I shared a couple years ago that FindLaw blogs were an embarrassment to the legal profession.

The reason being that Findlaw was publishing blogs authored by Findlaw employees that, in my opinion, were nothing more than a regurgitation of news content. The goal being to fill a blog post with keywords that could link to FindLaw websites or websites FindLaw sold to law firms. In other words, spam blogs to game Google’s search engine rankings.

I mentioned that a ‘Emily Grube,’ a writing specialist, not a lawyer, was one of the folks writing the FindLaw blog posts.

Last week I received an anonymous comment from someone who says they used to work at FindLaw.

I used to work as a writer at FindLaw – not blogs, more just churning out the firmsite stuff. As such I just want to say, don’t be too hard on Emily Grube.

FindLaw hires people who have only vague notions about the law, then tells them “write like this, it might make you feel like a shithead but trust us, it’s okay.”

Grube was just following orders. Don’t blame her, don’t shit on her life just because FindLaw put her in the position of offending the wrong people.

Nice.

FindLaw is continuing with spam law blogs. This time rather than with its own FindLaw blogs such as the New York Personal Injury Legal Blog, which gave rise to my earlier post, FindLaw is apparently selling ghostwritten blogs to lawyers.

Take a look at the ‘Recently Added Blogs’ on FindLaw’s Legal Blog Network.

FindLaw Law blogs

The blogs are not written by lawyers, they are written ‘On Behalf of” a law firm. I guess that way it’s not false or misleading advertising contra to bar rules for implying that a firm’s lawyer authored the blog.

I thought I had seen some ‘real posts’ written on behalf of a law firm on some of the ‘Recently Added Blogs,’ but the following are the only blog posts I see today on these blogs.

  • From the Boston MA Personal Injury Law Blog, published by Kenney & Conley, PC one blog post of January 4:

    We established this blog to share stories and information about topics relevant to our practice. Our intent is to highlight local stories, as well as national subject matter, that we think you will find interesting. We will regularly update this blog and encourage you to share your thoughts on these posts.

  • From the Fredericksburg VA Family Law Blog, published by Jarrell, Hicks & Waldman, PC, one blog post of January 9:

    We established this blog to share stories and information about topics relevant to our practice. Our intent is to highlight local stories, as well as national subject matter, that we think you will find interesting. We will regularly update this blog and encourage you to share your thoughts on these posts.

  • From the Pearl River NY Tax Law Blog, published by The Law Offices of Hugh Janow, LLC, one blog post of January 9:

    We established this blog to share stories and information about topics relevant to our practice. Our intent is to highlight local stories, as well as national subject matter, that we think you will find interesting. We will regularly update this blog and encourage you to share your thoughts on these posts.

See any similarity in those blog posts?

I know the blogs are going to go on to have additional blog posts. FindLaw has likely sold the law firms ‘X’ number of blog posts per week or month.

Rather than insight and commentary on the law from a practicing lawyer though, the posts will be a shallow regurgitation of news stories like this post titled entitled ‘Georgia girl suffers lost arm from pit bull attack, testifies,’ paraphrasing a Atlanta Journal-Constitution story.

Maybe by blogging about this I am being too hard on the law firms who are buying these blogs from FindLaw. They likely don’t know anything about how to use the Internet for business development. They probably don’t know how poorly what FindLaw is selling them reflects on their law firm and its attorneys.

But Findlaw ought to know better and ought to be playing straight up with members of the legal profession it serves.

Sell expensive stuff to unknowing lawyers who don’t how the Internet works and who don’t know their reputation is being tarnished by what you’re selling them. What a business model.

FindLaw BlogsWest Publishing, founded in 1872 in St. Paul, Minnesota by John West, has been one of, if not the, most prominent legal publishers in the United States for over a century.

West established itself as the nationwide de facto standard used by all federal courts and most state courts for the reporting of legal decisions. The company published countless legal treatises authored by the leading legal scholars of our time. Black’s Law Dictionary published by West and the first law book I bought in law school, had a place in every courtroom and law office the entire time I practiced law.

But boy has West Publishing, now part of Thomson Reuters, fallen. West, under the FindLaw brand, is now publishing spam law blogs full of little more than mindless crap, all in the name of selling Internet marketing services to unknowing lawyers. Shameless.

West’s slide has come with the roll up of West into what’s now known as the global legal division of Toronto based Thomson Reuters. Thomson Reuters (then known as Thomson) purchased West in 1996 and consolidated West and a number of other law book companies into what became know as Thomson West. In 2001, Thomson West acquired FindLaw.com, a free legal information web portal, founded by Stacy Stern and Tim Stanley. Thomson Reuters – West – FindLaw, however they may be now branded, make up this global legal division of Thomson Reuters.

As way of background, spam blogs are blog sites with inauthentic text or or text merely stolen or paraphrased (blog scraping) from other websites. The purpose of such a blog is to get high google search results in order to sell ads on the spam blog or to link to other websites in an attempt to improve the search engine performance of the site being linked to so you may sell ads or services on this second site.

Spam blogs are the rage among two bit scheme artists out hustling a buck. Unfortunately West, under the FindLaw brand, has become one these two bit scheme artists.

Let’s look at one of FindLaw’s new law blogs, The New York Personal Injury Law Blog, and in particular a blog post about a fatal auto crash reported by WCBS News in New York. The blog post is authored by a Emily Grube, a writing specialist, not a lawyer. Grube also authors other spam blogs for FindLaw.

In this blog post FindLaw regurgitates the facts of a local accident, including listing the names of four people killed in the accident. The post goes on to strategically link keywords related to the law, injury, lawyer, and New York to web pages in the FindLaw Internet directory in which lawyers buy listings and ads.

Grube then has the gall to write if you’ve suffered a personal injury you can contact a New York personal injury lawyer, of course linking the text ‘personal injury lawyer’ to FindLaw’s directory. The post does not allow for comments, nor is there any attempt at creativity or analysis.

Imagine scraping the names of four of someone’s loved ones killed in an accident from a news website story for a blog post so you can use the term ‘wrongful death.’ Your goal being to link the term ‘wrongful death’ to a FindLaw website page where people may search for injury lawyers who pay to pay to be in the FindLaw directory. Ambulance chasing at its worst. But FindLaw did it.

Imagine scraping the names of four of someone’s loved ones killed in an accident from a news website story for a blog post so you can say ‘can still sue that man’s estate.’ Your goal being to link the phrase ‘can still sue that man’s estate’ (also done in the subject post) to a FindLaw website page where people may search for probate lawyers who pay to be in the FindLaw directory. Disgusting. But FindLaw did it.

There’s even more garbage in this FindLaw spam blog. Look in the about section in the right hand column where out of 97 words 37 words are keywords related to New York and injury law. It takes a real ‘writing specialist’ to write crap like this:

The New York Personal Injury Law Blog covers news and developments in the area of personal injury and tort law in New York state, and New York City specifically, and helps to connect people with New York injury lawyers. The New York Personal Injury Law Blog is intended to serve as a resource for people working through a personal injury issue in New York, or those who are interested in New York personal injury and tort law generally, including New York personal injury attorneys who wish to keep up with the latest news developments.

I’m not alone in my criticism of FindLaw. Leading New York Attorney Eric Turkewitz labels the blog publishers on spam blogs, and in this case FindLaw’s blogs, as dreck-bloggers. (dreck defined as “excrement; dung”)

[They] aren’t interested in creating good content, they simply regurgitate local accident or arrest stories and place a call-to-action link at the bottom. Posts are filled with buzzwords to game Google that, if coupled with the call-to-action for a recent event, places them firmly in the camp of Solicitation 2.0, a subject I dealt with two years ago. Put bluntly, many of these dung-blogs are electronically soliciting clients. E-chasing, for lack of a better word.

Widely respected blogger and New York Attorney, Scott Greenfield, commenting on FindLaw’s blogs:

These aren’t blogs, of course, in the sense that we understand them. There are mere names designed to trade in on search engine keywords, and capitalize on FindLaw’s SEO ability to get their scam blogs higher than yours on the search engine’s first page.

San Diego Attorney Marc Randazza asked ‘FindLaw, are you really that douchetastic?’

They hired a milquetoast writer to author a milquetoast blawg for the sole purpose of selling ad space to sh*tty lawyers who can’t develop a reputation on their own.

FindLaw’s conduct is beneath everything we have the right to expect from companies serving the legal profession. Rather than conduct itself in a way that improves the image of lawyers and upholds the dignity of our profession, FindLaw gets down in the gutter so it can sell marketing services to lawyers who have not a clue what FindLaw is doing to trash our profession. A profession in which West Publishing once played a proud role.

Boy has a first class legal publishing company once held in esteem by lawyers, judges, and law schools fallen. All in the name of greed.

