SEO for Lawyers, Your Reputation, and Legal Ethics

I know, you want to rank #1 in Google. And while this desire demonstrates a simplistic understanding of internet marketing and search engines, there are some serious consequences of trying to rank #1 at all costs. Contrary to what your internet marketing guru says, SEO for lawyers is quite different from SEO for insurance, mortgages, and erectile dysfunction medication.

Your Reputation

You know (or you’ll learn) that your reputation is your most valuable asset. Yep, even more valuable than ranking #1 in Google. What you might not know is how inexperienced, unscrupulous, or irresponsible SEO can hurt your reputation as a lawyer. Here are some quick examples:

  • Blog Comment Spam – This is where your internet marketer (or automated comment software) goes out and comments on blogs either under your name, if they’re a real rookie, or under a pseudonym, if they think they’re clever, with a link back to your site. The intent is to build a link, albeit a “nofollow” link, and perhaps generate a couple clicks if it’s a highly trafficked blog. Problem is, the comments suck, and the suckiness is tied to your website. You’ll claim that you didn’t know that you ninjas were doing this, but it won’t matter. You better be clear that your SEO isn’t commenting on your behalf.
  • Article Marketing – This is where your internet marketer (and they have software for this one too), goes out and posts crappy articles on article directories and spam blogs. Again, the intent is to build links back to your website for search engine juice. Once again, the problem is that the articles suck. If you’re lucky they’re illegible, and if you’re not, the spread bad information under your name. Again, the “clever” ninjas will use pseudonyms, or awesome names like “los angeles criminal defense lawyer” to protect your identity. Unfortunately for you, it’s easy to trace it back to you by clicking on that pesky link to your website. Other people read these articles and think to themselves, this lawyer is either full of herself (it’s self-promotional), how did they get a law degree (if it’s illegible), or incompetent if it’s just flat wrong.
  • Social Media Spam – This is where your internet marketer (you guessed it, or software) goes out and tweets, friend requests, connects, status updates, shares, etc, on your behalf. Again, the underlying issue is that these communications are usually self-promotional and over all pretty lousy. Further, they’re usually a one-way street. Which defeats the entire purpose of social networking. Again, the intent here is to build links, grow a network of followers (albeit most likely of other spam accounts), and build “awareness.” It’s crap. Don’t do this.

And while your reputation is your most valuable asset, there’s something else that might just be equally as important. And that’s your law license.

Your License

What if your law firm SEO consultant said, “I can get you to #1 in Google, but you might lose your license to practice.” Would you sign-up? Maybe you would. But more likely, you probably can’t see how internet marketing and search engine optimization could get you into hot water with your state Bar. Here’s how.

Let’s start with ABA Model Rule 7.1:

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

My bet is that even if your state’s rule doesn’t track this word for word, it’s pretty close. And so, fake, false, or misleading blog post comments, website content, tweets, status updates, and client testimonials (yep, they do this too) violate this rule.

Now I know some of you are thinking, “But I’m not the one making the communication. It was my ninja.” But then there’s Rule 5.3:

With respect to a nonlawyer employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer:

(a) a partner, and a lawyer who individually or together with other lawyers possesses comparable managerial authority in a law firm shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer;

(b) a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer; and

(c) a lawyer shall be responsible for conduct of such a person that would be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if engaged in by a lawyer if:

(1) the lawyer orders or, with the knowledge of the specific conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or

(2) the lawyer is a partner or has comparable managerial authority in the law firm in which the person is employed, or has direct supervisory authority over the person, and knows of the conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable remedial action.

Uh oh.

And this is why when lawyers get their hands caught in the internet marketing cookie jar, they cry, “But I didn’t know that my ninja was doing this.” And maybe this works, and maybe it doesn’t. I guess it comes down to how much risk you want to take to rank #1 in Google.

Oh, but did I mention, most of this stuff doesn’t work at all. Don’t believe me? Spend some time watching videos here.

And so, while you keep paying your ninja a lot of money to go out there and “build links”, “create buzz”, and “build your brand”, the truth is, they’re likely hurting your reputation, putting your license in jeopardy, and actually hurting your chances of reaching that coveted #1 in spot in Google.

SEO for Lawyers the “Right Way”

So, what can you do to grow your practice’s visibility online. The answer is, alot a lot. Let’s face it, there are many firms that are spending a lot of money on internet marketing because they’re seeing the value for their firm. Does that mean it’s right for you? Not necessarily. It really depends on your practice, your goals, and your marketing budget.

