I had a lot of feedback to my Aug. 28 post, Is the FindLaw Story Getting Distorted? My main point then was that we needed more facts before jumping to conclusions. Since then, more facts have come out, and a particularly good overview of the situation was a piece yesterday by Dow Jones Newswires writer Nat Worden, Google Slaps FindLaw in Effort to Crack Down on ‘Link Juice.’ Carolyn Elefant, with whom I co-author the Law.com blog Legal Blog Watch, also writes about this today in a post, Finding Out More About FindLaw’s Link Sales.
While Worden’s piece sheds more light on the situation, I’m still not convinced this was as big a deal as some other bloggers see it to be. FindLaw spokesman John Shaughnessy took a position in line with what I thought in my earlier post — that the marketing document that spawned this scandal in the first place was never intended for law-firm customers. In fact, Shaughnessy seems to deny that FindLaw ever intended “to sell links.” Yes, Shaughnessy is a flak, but I’ve met him several times and find him to be a straight shooter.
Even if one accepts that FindLaw did sell links, Worden’s piece makes clear that the SEO industry as a whole is on the fence about whether this is “wrong.” As Worden quotes Todd Friesen (yes, the Todd Friesen who helped get this ball rolling with his post Shame Shame Shame FindLaw): “There’s nothing wrong with selling links, and there’s nothing wrong with Google trying to stop it. It’s all part of the SEO game. Those who are selling links just have to be careful to explain the risks involved to their clients.”
Therein lies the nub of this for me. If FindLaw did this, was it careful to explain the risks to its clients? That is two “ifs”: Did it do it and did it explain it? There appears to be at least circumstantial evidence that FindLaw did some link selling — at least enough to convince Google to give it a slap on the knuckles by downgrading its page rank for a couple of days. If so, what did it tell customers? I have now seen several legal blogs characterize this as a situation of FindLaw “scamming lawyer customers.” That suggests that FindLaw engaged in fraud or deception with lawyer customers. I still haven’t seen anyone connect the dots in a way that leads me to that point.
I know that I see this situation much differently than Kevin O’Keefe, who has been critical of FindLaw on his blog, Real Lawyers Have Blogs. In fact, based on Kevin’s post yesterday, he and I even read the Dow Jones piece with different eyes. Even my co-blogger Elefant sees it differently, describing FindLaw’s practices in her post as “shady.” As I noted in my earlier post, I’m no apologist for FindLaw. In fact, I devoted substantial time to a series of posts exposing what I described as “FindLaw’s aging core” — a series for which I won an international press award. But as a lawyer, I do like to connect the dots, with the dots being facts. An accusation that a company defrauded consumers is serious stuff. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but no one’s yet shown me that it did.