FindLaw barely tueLast month FindLaw Lawyer Marketing was caught selling links to law firm websites, a violation of Google’s guidelines and a practice considered unethical SEO – search engine optimization.

Rather than acknowledge its errors, FindLaw responded that it did not sell links to law firm websites. FindLaw said the story of selling links arose out of FindLaw sales literature leaked to the public about a FindLaw product called SEM – Corporate. It was that product purportedly pitched by FindLaw to corporations such as Avvo and JD Supra which involved the sale of links.

Typical of FindLaw’s response given to lawyers, its employees, and the media, including the Wall Street Journal, is this statement given by FindLaw spokesman John Shaughnessy to the National Law Journal’s Pamela MacLean.

FindLaw selling links to law firms

What FindLaw did not say is that FindLaw had been selling a similar product to law firms called SEM Advantage. Presumably standing for ‘Search Engine Marketing.’

I’ve received a copy of promotional information on SEM Advantage, apparently distributed to FindLaw’s salespeople in sales meetings this last Winter at Tucson’s Star Pass Resort. The literature clearly identifies the product as SEM Advantage, making no mention of ‘SEM-Corporate.’

FindLaw Law Marketing SEM Advantage

The literature clearly defines the customer of the product as law firms.

FindLaw law firm marketing

What’s included in this sale to law firms? Inbound links tops the list.

FindLaw SEO Marketing

FindLaw websites top the list of websites on which FindLaw will place the links to law firms.

FindLaw links from FindLaw websites

What do those links look like? In many cases, like the 100 links to law firm websites below the footer of this FindLaw Legal Connection web page. Links placed clearly not to provide greater visibility to law firms by the links being clicked on, but links sold by FindLaw to provide what’s called ‘Google Juice’ to the law firm websites.

I suppose FindLaw could say the sale of links was only one of four things being sold to law firms as part of SEM Advantage. I don’t know.

What do you think? Do you think FindLaw was being truthful in its denial of selling links to law firms?

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The Legal Broadcast Network ( LB Network ) is not LexBlog, but a network founded by Jan Schlichtmann, the nationally renown attorney and advocate for public justice and environmental issues and Mark Wahlstrom, one of the nations leading settlement planning professionals and advocate for plaintiffs rights to representation.

Notwithstanding FindLaw’s hope and belief, the FindLaw selling links debacle has a ways to play out, with the primary impact being lawyers and law firms distrust of FindLaw and their law firm marketing solutions.

This well done and researched video from a reputable source is an example of what you can expect to see as people look beyond what FindLaw is telling folks.

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FindLaw selling links SEOThings are getting interesting in what’s best called the ‘FindLaw selling links scandal’ or Linkgate that’s been widely discussed across the net – in legal and SEO blog posts, comments on blogs, on Twitter and now reported in the the Wall Street Journal.

FindLaw’s been reportedly selling a service to lawyers whereby FindLaw gets high search engine results for the law firms. FindLaw calls this product SEM (Search Engine Marketing) Advantage.

The problem is that a key element to FindLaw’s methods for getting high search engine results for the firms is the placing of links around FindLaw property websites, not links for users to click on, but links in tiny text below footers on webpages. They’re called ‘spam links’ and in violation of Google’s guidelines.

FindLaw got caught by Google a couple weeks ago for allegedly selling links. FindLaw started changing the ‘spam links’ so that the links no longer provided ‘Google Juice’ to the lawyers’ websites. Doesn’t appear FindLaw has told the lawyers who paid upwards of $2,500 per month for this SEM Advantage product that FindLaw got caught by Google nor that FindLaw took away a significant part of the lawyers’ ‘Google Juice.’

FindLaw will not respond to bloggers but did respond to the Wall Street Journal saying ‘We don’t not sell links to law firms.’ I am also informed from a reliable source that talking points given to FindLaw employees in order to respond to blogged reports of FindLaw misconduct includes the same ‘We don’t not sell links to law firms.’

FindLaw did say they may have sold links to corporations, but never law firms. And that the sale of such links has stopped and the money has been refunded to those corporations.

Now we have an informed source known to be a former FindLaw Sales Representative blowing the whistle on FindLaw’s misconduct. What started as simply misconduct is appearing to me to be every bit a coverup – Linkgate.

Here’s a comment from the source on a leading SEO blog.

FindLaw SEO selling links

And another comment on the same blog from the same source.

FindLaw selling links for SEO

And yet another comment from the same source.

