From the good folks who brought us The Handbook on Lawyer Advertising & Solicitation, comes the Proposed Advisory Opinion on Attorney SEO.
As reported by Gary Blankenship in Lawyers must take care on how they drive traffic to their websites
Using secretive techniques to lure Internet users to a law firm website with false or deceptive information is wrong, members of the Bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising agree, but the committee wants more time to research the technical issues before approving an advisory opinion.
The committee met September 20 at the Bar’s Midyear Meeting in Orlando and reviewed a proposed advertising advisory opinion that addressed hidden text and meta tags (words on a webpage that are not visible to the viewer).
But there’s just one problem. These folks don’t really seem to know SEO. For example, they seem to imply that the use of the keywords meta tag can be used to optimize positions in search engine results. However, the keywords meta tag is not used by search engines (at least not by Google, at least not since 2009) to rank sites.
To me, this is yet another example of how far lawyer advertising regulatory bodies are behind the rest of the world.
Most reasonable people can agree that lawyer advertising should be afforded a level of constitutional protection that is somewhere above unprotected speech (e.g., false, deceptive or misleading statements or advertisements concerning unlawful activities) but somewhere below that provided completely protected speech (e.g., political statements).
Prohibitions on misleading advertising are a good thing. Even restrictions on advertising that is inherently misleading, as demonstrated by evidence, make sense.
And frankly, I’m not opposed to regulators taking an informed look at the rules as they are applied to the internet. However, more often than not, when the regulators begin to articulate these rules, beyond restrictions on false, deceptive and misleading advertising, they reveal just how uninformed they are on these issues.
The regulators say that lawyers should not use meta tags or hidden text to imply they practice in geographic areas where they don’t have an office. Whether in meta tags, hidden text or visible text, most of us can agree that lawyers should not imply that they have offices in places where they don’t have offices.
But what about text, hidden or visible, that communicates that a lawyer serves clients in an area where they don’t have an office? Surely, The Bar doesn’t intend to prohibit attorneys from communicating that they serve clients in cities and counties, within the state that they’re licensed, but in which they do not have bona fide offices. Right?
What if a lawyer’s website says:
Office located at 742 Evergreen Terrace Springfield, FL. Serving clients in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
And it’s true that his office is located at that address and he does serve clients in these counties. Then certainly using this language in meta tags, hidden text or visible text should be permissible.
Or are we going off the rails on a crazy train and saying that “serving” clients in these counties inherently misleads the public into believing that we have bona fide offices there? I hope not.
The regulators also say that lawyers may not use hidden text or meta tags to be listed as a search result for an area of law the lawyer does not currently practice.
Lawyers may not:
use ‘mesothelioma’ as a meta tag or hidden text so that consumers searching for lawyers who handle such cases are directed to the lawyer’s website if the lawyer has no intention of actually handling that type of matter and, instead, intends to refer the matter out and divide fees with the lawyer to whom the matter is referred.”
Ignoring, for the moment, that using keyword meta tags for SEO is futile, while it may be easy to distinguish very specific practice area adjectives like mesothelioma, surely the bar has no intention of prohibiting criminal defense attorneys from using the term criminal defense, whether hidden of visible, to describe their practice even if they only take on a very small number of clients who inquire about their services and refer the rest. Do they?
But frankly, while I think it’s silly for regulators to attempt to codify every adjective a lawyer might use in a communication concerning their services, at least to me, the circumstances as described above are easily handled by the prohibition against false, deceptive and misleading communications.
As one regulator noted with regard to spam article marketing:
“I don’t see anything particularly ethically wrong with that, but I think it’s dumb. I think you’re pushing the envelope on free speech. I think we’ve got to be more concerned about . . . fraud and deception. Because if we go much beyond that, while it may be a stupid business decision on their part, I don’t see anything particularly wrong with having an article on their website that says estate planning is good; it is.”
In fairness to the committee, they’ve decided to have a company that manages one of the member’s websites, which is run by a lawyer, review the proposed draft advisory opinion. It is admirable that the committee is taking more time to consider all of the issues.
But perhaps delving into all of the nuances of SEO is unnecessary. Perhaps the Advisory Opinion should simply state that existing rules apply equally to meta tags, hidden text and visible text.
In the meantime, here are some things that I think the committee should consider.
The keywords meta tag
In order to further understand why these regulators might be headed down the wrong track, let’s talk about meta tags.
Metadata is data (information) about data. The tag provides metadata about the HTML document. Metadata will not be displayed on the page, but will be machine parsable. Meta elements are typically used to specify page description, keywords, author of the document, last modified, and other metadata.
Here is an example of a keywords meta tag: <meta name=”keywords” content=”Lawyerist,legal marketing,legal careers,legal technology”>
The Bar is concerned that:
“Law Firm A” might use the name and motto of “Law Firm B” in meta tags and hidden language on its website, which would result with people searching for “Law Firm B” to be referred by a search engine to “Law Firm A.”
At least with regard to the keyword meta tag, this won’t happen.
Some meta tags are useful to provide search engines with information about their sites. And some of these meta tags actually matter in search results (title tags, img alt attributes, etc). However, the keywords meta tag does not. At least not to Google, at least since 2009:
And so, since search engines don’t use the keyword meta tag to order results, and furthermore, the keywords meta tag is not visible to the public without viewing the underlying code of a website, it’s silly to spend time regulating the use of the keywords meta tag.
Other meta tags
While regulating the keywords meta tag doesn’t really make sense, there are some meta tags that both search engines do use in one way or another. These include, the title, heading and description tags.
Further, the title and description meta tags are actually visible to the public in search engine results. And the title and header tags are also visible in browsers.
But do they need specific regulation? I don’t think so. They’re covered by the prohibition on false, misleading and deceptive.
After all, do we need rules that say don’t use false, misleading or deceptive words in bold, italicized or underlined text too? I think not.
In the past (and among spammy ill-informed SEOs today), hidden text or links have been used to manipulate Google’s search rankings. This is a well-accepted violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Spammers hide text in several ways, including:
Using white text on a white background
Locating text behind an image
Using CSS to position text off-screen
Setting the font size to 0
Hiding a link by only linking one small character—for example, a hyphen in the middle of a paragraph
Don’t do this. On the other hand:
Again, like meta tags, it seems to me that the prohibition on false, deceptive, misleading hidden text is enough.
Regardless of where you fall on the regulation of attorney SEO, there’s one thing we should be able to agree on. If The Florida Bar calls selling you SEO services, hang up. They don’t know what they’re talking about. At least not yet.
On-page vs. Off-page SEO
Of course, things like meta tags and text used on a website make up a relatively small portion of the signals that search engines use to order sites. If I were forced to put some numbers on it, I might say that these “on-page” factors make up about 20% of what goes into ranking a site while about 80% of the influencing-factors are “off-page” (links from other websites, citations, mentions, etc).
And there is a lot more off-page material manipulation (manipulation that is impacting what the public finds in search results) than there is on-page. And while the question of when these SEO tactics violate legal ethics rules may be murky, the question of whether they have negative consequences on your reputation and your rankings is pretty obvious.
If you’re a regulator (or anybody else) interested in learning more about search engine optimization, start with these: