Aug 28, 2008

Is the FindLaw Story Getting Distorted?

14 Comments · Posted by Robert Ambrogi in General

The “scandal” making its way around the blogosphere over FindLaw’s allegedly selling text links in violation of Google’s policies is certainly worth discussing and debating. But I am concerned that the facts are being misconstrued in a way that is distorting what should be the focus of the debate. Some blogs portray FindLaw’s sales of text links as a scam directed to lawyers and law firms. The problem with that is that lawyers and law firms are not involved. This may be a minor point in the scheme of things, but of all the evidence I’ve seen so far, none involves sales directed to lawyers and law firms. Rather, the materials are directed at private vendors that sell goods and services to the legal profession.

One of the first posts I saw about this was at Real Lawyers Have Blogs, where Kevin O’Keefe wrote, “FindLaw 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.” The blogger to whom Kevin alludes never said anything about scamming lawyer customers, just “customers” in a generic sense. (I already posted here about my separate concerns about that blogger.) Later in the same post, O’Keefe writes that FindLaw sent unsolicited e-mails to lawyers in which they offered to sell law firms hard-coded links and other services. In a follow-up post, O’Keefe writes, “FindLaw’s selling links to law firms … was a big mistake.” He goes on:

“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.”

He urges FindLaw to do the right thing by acknowledging its mistake to its lawyer customers.

As far as I can tell from the posts by O’Keefe and others who have written about this, their one source of evidence is a post by Todd Friesen at the blog Oilman.ca titled Shame Shame Shame Findlaw. That post publishes a series of sales-related e-mails and documents from FindLaw. Clearly, the FindLaw documents offer sales of text links. (As does FindLaw’s Web site.) Just as clearly, however, none of these documents are directed at lawyers or law firms. One of these e-mails, for example, says:

“I’m delighted to announce the launch of Findlaw’s new Search Engine Marketing (SEM) program specifically geared for for legal software and service providers. Whether you are a software company, a legal recruiter or an expert witness service, Findlaw’s new SEM product will help you generate more business from all of the major search engines by leveraging Findlaw’s authoritative position as the top online destination serving the Legal Professionals market.”

Read through the materials Friesen posted, and it is clear that FindLaw’s sales campaign is directed solely at vendors, not at law firms.

Another issue altogether ignored in this debate is whether selling text links is indisputably a source of “shame” for FindLaw. Google the issue and you will find no shortage of debate over the wisdom of buying and selling text links. (See this post, for example.) It really isn’t an “ethical” issue at all, but a business one. Businesses should understand that buying text links may be good or bad, depending on a number of factors. The one ethical issue would involve whether the seller of the links — in this case FindLaw — is misleading the customer about Google’s policies and the potential impact such links may have on page rank.

I write all this not as an apologist for FindLaw. Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I am not shy about criticizing the company. Nor do I mean to suggest that anyone is intentionally skewing the facts. I just think we should be clear about what we’re debating. From everything I’ve read, this is not a situation of FindLaw selling to law firms, but of FindLaw selling to vendors. In the end, that may be a distinction without a difference. But before we demand that FindLaw apologize to anyone, we at least ought to be clear about who it is that deserves the apology. If it is anyone in this case, it is not law firms, but vendors.

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14 comments

  • todd · August 28, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    ok – first off let me clarify some things.

    1. I never said it was a scam.
    2. I never implied it was a scam.
    3. In fact it is not a scam.

    It’s not a scam at all. Nobody was being ripped off. Buying those links from FL absolutely had value – they don’t now – but the did then for sure.

    Why is everybody getting hung up on who the program was targeted at? The point is not who the links were sold to but that they sold links at all. This particular string of emails and documentation wasn’t targeted at lawyers specifically but if you spend even 17 seconds clicking around the FL website you’ll see a pile of links that are clearly paid for text links that were clearly bought by lawyers and law firms. I assume there is simply a second set of marketing documents and emails that is more lawyer centric. I may be wrong but based on the links I’ve seen on FL (and comments on my blog post) somebody somewhere at some point in time targeted lawyers.

    FL did a really great job creating and marketing this program. Nowhere does it explicitly state that buying text links will boost your rankings on Google. It’s implied all over the place but never that explicitly stated.

    This isn’t a scam and it’s not ethical or unethical. It was a business decision on FL’s part that I don’t even necessarily disagree with. The execution so far above the radar is the problem here. Google has made it abundantly clear that they are opposed to paid links so why stand up and wave a sign that you’re selling links?

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  • Kevin OKeefe · August 28, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    You’re letting FindLaw off the hook and I don’t know why. It’s ashame.

    FindLaw has been caught selling links to law firms and over the last week has started to take action to correct that on the FindLaw website.

    Ain’t no way FindLaw in the last week started changing their links to 100′s of law firms because that was on their agenda for the end of August. Doesn’t pass the smell test Bob. FindLaw did it because they got caught and needed to take action to get their PageRank back to a 7 after being penalized and dropped to a 5.