FindLaw selling links SEO

Readers, please keep that information on Linkgate coming. If need be, set up an alias email address at GMail to send me information and documents. I’ll do my best to share what I can.

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FindLaw selling links SEOIn comments on this blog and throughout the blogosphere FindLaw cronies have been denying misconduct in the FindLaw selling links debacle. When the cronies realize they’re on the short end of the argument, they just fall back on ‘you’re just bloggers, you spread rumors, this is why few bloggers are trusted, there’s no proof…’

Well the mud just got a little deeper for FindLaw today. Dow Jones’ Nat Worden reported this afternoon that FindLaw has been slapped by Google for shady SEO tactics and that lawyers are now questioning the SEO marketing product FindLaw sold them.

Worden explained that FindLaw came up with a ‘SEM Advantage’ product which cost some lawyers $2,000 per month.

Billed as a “high-octane” way to double or even triple traffic on his site, Newell [FindLaw lawyer customer] and others like him understood FindLaw’s SEM Advantage product to be a package of well-placed links designed to lift a Web site’s standing in a Google search. But now they’re wondering if they’re still getting their money’s worth.

Worden reports FindLaw may have pulled the wool out from under these lawyers.

Late last month, FindLaw quietly made changes to a link on one of its Web sites leading to Newell’s site, which he had received as part of SEM Advantage. It also changed at least 99 other links to the Web sites of law-firm clients after it ran afoul of Google Inc. (GOOG) in the search giant’s ongoing efforts to crack down on a practice known as selling “link juice,” or Web links designed to boost a Web site’s page rankings in a search engine. With the link juice trade springing up as a cottage industry across the entire spectrum of online marketing, Google views it as threatening the quality of its search engine, an asset that has made Google a dominant force in media.

Read on in Worden’s article and you’ll see that FindLaw made the changes adversely effecting lawyers like Newell because FindLaw had been caught by Google for selling links in violation of Google’s guidelines. Something in my opinion, FindLaw knew or should have known it was going to get caught doing.

Worden concludes with what is most alarming, and perhaps why FindLaw is not owning up to its misconduct.

The controversy comes at a difficult time for FindLaw’s parent company, Thomson-Reuters, which publishes a news service that competes directly with Dow Jones Newswires and is delivered on the same terminals. Its stock price is down about 20% over the last year amid concerns that the U.S. financial crisis will quash growth in its financial markets division. Investors are counting on its professional division to pick up the slack, and its legal services business, for which Findlaw is a small but important growth engine, made up 66% of that division’s revenue in the first half.

Imagine if FindLaw confessed to duping lawyers for millions of dollars (not saying they did, just looks to me like they did). Imagine having to refund millions of dollars. Imagine having to refund these monies after paying millions of dollars in sales commissions on the sale of this ‘high-octane SEM Advantage Product.’ Imagine how investors would view Thomson Reuter’s stock then.

Scary stuff for FindLaw and their parent Thomson Reuters. Scary stuff for lawyers relying on FindLaw going forward.

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FindLaw may choose not to respond to the Internet discussion about FindLaw’s recent troubles with the sale of links. But there’s no question that FindLaw’s conduct is one hot topic of discussion.

In addition to blog posts and blog comments, including a reporter’s comment asking for current and former FindLaw sale’s reps to contact them, here’s my Tweetdeck monitoring FindLaw discussion from just this afternoon.

Think FindLaw has a PR problem? And it looks like FindLaw handles PR the old fashioned way. ‘Don’t say anything and hopefully the bad news will go away.’

FindLaw Selling Links Twitter Related posts:

An email from New York this morning to Kevin McKeown, also a lawyer and LexBlog’s VP of Client Development, reminded me what lawyers are looking for in a legal marketing strategic partner. And Kevin is the first to remind each prospective client not to look at LexBlog as a vendor, but as a strategic partner.

The email thanked Kevin for the time he took talking with them, and read in part, ‘…[Y]ou truly are an upstanding professional in a field where such traits are essential.’ Full disclosure, the professional services firm decided to go in another direction than LexBlog in their communications strategy, but we made a friend and a business relationship, things that last a lifetime.

Yesterday Mark Meranda, President of Smart Marketing which provides marketing for law firms and financial professionals, explained his company’s dilemna when finding itself in competitive selling situations with FindLaw, a company owned by the huge Thompson Reuters conglomerate (2007 revenues: 12.4 billion).

