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FindLaw gaming Google, and possibly scamming lawyer customers?

August 17, 2008

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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