    FindLaw is spinning this story to get reporters and folks like yourself to report as you are. Their parent Thomson Reuters, a publically traded company, does not need a financial publication to pick up that one of its companies may take a hit in earnings and be the subject of a claim by 100′s of lawyers.

    God willing some good investigative reporting, which I think is going on, will be done and the truth will come out in the main stream media.

    FindLaw has sold links to law firms and for all you and I know are still collecting millions of dollars from law firms that pay by the month for those links. Not sure why you don’t find that newsworthy.

    Look at the spam links by the 100′s on just one FindLaw page all linking to law firms in text so small it’s hard for me to read it. Have you seen those pages? FindLaw did not put those links up because they loved those law firms. They put those links up because the law firms bought them to increase search engine performance, a clear violation of Google’s guidelines.

    The outcome of violating the rules? FindLaw this last week put ‘no follow’ tags on the links sold to law firms. That means law firms are no longer receiving what they paid for – SEO through links sold to law firms by FindLaw.

    Did you look at the source code for those links a week ago when this story broke, code still in Google’s cache? Source code that shows the sale of links for SEO. Did you look at the source code now that shows the changes FindLaw has made over the last week? If not, why not? If you did look at the source code, why aren’t you commenting on that?

    Who’s the rat in this? Not the law firms. They did not know they were part of an incremental revenue land grab being orchestrated by FindLaw. Someone at FindLaw is. And perhaps FindLaw’s greatest failure is not in getting a little too greedy, their greatest failure may be in not owning up to their failures in hope the problem would go away.

    Findlaw knew, or should have know, what they were doing was a violation of Google’s rules and what is considered as ‘blackhat SEO,’ something that reputable SEO professionals do not do. FindLaw knew, or should have known, they would be caught selling links to law firms. And now that they did get caught, FindLaw should own up and not hope that bloggers and the media muddy the waters so the FindLaw dodges a bullet and is not held accountable.

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  • Robert Ambrogi · August 28, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Todd: I know that you never called it a scam. Those who did call it a scam were pointing to the documents that you posted. “Scam” was their characterization, not yours.

    Kevin: If FindLaw is spinning this story, it hasn’t spun it my way. I have not heard a peep from anyone at FindLaw or Thomson about it.

    I did not look at the source code, as you now suggest. I don’t recall seeing that mentioned in your posts and apologize for overlooking it if it was. Your posts and those of others cited only Todd’s post. Based on what he had, it seemed to me that you and others were reading more into it than I saw there.

    I’m not letting FindLaw off the hook. As I said in my post, this may be a distinction without a difference. My only concern is in making sure we all have our facts straight.

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  • Mike · August 28, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    It’s definitely not a scam. Like Todd said, they were selling links which had great value. Were they selling it to lawyers? 100% positively yes. I worked at Findlaw, still talk to reps that work there and I know they have been pushing this product for well over a year and pushing it hard. I’ve had some of my clients that are existing Findlaw clients call and tell me that their Findlaw rep was pushing hard to sell these links packages, promising that their rankings would increase if they purchased the links package. These packages they sell to the firms are on average $20k a year.

    Although they’ve made some corrections have been made by nofollowing certain pages in their site (for example here: http://www.legalconnection.com/personal-injury.html) they still have plenty of those pages out there made specifically for search engines and not for a regular human visitor. Check out the very bottom of their home page (the “more” link right below their links titled “local lawyers”.) That “more” link takes you to a page that has many of the links that are still not “nofollowed”. It’s perfectly obvious that these links are made strictly for search engine spiders and not for humans. Want another example? Take a look at this page: http://lawyers.findlaw.com/lawyer/firm/Personal-Injury—-Plaintiff/Los-Angeles/California. Looks innocent enough right? it’s their diretory pages that do not pass link juice. Take a look at the bottom of the page (“featured attorneys and law firm”). There they are. Text links, still now followed. Obviously not made generate additonal traffic for the firm. Just a nice juicy text link. Still no “nofollowed”.

    Right now their stance is not saying anything to their customers at all. If a customer does ask a question about this issue, they have a canned letter response that is basically says that there is confusion on the web and the products being offered are different then the ones the lawyer has purchased. Google will eventually (if not already) be removing the ability of these pages to pass any link juice, so the attorneys are now paying for nothing and they are stuck in a long contract. The problem with Findlaw is that they are only concerned with their bottom line and not doing what’s right for their clients. This situation is a perfect example of that. Instead of fessing up, they are trying to cover it up completely. Do the lawyers purchasing this know that this is breaking Google’s webmaster guidelines? Probably not and from my experience working at Findlaw, they would never tell the reps to inform the attorneys that buying these packages could cause them to get penalized for purchasing these links.

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  • Kevin OKeefe · August 28, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    Got it Bob, I stand corrected.

    I first posted about Todds post. I then looked at the issue more closely. I then commented via Twitter and comments at my blog and others’ blogs about all the links FindLaw sold to lawyers (as Todd says takes 17 seconds to see it on FindLaw’s sites) and FindLaw’s corrective action.