After hearing us tell [potential clients] how you build search engine ranking with a quality website and by adding significant content over time, potential clients will come back at us with: “FindLaw says they can get me to number one on Google in two weeks!”

Mark then goes to explain one of the reasons FindLaw was able to make such a claim, FindLaw was selling links from FindLaw’s website to law firm websites.

Each link is a “vote” that your site is interesting and valuable. Buying or selling links, like buying or selling votes, is a big no-no. FindLaw is apparently offering to do exactly that, selling links to other law sites for $1,000 a month.

Mark wouldn’t get involved in such a scheme of buying links or advise his clients to do so. It’s wrong, gets you penalized by Google, and is considered unethical in the SEO industry. The reputation of Mark and his company, is their life blood. How could Mark expect someone in the legal profession to trust him if Mark was doing something that was wrong?

I can remember starting LexBlog out of my garage (literally) 5 years ago. I had faith law blogs would work for lawyers looking to enhance that reputation. But when you’re getting one lead every 2 weeks and doing 7 blogs in the first year, you can feel like the farmer with a horse and plow doing one furrow at a time. Your faith in yourself and your service gets shaken every now and again.

Tim Stanley, the co-founder of FindLaw and who sold FindLaw to Thomson 7 years ago and who’s now the CEO of Justia, told me to hang in there. Tim said we’re different than the big boys like Thomson FindLaw and LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell. ‘We care,’ Tim said, ‘That makes a big difference in the long run. Lawyers want to work with people who really care about the service being provided to them, and the lawyers themselves.’

Tim’s the same as Mark. Same as a lot of companies whose leaders I have come to know. They do the best they can in helping lawyers and law firms, but are not going to step across the line and do something that’s questionable.

In deciding what’s stepping over the line, my guess is employees at good companies are guided by these types of questions:

  • Have I considered and identified other options or alternatives?
  • Is the action ethical?
  • How will my decision affect others, including our customers, shareholders, employees and the community?
  • How will my decision look to others?
  • How would I feel if my decision were made public?
  • Could the decision be honestly explained and defended?
  • Would I be happy if my conduct were described on the front page of my hometown newspaper or online news source?

Want to know the irony here? Those questions were pulled from ‘Thomson Reuter’s Code of Business Conduct and Ethics.’ (pdf) Yes, Thomson Reuters, the parent company of Findlaw, who pulled a rock by gaming Google and failing to disclose same to their lawyer customers.

‘When you’re faced with a decision or situation and you’re not clear as to what action you should take, ask yourself the following questions,’ the Thomson Reuters code says.

You can almost hear CEO of Thomson Reuters, Tom Glocer, saying that after reading his intro to the Code in which he says, ‘As our reputation is critical to our success, Thomson Reuters will maintain the highest ethical standards in our relationships with customers, suppliers, each other and the communities in which we do business.’

I speak at a lot of conferences and am invited to do a lot of presentations on Internet legal marketing. As much as I have been impressed with Tom Glocer through his blog and his ideas on new media, it will be a long time before I could pull myself to use reputable business practices and Findlaw in the same sentence.

That’s especially true with FindLaw ducking their selling links fiacso for over a week in the face of growing criticism from bloggers and lawyers across the net. Maybe that’s because Findlaw knows their conduct cannot be ‘honestly explained and defended.’

That’s a shame when lawyers and law firms selecting a legal marketing strategic partner are looking for people who care and whom will act with integrity at moments of choice.

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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:

FindLaw selling sponsored linksFindLaw appears to have been caught gaming Google by selling links to lawyer websites and, in the words of one blogger, possibly scamming their lawyer customers. And, as of Friday evening, it appears Google has already taken steps to penalize FindLaw.

Though there’s not much coverage yet on the legal blogosphere, FindLaw’s conduct has sure generated emails and phone calls to me. I suspect we’ll see blog discussion in the coming days, along with FindLaw’s response.

SEO basics to understand the severity of FindLaw conduct

One of the ways Google determines where a given site will rank for a specific search is the number and quality of inbound links to a website. The theory is that very interesting pages will be linked to by many other websites and blogs. A page or website with a lot of links therefore has a lot of authority (Google measures authority on a 1-10 logarithmic scale called PageRank).

Taking it one step further, a link from a high PageRank site (like CNN or FindLaw) is more valuable than a link from a low PageRank site. The more links to your website from sites with a high PageRank, especially from relevant subject sites (links from FindLaw to lawyer websites), the higher your website may appear in Google search results.