Without getting into all the gory details about all the different law firm SEO strategies that work, we can boil things down to a pretty simple idea:

Spend time creating excellent web content that supplies your audience’s demand for information, and get that content in front of people who are ready, willing, and able to consume it, and further publicize it.

Put your reputation first, follow the rules, and be strategic.

Sure, there are technical aspects to search engine optimization. However, perhaps even more important, are the creative aspects involved in publishing web content that people actually want to read and share. And let’s not kid ourselves, doing that is tough. And it’s not going to be effectively accomplished by someone without both experience and understanding with the web, as well as, a deep understanding of your practice.

And finally, work to make the web better.

(photo: Shutterstock)

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  • http://www.DuncanLawOnline.com Damon Duncan

    Fantastic article Gyi! Spot on! Too many lawyers are willing to put their reputation in someone else’s hands without knowing what techniques that SEO/SEM marketer will use. Not only will it hurt their personal brand and reputation but it will also likely only be a short term “gain” for long term “pain” if the person does something less than desirable for “SERP” success. Again, great work!

    • http://www.attorneysync.com Gyi Tsakalakis

      Hey Damon,

      Unfortunately, these are some of the growing pains of the web going read/write. And it’s certainly not limited to lawyers. However, there is a tendency to believe that lawyers might be more conscientious about matters pertaining to their reputations. But then all we have to do is flip on the TV, or head to the discipine section of our bar journals, and we see that many are not.

  • http://amdwebservices.com Adam Dukes

    Excellent article Mr. Tsakalakis!

    That is why I believe attorneys should really be using the social media channels, especially YouTube. Video is a great way to build/gain someone’s trust. With 90% of all internet traffic to be video by 2014, now is the time to jump on the video train.

    SEO will become less and less important with the rise in social media. Building a tribe/following/community via social media is where the future is.

    Mr. Duncan, I love how you and your firm is using YouTube! Way to go!

    • http://www.PAinjurycase.com Dave S

      I am curious as to your statement, “With 90% of all internet traffic to be video by 2014…”. Maybe if you are counting all the downloads and posts of Justin Bieber videos by 11 yr olds….

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

        Shh. Don’t break his stride. He’s a social media guru* on a roll.

        *In his own mind.

    • http://www.attorneysync.com Gyi Tsakalakis

      Have you seen many internet lawyer videos? I would say many of them build either humor or boredom. Very few build anything resembling trust.

      I do think we’ll see the web become much more video-rich in the near future.

      I guess it depends on how you define “SEO”. My two cents, links, social shares, local citations, etc, will continue to be used by search engines to organize the web.

  • http://www.legalinternetmarketing.com Paul Teddy

    Great article. I would add one thing: solutions. There’s a lot a lawyer can do to make sure even the shady SEMs are under control, just by keeping themselves in the loop. Two checks will eliminate a majority of potential issues:
    - Proof and approve content before it goes live
    - Review built links

    If there’s a problem, tell the SEM to rewrite content, or remove a link (or even stop building certain types of links). It’s on the SEM to provide a service that is satisfactory to businesses and many of them will comply if asked. If not, or if they can’t even provide simple reports to review, there’s plenty of SEMs out there that will.

    That said, good article- this is the type of awareness that lawyers need.

    • http://www.attorneysync.com Gyi Tsakalakis

      Good points Paul. I’ve been beating the “how to vet your search marketer” horse a little hard recently.

      There’s no substitute for learning a bit about how this stuff works to avoid getting taken. Transparency is key.

  • Justin

    Your thinking is far-fetched and fanciful buddy. You are interpreting the rules on a literal basis.

    • http://www.attorneysync.com Gyi Tsakalakis

      Is this Bieber or Timberlake? In either case, hi buddy! Hmmm, far-fetched, fanciful, and literal? I think it’s time for some new adjectives in your bot. Cheers.

  • http://blogs.lawyers.com Larry Bodine

    Gyi, this is a good piece on black-hat SEO tactics and negligent management by a lawyer. Surely this will get any lawyer into trouble. This should not be confused with legitimate SEO techniques, which are very effective.

    SEO makes the biggest impact on lead generation, according to WebMarketing123’s 2011 State of Digital Marketing Report, http://bit.ly/xkMiuB, much more than other forms of online marketing.

    For a review of best practices in SEO, see the Lawyerist article “Boosting Leads and New Business with Search Engine Optimization” at http://bit.ly/z8DjcH

    • http://www.attorneysync.com Gyi Tsakalakis

      Black-hat, negligent, and extremely common.

