SEO company the big money.

J.C. Penney, under the gun from shareholders to achieve high Christmas sales last year, turned to a SEO company to get it high search results on Google. It worked.

  • Key in dresses and Penney’s beat out Macy’s, J. Crew, and the Gap.
  • Key in area rugs and Penney’s beat out Crate & Barrel, Home Depot, Sears, Pier 1 and even arearugs.com.
  • Key in bedding and Penney’s outranked Bed Bath & Beyond and Wal-Mart.

Note we’re talking organic search results, not the paid for sponsored links that sit on the top of Google search results pages. The organic search results which are trusted by a three or four to one margin over sponsored links (advertising) by consumers.

How was Penneys getting this results? Through ‘black hat’ SEO techniques. Per the Times‘ David Segal:

…[B]lack-hat services are not illegal, but trafficking in them risks the wrath of Google. The company draws a pretty thick line between techniques it considers deceptive and “white hat” approaches, which are offered by hundreds of consulting firms and are legitimate ways to increase a site’s visibility. Penney’s results were derived from methods on the wrong side of that line, says Doug Pierce (search expert from Blue Fountain Media in New York). He described the optimization as the most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results that he has ever seen.

You need to understand that a critical, if not the most important, factor in getting high search results on Google are incoming links from other sites. Per Segal:

If you own a Web site, for instance, about Chinese cooking, your site’s Google ranking will improve as other sites link to it. The more links to your site, especially those from other Chinese cooking-related sites, the higher your ranking. In a way, what Google is measuring is your site’s popularity by polling the best-informed online fans of Chinese cooking and counting their links to your site as votes of approval.

And whoever was doing Penney’s SEO work went out and got a boat load of links.

Mr. Pierce found 2,015 pages with phrases like “casual dresses,” “evening dresses,” “little black dress” or “cocktail dress.” Click on any of these phrases on any of these 2,015 pages, and you are bounced directly to the main page for dresses on JCPenney.com.

Some of the 2,015 pages are on sites related, at least nominally, to clothing. But most are not. The phrase “black dresses” and a Penney link were tacked to the bottom of a site called nuclear.engineeringaddict.com. “Evening dresses” appeared on a site called casino-focus.com. “Cocktail dresses” showed up on bulgariapropertyportal.com. ”Casual dresses” was on a site called elistofbanks.com. “Semi-formal dresses” was pasted, rather incongruously, on usclettermen.org.

There are links to JCPenney.com’s dresses page on sites about diseases, cameras, cars, dogs, aluminum sheets, travel, snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles, hotel furniture, online games, commodities, fishing, Adobe Flash, glass shower doors, jokes and dentists — and the list goes on.

Google got wind of Penney’s ‘scheming links’ last week and took corrective action. It didn’t matter that Penney’s allegedly did not know of the ‘black hat’ SEO tactics being performed on their behalf. Search results which had Penney’s website pages at the top were now placing Penney’s at 71.

Law firms are not immune from unknowingly paying for ‘black hat’ SEO. I receive multiple requests a day from SEO companies requesting links to law firm blogs or law firm websites. They’ll often offer to pay for links.

SEO companies regularly leave fictitious comments on my blog leaving a link to a law firm website. When I contact the law firm to whose website was linked to in the comment the law firm tells me they have no idea what I’m talking about. They tell me they didn’t leave the comment and link.

FindLaw got caught allegedly selling links to law firms so as to increase the search results of law firm websites. Within days of FindLaw’s SEO practices being made public, FindLaw’s PageRank (scoring importance of a link from a website) dropped significantly. Apparently because of corrective action taken by Google.

Many law firms are addicted to SEO like crack cocaine addicts. Even large law firms who you wouldn’t think would chase search results for generic terms related to practice areas are hiring SEO companies to chase such results.

The problem for law firms is that they know as much about SEO and selecting SEO companies as they do about tuning up a ’65 Chevy. You hope you got what you paid for.

In the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t matter if you ask your SEO company what they they are going to do on your behalf. If they’re going to cheat, they’re not going to confess their sins. The others are not going to want to disclose ‘secrets.’

Many law firms don’t care what a SEO company does on their behalf. They’ll pay for top search results, even if it’s only for the short term.

If your law firm is looking to do the right thing for SEO, you have two choices. Ask around, there are some good and reputable companies doing SEO work for law firms.

The other, and the one that’ll serve you best in the long run, is to publish content of value to your target audience.

And treat the Internet as a conversation. With links being the currency of Internet conversation blogs and publications reference each other by linking to each other. The more you ‘converse’ the more relevant links to your blog or website you’ll receive. In time, you’ll have more relevant links than you can shake a stick at.

Best of all, in publishing valuable content you’ll be in control of your own destiny on Google.