Now from Google’s webmaster guidelines as to websites and SEO consultants selling links to website owners trying to achieve search rankings.

Google and most other search engines use links to determine reputation. A site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to it. Link-based analysis is an extremely useful way of measuring a site’s value, and has greatly improved the quality of web search. Both the quantity and, more importantly, the quality of links count towards this rating.

However, some SEOs and webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links that pass PageRank, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results. (emphasis added)

Not all paid links violate our guidelines. Buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web when done for advertising purposes, and not for manipulation of search results. Links purchased for advertising should be designated as such. This can be done in several ways, such as:

  • Adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute to the tag
  • Redirecting the links to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file

Google works hard to ensure that it fully discounts links intended to manipulate search engine results, such excessive link exchanges and purchased links that pass PageRank. If you see a site that is buying or selling links that pass PageRank, let us know. We’ll use your information to improve our algorithmic detection of such links.

It’s text links, as opposed to advertising or directory listings, in website copy being sold to game higher search engine rankings that’s the clearly outlawed conduct. Throughout the SEO community the practice is called link spam or search engine spam.

Google takes link spam serious enough to have a designated group to prevent such conduct and penalize those who participate in the proscribed conduct. Headed by Matt Cutts, the Search Quality group at Google and Cutts are widely known across the Internet and the SEO community for enforcing the Google Webmaster Guidelines and cracking down on link spam.

What did FindLaw do?

The best summary is provided by Todd Friesen in a post entitled ‘Shame Shame Shame Findlaw.’ Friesen’s been doing SEO since 1998 and is currently the Director of SEO for Range Online Media which performs work for such clients as Sharper Image, Nike, Neiman Marcus and Accor Hotels North America.

As Friesen outlines:

  • FindLaw sent unsolicited emails to lawyers and SEO experts selling a search engine marketing (SEM) program service.
  • FindLaw’s service sells a law firm up to 3 hard coded links to be placed on editorially relevant pages of content for $12,000 ($1,000 per month for a 12 month contract).
  • FindLaw’s service educates lawyers how to write the best text for their links (anchor text) so as to achieve higher search results for the lawyer’s website.
  • A law firm is ‘allowed to submit up to 5 articles to be placed’ in relevant areas of the FindLaw, with 5 additional links.

FindLaw may contend that the links in any articles submitted are not link spam, but the article submission is optional and the selling of links otherwise appears to be a clear violation of Google’s guidelines.

Friesen and the SEO experts who commented to his post sure think FindLaw is guilty of link spam. Friesen goes so far to say, ‘It’s been nice knowing you Findlaw.’

Matt Cutts acknowledged in a comment on Friesen’s blog last Wednesday that he had been forwarded copies of FindLaw’s emails selling links. Cutts also posted at Twitter the same day that he enjoyed that post of Friesen’s.

Though I don’t monitor the PageRank of websites, I’m told FindLaw had a PageRank of 7 as little as a week ago. By Friday night, FindLaw’s PageRank was a 5, and remains so today.

A PageRank move is more than just a proportionate thing, it’s geometric in nature ala the Richter scale for an earthquake. A drop of 2 on PageRank is a very significant move, something that significantly diminishes the value of links from FindLaw to lawyer websites.

One email I received highlights FindLaw’s dilemma:

The most juicy insight that no one seems to have picked up on, however, comes from FindLaw’s own letter: “As you may or may not know, FindLaw has been providing SEM programs to law firms for the last four years. The product has been very successful at elevating the natural search results of law firms in all of the major search engines and has helped them generate more business from search engines.” (Emphasis in bold). So it seems FindLaw has been doing this for a while and only got caught when it moved outside of the law firm market. This admission means there are already firms paying FindLaw for this program – and now that Cutts has presumably removed the value of the links – a bunch of firms are essentially paying for nothing. By now, FindLaw knows this result – and the ethical thing to do would be to publicize their mistake and refund money. So far, FindLaw hasn’t done so.

Another problem for FindLaw is whether Google would penalize the websites which bought links. Imagine being a law firm paying FindLaw $12,000 per year for search engine optimization and having your website adversely effected in search results as a result doing so.

This is an unfortunate situation all around and one that law firm marketing companies, including LexBlog, as well as law firms should take notice of. Search Engine Optimization is something we all want to achieve, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything.

It’s now up to FindLaw to do the right thing for its customers and the legal profession as a whole. FindLaw calls itself the leading online law destination. FindLaw now needs to act like it.

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