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.

  • I completely agree with you. I feel that if someone wants to sell links, I dont think anyone should try to stop them or regulate them. I do however beleive that if someone represent a higher listing in a search engine or moreover a specific search engine that they need to explain the risks. You’re right, I also have not seen any proof that Findlaw promised higher rank specifically in Google listings. Maybe more info will be coming out.

  • Bob, follow this scenario as if you were a practicing lawyer.

    * FindLaw comes to you in ’07 and says we can improve the search engine results on that website we sold you for $15,000.
    * It’s our new SEM advantage program (for law firms, not corporate clients). It’s being sold by FindLaw sales reps to law firms and sales management is really pushing it.
    * It’s like high octane for search results on Google and the other search engines.
    * You need to buy fast because ‘inventory’ is selling out fast.
    * It’ll cost you $2,500 per month.
    * Like 99.9% of other lawyers you don’t care how it’s done and you don’t yourself know how it’s done, you just want those high search engine results.
    * You buy it.
    * FindLaw then puts spam links on its various websites linking to you, with FindLaw knowing its in violation of Google guidelines.
    * With FindLaw’s Google Juice you get great search engine results beacuse of those spam links.
    * FindLaw, not suprisingly, gets caught by Google.
    * FindLaw changes those links to your site so that they no longer provide your site with Google juice.
    * FindLaw doesn’t tell you how they got you Google juice in the beginning nor did they tell you they took it away.
    * FindLaw decides it will now limp along through the ’08 financial year, hoping lawyers don’t find out what’s really going on so that ’08 sales numbers can be hit and then in ’09 come up with new products to replace the $8 million in revenue FindLaw stands to lose from the SEM Advantage program.

    Feel good? Starting to feel you are no longer getting what you are still paying for? Feel like you want to continue working with a company that may hide material facts from you so that it’s parent company’s stock does not decline further?

    Alll of this information is available. You’re not limited to what the WSJ is reporting. You’re a blogger. Talk to law firms who feel like they have been abused by FindLaw on this. Get your hands on the SEM marketing materials. Get your hands on the talking points FindLaw has handed out to its troops on how to deal with this debacle.

    All of the information available to the WSJ, and more, is available to you. Just ask people for it.

  • Kevin – You are making a lot of leaps there. You’re assumptions are just that. You cant leap from rock to rock with your own story. You have to substantiate each step…

  • Those defending Findlaw’s actions are either Findlaw employees or they don’t understand the situation. Does Google make the law on link selling? No but they make the rules regarding their search engine which happens to be the best source for providing web traffic of any search engine. By selling links, Findlaw puts their clients at risk. Google webmaster guidelines state:
    “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.”
    Google’s webmaster guidelines also state:
    “Ultimately, you are responsible for the actions of any companies you hire”.
    This means law firms can be punished for buying links from Findlaw. Even if they don’t know that it breaks Google’s guidelines. Lawyers don’t undersand this but Findlaw does. They have a resonpsibility to their clients to inform them before selling them a links package. Do we really think a lawyer would buy the SEM-A package Findlaw sells if they knew they could be penalized by Google or those links would have no value with Google? I highly doubt it.

  • Ray

    You, like others heavily defending Findlaw, are missing the point. This is not about Google’s rules against the sale of links that affect their rankings. That is an entirely different issue. This is about Findlaw selling links packages to law firms without informing them that this is a violation of Google’s guidelines. These lawyers have no idea that buying these links go against Google’s rules. Findlaw did know. They have a duty to let the law firms know about the risk that comes along with purchasing these links. You don’t think so?

  • Richard, what are the big leaps? What are the assumptions? Is there anything I mentioned that’s not true?

  • David White

    This FindLaw story is very interesting to me. A few months ago I was wondering how pages lept over mine in page-ranking, particularly where the content compared to mine (let’s say on construction site accidents) was sparse in key words and sometimes brief in content.

    As you are probably aware, if you do a search in the google search engine with the format of link:www.domainname.com you can see where the links are coming from. These links are obviously extremely valuable for SEO, and it seems to be the core of the FindLaw SEO strategy, since content appears to remain static on these sites, and since there are usually no blogs.

    I chose a couple sites that were competitive, and what do you know, hundreds of inbound links from FindLaw, very few from elsewhere.

    This was typical of some of my favorites: lawyers.findlaw.com/lawyer/firm/Election-Campaign-&-Political-Law/Wappingers-Falls/New-York . . .

    What kind of work does that firm do? Personal injury and criminal defense, for the most part.

    We have a FindLaw link, one we could certainly make better use of, and I don't have a problem with paying to be in a directory. I do think the excessive link-farming is unfortunate.

  • I’m with Mike and Kevin. Their business practice was wrong and they should be punished for it. Buying links may or may not be right but it’s not within the bounds of Google’s rules. Deal with the consequences of keeping the truth from your customers and trying to hide things from Google.

  • Criminal defense is really something that you want to make sure you have the right person to help you. You don’t want to have someone that is going to help you and truly cares about you, and doesn’t want to take advantage of you. Just do your research and read peoples reviews of different practices and see what would be the best for you

  • Thanks for the information. I have been wanting to know who would be the best lawyer to work with and everything. So I will have to do some more research and see what i can find.

  • At the end of the day (well years), FL is still doing well in google and it does not appear that they have lost favor with them. Perhaps FL stuck to the good ol method of keep producing good useful content