Header graphic for print
Real Lawyers Have Blogs On the topic of the law, firm marketing, social media, & baseball

Is your law firm SEO company doing you more harm on Google than good?

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.

  • http://www.tech4law.co.za Malcolm Pearson

    This is very true and I would guess there are a number of other firms not mentioned that have “slipped” into the same promise by SEO “fly by night” outfits.
    It is a good practice to do your own research on references and Google searches, before deciding on a certain SEO company. The problem for lawyers is always time, but in this case it will save plenty of embarrassment and work down the line.

  • http://www.USLegalWriting.com Jim Burke

    If you’re a startup firm, without much capital, the temptation to head down a dark SEO path is great. If you want traffic sooner rather than later, your choices are pretty much limited to paid traffic (google adwords, etc.) and SEO. Paid traffic is expensive, especially for some of the words that law firms lust after (check out the cost of “mesothelioma” next time you have nothing to do), and legitimate (google approved) SEO is SLOOOOOW. Not only is it slow, but it’s a lot of work. Content generation, web design, online interaction and link building are all extremely labor intensive.
    So, if you’re a startup what do you do? Find some reasonable middle ground that doesn’t jeopardize your google relationship over the long haul. Maybe do some paid advertising that you can afford, and put in the time necessary to do your SEO right. If you can manage to survive long enough, it’s the good SEO that will form a basis for a long term business. Paid advertising stops working the minute you turn it off; SEO is the little engine that could–it just keeps chugging right along.

  • http://www.sanantonioemploymentlawblog.com tom Crane

    So, is it “black hat” to trade links with another law firm? I have been approached a couple of times and not sure about this. I guess if the other firm has good content that would be helpful to my readers, I would consider a “trade.”

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    Thanks for the comments guys. No question doing some research on who would do a good SEO job for you — and who would do it using the right techniques.
    Jim, your guide on to how to begin your search engine work is real sound. Yu can’t do it over night and online interaction and content generation is labor intensive. It does pay off in the long run.
    On trading links Tom, I think lawyers do it all the time. My guess is at the rate you’re going to consider doing it that it’s not going to sink your ship.
    The problem you get into in trading links across a network of similar people is if that is what most of your incoming links are it will be seen by Google as exactly that — and the value of those incoming links will be discounted by Google.

  • http://www.attorneysync.com Gyi Tsakalakis

    I think it has been posted elsewhere on Kevin’s Blog, but if you’re looking for “Google-approved SEO” check out their guide: http://www.google.com/webmasters/docs/search-engine-optimization-starter-guide.pdf
    As for what’s white hat, gray hat, black hat, etc, it’s really up to Google. If you maintain a “give Google what it wants” mantra, odds are you will be safe.
    The frustrating thing about Google is that you may find your competitors using “black hat” tactics. In fact, some of them will use “throw-away” domains for their more aggressive strategies, and take the long-term white hat approach for their primary domains.
    In the end, each legal professional will have to do the best they can to understand as much as they can about search marketing in order to make an informed decision.
    Just like any other advertising & marketing (newspaper, radio, television), the each legal professional must decide how they want their professional reputation displayed to the online world.
    Simply throwing your hands up and saying, “I don’t have time to understand this” presents the risk of doing something that could cost you professional credibility.

  • http://www.mcdlaw.us Jay MscDaniel

    Black hat tricks can be expensive, too. Recently defended a case in which a very large, very prominent abandoned a web site. A black hat SEO firm grabbed the url and managed to copy the abandoned web site, with a link to my client’s web site.
    Needless to say the technique was ultimately discovered. Although the dispute was worked out, it was not cheap (they never are.) Also got another call recently from a seriously put out engineer recently complaining that a large company that writes content for websites was copying blocks of his keyword rick article and pasting it into expensive websites. If you’re going to outsource, make sure that the ground rules of what is acceptable behavior are clear.
    We blog frequently (and yes, one of our blogs is with Lexblog) and try to generate quality content for our website as well. So far, so good.

  • http://www.legalcommunicationsgroup.com Tom Harari

    First off – fantastic post. Needed to be said, especially in the law firm SEO world. I’d have to agree with Jay in that black hat SEO is neither cheap, nor is it easy to pull off. That being said, law firm SEO is plagued by flagrant outright abuse of Google’s TOS. One of my favorite examples, a law firm which will remain nameless, was getting exact match anchor text links from a high PageRank (and high domain authority) Chinese news site – and the links themselves were hidden or cloaked off the page using either CSS or Javascript.
    I’m also not so sure that law firms are completely clueless or in the dark about how their SEO company is getting them ranked well. I have to believe that many of them know exactly what they’re paying for.
    Overall I think you presented the argument well. If all of your competitors are paying for links in order to rank well, your choice is to either wait for Google to take action, or to join the club. That’s a business decision law firms need to make, knowing full well what might (and likely will eventually) happen if they engage in any link building that is counter to Google’s guidelines. Short term vs. long-term.
    We’ve found that with a little creativity, law firms can go after really good quality links, in a white-hat way, that improves rankings, but more importantly traffic, submissions, and ultimately cases.

  • http://www.legalcommunicationsgroup.com Tom Harari

    @tom Crane – If I can just comment on your question: it’s not “black hat” to trade links with other law firms, but the question is will it help. A few years ago, reciprocal linking was all the rage and everybody had a “links” page stuffed with links from all over the internet where they traded links back and forth. Since then, it’s almost become common knowledge that reciprocal linking on that scale does not improve search engine rankings, and Google has figured out how to devalue those types of links.
    There are two creative ways to engage in reciprocal linking which may help rankings, but will also help your site’s visitors. Here’s my two favorite ways:
    1. If your area of practice is very niche (i.e. Lemon Law), then offering visitors to your site a resources page of other Lemon Law attorneys in other states would be useful, in case any of those visitors were from out-of-state.
    2. If your law firm website has a blog, and you blog regularly, why not offer the other firm a chance to write a guest post on your blog and offer them to put a link that is followed pointing back to their site. You can exchange guest posts with links (just one, don’t go overboard) and you get the link from their site, you increase your exposure, you build your brand, and you may get actual visitors coming to your site from theirs.
    So reciprocal linking the way it used to be done might be dead, but with some creativity it can be done usefully with some great results.

  • David Sandy

    The New York times running a story on something is a bit of an anomaly. I think the story shows just the opposite, that if you’re not willing to go at least somewhat greyhat you don’t need to compete. Google’s not going to really police this unless publicity forces it.
    I’ve seen lots of white hat companies that don’t do a bloody thing but charge $500 a month. Local search is ludicrously easy to get on the first page. I’ve gotten to the top 10 for some terms for less than $100 of links. (not bought). Just make sure they spell out exactly what the firm is going to be doing on your behalf.
    Lot’s of white hat firms rip people off by not explaining how search works with the vast majority of traffic in positions 1-3, the actual volumes(make sure it’s exact match), and by really spreading out the return time to make it seem like they are doing something.
    You need to understand the risk you’re running, but it’s very very rare for a local business to get deindexed with visible on page linking.