After reading today that FindLaw had launched a mobile version of its website, I decided to check it out. In the course of doing that, I discovered that FindLaw has no listing for me. I knew it once did, so I followed the link to edit my profile. Sure enough, it had a username for me and a stored version of my profile info. After going through the profile-update process and submitting, I was taken to a “personalized” page,

It was as if I’d traveled back in time — to May 2008 to be exact.

Oddly, almost everything on the page, although ostensibly “new,” was from 2008. In a section of the page titled “FindLaw Features,” there was commentary on the election — the 2008 election! Under “Featured Documents,” there was a story about a certain New York governor embroiled in a prostitution scandal and a copy of the federal indictment of Barry Bonds in relation to steroids. In the “Recent Case Law” section, there were a number of cases, all from May 2008.

The only current content on the page was a single item in the “FindLaw Announcements” section and a single story in the “Lead Story from AP” section. Ironically, that single item in the announcements section was the announcement of the mobile version that set me down this path in the first place.

To see my trip back in time for yourself, click on the screenshot below to enlarge it.

FindLaw has added RSS feeds for case summaries from the Supreme Court, the federal circuit courts and state appellate courts in California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas. It has also introduced practice-area feeds that provide case summaries for 16 practice areas, from bankruptcy to tax. The feeds provide summaries of the opinions and link to the full text. The full list of feeds is available here: FindLaw: RSS Feeds.

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 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.

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.