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  • Anonymous · August 29, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    I used to work at FindLaw – in the SEM department, no less. Although I learned a lot there and left on good terms, I’m glad I got out before they got caught! Of course I knew about the link-selling product, and those of us SEOs who were smart enough to see it for what it was (selling links solely to pass PR) always wondered when and how it’d blow up.

    As a search marketer, I value my own reputation, as obviously FindLaw doesn’t value their own, else they’d take the correct actions to remedy this situation. They could at least apologize, or even state ‘ignorance’…before apologizing.

    Evidently, according to a source within the company, the higher-ups “don’t think it’s a big deal” and don’t foresee it having any adverse effect. Now, if that’s not arrogant, I’m not sure what is :)

    I’d find it hard to take pride in working for a company which handles a situation like this with such disregard for right or wrong. I hope any SEO at FindLaw wishing to leave and find a true SEO job can still do so…

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  • Richard Jennings · September 1, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Findlaw didnt “get caught” becuase there was nothing wrong done. I feel like there is no critcal thinking anymore…Who is google to tell findlaw what they can and cant sell? Who is Google to tell any organization that they cannot buy or sell links? Google doesnt own these sites, doesnt own the web and doesnt own my browser. Findlaw doesnt need to answer to google or anyone else…If they want to sell and someone wants to buy then thats the way it will be.

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  • Kevin OKeefe · September 2, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    >>FindLaw doesn't need to answer to anyone.>>

    You said it all right there Richard. FindLaw doesn't even need to answer to law firm customers who bought links for PageRank, which links passing PageRank FindLaw took off its site when FindLaw got caught.

    Guess in the 'no answer to anyone world,' you sell things for thousands of dollars and then don't worry about delivering to lawyer customers what they bought and paid for. You just rely on guys on the Internet like you to cloud the issue for the benefit of FindLaw.

    Folks told me FindLaw would find folks to carry their water on this issue. I just hope people with a little common sense can see through the sharade.

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  • Robert Ambrogi · September 2, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    The issue for me boils down to “informed consent.” What did FindLaw promise to sell and what did the buyers believe they were agreeing to buy? I suspect some of these buyers were quite sophisticated about SEO and others far less so. If FindLaw misled buyers about the product, then its conduct was unethical and perhaps even illegal. But if its pitch was on the level and the buyers understood, then the mere fact that the ads may have violated Google’s guidelines seems academic at best. Do we know enough to make this call?

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  • Kevin OKeefe · September 3, 2008 at 4:15 am

    >>Do we know enough to make this call?>>

    I think we do Bob. Ask yourself how many lawyers of the 100's with purchased links on just one FindLaw page knew Google's webmaster guidelines prohibiting the sale of such links?

    If it's 10% of the lawyers who bought such links, I'd be shocked. I speak to lawyers each day about Internet marketing. I present at conferences across this country about Internet marketing. Lawyers know little, if anything, about how Google search engine rankings work, let alone what Google's webmaster guidelines are. Heck lawyers don't even know Google has webmaster guidelines in writing like that.

    Bob, you're a lawyer and have been writing on Internet issues for years. Did you know Google's guidlelines against selling links? Had you seen the Google guidelines prohibiting same on the Google website? You talk to lots of lawyers about a myriad of Internet issues. How many of them do you think knew about Google's guidelines?

    Do you think FindLaw wants to have an informed group of lawyer buyers? If they did, why not let lawyers know what they did was in violation of Google's guidelines? Why not let you know as a respected journalist and blogger?

    We know enough to make this call. Or at least know enough to reach a conclusion based on circumstantial evidence, the same way juries in this country do everyday.

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  • Richard Jennings · September 3, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    I to ask myself whether Findlaw told lawyers that Google was a part of this deal…If they told them that the benefit of the links was driving people from Findlaw to their site, then that is one thing. If Findlaw told these lawyers, “We will increase your page rank in a specific search engine called Google thereby increasing the organic listings your website shows up in on Google’s SERP’s” then that is another. Do we know which one it was?

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  • Kevin OKeefe · September 3, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Looks like the new talking point of the day from Findlaw is that they did not promise better performance on Google when selling links to lawyers. It’s a comment I am seeing on the net today by anonymous posters like ray (he hides who is in profile). These guys are cronies for FindLaw spreading half truths.

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  • Tobler Law · September 17, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Thanks for the post! Google is very biased about this though – it tells people they can’t sell links, but they will advertise for link-sellers as long as they are getting paid. Look it up, you’ll see.

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  • BIGCAT · October 15, 2010 at 11:41 am

    It’s nice to see Google actually make an effort to enforce their guidelines (even though they eventually did next to nothing after a meeting with the Thomson people). It’s disturbing to watch large monopolies like FindLaw blatantly manipulating search engines by placing links all over hundreds of pages off their portal and other Thomson Reuters web properties. And yes Robert, Justia does the same thing at a smaller level linking clients from all sorts web sites. The real danger is SEO is being taken over by these corporations resulting in outrageous prices for small businesses who will need the web to survive in the coming years. If Google continues to do nothing to enforce their guidelines, say goodbye to the companies who aren’t owned by mega corps and hello to being porked for SEO and other web marketing services.

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