      • brint

        Depends on what you think a black hat is. Is Gyi’s blog black hat? Well, maybe. It’s definitely useless information with a bunch of links in it. It just depends on what your standard for a quality online publication is.

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

          I can’t tell what you are talking about. Do you mean Gyi’s blog, or are you using blog to mean post?

          In either case, how does a post (or blog) full of links equal black hat? And useless information? What’s useless about pointing out methods lawyers actually use to try to game Google with SEO tricks that may land them in hot water with their ethics board, or at least damage their reputations badly, perhaps irreparably?

          • brint crockett

            Hi Sam! I only posed that suggestion as a provocative jumping-off point to illuminate absurdities in Gyi’s alarmist fear-mongering. Meant to follow up last night. I will do so now.

            SEO’s like Gyi and Randfishkin have drawn a bold hr/ line in the sand, getting a lot of mileage preaching the difference between “good content” and “bad content.” So, I’d like to put their holy judicial minds to the test:

            Is Demand Media spam? Is this blog comment spam? Is GoGuides.com spam? Is http://www.saulgoodman.com spam? Is Findlaw spam? Is the monkey-sniffing-his-finger video spam? Is FoxNews.com spam? Is my attorney friend, who emailed me this article, spamming me? Is the Texas Rangers tribute site I built in 1996 spam? (It featured an animated gif of Juan Gonzalez! Surely that’s not spam! *crosses fingers*)

            I must appeal to Gyi about these matters, because I won’t be some kind of Supreme Court of Spam Justice. It strikes me as a pointless exercise.

            What I do know, is that Google’s digital appetite for massive amounts of content out-strips what we humans are capable of producing without drudging up mindless verbiage. Google spawned an era of content proliferation. Goog’s valuation of any-and-all content has turned people into writers who don’t deserve to be writers, and has turned web sites that shouldn’t be read by any thinking human being, into assets. If you’re digging through backlinks expecting to read the next Great American Novel, you’ll be disappointed.

            In a post on Gyi’s blog, he suggests that a backlink from a directory site (http://captainprdirectory.com/) should send off all kind of red flags about an SEO’s approach. I’d suggest that if your SEO is telling you links like that are dangerous to your reputation, and could endanger your license, then your SEO is purposefully trying to scare you into his services! Sure, it’s not the most valuable link in the world, but it ain’t gonna bite you. It’s just a harmless little link in a directory.

            I have to ask, have you guys ever heard of an attorney getting busted by an ethics committee for some random back link on a no-name web directory that nobody cares about? I sure haven’t. Seems pretty absurd. What’s more absurd, is that a link from a directory site or an abandoned blog could damage an attorney’s reputation.

            Sure, it’s easy to preach that quality content is powerful. It’s easy to point out that some Web sites just suck. What’s more difficult, is actually writing something that is truly insightful. If you can do that, do it.

            • http://www.DuncanLawOnline.com Damon Duncan

              I’m not sure I would call points in this post to be fear mongering. There are attorneys across the country that simply ask how much they have to pay to be #1 in Google. Someone guarantees them results and those results, maybe, can be had – but achieved in all the wrong ways. Without trying to speak for Gyi I don’t think he is saying a single link will cause an attorney to get “dinged” but its the mentality that a search marketer will do anything for results could definitely cause problems in the future.

              Emphasizing these lawyers should put an emphasis on their reputation instead of short sighted results and accomplishments is a message not shouted loud enough to other lawyers.

              I think you’re right that Google, obviously, has an appetite for information/content. However, the difference is an audience has an appetite for really good content. There is a difference. People used to click on one to three sites before making a decision. Now it’s not uncommon for people to click on five to eight sites. People look for compelling, well written content.

              Again, I think Gyi makes a good point attorneys have to consider when weighing the economic benefits of certain short lived tactics versus their unshakable reputation.

              • brint crockett

                Yes, an attorney could certainly be held responsible if their agency indeed places misleading advertisements on behalf of their client. That’s pretty obvious, and why most responsible law firm marketing agencies have attorneys as members of their cross-functional content/creative teams (we do).

                But it is incorrect to suggest that acquiring a link on a web site (even a “poor quality” site) is somehow unethical. That’s absolutely not the case.

                • http://www.attorneysync.com Gyi Tsakalakis

                  Brint,

                  I hope that if you have clients that are attorneys, you are reading their state’s rules of professional responsibility. If you actually read my post, you would realize I’m not making white/gray/black hat SEO arguments.

