Like other areas of search engine optimization (or really any other industry for that matter), the law firm SEO services landscape is made up of consultants and companies at both ends of the spectrum. I think Google puts it rather well:
While SEOs can provide clients with valuable services, some unethical SEOs have given the industry a black eye through their overly aggressive marketing efforts and their attempts to manipulate search engine results in unfair ways. Practices that violate our guidelines may result in a negative adjustment of your site’s presence in Google, or even the removal of your site from our index.
I try to stay out of the moralistic debate about SEO. In my view, clients should be informed about the various benefits and risks associated with any search engine optimization campaign, technique, or strategy. These include both the risks to their visibility within search engines, as well as, to their professional reputation, in the case of lawyers, their professional license. Once informed, they should makes an assessment of these various risks and proceed on a course of action with which they are comfortable.
For my part, I recommend complying with search engine webmaster guidelines. In my experience, the risks associated with penalties and being removed from search indexes far outweigh any short term benefit. This is even more true when it comes to damage to one’s professional reputation and certainly when it comes to risks associated with one’s license to practice.
Of course, the problem is that most attorneys have neither the time nor interest (with a few exceptions of course) to understand how search engines, and more generally, the internet, really “work” as part of a more comprehensive law practice marketing plan. Which in turn leads many lawyers to fall victim to inexperienced, unscrupulous, or irresponsible search engine optimization service providers.
So, what’s the solution? As with most issues that arise from a vast knowledge gap, the answer is education. When it comes to protecting oneself from getting tangled up with a “bad” SEO, there’s simply no substitute for learning some basics about search engines, how they work, and some basic concepts and principles about what lawyers can do to increase their visibility within them.
That’s why we offer out free information like Organic Web Strategy for Lawyers.
I would also suggest that lawyers don’t need to understand all the technical intricacies of SEO in order to make informed hiring decisions. In fact, Google also provides some great tips for folks considering retaining the services of an SEO professional:
- Be wary of SEO firms and web consultants or agencies that send you email out of the blue.Amazingly, we get these spam emails too:
I visited your website and noticed that you are not listed in most of the major search engines and directories…”
Reserve the same skepticism for unsolicited email about search engines as you do for “burn fat at night” diet pills or requests to help transfer funds from deposed dictators.
- No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google.Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a “special relationship” with Google, or advertise a “priority submit” to Google. There is no priority submit for Google. In fact, the only way to submit a site to Google directly is through our Add URL page or by submitting a Sitemap and you can do this yourself at no cost whatsoever.
- Be careful if a company is secretive or won’t clearly explain what they intend to do.Ask for explanations if something is unclear. If an SEO creates deceptive or misleading content on your behalf, such as doorway pages or “throwaway” domains, your site could be removed entirely from Google’s index. Ultimately, you are responsible for the actions of any companies you hire, so it’s best to be sure you know exactly how they intend to “help” you. If an SEO has FTP access to your server, they should be willing to explain all the changes they are making to your site.
- You should never have to link to an SEO.Avoid SEOs that talk about the power of “free-for-all” links, link popularity schemes, or submitting your site to thousands of search engines. These are typically useless exercises that don’t affect your ranking in the results of the major search engines — at least, not in a way you would likely consider to be positive.
- Choose wisely.While you consider whether to go with an SEO, you may want to do some research on the industry. Google is one way to do that, of course. You might also seek out a few of the cautionary tales that have appeared in the press, including this article on one particularly aggressive SEO: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com. While Google doesn’t comment on specific companies, we’ve encountered firms calling themselves SEOs who follow practices that are clearly beyond the pale of accepted business behavior. Be careful.
- Be sure to understand where the money goes.While Google never sells better ranking in our search results, several other search engines combine pay-per-click or pay-for-inclusion results with their regular web search results. Some SEOs will promise to rank you highly in search engines, but place you in the advertising section rather than in the search results. A few SEOs will even change their bid prices in real time to create the illusion that they “control” other search engines and can place themselves in the slot of their choice. This scam doesn’t work with Google because our advertising is clearly labeled and separated from our search results, but be sure to ask any SEO you’re considering which fees go toward permanent inclusion and which apply toward temporary advertising.
- What are the most common abuses a website owner is likely to encounter?
One common scam is the creation of “shadow” domains that funnel users to a site by using deceptive redirects. These shadow domains often will be owned by the SEO who claims to be working on a client’s behalf. However, if the relationship sours, the SEO may point the domain to a different site, or even to a competitor’s domain. If that happens, the client has paid to develop a competing site owned entirely by the SEO.
Another illicit practice is to place “doorway” pages loaded with keywords on the client’s site somewhere. The SEO promises this will make the page more relevant for more queries. This is inherently false since individual pages are rarely relevant for a wide range of keywords. More insidious, however, is that these doorway pages often contain hidden links to the SEO’s other clients as well. Such doorway pages drain away the link popularity of a site and route it to the SEO and its other clients, which may include sites with unsavory or illegal content.
- What are some other things to look out for?
There are a few warning signs that you may be dealing with a rogue SEO. It’s far from a comprehensive list, so if you have any doubts, you should trust your instincts. By all means, feel free to walk away if the SEO:
- owns shadow domains
- puts links to their other clients on doorway pages
- offers to sell keywords in the address bar
- doesn’t distinguish between actual search results and ads that appear on search results pages
- guarantees ranking, but only on obscure, long keyword phrases you would get anyway
- operates with multiple aliases or falsified WHOIS info
- gets traffic from “fake” search engines, spyware, or scumware
- has had domains removed from Google’s index or is not itself listed in Google
Here are some of my own questions that I often suggest that lawyers ask their SEO services consultant:
- What are you planning on doing on my behalf specifically, and what is the purpose and benefit to my firm?
- Are you working with any of my competitors?
- Do you have experience working with law firms like mine?
- Can you provide specific examples and results you have achieved for other clients?
- How will I measure the effectiveness of what you are doing on my behalf?
- Are you familiar with the rules of professional responsibility that govern my practice?
- How long before I can expect results, what will those results be, and what happens if you don’t deliver?
- If I hire you, will I be locked into a long-term contract?
- If I hire you to help design and develop my website(s) will I own the site? Will I own the content? Will I own the domain?
- How will you build links?
- How will you build citations?
- How will you generate local search signals?
- How will you help generate social search signals?
- Will you be helping with content develop? If so, do you have examples of content that you have developed for other law firms?
- Will you be doing on-page optimization? What is your plan in this area?
- If you claim a profile on my behalf, will you provide me the login information?
- Do you offer hourly fee, monthly fee, or project fee arrangements? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each?
- If I stop paying you, will you remove links the links that you have created to my website?
- What metrics will you report on? How will you provide these reports?
- What access will I have to an actual person to discuss my campaign?