Is the FindLaw Story Getting Distorted?

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 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.