                  We’re talking attorney ethics here, not whether you and I disagree about ethical/unethical SEO strategies.

                  And that’s not even to mention the harm on professional reputation when the attorney gets “outed” for their sketchy tactics.

                  Catch up buddy.

                  • brint crockett

                    Gyi,

                    There are two different ethical standards anyone in Internet law firm marketing should know.

                    1. Google’s definition of “ethical”
                    2. The state bar’s definition of “ethical”

                    You’ve incorrectly interpreted both! Congratulations.

                    • brint crockett

                      I take it all back, Gyi. Looking at your client’s backlink footprints, you kind of know what you’re doing.

                      You’re just fear mongering for clients by overblowing ethical and “quality” concerns about the very marketing practices you use. That’s a pretty clever play, Gyi. But is it ethical?

                    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

                      Assuming this is you, I’m not sure your non-lawyer, SEO consultant opinion of what’s ethical for a lawyer is remotely relevant. Gyi and Betsy, on the other hand, are both lawyers with a pretty good understanding of legal ethics.

                    • http://www.attorneysync.com Gyi Tsakalakis

                      You’ve incorrectly interpreted both! Congratulations.

                      Really, how so?

                    • http://www.themckinneylawfirm.com Christopher McKinney

                      Brint – Sorry to say this but your posts make it clear that you are exactly the sort of fello I don’t want in charge of my web presence. In fact, as an attorney, the only person I trust with that duty is myself. Posting fake comments on other sites pointing back to a lawyer’s website is not something any lawyer should be involved with, regardless of the quality of the site. I appreciate that you work in the dog-eat-dog ultracompetitive arena of gaming google and you are up a ton of competition. I wish you well. But any of these types of tactics beyond genuine organic links from real people are, in my opinion, inappropriate for lawyers to engage in.

                    • brint

                      Mr. Mckinney ~ I don’t post fake comments. Not sure where that notion came from? Maybe Gyi’s post stoked a bit of paranoia.

                      In any case, I must say you’ve read me the wrong. I only hoped to have a more substantive and honest conversation about the nature of digital advertising as it intersects with legal advertising and state bar regulations.

                      Good for you that you’re able to handle your own marketing. You can do a lot by simply educating web searchers on areas of the law which you feel strongly about. If you’re a talented writer and have the time to DIY, that’s the best marketing money *can’t* buy!

                      -brint

                    • brint

                      Gyi ~ You’ve incorrectly described both ethical standards by dramatically conflating them.

                      Google attempts to gauge a webpage’s topicality, authority, and social significance in order to serve relevant and quality content to its searchers. In these ways, Google has a higher standard for message quality than your typical bar association.

                      State bars regulate law firm advertising messages for the purpose of consumer protection. They generally prohibit advertising messages which make “material misrepresentations of fact” or make “comparative statements” about an attorney.

                      Conflating a rather obvious recommendation to pursue sound content with an overly dramatic warning about violating your bar association’s regulations, does little to educate your readers and the legal industry about the digital landscape.

                      Just some food for thought.

                      -brint
                      *I’m not an attorney. I’m thankful to be a technologist and digital product manager. I’ve advertised several law firms.*

                      Spam is a message in an unwanted place.

                    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

                      You don’t know anything about legal ethics, and you should stop acting like you do.

  • James Bellefeuille

    100% correct. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • Betsy Munnell

    Right on the money Gyi. The analytics obscure the true value of blogging, commenting and otherwise engaging: word of mouth reputation building within a strategically identified network of professional colleagues whose respect you value, and whose good opinion matters to the broader demographic within which you practice law. I am a traditionalist on this point and totaly agree with this post.

  • http://www.lawyerseo.us David Dischler

    I wish prospects could read something like this before they start searching for a vendor. If I had a dollar for every web designer who said they offer SEO services with some 10 year old techniques, I’d be retired by now. Going to bump this on socially for my clients to read as well.

  • Joaquin

    This article might as well be retitled, “Beware of Evil SEOs, but Hey Look at Me I’m a Good SEO”. There are unscrupulous people in every field. You might better serve your readers by giving them some advice on what to look for when shopping for an SEO firm or important questions to ask. Otherwise as the other comment mentioned this is a transparent, shallow bit of fear-mongering.

  • Guest

    I just came across the lawyerist.com. I am not a lawyer, but I work with one so I found this discussion helpful and interesting. My background includes public relations and sales plus teaching English. Both fields are replete with charlatans. There are even a few unprofessional English teachers around. Your discussion is a word for the wise in any case.